Dilettante: Paley's art collection comes to PMA

Posted Wednesday, May 8, 2013 in Culture

Dilettante: Paley's art collection comes to PMA

"Mme Lili Grenier," 1888, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The William S. Paley Collection.

by Jan Brennan

Have you heard someone say: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”? The Portland Museum of Art last week opened its big summer show that is comprised solely of the works collected by one man who did know what he liked — and what he liked was modern art.

It was art that he could pick up fairly cheaply at the time but that turned into one of the most important collections of modern art in this country.

William S. Paley (1901-1990) was a businessman in the radio industry who while still in his 20s began to build the broadcasting network that eventually became CBS television. When he was in his early 30s, he went on a vacation to France with a friend who was an art collector. This friend took him to see the private collection of the son of the artist Paul Cezanne, and Paley became enamored of a self-portrait of the elder Cezanne, which a few years later he managed to buy, making it his first art acquisition.

Now he was hooked. Three years later, in 1936, Paley bought a Gauguin, two Matisses and a Picasso. He read up on art, visited New York galleries, and throughout the next three decades continued to collect it. He was not a selfish hoarder; rather, he preferred to share his new expertise and the art itself with others. Despite a busy career developing the brand-new medium of television, in 1937 he became a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In later life he would serve as its president and chairman of its board. He gave the museum money and even some of his own favorite works, and finally bequeathed the entire result of his passion to MoMA.

At a time when “serious” collectors were buying up Old Masters, the young businessman instead indulged his taste for modernism. Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Fauvist and Cubist paintings caught his eye and his wallet. These were not so much investments as they were decorations for his New York apartment, office and country home. Unlike other collectors who focused on a single artist or style, Paley just bought what he liked. The result, now on view in the first-floor galleries of the Portland museum, is a pleasant hodgepodge of landscapes, nudes, still lifes and portraits.

It’s a bright, colorful and fun show. A century of art is represented, from 1860s drawings by Degas to 1960s Francis Bacon triptychs. With 61 pieces on display, there is something for every taste. My own favorites are Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1888 “Mme Lili Grenier,” a full-length portrait of one of Degas’ models whose slouchy posture and tough-girl expression seem more 21st century than 19th, and Renoir’s “Strawberries,” a small still life done in 1905 that is as fresh, simple and sweet as the fruit it depicts.

The PMA has scored a coup in getting this show; this is the only New England venue, the other exhibits being in San Francisco, Quebec and Arkansas. Because of higher insurance and other expenses to mount it, a $5 surcharge is being added to the adult ticket price, bringing the total cost to $17. If that’s too rich for frugal Maine blood, remember that admission is free every Friday from 5 to 9 p.m.

“The William S. Paley Collection: A  Taste for Modernism” runs through Sept. 8 at the Portland Museum of Art. For more information, call the museum at (207) 775-6148 or visit www.portlandmuseum.org.

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