National Geographic : 1956 Nov
The Nation's Newest Old Masters 619 Washington's National Gallery of Art Celebrates Its 15th Birthday with an Exhibit of 121 Masterpieces from the Kress Collection BY JOHN WALKER Director, National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution WHEN Andrew W. Mellon gave his collection of masterpieces to the Na tion and provided the funds to build a National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., he envisioned an art museum second to none in the world, one which would rank with the famous galleries in Paris, London, Berlin, Florence, and Madrid. But to many a skeptic this seemed highly unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future. Paintings of the highest quality by the great masters were hard to get, and becoming harder; too many were already permanently anchored in collections from which no amount of money could pry them loose. And yet, in 15 years, Mr. Mellon's dream has been realized. Over the past decade and a half the gallery has received a series of mag nificent acquisitions. Many of these have been described in previous NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC articles.* Beauty from a Chain Store Fortune This year, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the opening of the gallery, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation arranged an exhibition of 121 masterpieces of painting and sculpture acquired during the past five years. On the following pages, 22 of the "new" old masters from the Kress Collection are reproduced in color. Some have been presented to the gal lery as gifts; others are still on loan. It is fascinating to think that a vast chain of stores, built to sell practical things-spoons, shelf paper, thread-at low prices, has been the source of gifts of beauty which can never be valued at any price. But this great collection owes its origin to something beyond money: A conviction in the minds of two hardheaded men of affairs, Samuel H. Kress and Rush H. Kress, that works of art enrich and give meaning to human life. It is this conviction, shared by such bene factors as Mr. Mellon, Joseph E. Widener, Chester Dale, Lessing J. Rosenwald, and many others, that has made possible the growth of the National Gallery of Art. A number of paintings in the Kress Collec tion once were owned by prominent men. The seal of Charles I of England, for example, still appears on the back of the portrait of the Doge Gritti by Titian, purchased from the famous Czernin Collection in Vienna (page 639). The royal catalogue listed it: "Duke Grettie, of Venice, with his right hand holding his robes. Bought by the King, half figure so big as life, in a black wooden gilded frame." Perhaps Charles saw in the stern, impla cable face of the Venetian those traits of char acter he himself lacked. Titian has dowered Gritti with a grim and ruthless personality and made him a symbol of the power of the galleys that, under the patronage of St. Mark, caused Venice to be honored and feared along the trade routes of the world for several cen turies. The hand with which the doge grasps his flowing cape may be based upon the hand of Moses in the famous statue by Michelangelo in Rome. A Venetian sculptor, Jacopo San sovino, is believed to have brought a cast of this hand to Venice, where Titian probably studied its massive power to help him create an image of uncompromising majesty, the archetype of an imperious ruler. Portrait Suggests an Effete Court The spirit of uncompromising majesty, but not its power, characterized the court of Charles I. Among the new Kress acquisitions is a portrait of Charles's wife, Queen Henri etta Maria, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (page 656). The suave elegance of this canvas be speaks the difference between the vigor of the Venetian Republic under her great doges and the effeteness sapping the strength of the Eng lish monarchy three centuries ago. Standing beside the queen is her dwarf, Jeffery Hudson. He was one of the bravest *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Your National Gallery of Art After 10 Years," Jan uary, 1952, and "American Masters in the National Gallery," September, 1948, both by John Walker; and "Old Masters in a New National Gallery," by Ruth Q. McBride, July, 1940.