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Revisiting the Collection of a Lifetime

Not every museum benefactor is honored with his own exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, complete with a special cafe menu prepared by acclaimed chef Michel Richard.

But then again, Chester Dale was no ordinary benefactor.

Simply put, the National Gallery wouldn’t be the same without him.

During his lifetime, the über-wealthy Dale (who made a fortune as a Wall Street banker in the first half of the 20th century) amassed one of the world’s most impressive collections of European and American paintings.

With the helpful artistic eye of his wife, Maud, Dale amassed pieces from artists including Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Salvador Dali and George Bellows. He usually bought multiple pieces by each artist. (He had 11 Monets, for example.)

And when he died, Dale bequeathed most of his impressive collection to the museum with the stipulation that they can only be displayed at the gallery. To this day, Dale’s gift remains the backbone of the museum’s permanent collection.

So when the National Gallery decided to temporarily close its 19th-century French galleries for renovation — where many of Dale’s gifts are housed — officials thought it would be the perfect time to give a tip of the hat to their benefactor with the exhibition “From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection,— which opens Sunday.

“It’s an embarrassment of riches,— exhibition curator Kimberly Jones said. “Every choice had to be analyzed.—

In the end, Jones and her team picked out 81 paintings to be placed on display. There’s a section devoted to Dale’s favorite artists, including Matisse’s 1919 piece, “The Plumed Hat,— Dale’s first major purchase of French modern art. There’s a room full of paintings of women, both stoic and exotic, and portraits of men.

Another room is dedicated to landscapes, including Monet’s 1894 piece, “Rouen Cathedral.— A section of still-life works showcases the variety in the Dale collection, including Cézanne’s 1893 “The Peppermint Bottle.—

But the highlight of the exhibition, according to Jones, is the pairing of Édouard Manet’s 1862 piece, “The Old Musician,— and Picasso’s 1905 work, “Family of Saltimbanques,— which hang opposite each other.

Much like their grand size, the story of how Dale acquired the two pieces is unique.

Dale originally eyed “The Old Musician— in Paris in the late 1920s. He wouldn’t buy it until 1930, however. (It should be noted that after the Wall Street crash, the still-wealthy Dale continued to buy art, considered among the most sound investments he could make.)

It took some tense negotiations for Dale to acquire the piece, but it almost was for naught, as “The Old Musician— was nearly lost at sea when the freight liner carrying it across the Atlantic collided with another vessel.

While “The Old Musician— had a tough time getting to New York, “Family of Saltimbanques— was a much easier purchase for Dale. The piece is considered among Picasso’s greatest ambitions, and Dale bought it sight unseen after he saw a photograph of it. (The painting was locked in a Swiss bank.) Doing so was a huge risk, but it allowed him to buy it on the cheap (as far as buying Picassos go, anyway).

Dale didn’t hoard his pieces throughout his lifetime, however. He actually began loaning pieces to the National Gallery in the 1940s, even slowly donating some artwork over the next two decades (usually a piece at a time).

Gallery director Earl Powell noted that Dale was “a very difficult man— when he came to the museum to work with curators. “But in the end, he delivered,— Powell added.

Treats for Foodies, Too

Not really an art lover but like the idea of spending a leisurely weekend afternoon relaxing among acclaimed pieces of art?

Then the Chester Dale exhibition might be the perfect fit. To coincide with the exhibit (which runs through July 31, 2011), officials partnered with Richard, known for his flagship restaurant Michel Richard Citronelle, to create a special menu in the museum’s recently renovated Garden Café Français.

Richard’s creations are mostly classic French dishes that were popular in the 19th century and continue to be served. His a la carte menu includes smoked salmon terrine with green salad; 72-hour short ribs, served with mashed potatoes and bordelaise sauce; and cheese ravioli in basil sauce.

The cafe also will offer a buffet for $19.75, serving up dishes such as brioche, savory Gruyère cream puffs, endive and lentil salads and ratatouille. There’s also a number of French desserts (a Richard speciality), including crème brûlée and crêpes suzette, and white, red and sparkling French wines, beer and other beverages.

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