Paul Mellon with the portrait bust of Thomas, 1st Baron Dartrey, by Joseph Wilton. Photo William B. Carter, Yale Department of Public Information.
I must study politics and war, that my sons have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
John Adams, 1780
Every man wants to connect his life with something he thinks eternal.
Andrew W. Mellon
Paul Mellon (1907–1999) was the son of Nora McMullen, daughter of a Hertfordshire brewer, and Andrew Mellon, an American banker of Scottish and Irish descent, who ranked alongside John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford as one of the wealthiest men in early twentieth-century America. Andrew became a committed art collector who founded the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. His most ambitious acquisition consisted of twenty-one old master paintings from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and included works by Jan van Eyck (d. 1441), Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445–1510), Raphael (1483–1520) and Titian (c. 1487/90–1576).
Paul Mellon became a serious collector in his middle age. Unlike his father, who gravitated towards acknowledged old masterpieces, Paul began to collect a genre of art that had by the twentieth century been largely forgotten. His collecting habits were discriminating and intuitive. He usually purchased artworks with eventual bequests in mind and often bought entire collections in order to save them from dispersal. After initially collecting French nineteenth-century art, he eventually amassed an outstanding collection of British art and literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With it he established the Yale Center for British Art, an American public museum and research institute and the largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom.
This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department's guide, An American's Passion for British Art: Paul Mellon's Legacy, An Introduction to the Exhibition for Teachers and Students, by Lindsay Rothwell.