Richard Mellon Scaife
When Dick Scaife died last summer, there surfaced a rash of brief memoirs of a man most often described as “reclusive,” and, more ambivalently, “mercurial.” Before then, he had been shielded from close scrutiny by the code of Omertà, a protective silence, at least by his friends and close associates. This frustrated those less friendly to his opinions and activities, but also those whose knew the extent of his philanthropic interests. Mr. Scaife, himself, was often reluctant to speak of such charitable matters. No doubt history will paint a clearer picture of the man.
This article concerns Scaife’s interest in the arts, as a private collector and a patron. As a descendant of the Mellon family through his mother, he could look back on four patronage models. Andrew Mellon, the banker and Secretary of the Treasury, who effectively founded the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and supplied it with major paintings. Andrew’s only son, Paul, continued to endow the National Gallery and was a host of other institutions with the enormous collection he and his second wife assembled in their long lifetimes. (Neither Andrew nor Paul was especially generous in giving art to their hometown, though their philanthropic foundations have greatly benefitted Pittsburgh.)
Third, Paul Mellon’s sister, Ailsa, while sharing in her father’s and brother’s care for the National Gallery, also left important personal effects to the Carnegie Museum of Art, giving backbone to its decorative arts department. But, fourth, Dick Scaife’s mother, Sarah (Mrs. Alan G. Scaife), the daughter of Richard Beatty Mellon, may well have been the greatest benefactor of art to Pittsburgh through the Carnegie. The greatest Impressionist paintings there (and they are world-class) were acquired by her from 1962 on, most notably the Claude Monet, “Water Lilies (Nymphéas),” 1915-25. After (and to some extent before) her death in 1965, her children and beneficiaries, most notably Dick Scaife, through her foundation, continued to augment the collection and construct the Scaife Galleries (opened in 1974) that transformed the museum from a cluttered Victorian pile into a coherent contemporary space.
As a trustee of the Carnegie Institute and sometime chairman of the board of the Museum of Art, Dick Scaife’s largess is revealed through three acquisitions. In 1973, just before the Scaife Galleries opened, the museum via the Sarah Scaife Family Foundation acquired Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s “Morning Glories,” circa 1900, which was set up as a screen (designed by Stanford White). This purchase of a work by an American artist was to foreshadow Scaife’s personal interests for the rest of his life. Two later purchases, David Hockney’s “Divine, 1979” and Andy Warhol’s “Andrew Carnegie,” 1981 (the first purchased by Scaife directly and the second out of the museum’s Richard M. Scaife American Painting Fund) show the patron at his most accommodating—in his wry appreciation of Hockney’s sitter in drag and in his unusual studio (Factory) visit to Warhol in New York, after which two versions of Warhol’s “Andrew Carnegie” were acquired.
The Hockney “Divine” is a masterpiece; Warhol’s Andrew Carnegies are less so (this type of “commissioned” portrait has a deadness common to many of them). But the work is a clear compliment to the city of Pittsburgh, which Scaife loved, but to which Warhol was indifferent. The Warhol portrait commission was initiated by John R. Lane and Gene Baro, director and curator of contemporary art at the Carnegie, respectively. In later years, Scaife became somewhat estranged from the Carnegie; this was a loss to all concerned.
For a number of years, he was a member of the National Gallery of Art’s Trustees’ Council. During that period, he donated funds for the acquisition of three important works of art. First, in 1990, in conjunction with his companion at the time, Margaret R. Battle, was Albert Bierstadt’s “Lake Lucerne,” 1858. Second was William Michael Harnett’s “The Old Violin,” 1886, (given in 1993 with the donor line “Mr. and Mrs. Richard Mellon Scaife in honor of Paul Mellon”); it was possibly his most important gift of an American painting ever. And finally came a personal gift in 2005 of John James Audubon’s “Osprey and Weakfish,” 1829, the first Audubon oil painting to enter the collection.
Nor was Scaife’s interest limited to those institutions with which his family had historically been associated. The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg and the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford are both modern American museums, which opened in 1959 and 1971, respectively. From their beginnings, Scaife was closely connected with both as a donor and funder (and a member of the board of the Brandywine). In his will, beside other bequests to them, he gave almost his entire collection of paintings, in excess of 500, to be divided equally among them. The Westmoreland was specifically given five choice works by Pittsburgh artist John Kane, which are being exhibited through February at the museum’s temporary location in Greensburg.
At the first distribution (lot by lot, alternatively selected), each museum took home 70 of the most desirable works, all by important American artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For The Westmoreland, this strengthened an already impressive collection, and for Brandywine, it notably enhanced a collection a little thin on American paintings of the era. It should be said that Scaife had warm friendships with officials of both museums, notably Judith O’Toole, director of The Westmoreland, and George “Frolic” Weymouth, chair of the Brandywine Conservancy, which runs the Chadds Ford museum.
At this stage it is worth making a distinction between a private collection and one usually associated with an institution. The two seldom fit together perfectly. Paul Mellon himself was warned by Chester Beatty, another donor to the National Gallery, of the importance of “befitting” works for a national collection.
Dick Scaife always collected by his own personal lights (except when responding to a museum’s expressed desires) and the pleasure principle always ranked high with him. In fact, his tastes were remarkably popular and democratic. Once, when giving a painting to The Westmoreland, he indicated that the work might seem gloomy to the recipient (as he himself had found it). Like King George VI, he preferred paintings that had fair weather in them. I once asked him what he thought of a good snowscape: he hated it as much as he hated snow itself. He had almost no interest in the formal properties of a painting: composition, brushwork, etc., although he was a great lover of color; it was enough that it “worked” intelligibly for him. He was not averse to asking questions about art, and for that he had an extraordinarily retentive memory. Lunching once with him and the writer Hilton Kramer, I was struck by how he peppered the distinguished critic with questions (about Andy Warhol). Like any good newspaperman, he was intrigued by the relationship between information, opinion and gossip. This came together for him in art.
The bequests to The Westmoreland and the Brandywine admirably illustrate this inquiring and self-assured mind. There are superb paintings by Martin John Heade, Sanford Gifford, George Inness and Guy Pene de Bois. Other works suggest private pleasures and even idiosyncrasies; an appealing portrait of his dogs, one of which was an issue in his notorious divorce case, is part of his bequest. Some of these works will not make it into the museums’ permanent collections, for reasons of condition, duplication, etc., and are likely to be sold. Judith O’Toole, of The Westmoreland, indicates that funds derived from such sales will probably be used to conserve, restore and reframe the collection or be used for further acquisitions. This is usual and is governed by strict museological practice.
Other works of a family nature have been placed under the care of Scaife’s surviving foundations. No information is available at present as to how these effects are to be used. Scaife was an avid collector of Pittsburgh memorabilia, so it is possible his estate will continue to surprise. His will has stipulated the dispersal of other personal effects, some of which were remarkable. He was, somewhat surprisingly, a collector of superb antique ceramics, mainly European and English, already consigned for sale in the auction rooms. Flying back in his substantial jet a few years ago, I witnessed him unpack some purchases from the Philadelphia Antiques Show (he was an assiduous visitor). Risking turbulence, he exposed a superb Strasbourg faience tureen to the stratosphere. It was obvious the pleasure the piece gave him. The landing in Pittsburgh was soft.
Pittsburgh and its region have not been especially lucky in retaining the historic acquisitions of its collectors. Few would begrudge the National Gallery its Mellon donations. But the G. David Thompson collection (Giacometti, Klee, etc., worth $1 billion in today’s money) managed to slip through the city’s fingers. Henry Clay Frick’s extraordinary holdings escaped to New York City, although his daughter’s museum in Point Breeze has a few dozen superb paintings and sculptures. Andrew Carnegie was not a significant collector. The James Austin Collection of Japanese Woodblock Prints and the Charles J. Rosenbloom collections, notably Old Master prints, are bright spots that remain here (though both are little appreciated in the city). Dick Scaife’s “stuff,” which continues the philanthropy of his mother, has been spread about the region and is a significant part of his legacy. It is sometimes said of great painters that they only painted to please themselves. Dick Scaife collected to please himself. That personal pleasure is now to be shared with the public.