My Favorite Modern Masters
I'll never know how it felt to be a guest of Babe Paley's and sit in her ravishing taxicab-yellow drawing room. But for a few weeks I was inches away from one of her husband's prized possessions: Picasso's Boy Leading a Horse, 1905-06.
During the High's exhibition, Picasso: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, I was frequently stationed by the painting for cocktail parties, ready to greet guests and answer questions. Often times there were patches when it was just me, the Picasso, and a security guard.
Bunny Williams has written often in various books and magazines about how, as a young design assistant working for Parish-Hadley, she was staggered to see the Picasso in the entry when she delivered samples to the Paleys'. And when she entered their famous yellow room with its lacquered walls and Paul Gauguin's The Seed of the Areoi hanging between two Oriental screens, she thought it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
As you probably already know, Sister Parish surprised everyone by advising taxicab-yellow as a backdrop for the Paleys' stellar art collection -- cream was the expected choice. The risk paid off and the room became one of the most celebrated mid-century interiors. Today it often pops up on top ten lists of the most memorable rooms. It's definitely in my top two.
Of course, there is another iconic mid-century yellow room. Nancy Lancaster's "buttah yellow" has inspired countless home owners such as Julia Reed, below.
Still, there is something about the Paleys' room that makes it a quintessentially 20th century masterpiece. (Even though it is filled with serious antiques.) The answer probably always comes back to the art -- all the best of the modern era up to that point -- but the tailored brown sofas and unfussy batik fabrics are also a fresh foil for the formal pieces.
No doubt I'm a pushover for the Paley residence because their art collection encompassed works from my favorite artists, and I have happy memories of the exhibitions, Matisse: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art and Picasso: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art. A highlight of those shows was Kirk Varnedoe's talk. He was an amazing speaker (and my all-time favorite Charlie Rose guest). If you ever have an hour or two to spare, check the Rose archives for past episodes that featured Savannah native and art historian Varnedoe speaking so eloquently about the modern era. He was fast paced and illuminating.
The Picasso and Gauguin are currently in MOMA's collection. Image one at top is from Sister, St. Martin's Press, images two and three are from Albert Hadley, Rizzoli, image four is from Designers on Designers, McGraw Hill, Julia Reed collaborated with Thomas Jayne as seen in Southern Charm