Paul Mellon (1907–1999) was one of the greatest American philanthropists of the twentieth century whose generosity was matched only by his modesty and avoidance of publicity. He devoted his life to supporting causes such as higher education, the arts, research in religion and psychiatry, and the environment. He dispersed more than one billion US dollars in his lifetime, and significantly more after his death, but rarely allowed his name to be attached to his benefactions. He believed deeply in the values of art, literature, thought and reflection and their power to shape individual lives. He was formed by them and wished that others could enjoy their life–enhancing effect.
He was the son of one of America's richest men, the financier and future Secretary to the US Treasury Andrew W. Mellon (1855–1937) and an English mother, Nora McMullen (1879–1973). Paul Mellon was christened in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle and his associations with England were a feature of his childhood, especially after the bitter divorce of his parents in 1912. At the age of twelve he entered Choate School in Connecticut and moved on to Yale, from where he graduated in 1929. He remained devoted to the university throughout his life.
At Yale he was taught by a brilliant generation of scholars and developed there the deep love of English literature and British history which formed the basis of his later artistic and intellectual interests. After Yale he went to Clare College, Cambridge where, 'skimping on lectures and study for the pleasures of hunting and racing', as he put it in his autobiography, he was exceptionally happy and carefree; he graduated in 1931. It was at Cambridge that he discovered the joys of collecting prints and books on aspects of sporting life, passions which remained a lifelong interest and would lead to the breeding and racing of horses, including the great bay colt Mill Reef, which won the Derby in 1971, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the French Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Throughout his life Paul Mellon would claim that horseracing more than art provided his most treasured moments.
The 1930s were a crucial period for him. He never shared his father's dedication to business and a brief period working in the family bank was a conspicuously unhappy time. In 1935 he married Mary Conover and together they developed an abiding interest in the work and thought of Carl Gustav Jung which led to the creation in 1941 of the Bollingen Foundation and its series of publications both of Jung's work and of other major scholarly works of analytical psychology, myth, religion, literature and archaeology.
With the death of his father in 1937 the mantle of leading and directing the family, both its fortune and philanthropy, fell to him. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, entirely the gift of his father, was still under construction. Paul Mellon took over his father's responsibilities as a trustee and saw the building through to its completion, presenting it together with Andrew Mellon's remarkable collection of Old Master paintings to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941.
Paul Mellon's commitment to the National Gallery of Art was profound. He was president of the board from 1963 until 1985, during which time he, with some assistance from other members of the Mellon family, provided all the $95 million to build the east wing. Designed by I. M. Pei, it has become a national landmark. He and his sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce (1901 – 1969), gave generously of their remarkable collections of French and American paintings to enhance the gallery. He was richly supported in his work both there and at his local museum, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, by his second wife, Rachel (Bunny) Lambert (1910 – 2014) whom he had married in 1948 following the death of his first wife.
Throughout his life, he was deeply attracted to Britain and in 1936 he bought his first British oil painting, a masterpiece Pumpkin with a Stable Lad by the artist to whom he retained a lifelong devotion, George Stubbs. It was his first step towards becoming the greatest collector and benefactor of British art in the twentieth century and for these services and for his generosity to numerous British institutions and universities, he was awarded an honorary knighthood in 1974.
Beginning in the late 1950s, he began to assemble what was to become the finest and most comprehensive collection of British art in the world outside the national collection of British art at the Tate Gallery in London. In December 1966 he announced the gift of the collection to Yale University with the pledge of a building to house it and an endowment to sustain operations in perpetuity. The Yale Center for British Art, designed by Louis Kahn, is a landmark of modern architecture with a matchless collection and is also an emblem of Yale's excellence in art and scholarship. The impetus and inspiration of these gifts was truly philanthropic. Just as he had delighted in British art, Paul Mellon wanted succeeding generations of Yale students to share in and benefit from the experience.
Mellon's interest and devotion to Yale University extended well beyond the creation of the Center for British Art. One of his earliest gifts to the university enabled it to acquire the legendary Boswell Papers, now a precious part of the Beinecke Library, and he made generous gifts of works of art to the Yale University Art Gallery. His gifts have reached down to the very substance of the university with the endowment of professorships as well as college buildings. Among numerous gifts, he provided funds which enable Yale to be 'admissions blind', attracting to the university gifted students of whatever economic background.
In all this, Paul Mellon was a true philanthropist. He enjoyed great wealth all of his life: his driving concern was to make it possible for others to enjoy and be enriched by the experiences of the mind and spirit which had shaped and delighted him. He wished to privilege others as he had been privileged.
If you wish to learn more about what it was like to work with Paul Mellon you can watch this film below with Mellon's art advisor, John Baskett.