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Culture Monster

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

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.

This time the will's instructions said to arrange the ensemble to evoke a typical 16th century aristocratic residence. The Palazzo Vecchio, where the art is housed, was the town hall of the old city-state, anointed by Cosimo I de' Medici, grand duke of Tuscany and preeminent patron of the Florentine Renaissance. For Italy, Loeser offered historical art in a historical installation to adorn a historical seat of power.

Side by side, these two gifts explain Loeser's discerning intention: The White House was to the Palazzo Vecchio what the president was to the grand duke of Tuscany.

There's just one hitch. The Palazzo Vecchio complied with the terms of the donor's exceptional gift. The White House still has not.

In an email, White House curator William Allman said, "I seriously doubt that they would ever be shown all together and not according to Mr. Loeser's complicated instructions for a dedicated installation."

The story of the White House Cézannes is filled with perplexing twists and turns. Not least is the question of why they were sent to the nation's capital in 1952.

Loeser's will left a life interest in the Cézannes to his daughter, Matilda, who lived to 87. She died in California in 2000. The 1952 transfer was orchestrated by the late John Walker III, the National Gallery's first curator. Walker and Matilda were friends.

In a document deposited in the museum's archives, Walker asserted that he "intimidated" his friend into relinquishing her claim to the paintings. He says he warned Matilda that she would be liable if the uninsured art was damaged before it arrived in Washington; frightened, she agreed to give it up.

This story should be taken with a grain of salt. Would broaching the danger of inadequate art insurance really convince someone to release millions of dollars in masterpieces that she could have kept for another 50 years?

Another explanation seems more plausible.

Walker had discovered that Matilda sold one of the 15 Cézannes in her father's estate a few years earlier. Based on his interpretation of the will, he believed the sale was illegal. Warning a friend about liability for a federal crime would likely be an effective lever to pry the paintings loose.

Whatever the case, Matilda relinquished her life interest in the Cézannes. Walker hung them in the National Gallery for nearly a decade, until an unidentified whistle-blower informed the incoming Kennedy administration about the ruse.

Jacqueline Kennedy intervened. She took the two best works — the powerful riverside scene "House on the Marne" (1888) and a complex landscape, "The Forest" (1890-92) — away from the museum for display in the mansion's public rooms. After several months they were moved upstairs to the Yellow Oval Room, a comfortable reception parlor in the family quarters.

Kennedy regarded the parlor as the most perfectly realized room in her celebrated White House renovation. A May 1963 photograph shows her with the president, seated in his rocking chair, entertaining the Mercury astronauts and their wives; "House on the Marne" hangs on the wall behind them.

Her husband's assassination six months later thwarted Kennedy's plan to bring all eight Cézannes to the White House from the National Gallery, which was accumulating many fine examples of the artist's paintings from other donors. (Today the museum's collection numbers 23.) But another worry gnawed at her.

Kennedy fretted that Lady Bird Johnson, the incoming first lady, would remove the two Cézanne landscapes because the artist was not American. The Kennedy family quickly donated an Impressionist painting by a second Modern French artist, Claude Monet, in memory of the slain president. The Cézannes were no longer an anomaly.

To further protect her artistic legacy, Kennedy solicited Walker's help. In an extraordinary letter written just days before she left Washington, she played hardball: Kennedy gently but firmly reminded Walker that she knew his secret role in undermining Loeser's Cézanne bequest. She planned to remain mum; surely he would help her now.

In different ways, first Walker and then Kennedy used the Cézanne bequest for their own purposes. But what of Loeser, who made the gift?

Had his bequest gone according to plan, news at his daughter's death in 2000 that eight Cézannes had been donated to America's president would have ranked among the biggest art stories of the new millennium. Instead, the magnificent gift has gotten lost in the shuffle — along with the donor's intent for it.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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