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Hang-ups in Cezanne paintings' intended path to the White House

Critic's Notebook: A collector intended eight Postimpressionist works to adorn America's seat of power. The terms of his 1928 will remain unfulfilled.

September 04, 2013|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic

When Charles A. Loeser died in 1928, he was 64, nearly a decade older than the average American was expected to live. He had led a comfortable life of privilege, spent abroad in Italy.

Loeser was prepared for the inevitable. Two years earlier, he wrote a detailed will. In it he lavished special care on the dispersal of his art collection, assembled over four decades. He died secure in the knowledge that his legacy was protected.

But Loeser turned out to be wrong. His legacy was not secure. Eighty-five years on, one vital part of his bequest remains in limbo, unfulfilled and disregarded.

STORY: Chasing the White House Cézannes

The will's most surprising provision was a gift of eight paintings by French Postimpressionist Paul Cézanne. Loeser didn't leave them to a family member or to an art museum, as typical collectors do, but to "the President of the United States of America and his successors in office for the adornment of the White House." The will detailed the terms of the gift.

The Cézannes arrived in Washington in 1952. However, as reported Sunday in The Times, the posthumous donation was diverted by an ambitious curator at the National Gallery of Art, who wanted the masterpieces for his fledgling museum. Never once since then have the terms of Loeser's magnificent bequest been honored.

Few of the paintings have spent much time in the White House. One, "Still Life With Skull," has never crossed the threshold. The will required that they be installed together as an ensemble, separate from any other paintings, but they've never been shown that way in the residence.

A State Department memo said the gift was refused by President Truman, who was in office when the paintings were transferred to Washington. If the White House declined the bequest, the will provided for an alternative dispersal — culminating in the paintings' sale at auction. Why those directions were not followed is unknown.

PHOTOS: The White House Cézannes

Through 12 administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, the donor's intent has been sidestepped.

Donor intent refers to the purpose for which a philanthropist makes a gift. The issue concerns the moral obligations between giver and recipient.

High-profile art controversies over donor intent have played out in recent years in Philadelphia, Denver, Nashville and Brooklyn. The issue might arise during bankruptcy proceedings in Detroit, should city-owned art in the Detroit Institute of Arts' collection be considered for sale to meet civic debts.

What was the intent of Loeser's Cézanne gift? For an answer, look to his unusual will.

Loeser was one of Cézanne's first collectors, a wealthy American expatriate living in Florence, where he is buried. His Cézanne collection had been hugely influential.

STORY: A Cezanne donated to the White House has never hung there

A 1903 visit by critic Leo Stein to Loeser's villa atop the city's highest hill sent the younger man scurrying to Paris with in-depth news of the little-known painter from Aix-en-Provence, which he shared with siblings Michael and Gertrude Stein. This helped ignite the family's decision to collect Modern art. They became pivotal patrons of Picasso, Matisse and the new French avant-garde.

In his will Loeser specified how the White House was to hang the eight pictures — finicky directions spoken from the grave that, when I first read them, seemed at best petulant and at worst intrusive. Eventually I realized I was wrong.

"These paintings should be placed in one or more rooms of the White House in which there are no other paintings," the bequest says. Appropriate heights from the floor, correct distances from each other and harmonious wall colors are suggested. "No ropes or other means by which they [are] held in their places should be left visible." The resulting window-like effect, Loeser wrote, will create "a decorative value of the highest order."

Far from intrusive, Loeser was in fact describing a way to maximize perception of the art's modernity.

Here's how: In 1926, when he wrote the will, painting collections were still commonly installed in an outdated Victorian manner. Works by different artists were hung in tiers to blanket a wall, often suspended from ceiling moldings. Adventurous international collectors such as Walter Arensberg, Albert C. Barnes, Sergei Shchukin and Gertrude Stein still hung radically modern art the old-fashioned way.

Loeser's will insists otherwise. It seems the donor wanted the White House Cézannes to be modern paintings in a modern installation to adorn the seat of power in a modern nation.

I came to understand this from a second Loeser bequest — this one to his adopted hometown of Florence. Loeser also collected Italian Renaissance and Baroque art. His gift of 30 Renaissance paintings and sculptures was accompanied by a selection of period furniture and decorative arts.

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