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July 21, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

BOSTON — A couple of low-lifes prance in the gaslit dance halls' steamy nacreous green light. He looks like a spider, she a dissolute butterfly. They are eyed by a woman in pink, slumming from the more stylish reaches of Paris' social sewers. The image is etched on the brain. It is Toulouse-Lautrec's 1890 "At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance."

Oddly, one has momentarily forgotten which great museum owns this Post-Impressionist masterpiece. A glance at the label reveals that--incredibly--it belongs to a private collector, Henry P. McIlhenny of Philadelphia.

At least it used to.

McIlhenny died in May and left his astonishing collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with which he had been associated for decades as patron, board president and general all-around angel. In school days, the collector attended Harvard and was a disciple of the legendary art history professor Paul Sachs, who nurtured a generation of connoisseurs and collectors. McIlhenny started buying in the '30s, and wound up with a huge cache that fans out from 19th-Century French and English art to a witty gaggle of drawings by Dali, Kelly and Warhol and a large compendium of furniture and bibelots.

Until Aug. 10, about 40 peak works that form the core of the collection are on view at the Museum of Fine Arts here. The showing was intended as a celebration of the collector but instead has turned into a memorial. It is surely the last time the ensemble will be seen outside Philadelphia.

By all accounts, McIlhenny lived and entertained with a flourish, panache and style that is virtually unknown today, even among people of great wealth. His digs in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square district consisted of four or five vintage brownstones. Their old facades were kept tactfully intact but connected inside into a capacious dwelling distinguished by having five front doors.

According to the Boston museum curator Peter Sutton, McIlhenny hung Jacques Louis David's portrait of Pope Pius VII over the bar. The holy man gives a double-fingered blessing. Some visitors thought the placement an irreverent trope intended to beatify imbibement. McIlhenny insisted that the Pope's gesture meant "Just two drinks."

Maybe that sounds a little fatuous. Maybe the rumored $100 million value of the collection sounds like one of those astronomical flashes that is going to blind people to the expressive truth of the art.

Believe me, one look at the collection and all you can think besides "Holy jumping spit" is, "How did this extraordinary man do this?"

Everything looks like it should have long since been in an important museum. The Louvre certainly would not mind having the small, vigorous version of Eugene Delacroix's "The Death of Sardanapalus," arguably his greatest painting. London's National Gallery would be humbly grateful to add J.A.D. Ingres' "Portrait of Mme. Tournon" to its hallowed collection. The picture is an object lesson in how to make a silk purse.

Now, while the Met figuratively squabbles with the Chicago Art Institute over Degas' "Woman Drying Herself" and Cezanne's portrait of his wife and the Corots, Courbets, Van Goghs and Matisses, let us consider that small, nasty voice within that keeps insinuating that anybody with a lot of money, a little luck and a copy of a college textbook could have done this.

Get thee hence, varlet. Uncle Henry had an eye.

There is a strange Degas called, "Interior (The Rape)" based on Zola's novel "Therese Raquin," a rare, haunted narrative picture by the probing observer of movement. A portrait of a young man by an unknown French artist is of such quality we suspect McIlhenny sniffed a Gericault. There are drop-dead drawings like Seurats sooty study for the trombone player in "La Parade" and Pierre Prud'hon's superbly melancholy "Bust of a Female Figure." Such choices are not those of a blueblood blue-chip buyer but of an aesthete's aesthete whose taste runs slightly to the perverse.

Andy Warhol's drawing of Cecil Beaton's feet is not the choice of a cautious collector but it will amuse anybody with a sense of humor. Even refined cognoscenti, however, might be put off by the gaggle of campy British narrative pictures like James Collison's double-double-entendre "For Sale" and "To Let" which imply the pretty-girl vendors are as available as their wares. The really walleyed sensibility here is Sir Edwin Landseer with his violent virtuoso depictions of animals with human emotions. Their kitschy arrogance seems to draw a serious fissure in the collection.

The deep reason for including Landseers among such stellar art might well be an aesthete's legitimate interest in both the heights and the pathology of great talent. Landseer was one of the finest pure painters since Peter Paul Rubens. The tainted oddness of his sensibility was a class disease of 19th-Century British aristocracy.

Anyway, the Landseers formed a virtually independent collection, which McIlhenny kept in his baronial summer estate in Ireland. For years, he entertained faded aristocrats and bright minds of every stamp in a style of a class that one imagined had vanished with the heroes of "Grand Illusion." One can mourn the loss of graceful pleasures taken amid retinues of retainers or dismiss it all as mere selfishness wrapped in good manners.

Either way, it's hard to be hard on McIlhenny.

In 1981 he closed his castle and gave it all to the Irish government to be used for the general weal.

This year he closed his life and gave a museum collection to a public museum. The gestures were a lesson in the rare quality of simply knowing how to do the right thing.

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