Notebook, 1993-


Dealer Ambroise Vollard

ART - September 17, 2006 - Los Angeles Times

"Surrounded by beauty"

Dealer Ambroise Vollard saw what he wanted and pursued it. His vision, studied in a new show, was quite Modern -- By Barbara Isenberg, Special to The Times

WHEN student Ambroise Vollard first saw a Cézanne painting in a Paris dealer's window, he regretted bitterly that he couldn't afford it. "I thought to myself how nice it must be to be a picture dealer," he wrote later. "Spending one's life among beautiful things like that."

Vollard, who within a few years did indeed become a picture dealer, soon lacked neither beautiful things nor interesting people around him. In 1895, he hosted the first major exhibition of Paul Cézanne's work. He gave Pablo Picasso his first Paris show in 1901 and Henri Matisse his first solo exhibition in 1904. He bought up entire studios of artists he admired, wrote books about Cézanne and Edgar Degas, published lush illustrated books and prints, and frequently hosted chicken curry suppers in his fabled gallery cellar.

Success came early to Vollard, just 27 when he opened shop on Paris' Rue Laffitte. To pull off his landmark Cézanne show just two years later, he first queried paint-sellers to get the reclusive artist's old studio address, then called on former neighbors to get his new one. When he eventually learned where Cézanne lived, he approached the artist's son first. He got his pictures --an achievement that brought as much attention to Vollard as to the artist. Cézanne purchases at that first show were made by, among others, Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro.

Cézannes from Vollard's 1895 exhibition are at the heart of "Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde," which opened Thursday and continues through Jan. 7 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jointly organized by the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago and Paris' Musée d'Orsay and Réunion des Musées Nationaux, the exhibition brings together more than 100 paintings, plus prints, sculpture, illustrated books and other works.

"There are amazing pictures in the exhibition, but they have to have a double whammy," says Rebecca Rabinow, associate curator of 19th century, Modern and contemporary art at the Met. "They all were owned, commissioned or passed through Vollard's gallery. We also really tried to narrow down our choices by picking works that were either purchased from Vollard by contemporary artists or important collectors, because part of Vollard's importance is that his gallery ended up being a place where people could come away seeing art they couldn't necessarily see anywhere else."

Born in 1866 on La Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean, Vollard was the oldest of 10 children and came to France to study law. As he later wrote in his autobiography, "Recollections of a Picture Dealer," he soon moved to Paris, bought drawings and engravings at book stalls along the Seine and started thinking bigger. When Vollard mounted his Cézanne show in 1895, says Rabinow, "Cézanne was completely forgotten. He'd exhibited in Paris, then gone back to the South of France and holed up there; no one, not even his friends, had seen his work. Vollard got these things that no one had seen, and it was a revelation. It's really because of that show that Cézanne's reputation and the market for Cézanne took off."

Vollard was also intimately involved in the promotion of Picasso, adds Stephanie Barron, chief curator of Modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has loaned Paul Gauguin's 1889 painting "The Red Cow" to the Met show. "It's a wonderful opportunity to focus on a dealer who was so important for artists at the turn of the century," says Barron.

Exhibition co-curator Ann Dumas, a London-based art historian, describes Vollard as "a mountain of a man, well over 6 feet tall, with heavy-lidded eyes and a slight lisp." Dumas, who first suggested the exhibition to the Met, also quotes Gertrude Stein's observation, in "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," of Vollard as "a huge dark man glooming. This was Vollard cheerful." Essays in the exhibition catalog document Vollard's eccentric ways: napping in his shop in view of collectors, keeping as important a collector as Louisine Havemeyer waiting so long that she missed her boat back to the U.S., declining to let potential buyers see paintings they'd come to see. "He was also sort of erratic as a communicator, silent for long times, then bursting into voluble passages of conversation," Dumas adds.

Vollard was also a classic example of right place, right time. Important artists were in and out of his gallery buying, selling and trading paintings, and collectors followed. He never spoke a foreign language, says exhibition co-curator Gloria Groom, curator of 19th century European painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, yet he soon attracted an important international crowd of Russians, Germans, Americans and other collectors. He also apparently knew how to seduce both artist and collector. His nearly indecipherable diary jottings include purchases of rum for artists, and the mingling of artists and buyers in Vollard's cellar is illustrated in the exhibition by Pierre Bonnard's 1907 painting "Dinner at Vollard's," on loan from a private collection.

The exhibition also includes several early Matisse paintings thought to be in Vollard's 1904 exhibition, among them "View of the Bois de Boulogne" from Russia's Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. When Vollard gave the then-unknown Matisse his first solo exhibition, says Rabinow, "nothing sold, he didn't buy anything, and later Matisse went with another dealer. You just wonder, if Vollard had gone out on a limb and bought something from him in 1904, if that whole relationship would have changed. Matisse is his biggest missed opportunity."

The Paris-based Vollard archives, given to the French government by Vollard's heirs in 1989 in lieu of estate taxes, provide much of the research underpinning of the exhibition. The archives have been available to scholars for only about 10 years, says Rabinow, adding that it took more than a year to get permission for the in-depth access the exhibition required. Less extensive Vollard materials also exist at other institutions, including the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. "By both dealing in and publishing works of art, Vollard was the major art dealer in Paris of the late 19th and early 20th century," says JoAnne Paradise, senior collections curator at the institute. "He introduced the small-dealer art market as we know it today."

Yet many Vollard records remain missing. When Vollard died in 1939, his estate became immersed in several lawsuits, and Rabinow says existing documents "are often both incomplete and very confusing. Only after years and years of looking at these things have we started to make sense of them."

Although the show does not include documents, the exhibition's hefty catalog, with its 22 essays, discusses Vollard's relationship with individual artists, his international webs of collectors, his passion for prints and artist books, his way with a franc.

Many collections, public and private, were tapped for the show. The Van Gogh gallery, which includes works from two Vollard exhibitions, reunites three 1887 paintings Rabinow proposes may originally have been shown as a triptych. "Banks of the Seine With Pont de Clichy in the Spring" came from the Dallas Museum of Art, "Fishing in Spring, the Pont de Clichy (Asnières)" from the Art Institute of Chicago and "Woman in a Garden" from a private collection. All were painted the same summer in Paris and have almost identical dimensions and red borders, says Rabinow.

The Cézanne gallery includes loans from Russia's Hermitage and Pushkin museums as well as the Met's own "View of the Domaine Saint-Joseph," billed as "the first Cézanne work to enter an American museum," in 1913. Central to the show's Gauguin gallery is the artist's masterpiece, "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?," on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and included in Vollard's 1898 Gauguin exhibition.

A short black-and-white silent film features Renoir and Vollard looking at a painting and sharing a cigarette, and the exhibition includes portraits of Vollard by such artists as Bonnard, Cézanne, Renoir and Picasso. Picasso is also the subject of the final gallery, which includes several paintings from Vollard's 1901 Picasso show as well as the prized Suite Vollard, an edition of 100 etchings that Vollard commissioned from Picasso in the late '20s.

"Any scholar who comes to this exhibition will be able to find out new information about the pictures on view," says Rabinow, "while people who barely know the names Picasso and Cézanne are going to come in and be wowed by the quality and depth of work presented. But this isn't just a greatest hits show. I think it will change how people look at Modern art."

(Los Angeles Times - September 17, 2006)



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