Constructing a Collection: Paintings, Power, and William S. Paley

It was well known within the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) that chief executive William S. Paley would always set aside what he was working on to take a call from The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Paley’s relationship with MoMA began in 1937, just eight years after its founding, and included roles as trustee, president, and chairman. His eventual donation of his collection to the museum—an important selection of modernist art—strengthened the institution in vital ways, and is the subject of The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism, which is on view through December 30 at the de Young. Paley's relationship with MoMA was built on great generosity, and continued until his death in 1990.


William S. Paley in the foyer of his home at 820 Fifth Avenue, in front of his Pablo Picasso painting, Boy Leading a Horse (early 1906). Museum Archives Personalities Slide Collection. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

The era in which Paley thrived—a 1950s milieu of three martini lunches, secretarial pools, and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit—is often characterized as a time when business titans ran the world from their perches high above Madison Avenue and Rockefeller Center. Paley (whose own office was known as “Black Rock”) was one of the most successful of those titans, leveraging a stake in a small radio station in Philadelphia to eventually create CBS, the most powerful media company of its time. In addition to his business success, he also thrived in another, more abstract way—by creating a great art collection that allowed him to craft another aspect of his public persona.

Paley at work

William S. Paley at work

The impressive collection on display in A Taste for Modernism may hold clues about how he went about doing this, including his purchase of Andre Derain's The Rehearsal and Georges Rouault's The Clown, paintings that depict actors who adopt and play a public role to perfection. 

The Clown

Georges Rouault (French, 1871–1958). The Clown, 1907. Oil, ink, and watercolor on cut-and-pasted paper on board. 16 x 12 3/4 inches

Or, perhaps we can gain insight through Francis Bacon's Three Studies for the Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, a work that suggests we all have multiple sides to our personalities. Whatever his reasons for purchasing these specific paintings, there were other moments in his life when Paley made strategic acquisitions designed to augment his persona.

At the age of 12 he added the “S” to his name thereby giving it added gravitas. Later in life he would woo Barbara (Babe) Mortimer Cushing, a woman described by some as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” a move that earned him respect in social circles that had previously been closed to him. Maintaining this respect also sometimes required sacrifices, as when he imposed certain viewpoints on CBS to make the network best reflect what he considered the most fair and balanced view.

William and Babe Paley

William and Babe Paley

Paley’s life was full of great accomplishments, including putting some of the most celebrated shows in history on television, such as I Love Lucy, M.A.S.H., and All in the Family. His life was so full that, according to his biography, at the end of his life Paley posed this question to a close friend: “Why do I have to die?” His great collection, another side of his success, may have helped Paley to grapple with these kinds of mysterious, abstract, and unanswerable questions. Whatever his reasons for collecting them, these artworks are an enduring legacy of Paley’s patronage in the arts, and one that the de Young is thrilled to share.


Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906). Milk Can and Apples, 1879–80. Oil on canvas. 19 3/4 x 24 inches. The William S. Paley Collection. SPC6.1990

The fascinating collection of this complicated man will be on view in The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste of Modernism at the de Young through December 30, 2012.