Let us now praise famous art—and the moneyed men and women who buy it. Or so the National Gallery of Art would encourage us to do in its latest show, “From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection,” which opened last weekend in snowy Washington.

Chester Dale, who made his millions on Wall Street, and his wife Maud, herself a Sunday painter and critic, amassed a collection of over 300 works, most of which they bequeathed to the gallery in slow stages, starting with a loan to the gallery upon its opening in 1941 and ending with a final gift of over 200 works when Chester died in 1962. Altogether theirs is arguably the greatest gift the gallery has ever received. As another gallery director, John Walker, once remarked, the French works they gave form “not just the backbone” but “the whole rib structure of the modern French school” at the gallery. Without them, the section would be laughably bare.

On view in this show are 81 of the greatest hits from the Dale collection, most of them familiar, crowd-pleasing works by the likes of Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Claude Monet, which we have seen before in rooms deep within the gallery. Now they are on the fringes of the gallery, at entrances and exits, in the rooms leading to other exhibitions. This is a good change, for now: We take more careful notice of them in new arrangements (works are arranged thematically) and in new rooms; and where we used to chatter and mill about, we look again at what adorns the walls. The space is well spent. And this show, except for the cost of printing catalogs, offering a special café menu of French delicacies, and so on, is free—something welcome, no doubt, after pricey shows like "Pompeii and the Roman Villa" and "The Art of Power."

At the entrance—or exit, depending on how you lace through the show—are portraits of women, the first in hats, such as Matisse’s loose oil study for White Plumes, The Plumed Hat (1919). Upon Maud’s urging, this was the first French work the couple purchased after buying solely American works by the likes of George Bellows, who later painted Maud’s portrait—twice, since the Dales were displeased with his first try. (The Dales, in fact, interrupted Bellows on vacation in Rhode Island to tell him that he needed to re-do the work.)

Nearby hang portraits of men and nudes, then landscapes, such as Forest of Fontainebleau (1834) by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and still lifes by the likes of Paul Cézanne and Georges Braque. Many works by Amedeo Modigliani, whom Maud championed with her writing and wallet, are on view, as are nearly a dozen by Picasso, including that melancholy, monumental rose-period square of canvas, the Family of Saltimbanques (1905), which faces an equally monumental, similarly themed work, The Old Musician (1862) by Edouard Manet. This pairing is lovely to behold: On the left are Picasso’s gauzy, dream-soaked strokes comprising charming and aloof people in costume; and on the right, Manet’s soberly painted counterparts in shoddy clothes that are the colors of raw earth.

For better or worse, what you won’t see in this show is evidence of the Dales taking a high risk with certain styles and schools, such as Dada or surrealism. This couple built their collection conservatively and tended to prefer time-honored subjects. They didn’t buy avant garde Matisse dancers, for instance, but his still lifes, portraits. And when they bought a Picasso, they chose classical nudes and the blue and rose periods over, for instance, his cubist works or even his plump pigeons. (Matisse liked them, too.)

Politely indulging the Dales’ desire to be made grand (and remembered) in paint, the gallery highlights four Dale portraits, two of each, his and hers. These likenesses read as curiosities more than as great works, and are further evidence of the Dales’ penchant for traditional subjects. The portrait of Chester by Salvador Dalí is a case in point: He holds his black poodle like a football under his arm, sits on a landscape doubling as a throne, and behind him there is a great, blue sky with clouds and a wisp above his head, as if it is a most natural (though clearly affected) halo. The painting has its quirks, but does not exude Dalí’s typical verve.

This special, longstanding exhibition is a better portrait of the Dales, and perhaps a more favorable one, too. Chester and Maud aren’t the invisible wallets behind the works anymore, and end up looking like they had a bloodhound’s nose for exquisite art. When you go, make sure to check out the other ways they're presented in this show: through the library, also bequeathed to the gallery, of 150,000 volumes, and a selection of black-and-white photographs of the couple and their art-filled home. One of the pictures shows this Monet casually hanging in the dining room. Can you imagine looking at Rouen cathedral while eating breakfast?

"From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection" is on view at the National Gallery of Art until July 31, 2011.

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