The William S. Paley Collection at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec

By Becky Rynor on November 25, 2013

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Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), The Seeds of the Areoi (1892), oil on burlap. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The William S. Paley Collection. SPC14.1990

William S. Paley was best known as the American media mogul who founded CBS Inc., taking a sparse string of local radio stations and building them into one of the most powerful communications companies in the world.

He was less known, however, for his keen eye and taste for modern art. During his lifetime, Paley built a significant collection of works by artists such as Cézanne, Picasso, Degas, Rodin, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Derain and others. Now, for a brief time, most of the works from that collection can be seen in Canada.

When he died in 1990, the more than 80 works that comprised Paley’s personal collection were bequeathed to the Museum of Modern art (MoMA) in New York City, where Paley served on the board of trustees in one capacity or another from 1937 to 1990. 

“At the time he started collecting in 1935–1936, it wasn’t fashionable to be collecting modern art,” Lilian Tone, MoMA’s Assistant Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture, told NGC Magazine. “What was fashionable at that time was to be collecting Old Masters paintings, so I think it was a true interest that ignited his first acquisitions. Then he started studying and learning more.”

She adds that Paley not only had an eye for modern art, but also had some “incredible opportunities.”

“He was at the right place, at the right time, with the right connections, to be able to buy works directly from Henri Matisse; directly from Paul Cezanne’s son. This is unheard of. It would not have been possible even one decade later. Then the works that he acquired in the mid-30s and mid-40s, in addition to works by Gertrude Stein and Picasso that he acquired in the ‘60s are amazing in terms of their significance to art history.”

Drawing upon more than 60 works from Paley’s collection, The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism is on view at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec until 16 February 2014, in what will be the exhibition’s only Canadian stop on its North American tour.  The show provides a unique opportunity to see a large number of works from the collection together, since MoMA tends to present smaller groupings from the collection on regular rotation.

This collection is unique on a number of levels, says Tone, including the sheer generosity of the donor. “Quebec is showing the greatest highlights of the collection,” she adds, “so this is an incredible opportunity to see great masterpieces like Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse, or Matisse’s Woman with a Veil.”

“It is very interesting to have this kind of work, because it gives us the opportunity to have a good look at Modernism in painting at the end of the 19th century,” Jean-Pierre Labiau, Curator of Decorative Arts and Exhibitions for the Musée national des beaux-arts, told NGC Magazine. “It is also very uncommon to see works by Cezanne and Gauguin in Canada. As well, it is incredible to see these works by Picasso, to have his Rose Period and the beginning of Cubism—and after the second part of Cubism—in this exhibition. There are only 62 works, but they are so strong and so well-painted that it is really something to have them.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated re-design of MoMA’s 1992 catalogue, complete with more than 160 illustrations, provenance history and exhibition histories for each work.

The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism is on view at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec until 16 February 2014. Click here to buy the catalogue.

By Becky Rynor| November 25, 2013
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor is a journalist and editor based in Ottawa.

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