In 1913, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art embraced Modern Art by purchasing a painting at the famous Armory Show exhibition. It was a landscape by the French master, Paul Cézanne. Now, nearly a century later, the Metropolitan Museum is hosting a new exhibition paying tribute to the visionary art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, who rescued Cézanne from obscurity and helped ignite the artistic revolution centered on Paris in the years before World War I.
“Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde” recounts on an ambitious scale the vital contributions Vollard made to the development of modern culture. The first dealer to mount exhibitions of the work of Vincent Van Gogh, he paid an allowance and supplied art supplies to Paul Gauguin during that painter’s impoverished final years in the South Pacific and he was an early champion of the career of Pablo Picasso.
Vollard was a larger than life figure in many ways. A physically intimidating, bearish man, by turns reticent and voluble, he often dozed – or appeared to – while clients examined the art on display in his gallery. His dinner parties in the hot, humid cellar below his shop were famous, yet much about Vollard’s lifestyle confounded popular conceptions of the revolutionary art of the “School of Paris.”
Vollard’s gallery on the Rue Lafitte, the “street of pictures” as it was known because of the number of art galleries located there, figured prominently in the radical changes that swept through the art world during the 1890’s and early twentieth century. Here, thanks to his inspired combination of cultural insight and business acumen, the work of Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and a host of other “outsider” artists were showcased, changing forever the way that art is perceived and presented.
“Cézanne to Picasso” is organized to reflect the series of pivotal exhibitions mounted by Vollard. For the most part, individual artists have galleries devoted exclusively to the works that Vollard presented. Vollard, who narrowly missed meeting Van Gogh in life, was the first to organize exhibitions of the Dutch painter in 1895 and a fuller presentation a year later. Three years later came an exhibition of Gauguin’s paintings from Tahiti, followed in 1901 with the first French exhibition of Pablo Picasso and the first solo showing of Henri Matisse’s work in 1904.
Vollard’s 1895 exhibition of 150 paintings by Paul Cézanne was the turning point of both their careers. The Metropolitan’s exhibition, with 24 works by Cézanne on display, highlights this relationship which transformed the reclusive Provencal painter from a forgotten ex-Impressionist to the “Father of Modern Art.” Vollard was drawn to Cézanne from the start of his career, purchasing five of his paintings for 900 francs when he had but 300. It proved to be a very good investment, but Vollard really deserves high marks for his daring, as he was just about the only person buying Cézanne’s work at the time.
It needs to be underscored that when Vollard opened his gallery in 1893, there was still violent opposition in French academic circles to the work of Claude Monet and the Impressionists, whose paintings had already gained favor with foreign, especially American, collectors. In his memoirs, Vollard leaves little doubt about the disregard of wide segments of French society for innovative art, contrasting the conventional, often petty and churlish, attitude of his countrymen with the open-minded acceptance of Russian and German collectors. One of the paintings on display in the Metropolitan’s exhibition, Emile Bernard’s “Breton Landscape,” was actually returned by its first owner, the proprietor of a hotel, because patrons threw hunks of bread at it when it was hung in the hotel’s dining room.
Bernard’s graceful evocation of peasant life, painted in 1888, is now part of the collection of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. But the eventual triumph of such post-Impressionist works of art leaves unanswered the vital question of why Vollard embraced them to begin with. It certainly was not just a matter of “buying low, selling high,” though Vollard would indeed become a master of this technique.
In some ways, a painting by Pierre Bonnard on display in “Cézanne to Picasso” is the key to understanding the inner life of Vollard and the cultural background to the artistic revolution he helped to foment.
The painting entitled “The Terrasse Family” dates from around 1902. It shows an extended family relaxing on a summer afternoon, a seemingly mundane topic. A closer look at Bonnard’s work, however, reveals a far different emotional landscape. The scene is more like a visitor’s lounge at a hospital or sanitarium. Each figure inhabits a detached place on the canvas, separated both spatially and emotionally from the others. The air of tension, of suppressed anxiety, is tangible. Two children reach out toward each other, yet their embrace is barred by the dark space between them.
The sole act of intimacy in this unsettling portrait of family alienation is the most alarming element of all, as a grandmother or elderly aunt peers directly into a young child’s face like a doctor examining a patient. In front of this pair is an empty chair, directly in the center of the painting.
Bonnard’s family group represents the rigid, repressive society of late 19th century Europe. The empty chair symbolizes the place left behind by the avant-garde artists and writers, Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Gauguin and so many others, who tried to evade the constricting grasp of middle class respectability for a new way of seeing and living. No work of art better illuminates the urgent need to embrace new and exotic cultural talismans – the folkways of Breton peasants, Japanese prints and African masks – by the generation of artists represented by Vollard in his shop on the Rue Laffitte.
It also, I believe, explains Vollard’s own life path.
Vollard was born on the Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, almost as remote from France as Gauguin’s tropical retreat on Tahiti. La Reunion was an outpost of the French Empire and the social code by which he was reared made few concessions to non-French cultures. In his memoirs, he writes:
Surrounded as it was by foreign elements . . . the white population took the
greatest care to maintain its racial integrity and traditions. The children were
brought up with the strictest vigilance.
How ironic, given his conventional French upbringing, that Vollard should have served as Gauguin’s agent during his last troubled years in Tahiti. Or rather, is it not appropriate that Vollard should have done so?
Gauguin’s greatest painting, “Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where Are We Going?” dates from the period of his self-exile in the South Pacific. Vollard displayed it in his 1898 Gauguin exhibition and it is one of the keynote works of art in “Cézanne to Picasso.” It depicts the life cycle of Polynesian women in a style that combines the natural rhythms of life with alluring sensuality. Gauguin’s painting evokes the emotions that are rigorously suppressed in Bonnard’s ‘Terrasse Family,” the values that late 19th century Western society tried to deny its young and which they so readily embraced when given the opportunity.
Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903)
Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Oil on canvas, 54-3/4 x 147-1/2 in. (139.1 x 374.6 cm)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Tompkins Collection––Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund (36.270)
Photo credit: Photograph © 2006 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
For Vollard, that opportunity came when he went to study law in Paris, where he earned his legal degree in 1888. Dabbling in the art scene interested him far more. Like his contemporaries, Henri Matisse and Vasily Kandinsky, he abandoned a career in law for art, though unlike them, he chose to sell rather than create it.
Vollard’s “Memoirs of a Picture Dealer” describe his transformation into a professional art dealer in some detail. The book is chatty and anecdotal, however, giving little insight into his inner being. There is one revealing passage that shows how his childhood experiences set the stage for his choice of profession. Vollard recalled seeing a striking image of horses on a crumpled magazine page that had been used to pack an object sent to the local museum on La Reunion. Years later, he saw the same picture. It was one of the fabled paintings of horses by Edgar Degas, whose work he displayed in his gallery. Vollard got along well with the often testy and difficult Degas, later writing a biography of him, as he would do for Cézanne and Pierre Renoir as well.
Vollard’s colonial childhood fathered his career as one of the luminaries of the Parisian art world. But he combined a sharp head for business, along with his preference for artists ignored or rejected by the academic establishment. Although he came close to bankruptcy on at least one occasion, Vollard seldom lowered his prices to gain a quick sale or please a client. In one case, he demanded that one patron, who wished to exchange a previously purchased painting by Cézanne for a newer work, pay an additional fee since the price for a Cézanne had gone up in value!
Vollard became a very wealthy man from his astute handling of the art market. The overall sensation evoked by examining the works on display in “Cézanne to Picasso,” however, is one of awe at his grasp and appreciation of the creative talent of artists spurned, at least initially, by the rest of the art world. Each of the more than 100 paintings included in the Metropolitan show, along with several sculptures and an imposing display of prints, were either sold, commissioned or exhibited by Vollard. And these of course are but a mere fraction of the art works he handled.
But what a sampling of his genius and of the artists he represented! Many of the most significant works of modern art grace the galleries of “Cézanne to Picasso.” These include Cézanne’s “Three Bathers” which the struggling young Matisse bought to help inspire his art, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night over the Rhone” and his portrait of Dr. Felix Ray, Andre Derain’s vivid depictions of London which Vollard commissioned in 1906 and the Cubist portrait of Vollard by Picasso, lent to the Metropolitan Museum by the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
Vollard’s interest in avant-garde art waned around the time of World War I. He continued to favor the works of the glittering company of post-Impressionists he had championed in the pre-war decades. Picasso and Matisse chose other agents and Vollard ignored the Dada artists and Surrealists during the war’s aftermath.
He concentrated his efforts on writing and the publication of exquisite prints and limited edition books, some of them illustrated by Picasso. By the time of his death in a tragic automobile accident during the summer of 1939, Vollard had long ceased to be the impresario of anti-establishment art. He had become, rather, a modern icon himself, the subject of portraits by Cézanne, Bonnard, Renoir and Picasso that almost invariably depict him dosing in his chair.
The Metropolitan Museum’s magnificent exhibition, which runs to January 7 and then moves to the Art Institute of Chicago, leaves little doubt about the power of Vollard’s artistic insight. Ambroise Vollard was a man who knew a masterpiece when he saw one and his vision, beneath his drooping, sleepy eyelids, saw very far indeed.