Most of us start collecting at a young age with books, dolls and memorabilia that is created to be collectible. Do children still collect postage stamps? As we get older, we collect purses, wines, cars and even more expensive books and things that are made to be collectible. Some of us collect art.
Chester Dale was an ambitious collector of art.
Eighty-three of the finest pieces he owned are currently on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection is located in the ground floor galleries of NGA’s West Building and is the most comprehensive exhibition of his collection since his death in 1962. I have visited the exhibition four times since it opened in 2010, and each time I experience something new.
The exhibition starts in Gallery G43 with what I can only describe as iconic paintings, including Edgar Degas’ Four Dancers, Auguste Renoir’s A Girl with a Watering Can and Mary Cassatt’s The Boating Party. To me, these are the works we identify with Impressionism, the National Gallery and the artists themselves. They are often reproduced in print and postcards and posters, and so we may forget how revolutionary and captivating these paintings were… and still are.
In 1898, Chester Dale was only 15 years old and had just started working on Wall Street. By the age of 26, he had established his own business where he steadily amassed a fortune trading in stocks and bonds. In 1911, he married Maud Murray. An artist, and eventual curator, critic and writer, Maud encouraged Chester to focus his art collecting on 19th and 20th-century French paintings and modern artists influenced by French art movements. They purchased the bulk of their collection on European trips between 1926 and World War II, even at the height of the Depression, when other collectors scaled back. By all accounts, they were a formidable team. Maud’s ability to build relationships with artists and dealers complemented Chester’s business savvy.
From Impressionism to Modernism continues throughout the ground floor galleries and is basically organized by subject. So Portrait of a Young Woman in White by a follower of Jacques-Louis David shares the same gallery as Edgar Degas’ Girl in Red and Henri Matisse’s Lorette with Turban, Yellow Jacket.
And the diverse landscapes of Henri Rousseau’s The Equatorial Jungle, Camille Pissarro’s Boulevard des Italiens, Morning, Sunlight and two of Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral share the adjoining gallery.
Chester and Maud were great advocates for the artists they collected and sought to educate people about French and American art. Chester co-owned a gallery in Paris during the 1930s. They regularly loaned pieces to museums and organized exhibits here in the U.S. Chester served as a trustee at the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art, thereby influencing how so many of us experience these museums… even today.
Chester Dale left the greatest part of his collection to the National Gallery after his death: over 320 works, most notably by Bellows, Cezanne, Corot, Degas, Gauguin, Matisse, Modigliani, Monet and Picasso, over 2700 books and publications plus endowed funds. It is the cornerstone of the museum’s French galleries. But in a way, these works have become so associated with the National Gallery’s collection that the story of Chester’s passion and discovery may have been neglected over the years.
The exhibition ends with several portraits of Chester and Maud, including Maud Dale by Fernand Leger and, one of my favorites, Chester Dale by Diego Rivera.
I don’t know what inspired the Dales to collect. Was it about knowledge? Or status? Or beauty? Or camaraderie? Maybe… it was about building something, building a collection.
Perhaps the amazing thing about the Dale collection is not its scale or quality but the sharing of it. By donating these works to the National Gallery of Art, Chester essentially left them to each and every one of us. Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection was supposed to close this summer, but it has been extended until January 2, 2012. I strongly encourage you to see it for yourself. The NGA is open Monday-Saturday, 10-5, and Sunday 11-6, and is still free!
Who knows, maybe it will inspire you to start a collection of your own?