09 November 2014

MASTERWORKS: Mrs. Paul Mellon

Rarely does an auction attract the attention of so many as does the upcoming Sotheby's sale of the late Bunny Mellon's collections. It's an unprecedented sale where her exquisite taste, and her unerring eye is evident in every object.

She saw what is beautiful-not most costly, but what is pleasing & fine regardless of price.

 The Mellon Living Room at Oak Spring

Her ability to place those objects and works of art together is recounted in the three voluminous catalogs for the sale-the first on November 10th. Mrs. Mellon's collection of Masterworks includes Diebenkorns, Rothkos, alongside works of Dutch masters, and Camille Pissaro.

To imagine eying just one of these paintings each day is impossible, but all? An intensely private person, the world Bunny Mellon created at Oak Spring Farm, and her other homes,included intimates the likes of Joseph Cornell, Gwen John and Georgia O'Keefe. It must have been company enough, and why not?

A painting of Dorelia McNeill, "Dorelia by Lamplight, at Toulouse" painted by Gwen John hangs alongside a hurricane globe & smoke bell in Mrs. Mellon's Oak Spring Farm dining room. It's enough that the provenance of this painting would lure me, once owned by painter Augustus John, a gift from his sister Gwen, it depicts Dorelia, his common law wife reading. Dorelia is best known in Augustus John's own paintings-part gypsy-part domestic, she was his great muse and responsible for his best works devoted to bohemianism. Cecil Beaton lauds Dorelia in his book The Glass of Fashion as having been unequaled in "developing a more perfect visual expression of the art of living." The same can be said of Bunny Mellon.

 Lot 40

In Mellon's painting by Gwen John, Dorelia perhaps revealed more of her true self-as she is said to have been a quiet, esoteric. Gwen and Dorelia traveled together on foot through France in 1903, stopping in Toulouse, where she painted Dorelia.

Two works that seem to have been separated at birth-but born of two quite different mothers are by Georgia O'Keeffe and Nicolas de Stael.  They are representative, too, of Mrs. Mellon's impeccable eye-one that could roam from an O'Keeffe to de Stael and rest on the beauty of both.

Georgia O'Keeffe's White Barn
Lot 16

Nicolas de Stael
Lot 21

Another de Stael painting in the collection:

Cap Blanc Nez
Lot 17

The Mellons commissioned three works from Diego Giacometti in the early 1970's. All three support Mrs. Mellon's devotion to nature & purity. My favorite is a pair of chenets in painted bronze, "Chenets Aux Oiseaux."

Lot 22

"Table Au Dragon A L'Oiseau"
Diego Giacometti
Lot 5

There are 43 Masterworks in this, one of the three sales Sotheby's is conducting in November with over 2500 lots included from Mrs Mellon's collections. 

Pieces from her Collection of Interiors will be sold commencing November 21st, more from Me on that just before the sale.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Sotheby's, online catalog here
The catalogs are available from the Sotheby's website and highly desirable to any student of design
A discussion of the Masterworks here
On the Sotheby's site, Charlotte Moss talks about Bunny Mellon, a must see, here
 more about Augustus John, and Dorelia here , and here



  1. I'm not sure if my post made it to you earlier...so I send another. Mrs. Kennedy was the face of Grace, but it was Mrs. Mellon who was Style. I hope for a piece of THE last collection, from THE last of 20thC Women of Style which there aren't ANY left...just those pretending to the Throne. True Style IS quiet, doesn't publish a book on themselves, shares their vision only amongst loved ones and is gathered with meaning while walking thru LIFE. Wish me luck...it's the final piece in the puzzle of my collection!

    1. No, I did not get it. You put it so well. I wish you luck, and let me know of your successes. pgt

  2. What a lovely post! I saw a few pictures from those catalogues and I asked my husband to order them "at once"!!

    I had no idea so many photographs of the landscapes and the rooms in all those houses would be published along with the items for auction! THOSE are the treasures for me!!

    There are four houses....and each one...more intriguing than the other. When "Bunny" (I take the liberty)!! married Paul Mellon he was a widower; he lived in a beautiful brick house on the enormous property in Virginia. The architect had done many houses for Vanderbilts.....etc. It was called "Brick House" built in 1941! That was his house when he married Bunny in 1948. Shortly thereafter, they commissioned H.Page Cross to design "the more intimate environment
    of Little Oak Spring"; completed in 1955.
    Wait till you see. Forget about the "treasures in it"! It in itself.....was the biggest "treasure" of ALL!!!

    Those catalogues of the interiors and landscapes are treasures of a lost world.

    Their houses; Little oak Farm; their house in Antigua, their townhouse in New York City which they built....are the most brilliant examples of something that is almost lost.

    Even though these people were wealthy beyond; there is not one single "ounce" of pretension. Not one "stagey" or artificial note. Everything is unpretentious, comfortable...cozy.....in the best possible way. No "decorating"; no " effect"; not one thing that is not used and useful. Not one thing that doesn't make comfortable sense. No "affectation". NOT ONE THING there for any other reason that its usefulness and its comfort. I have rarely seen anything like it.

    No "effects"; no "affectations"; no "showing off" in any way. Just real comfortable living....with things they loved around them. No wonder he adored her.

    these catalogues are the perfect representation of true "taste"; Nancy Lancaster would have approved!
    I have studied with my magnifying glasses......the floors....the hardware....the baskets....

    The trompe l'oeil greenhouse entry (painted so long ago you will not believe it) is my favorite space I have ever seen! There are close-up pictures that have never been published.....in fact......these two catalogues are FULL of pictures that have never been published!

    Her natural (completely unschooled) gift for landscape design is astonishing......lots of photos of her landscapes.......are in these catalogues.....

    "As a young child she was fascinated by nature. She had window-boxes at 5 of her own design with miniature topiaries and wildflowers; and at twelve she acquired her first book on the subject of horticulture!
    she had a life long vocation committed to the highest ideals of horticulture and botany" (Sotheby's catalogue) (those would not have been her words; I would bet!!) ("gardens and landscapes" I believe!!)

    My favorite quotation is succinct and perfect. Her husband said of her:
    "Everything she does in life-her reading, her architecture, her love of pictures- is related in one way or another to this one main interest.(gardens,wildlife, birds) to me, that is a very lucky thing for a person to have."

    Well; I should say!
    this was quite a woman, quite an original.....and I hope this auction will tip the "taste wagon" back in the right direction! She is the opposite of the "McMansion" set......understated elegance at its very best.

  3. Thank you for sharing the paintings. Gwen John's portrait of Dorelia is a peaceful pause.

  4. Gaye the painting by Gwen of Dorelia is mesmerizing; that look on her fave is so telling. Love the Giacometti pieces as well! Thank you for the links.

    The Arts by Karena

  5. I had the good fortune as a young man to attend a reception that Bunny and Paul Mellon hosted in advance of the opening of the new wing of the National Gallery of Art.

    Both of the Mellons were attired in very brilliant clothes, and I remember that Paul Mellon especially made a sartorial impression upon me because he not only mixed bright colors, but also textures, stripes and polkadots.

    I was the guest of a guest and had no other connection to the event, and so had the opportunity to simply people-watch. And what I saw was the most intricate of dances, whereby people edged closely to both of the Mellons, wanting to get as near as possible, without appearing to do so. They all wanted to eavesdrop! And it struck me even then as I watched, that such a life would make one naturally want to seek privacy.



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