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Mapping Cultural Philanthropy

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Paul Mellon and Ailsa Mellon Bruce

Paul Mellon
William Franklin Draper, Portrait of Paul Mellon, 1974. National Gallery of Art, Paul Mellon Collection, 1983.75.1.

Paul Mellon (1907–1999), the son of Andrew W. Mellon, developed an affinity for British life and culture while pursuing graduate studies at Cambridge University. His first steps toward collecting were purchases of books on hunting and racing, followed, in 1936, by the acquisition of his first painting, George Stubb’s Pumpkin with a Stable Lad, which he always maintained was his favorite English painting in his collection.Jules David Prown, “Paul Mellon,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 151, No. 3 (September 2007): 381. Mellon “bought absolutely out of his own taste, out of love”Burton Hersh, The Mellon Family: A Fortune in History (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1978), 438. and gave of his collection generously, raising “the practice of philanthropy to the level of a fine art.”Prown, “Paul Mellon,” 384.

After his father’s death in 1937, Paul Mellon became deeply involved with the National Gallery, overseeing the remaining years of construction before its opening in 1941. He was president of the board from 1963 until 1985, and provided, with the Mellon Foundation and the estate of his sister Ailsa Mellon Bruce, the ninety-five million dollars to build the I. M. Pei–designed East Wing. Upon his retirement in 1985, he became an honorary trustee, a position he would hold until his death in 1999.Douglas C. McGill, “Mellon Resigns as National Gallery Chairman,” New York Times, May 4, 1985.

Paul Mellon married his second wife, landscape gardener Rachel (“Bunny”) Lambert Lloyd, in 1948; his French art collection, which began the same year, grew out of Bunny’s love for the genre.Prown, “Paul Mellon,” 382. He began acquiring British art in 1950, accumulating the most comprehensive collection outside the national collection of British art at the Tate Gallery in London. In 1966, he gifted this collection to Yale University, with the pledge of a building to house it and an endowment to sustain operations in perpetuity.“Paul Mellon, founder of the Paul Mellon Centre,” (accessed August 15, 2017).

Ailsa Mellon Bruce
Philip Alexius de Laszlo, Portrait of Ailsa Mellon Bruce, 1926. National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.20.1.

Paul Mellon’s sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce (1901–1969), was devoted to her father’s legacy and became the National Gallery’s single greatest benefactor during John Walker’s directorship (1956–1969).Neil Harris, Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 55. Born in Pittsburgh, she attended Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, after which she moved to Washington, D.C., when her father was named secretary of the treasury in 1921; she served as his hostess throughout his tenure. In 1926, Ailsa married David K. E. Bruce, a lawyer and the son of Maryland Senator William C. Bruce.

Bruce took wholeheartedly to the protection and advancement of her father’s legacy. Former director John Walker wrote of her philanthropic spirit:

Ailsa’s generosity . . . cannot be exaggerated. She gave many millions of dollars for purchases. The majority of the greatest acquisitions the Gallery has made with its own funds came from the immense resources she provided. For some of the paintings and sculpture she felt excited enthusiasm, for others personal indifference; but as long as I assured her that the works of art were needed, she urged me to go ahead.Hersh, The Mellon Family: A Fortune in History (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1978), 413.

Because of Bruce’s generosity, the National Gallery has the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci that is outside of Europe.

Upon her death, Bruce was considered the wealthiest woman in America, and she left the majority of her considerable fortune to the Avalon Foundation, which was later integrated into her brother’s Old Dominion Foundation (established in 1941) and renamed the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She also bequeathed all her paintings, drawings, watercolors, and other artworks other than family portraits and busts to the National Gallery of Art.“Mrs. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Left Bulk of Her Estate to Charity New York Times,” New York Times, September 4, 1969.

Profile by Noah Houghton, 2017 summer intern.