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National Gallery Celebrates Its 50th Birthday

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 1991


THE National Gallery of Art is having its 50th birthday party, and guests are bringing glamorous gifts: works of art by Rembrandt and Rothko, William Blake and Milton Avery, Watteau and Winslow Homer, Titian and Roy Lichtenstein, Claude Monet and Claes Oldenburg, Canaletto and Helen Frankenthaler. The artists are so diverse it's a shock to see them together in this one show several stories high at the gallery's East Building. By the kickoff of what gallery director J. Carter Brown calls ``this birthday bash,'' over 320 gifts from l50 donors had been placed on exhibit at ``Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art.'' And that's just the start of the party. With months to go in the birthday year Mr. Brown expects even more treasures. (This show closes June l6). This year Congress waved its wand and briefly restored full market-value tax deductions on donated works of art. For par tygoers, it's been an arid five years, when only the original purchase price was allowed as a tax deduction.

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So gifts have been pouring in: the lush green canvas of Vincent Van Gogh's ``Roses,'' spilling over with masses of white petals so vibrant you can almost smell their scent (it's a partial and promised gift of Pamela Harriman in honor of W. Averell Harriman); Claude Monet's cloudy, sea-drenched view of ``Sainte-Adresse'' from Catherine Gambel Curran and Family; and Monet's sunny ``The Artist's Garden in Argenteuil'' rioting with dahlias (partial gift of Janice H. Levin).

Others included: ``Evening,'' a lyric Blake painting of a woman wrapped in light, given by Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Hanes; Rembrandt's compassionate etching ``The Return of the Prodigal Son'' in which the father welcomes home the son (a gift in memory of William S. Benedict by Ruth Benedict); and that landmark of modern art, Cezanne's ``Boy in a Red Waistcoat,'' the promised gift of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Two Rothko paintings throbbing with color - his ``White and Orange,'' and ``Red, Black, W hite and Yellow'' - are both promised gifts of Mrs. Mellon.

The gallery has also just unwrapped its very first Toulouse-Lautrec. His exuberant view of Paris nightlife in the 1890s, ``Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in `Chilp'eric,''' is one of the artist's best paintings. It is a gift (partial and promised) from Betsey Cushing Whitney in honor of John Hay Whitney. Another first for the gallery is one of Camille Pissarro's greatest paintings, ``Landscape at Les Patis, Pontoise,'' a serene green landscape under an intense blue sky full of whipped cream clouds. It is a gift (partial and promised) from Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller.

If this 50th-birthday collection had a motto, it could be taken from one of the gifts of artist Roy Lichtenstein and his wife. His cartoon painting titled ``Look, Mickey'' looks bizarre among the masterpieces. In it Donald Duck, fishing with Mickey Mouse, turns and says, ``Look Mickey, I've hooked a big one!!'' The National Gallery has hooked lots of big ones, from some of the most famous and generous collectors living in the United States and five other countries: Britain, France, Switzerla nd, Germany, and Brazil. Andrew Robison, the gallery's senior curator of prints and drawings, says ``It really is a national outpouring of love and support.'' He notes that although the gallery started with ``the inner circle'' of legendary donors like the Mellons, Betsey Whitney, and Robert Smith, 116 of the 164 donors at the opening were totally new. It is a measurement of the treasures here to discover that apart from artists mentioned above, works by Bellini, Pierre Bonnard, Calder, Carracci, Chagall, C onstable, Corot, Diebenkorn, Van Dyck, Gauguin, Walker Evans, Hans Hofmann, Winslow Homer, Paul Klee, K"athe Kollwitz, Fitz Hugh Lane, 'Edouard Manet, John Marin, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Barnett Newman, Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Renoir, Georges Rouault, Stieglitz, and Whistler are repesented.