Laura's Blog

The Lady Behind the Portrait

- by Laura Malone Elliott

October 28, 2015

Today I’d like to take a moment to pay homage to Ailsa Mellon Bruce, the beautiful, reclusive woman who is responsible for bringing the only Leonardo in all of the Americas here to the National Gallery of Art. NGA director John Walker negotiated the deal, but it was she who donated the unprecedented $5 million to purchase Ginevra de’ Benci from the royal family of Lichtenstein—inch by inch the most expensive art purchase of its time in 1967.

Daughter of the museum founder, Andrew Mellon, Ailsa withstood many sadnesses and difficulties. In 1909, in a time divorce was unusual, her parents separated and the preteen Ailsa and her younger brother endured a very public, bitter custody battle between their parents, hounded by the paparazzi and tabloids of the day. As a young woman, she acted as her father’s hostess in Washington and when he was an ambassador to Great Britain, and enjoyed a sophisticated, cultured existence. But later in life, Ailsa suffered severe arthritis, her own marriage ended, and her only child vanished over the Caribbean in a chartered plane with her husband. Ailsa rarely appeared in public after that and the NGA staff barely knew her, and yet, she was one of the gallery’s most committed and generous patrons.

In addition to bringing Ginevra de’ Benci to us, Ailsa also donated (among 136 other works) another much beloved female portrait, Jean-Honore Fragonard’s A Young Girl Reading. She also agreed to fund half of the initial gift for the NGA’s East Wing. Sadly, Ailsa died in 1969 before the groundbreaking for I.M. Pei’s renowned building. But in her will, she gifted the NGA monies and her entire art collection, rich with affectionate portrayals of children such as Monet’s Artist’s Garden at Vetheuil, which features the painter’s son. All told, she bequeathed 2 Cassatts, a Cezanne, a Degas, 3 Corots, 9 Bonnards, 5 Boudins, a Daumier, 2 Derains, 3 Dufys, another Fragonard, 2 Gauguins, 5 Manets, a Matisse, 5 Monets, 4 Morisots, 5 Pissarros, a Redon, 22 Renoirs, a Rouault, a Seurat, 2 Toulouse-Lautrecs, 3 Utrillos, and 10 Vuillards.

For more on Ginevra’s purchase and arrival in the United States see:

Portrait of Ailsa Mellon Bruce, National Gallery of Art

Young Girl Reading, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, National Gallery of Art


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