Two rarely seen paintings offer a peek into the very private world of Paul and Bunny Mellon

Oak Spring Foundation, 136 pages, $40 paperback, $50 hardcover

Paul and Bunny Mellon: Visual Biographies — The Trompe l’Oeil Paintings at Oak Spring, Virginia offers insights into a little-celebrated genre of painting that sets out to deceive the eye. But the book’s bigger trick, hinted at in the title, is in exploring how two such artworks, commissioned by Paul Mellon and his wife, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, at their Oak Spring estate in Upperville, Virginia, provide a curio cabinet of objects of great personal meaning. In these painted depictions of books, shells, pruners, and baskets, we glimpse the inner lives of a famously private, high-profile couple.

The Mellons amassed hundreds of paintings during their lives, all of them of high quality and many by great artists, though they bought the work for the simple reason that they liked them, and they fit into their collecting interests, not merely as art assets. They ended up giving most of the paintings to institutions under their patronage, particularly the National Gallery of Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, and the Yale Center for British Art. But the two artworks at their Virginia country estate, Oak Spring, remain firmly in place years after their deaths (his in 1999, hers in 2014).

The paintings are both trompe l’oeil (“deceive the eye”) oil compositions on canvas affixed to cabinetry. They both date to 1959 by two artists working in markedly different scale. The first, by the English artist Martin Battersby, is tucked inside a cabinet in the living room of the house. The second, by the French painter Fernand Renard is on a much grander scale and defines the vestibule of Bunny Mellon’s greenhouse.

Trompe l’oeil paintings, murals and trellis art seek to trick the mind into thinking depicted objects are real and exist in a tangible space. In one sense, all representative painting is such an illusion, taking a flat surface and presenting it as three dimensional. At their most effective, explains Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi in Paul and Bunny Mellon, trompe l’oeil paintings create a form of “visual hallucination.” The trompe l’oeil artist amplifies the illusion through the choice of subjects and the mastery of brushwork, light effects, foreshortening, and other techniques. The still-life paintings of the 17th- century Golden Age of Dutch painting came close to that threshold, though artists such as William Michael Harnett, more than two centuries later, marched right across it. One of his ingeniously deceptive works, After the Hunt, invites the viewer to put on the hat and grab the hunting horn off its peg.

The trompe l’oeil paintings at Oak Spring are intriguing expressions of the technique. The living room trompe l’oeil is smaller than the greenhouse work, but is in its own right an ambitious work. It consists of a pair of canvases attached to the doors of a cupboard, itself concealed inside a cabinet. Battersby depicted 20 or so leather-bound volumes, a decorative box from which spills a beribboned cameo, a stuffed white dove, four shells, and a silver cup with a single carnation. In the vein of the Dutch still life, the composition has its memento mori, here an hourglass.

The books, in particular, speak to Paul Mellon’s penchant for satire and culture, and include a depiction of a 1759 edition of Voltaire’s Candide and a 1632 English edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as well as 18th-century novels by the influential English writers William Beckford and Horace Walpole. Historically, trompe l’oeil has been disdained in some quarters as a lesser art form, merely “an optical trick,” as Tomasi reminds us. But the everyday character of the subjects can powerfully place quotidian life into sharp relief.

Tomasi writes: “What is most striking about the trompe l’oeil by Battersby is the contrast it presents between the apparent immediacy of the moment captured — with books left open by their owner, loose drawings tacked to the shelves, butterflies about to take wing — and the quality of perfect stillness that imbues the picture with each object seemingly frozen in time as the sands of the hourglass slowly run out.”

Bunny Mellon, as much a Francophile as her husband was an Anglophile, turned to the Parisian painter Renard for her greenhouse. The vestibule of the entrance pavilion sits between the two wings of the glasshouse in what otherwise would be a place of utility. Renard’s work adorns three of the vestibule’s four walls. Again, cupboard doors open to reveal additional painted surfaces. Bunny Mellon spent many hours in the greenhouse raising plants and clipping herbs into potted topiaries. The painted vestibule makes clear that gardening was as exalted as collecting rare books, paintings, and other artworks.

Renard spent months painting the everyday objects that are the stuff of trompe l’oeil artists, including wicker baskets (Bunny Mellon was a collector), garden tools, a basket of eggs, twine, and various fruits and vegetables. The viewer finds the reproduction of a handwritten poem, by Paul Mellon, whimsically recounting the collaboration between his wife and Renard. Reynard is the fox of medieval fable, inspiring Paul Mellon’s poem, The Fox & The Rabbit.

“They painted all the walls/Then they painted all the floors/They painted all the ceilings/Then they painted all the doors.” Not Shakespeare, perhaps, but indicative of the couple’s enduring and playful tenderness.

The Oak Spring estate, now run by a foundation as a center for learning, is for the most part open to researchers only. So Paul and Bunny Mellon: Visual Biographies — The Trompe l’Oeil Paintings at Oak Spring, Virginia is essentially an exhibition catalogue for a show few people will ever get to see. It is a welcome substitute. 

(1) comment

Donna Gomien

Off topic, but an interesting factoid nonetheless. The Mellon Estate, which is huge, is one of the few places in the United States that still has live chestnut trees (most US chestnut trees were killed off by a blight many decades ago, but the Mellon chestnuts weren't exposed to the blight since they were isolated well into the interior of the estate). Part of the work of the estate's Garden Foundation is to participate in a chestnut regeneration project.

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