Yale University Pays Tribute to Paul Mellon, Citing the Lasting Benefits of His Philanthropy and Values

Yale University today praised Paul Mellon as belonging in the highest company of philanthropists. He devoted his life to supporting and sustaining human causes – higher education, the arts, research in religion and psychiatry, and the preservation of the natural environment – for the widest and lasting benefit of American and British society.

“Paul Mellon was wise, generous and strikingly modest, a man of exquisite taste and deeply humane values,” University President Richard C. Levin said. “Of the many thousands who have contributed to Yale University, none has done more than he to shape and support it. He demonstrated his great care for the life of the University by sustaining and enriching the experience of undergraduates and providing opportunities for graduate students and faculty. Yale is immeasurably greater because of Paul Mellon.”

A man of conspicuous personal modesty, Paul Mellon rarely allowed his name to be attached to his gifts and 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.

Paul Mellon graduated in the Yale Class of ‘29 and remained devoted to the University for the rest of his life. He was taught by a brilliant generation of scholars – Chauncy Brewster Tinker and Frederick Pottle, among others – and developed a profound love of English literature and British history. It formed the bedrock of his later artistic and intellectual interests. After Yale, he went to Clare College, Cambridge, where he discovered the pleasures of English life, particularly sports and pastimes associated with horses – racing, hunting and trail riding. They proved a lifelong interest and pleasure to Paul Mellon.

Throughout his life, Paul Mellon was deeply attracted to Britain – its countryside, its institutions, its art and literature, and its traditional, civilized way of life. In 1936, he bought his first oil painting, a masterpiece of British sporting art, George Stubbs’ “Pumpkin with a Stable Lad.” It was the first step Paul Mellon took to becoming the greatest collector and benefactor of British art in the 20th century.

Over the next 40 years, Paul Mellon would assemble the finest and most comprehensive collection of British art in the world outside of the national collection of British art in the Tate Gallery in London. In 1966, Paul Mellon gave the collection to Yale University with the pledge of a building to house the collection and an endowment to sustain its operations in perpetuity. The Yale Center for British Art opened in 1977. Designed by Louis I. Kahn, the Center has become a landmark of modern architecture, wedding a masterpiece building with a matchless collection. The Center functions both as a teaching and research arm of the University and as a public art museum of national and international acclaim. One of Connecticut’s most popular tourist attractions, the Center has served to increase public appreciation of British art and culture.

Paul Mellon also created and endowed the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London. It is an integral part of the international presence of Yale University and operates as a center for research and teaching, and for the general support of scholarship in British art.

The impetus and inspiration of these gifts were truly philanthropic. Just as Paul Mellon had delighted in British art, so he wanted succeeding generations of Yale students to share in and benefit from the experience. The beauty of the Louis I. Kahn building, the surprise and distinction of the collection, the rich scholarly resources of its rare book collection and its Reference Library, together with the generosity of its endowment, have made the Yale Center for British Art a haven for scholars and students around the world. It is an emblem of Yale’s excellence in art and scholarship.

Paul Mellon’s interest and devotion to Yale 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. He made many generous gifts of works of art to the Yale University Art Gallery, most recently Thomas Eakins’ superb watercolor of “John Biglin in a Single Scull” in honor of Jules Prown, the Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art at Yale.

Paul Mellon’s gifts, given both directly and indirectly through the Old Dominion, Avalon, and Andrew W. Mellon Foundations, have reached down to the very core and substance of the University. He endowed the William DeVane Professorship, whose annual lectures draw the entire Yale community together in excitement and discovery. He funded the construction of Morse College and Stiles College, both designed by Eero Saarinen, which were the last colleges to be built at Yale, and he endowed their masterships as well as the deanships of all 12 residential colleges. He provided funds for many of Yale’s distinguished interdisciplinary programs in the humanities P- including Directed Studies, the Humanities Major, and Theater Studies. Other Mellon gifts support professorships in the Arts and Sciences, graduate fellowships, the music librarian, the Yale University Art Gallery, residential college seminars and libraries, and teaching in the Schools of Medicine, Divinity, and Forestry and Environmental Studies.

In all this, Paul Mellon was a true philanthropist. 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. Through all of this, he claimed no place for himself. He steadfastly refused to have any building at Yale named after himself.

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