In 2016, the third phase of an important multiyear building conservation project was completed, and visitors can now experience not only a renewed masterpiece of modern architecture by Louis I. Kahn but also a freshly reimagined installation of the Center’s collections. Nearly four hundred works, largely the gift of the institution’s founder, Paul Mellon (Yale College, Class of 1929), and augmented by other gifts and purchases, are on display in the restored and reconfigured galleries on the fourth and second floor.
Tracing the growth of a native British school of artists, the installation reveals how frequently the story of art in Britain focuses on a narrative of international exchange. The new arrangement addresses the impact of immigration and travel on British art and culture across the centuries, and the role that the arts have played in the history of Britain’s imperial vision, exploring the ways in which the perception of the British Empire influenced how Britons saw themselves and others. Featured in the display are the Netherlandish artists who provided the foundations of British art in the Tudor period (1485–1603), as well as the seventeenth-century Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck, the eighteenth-century Venetian artist Canaletto, the German artist Johan Zoffany, and American artists John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West.
Many of the Center’s well-known treasures from the Paul Mellon Collection return to view in new and exciting juxtapositions, such as the works of George Stubbs, including his painting Pumpkin with a Stable-lad (1774); Joseph Wright of Derby’s The Blacksmith’s Shop (1771); J. M. W. Turner’s Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam becalmed (1818) and; Staffa, Fingal’s Cave (1831–1832); and John Constable’s cloud studies (ca. 1821–1825). The display also comprises exceptional loans, including a portrait of Henrietta Maria (1636) by Van Dyck and coins and medals from the collection of Stephen Scher.
The installation is organized chronologically, focused around a number of themes. On the fourth floor, these include Becoming Great Britain (1550–1688); A Commercial Society (1688–1750); Rule Britannia? (1750–1775); Art and the Market (1775–1800); Revolution and Reaction (1800–1830); and A New Age (1830–1860).
The timeline continues on the second floor with Art for Art’s Sake (1860–1900); Going Modern, Being British (1900–1945); The End of Empire (1945–1979); and Postmodern Britain (1979–present). Masterworks from the collection, such as Frederic Leighton’s Mrs. James Guthrie (1865) and James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Blue and Silver (1872–1878), are paired with major loans, including paintings by Lucian Freud (1922–2011) and Howard Hodgkin (1932–2017). The second floor also contains works by Gwen John (1876–1939), Vanessa Bell (1879–1961), Ben Nicholson (1894–1982), Henry Moore (1898–1986), Maggi Hambling (b. 1945), and Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA) (b. 1962), among many others.