Issue Number: 92
Edmund Fawcett salutes the star-studded collection of a pioneering art dealer
The Parisian dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866–1939) is an inspired theme for an autumn exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In a remarkable demonstration of borrowing power, it displays what Vollard contributed to modern art with more than 100 works by artists he promoted, including Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse.
Pablo Picasso, Ambroise Vollard, 1910 Vollard was an art dealer of an entirely new type. He did not trade in Old Masters or existing collections, but sold the work of living painters and sculptors, preferring those who were not yet known or understood. He came on the scene when artists were beginning to sell exclusively through dealers, and he won the loyalty of the very best with a mixture of his eye, guile and love. Vollard got his artists good prices, backed them financially when they weren’t selling and, through exposure, helped win them aesthetic vindication. To do that, he combined patronage with tastemaking, jobs that wealthy collectors and knowledgable agents had before done separately.
Vollard’s firsts include his path-breaking Cézanne show (1895), his Van Gogh retrospective (1896), the first French exhibition for Picasso (1901) and Matisse’s first solo show (1904). Soon after, Vollard sent Derain to London to brighten the Thames in a series of dazzling riverscapes. All are on show in New York, as are many of Vollard’s other artists, including Bonnard, Gauguin, Maillol and Renoir. There are examples of the art publishing to which Vollard later turned, as well as the Vollard Suite, 100 classical-erotic etchings he commissioned from Picasso in the 1930s.
Sharp-tongued Picasso joked that Vollard sat for portraits more often than the most beautiful woman. On show are Renoir’s of him as a matador, Bonnard’s with a cat, Cézanne’s with a book (even after 115 sittings, the demanding, self-critical painter complained he was happy only with the shirt-front) and Picasso’s cubist portrait of 1910 (above), which conjures the dealer’s dominating brow out of a ziggurat of jagged lines and intersecting planes.
A large, bear-like man from the Indian Ocean island of Réunion – then, as now, a département of France – Vollard had a broad wit and a nose for gossip, as readers of his small book on Cézanne (1915) or his Recollections of a Picture Dealer (1936) will know. In a basement dining room, he entertained painters and clients at his gallery on the Rue Laffitte, close by the Drouot auction rooms. Bonnard painted the convivial scene, with the sleepy-eyed host at the end of the table pouring wine. Like the show in which it too figures, this wry, affectionate image evokes Vollard and his world delightfully.
Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (+1 212 535 7710), 14 Sep–7 Jan