Paul Mellon (1907-1999) was one of the most passionate and discerning art collectors of the twentieth century. Dedicated to the mission of the National Gallery of Art, which was founded in 1937 by his father, Andrew W. Mellon, Paul Mellon provided both visionary leadership and magnanimous financial support. Just as Andrew Mellon had underwritten the construction of the original West Building, the East Building came into being through the extraordinary philanthropic support of Paul Mellon and his sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce. The first president of the Gallery's board of trustees, Mr. Mellon served as a trustee in various key roles from 1938 to 1985, a period of almost fifty years, interrupted only by his military service during World War II. During the many years of his active board leadership, and even after he stepped down and became an honorary trustee, Paul Mellon's intense commitment to the quality of this museum, and his devotion to the idea of the National Gallery as the nation's artistic standard-bearer, assured its position among the first rank of the world's great art institutions.
Mr. Mellon contributed to the National Gallery more than one thousand carefully selected, distinguished works of art--primarily French and American paintings and drawings--originally acquired for his and his wife's private enjoyment, but always with the idea that they would one day be shared with the American public. He cared deeply about creating a gracious and hospitable setting for museum visitors and about providing the opportunity for direct encounters with great works of art. He commented in 1967, "There is no intellectual or emotional substitute for the authentic, the original, the unique masterpiece." Paul Mellon was a sincere and devoted art collector in whose life works of art were integral. In this exhibition, honoring his memory and celebrating his matchless contributions to the cultural life of the United States, only a fraction of his gifts to the nation are on view. This selection demonstrates that the range and quality of his collection, now a part of the American cultural patrimony, are unparalleled, a loving bequest of beauty to his country.