The Arensbergs, whose collection came to the Art Museum in 1953, were high- profile collectors, in part because of their friendship with Duchamp. It was Duchamp, in fact, who steered their collection to Philadelphia.
Albert Eugene Gallatin, whose collection constitutes the other major pillar of the museum's modernist holdings, is perhaps not so well known, even though his achievement is equally impressive. In 1927, he created the first public collection of modern art in America, the Gallery of Living Art at New York University.
Like the Arensbergs, Gallatin was a wealthy New Yorker who devoted his life to art. Also like them, he was one of the few Americans of his generation to recognize the importance of modern art and to collect it in earnest. His recognition was qualified, however; a Francophile, he rejected expressionism, futurism and other forms of modern art that he considered illustrative, and thus vulgar.
If you have visited the Art Museum's 20th-century collection, you have seen some of his treasures - Picasso's masterpiece of synthetic cubism, Three Musicians; Miro's Dog Barking at the Moon, and Fernand Leger's The City.
Paintings such as these naturally attract attention, but, in fact, about 60 percent of the Gallatin collection consists of works on paper - watercolors, prints, drawings and collages. And most of these works have been in storage since the museum acquired them in 1952.
This is why "A Severe Selection: Works on Paper From the A.E. Gallatin Collection" is a signal event at the Art Museum. It's the first major exhibition of Gallatin material there in more than 40 years. From this show, the visitor can get a clear sense of his vision, which put him in the front rank of American collectors.
The full Gallatin collection consists of more than 160 works; this show has about 100 of them - all but three of the works on paper. Many of the pieces on display, particularly the gouache paintings, have undergone extensive conservation work over the last year.
Works on paper are susceptible to light damage, which is why the museum can't keep the Gallatin works up permanently even if it had a gallery in which to display them. So this show, organized by senior curator Innis Howe Shoemaker, is a rare opportunity to see works that deserve to be more accessible.
The exhibition establishes Gallatin's starting point as a collector, then moves into cubism and other forms of abstract art, which would become his principal interests. He was particularly interested in small works on paper, so in a way this exhibition is more representative of his taste than a smaller show of more famous paintings might be.
Gallatin was born in 1881 in Villanova, where his maternal grandmother owned a country house. His pedigree was distinguished and patrician: His great-grandfather and namesake was secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Jefferson and Monroe and minister to France and England from 1816 to 1827.
As independent scholar Gail Stavitsky reports in the current edition of the Museum Bulletin, which is devoted to Gallatin, he studied law for two years, but never took the bar exam. Apparently, he never intended to practice. "I don't know why the devil I did it," he once told a friend. "I think an abstract artist is of more value to the community than a lawyer."
In 1902, Gallatin's father died, and he inherited a diversified family fortune based in part on banking. This circumstance allowed him to become a serious collector, although it took him some time to acquire the taste that would bring him such distinction.
He began collecting just before the turn of the century in a conventional way, with works by artists such as William Glackens, an American realist; the expatriate James McNeill Whistler, and the British illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. Cubism didn't move him at all during its ascendency, which makes the extent of his subsequent conversion seem all the more striking.
The first segment of the exhibition records this earliest phase of his collecting. The works are well-chosen, but not especially adventurous. A crayon drawing by Glackens and two Paris scenes are typical.
The show then moves into American watercolors, by artists such as John Marin and Charles Demuth, who has the largest representation. This group of works illustrates Gallatin's belief that "beauty, selection (and) taste . . . are the virtues that count in art."
The first section ends with two watercolors by Cezanne and a beautiful drawing of an artist on a ladder by Seurat. Gallatin believed that the achievements of these two artists could be demonstrated through their works on paper, that paintings weren't necessary. That idea permeates the entire exhibition.
Gallatin converted to modernism, and specifically to cubism, in the early 1920s. He bought his first Picasso in 1921, and between then and 1938 he traveled annually to Paris, where he acquired most of the works he would leave to the Art Museum.
The middle section of the exhibition is devoted to cubism and to collage. Here we find a magnificent still life by Juan Gris (it's on the cover of the Bulletin) and an equally imposing still life by Picasso, one of several works by him in the collection.
The middle section also includes works by Brancusi, Duchamp, Man Ray, Georges Braque, Paul Klee, and a strange, atypical drawing by Wassli
Kandinsky. One of the curiosities of Gallatin's collection is the fact that despite his devotion to non-objective abstraction he never acquired a major painting by the Russian master.
The final section of the show contains another anomaly, a group of three pictures by Max Jacob, Raoul Dufy and Maurice Utrillo, all made in the 1920s, that seem completely at odds with the thrust of the collection during that time.
The first is a mythological narrative, the second a still life and the third a static street scene. But these are more than offset with a strong sketch by Spanish sculptor Julio Gonzalez, a group of collage and ink drawings by Jean Arp and some small gouaches by Leger.
In the 1930s, Gallatin began to acquire works by members of American Abstract Artists, who espoused non-objective abstraction. The show includes a wall of representative works by George L.K. Morris, Charles Greene Shaw and others. He even began to paint in this style himself, although he never became a significant artist.
It didn't matter, because by 1927 his collection had become an institution. In that year, he installed it in donated space at New York University, calling it the Gallery of Living Art (Gallatin changed the name to Museum of Living Art in 1936).
Generally regarded as the first public museum of modern art in the United States, it remained at NYU until December 1942, when the university abruptly pulled the plug. Gallatin was informed that because of wartime austerity the university needed his space, and he would have to vacate.
The collection might have remained in New York if Gallatin hadn't harbored an animus toward the Museum of Modern Art, and if the Metropolitan Museum of Art had proposed to take the entire collection instead of only a few works. This left an opening for Fiske Kimball, then the Art Museum's director, and he made the most of it by offering Gallatin all the space he could use.
Gallatin accepted, and the collection came to Philadelphia on long-term loan in February 1943. When Gallatin died in 1952, the museum received as a bequest everything he owned except for a small group of paintings by members of American Abstract Artists that went to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass.
"A Severe Selection" - the phrase Gallatin used to characterize the refining of his taste over the years - commemorates his vision and dedication to an ideal by offering a splendid example of how the best collectors operate. It also contains dozens of first-rate works that in themselves are reason enough to see this exhibition before it closes on March 27.
IF YOU GO
* "A Severe Selection: Modern Works on Paper From the A.E. Gallatin Collection," Museum of Art, Parkway at 26th Street, to March 27; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, Wednesday to 8:45 p.m.; $6, $3 students, senior citizens and children 5-18. Free Sundays to 1 p.m.; 215-763-8100 or 215-684-7500.