A renowned collection of 20th-century European art considered by many to be one of the strongest in private hands has been bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Natasha Gelman, who died on Saturday in Cuernavaca, Mexico, gave the museum the entire trove of 85 works by Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Balthus, Modigliani and two dozen other masters that she had amassed with her husband, Jacques, over the last 50 years. The gift, whose value is estimated at $300 million or more, vastly upgrades and fills many holes in the Metropolitan's collection. It adds the first Matisse paper cutout to the museum's holdings as well as the first paintings by Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti; Matisse's "Young Sailor II," perhaps the most famous Fauve portrait, and a 1906 Picasso self-portrait that once belonged to Gertrude Stein.
"It is the most important gift ever to the 20th-century department and in fact one of the most important gifts to any department in the museum," said Philippe de Montebello, the Met's director, in a telephone interview from Paris, where he received news of the bequest. Mrs. Gelman, an honorary trustee of the museum, was 86 when she died. [Obituary, page D23.]
"This exponentially transforms the collection of 20th-century art in its most classical and critical period," Mr. de Montebello said. "It's a sensational group of works."
Jacques Gelman, who died in 1986, made his fortune producing the films of Cantinflas, the renowned Mexican comedian. He and his wife were indefatigable collectors. Focusing on the School of Paris -- the modernist painters who made the City of Light the center of the art world beginning in the early part of this century -- the Gelmans pursued works of the highest quality.
They often got them even though they had to wait years. When their collection was on view at the Metropolitan for three and a half months beginning in December 1989, John Russell, then the chief art critic of The New York Times, wrote: "Even where the work is modest in scale and almost diffident in its expression, the Gelman collection has customarily a direct line to the very center of the artist's work."
Almost all of the paintings, drawings and bronzes "stand for the School of Paris in its heyday," Mr. Russell added.
The Gelman collection starts with a bronze sculpture by Degas from the turn of the century and ends with a triptych self-portrait by Bacon from 1980. A litany of the couple's holdings sounds something like the "Twelve Days of Christmas" -- 14 Picassos, 9 Matisses, 9 Miros, 5 Bonnards, 4 Braques, 3 Legers, 3 Grises, 3 Tanguys, 2 Balthuses, 2 Vlamincks and single works by Renoir, Vuillard, Mondrian and Ernst, among others.
Landing at the Metropolitan all at once, "they change the complexion of the collection entirely," said William S. Lieberman, the chairman of the Met's 20th-century art department.
Indeed, Mr. Lieberman had trouble picking out the Gelmans' best works. "There are too many icons in the collection," he said, before starting off by naming the Matisse sailor portrait, his "View of Collioure" and his "Snow Flowers," a "magnificent" paper cutout from 1951.
Mr. Lieberman also cited Braque's "Still Life With Banderillas" and Picasso's "Still Life With a Bottle of Rum," both executed in 1911, when the two artists collaborated most closely in creating Cubism. Then, from 1924, there are Braque's "Still Life With Guitar" and Picasso's "Still Life With a Cake," which show how their Cubist ideas had progressed and diverged.
Among the other highlights are "The Accommodations of Desires," an important work by Dali inspired by sexual anxieties that was pivotal in the evolution of Surrealism; "Therese Dreaming," a portrayal of adolescence by Balthus; "The Potato" by Miro, once described as "a grandiose effigy of the Earth Mother"; "The Dining Room," a colorful, sumptuous interior by Bonnard, and a Fauve portrait of the artist Andre Derain by Vlaminck that Mr. Lieberman termed "sensational."
Mr. de Montebello, too, could barely contain his enthusiasm for many works in the Gelman collection, including the Braques, Picassos and "the great Matisse sailor."
"And I have always been impressed by the cluster of Miros," he said. "They are fantastic works by Miro, and now in one fell swoop we could have a mini-retrospective of Miro." The Miro works span the years from 1917 to 1949.
The bequest by Mrs. Gelman was promised to the Metropolitan when Mr. Lieberman arranged to show the collection at the museum in 1989. "A lot of the credit for this bequest should go to Bill," Mr. de Montebello said. "It was Bill who nurtured for decades a friendship with Natasha Gelman."
Mr. Lieberman said he met the Gelmans in the early 1950's, when he was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art organizing a Miro exhibition. They became good friends, although Mr. Lieberman said he suggested only a few of their purchases, like the Bacon and a Picasso drawing of Dora Maar, one of his longtime mistresses.
When Mr. Lieberman left the Modern for the Metropolitan in 1980, "one of the first collectors I took Philippe to see was the Gelmans," he said. And when the couple endowed the Jacques and Natasha Gelman curatorship of pre-World War II 20th-century art in 1990, Mr. Lieberman assumed the title.
For years, the Gelmans enjoyed their paintings in their Manhattan apartments, on Central Park South and later on Park Avenue and 65th Street. But since 1994, when Mrs. Gelman began to spend almost all of her time at her house in Cuernavaca, most of the works have been on loan to the Met and in storage there.
Neither Mr. Lieberman nor Mr. de Montebello could say exactly when the Gelman collection will go on view. When it does, the works will hang in the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Gallery, the westernmost area of the ground floor of the museum's Lila Acheson Wallace Wing for 20th-century art. The Gelman collection was displayed there in 1989, and the gallery is now frequently used for special exhibitions.
In her will, Mrs. Gelman specified that the artworks had to be kept together, exhibited as a single collection and not integrated into the rest of the Metropolitan's works.
The Gelmans also had a collection of Mexican art, which will go to a Mexican museum, said Janet Neschis, the executor of Mrs. Gelman's estate. The beneficiary has not been decided, she said.
Photos: Matisse's "Young Sailor II" (1906) is part of a bequest to the Met. (Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection)(pg. A1); "Therese Dreaming" (1938) features Balthus's trademarks: a girl, a cat and dormant sexuality. Salvador Dali, in love with a married woman, wrote that the lions' heads in "The Accommodations of Desires," (1929) envision a "terrorizing" future. "Still Life With a Guitar" (1924) is a maverick in Georges Braque's series of "Gueridons," which usually show round cafe tables. Francis Bacon's disdain for "literal" painting shows in "Three Studies for a Self-Portrait" (1979-80). Creatures flutter and a small potato sprouts three tendrils in "The Potato," (Summer 1928) by Joan Miro. Pierre Bonnard's "Dining Room, Vernonnet," (circa 1916) transforms the plain surroundings in which he actually lived into the sumptuous decor of his invention. Pablo Picasso painted "Self-Portrait" (Autumn, 1906) at age 25 after returning to Paris from a visit to Spain. (Photographs by Malcolm Varon/Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection)(pg. B6)