The Visionary Dealer Behind the Avant-Garde

By Souren Melikian International Herald Tribune
Published: October 20, 2006

NEW YORK To those who have never been hunters tracking down art and shooting with their own money, the dealers' world remains opaque, even suspicious. The show "Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde" on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until Jan. 7, proves the rule.

The misunderstandings mixed with thinly disguised hostility that come across some of the essays in the book edited by Rebecca Rabinow are striking. Vollard was one of the greatest dealers of the modern age. His arrival on the art scene coincided with a radical change in Western culture. For the first time in its history, a rift separated traditional artists from revolutionaries who advocated a new way of perceiving the world and new methods of painting. Adhering to the revolutionary side implied considerable commercial risks.

Had Vollard not been an outsider, he might have hesitated at the thought of plunging into the fray.

He came from another world, the French colonial possession of the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. His background left him with a deep hostility to colonialism and the establishment that promoted it.

Vollard arrived in Paris in 1887 at age 21 to continue law studies that he had started in southern France. By the time he passed his first law degree exam, the student was bored stiff while the art he discovered in the capital riveted him. The young man spent more time browsing around small shops to pick up prints and resell them at a small profit than poring over legal niceties. Around 1891, he was briefly employed by a dealer selling academic art that he loathed, and within a year he dropped out of university to turn to dealing.

The first pictures Vollard bought included a Renoir and a Caillebotte. In his first selling show put together in January 1894, the paintings carried the names of Gauguin, Guillaumin, Sisley and Odilon Redon, then familiar only to a narrow circle of artistic dissidents.

Shortly after, Vollard bought a batch of drawings and oil studies by Manet from the painter's widow, Suzanne. The suggestion made in the book that he was a predator is laughable. No one else was banging on Suzanne Manet's door and the impecunious dealer was making a daring investment. That he eventually sold them brilliantly is another matter.

He certainly did not specialize in exploiting weak victims. On June 2, 1894, Vollard, sitting at the Hôtel Drouot where the pictures of a paint seller, Julien Tanguy, were being auctioned off, spent 845 francs. He bought four Cézannes, one Gauguin, van Gogh's admirable oil study of boots (which is now in the Baltimore Museum of Art), one Pissarro and one Piotr Korochinsky. The latter is the only artist who would remain obscure - but then his work cost only seven francs.

When recounting the subsequent fate of the pictures in a chapter on Vollard and his clients, Anne Roquebert notes the markups that varied enormously. These evidently reflected the dealer's opinion of the aesthetic value of the paintings and possibly the quality of the relationship he wished to establish with the buyer. Cézanne's "Village," bought for 175 francs, was resold for 250 francs to a Monsieur Charles Loeser while "Corner of a Village," acquired for 215 francs, was resold within three weeks to another dealer for 800 francs. The wonderful "Pair of Boots" cost Vollard a mere 30 francs. Its next port of call, alas, is not known.

So bold were the dealer's acquisitions that the auctioneer, impressed, congratulated him and allowed him to carry them off before they were fully paid.

The dealer did not just have a sharp eye for art. He had a knack for discovering clients. His first successful deals involved the Manet sketches, which he sold to artists. To acquire them, Degas, Gauguin, Guillaumin, Pissarro and Renoir swapped some of their own works, which then formed the basis of a new stock for Vollard. After the artists came a dentist, Georges Viau, and a former attorney, Gustave Cahen.

The modern artists were even keener on Cézanne. Pissarro exchanged an early picture of his for three sketches. Degas is described by Roquebert as "an intense and relentless buyer."

But no one admired Cézanne more than Vollard himself. Here again, the essay writers are rather dismissive. Robert Jensen, in his chapter on "Vollard and Cézanne," reckons that Vollard realized the importance of Cézanne's work under the influence of his fellow painters, the Impressionists.

There is no evidence to that effect. Given Vollard's strong aesthetic views, this is unlikely. The first large scale show he put together, in November- December 1895, dealt with Cézanne, whose work was not to be seen anywhere in Paris. His name was familiar only to a handful of modern artists. Yet, even they were stunned by Vollard's show as is clear from a letter written by Pissarro to his son Lucien. Cézanne was launched among avant-garde collectors.

Jensen writes disapprovingly about Vollard's massive acquisition of Cézanne's works in the next few years. "Vollard emptied the artist's studio in Aix of most of the great cache of paintings that Gasquet had seen stored there - a stockpiling that eventually made Vollard's fortune." But Vollard did not hold Cézanne at gunpoint, nor was the painter a gullible fool.

John Rewald, cited by Jensen, estimated in his catalogue raisonné of Cézanne's ?uvre, that 678 of his oil paintings, more than two-thirds of the recorded total, passed through Vollard's hands. That makes it hard to doubt the sincerity of Vollard's convictions.

The Cézanne room in the show certainly confirms Vollard's unfailing eye for Cézanne's greatest paintings. He once owned the self-portrait dating from 1882 or 1883, on loan from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The intensity of the self-scrutiny calls to mind Rembrandt's own likenesses of himself. The dealer acquired the famous "Card Players," now owned by the Musée d'Orsay.

In 1907, a year after Cézanne's death, Vollard bought together with the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune what is perhaps Cézanne's ultimate masterpiece, "Château Noir," done in 1905 in rythmic square patches. Many years later, he became its sole owner and sold it to Picasso. That posthumous homage does not exactly smack of exploitation.

As visitors move to the van Gogh room that comes after the Cézanne display, they are hit by the overwhelming power of Vollard's choices. In 1896, the dealer included the magic "Starry Night" in his second van Gogh show. He had it on consignment but was forced to return it to the Netherlands - no one wanted it. There was no media response to the show, which also included "L'Arlésienne," bought by Vollard in 1895 for 70 francs, and the equally striking "Woman Rocking a Cradle." Both are now in the Met.

Indeed, what makes the show fascinating is the clarity with which Vollard's aesthetic vision comes across. He felt huge admiration for the strain in Picasso's early work that anticipates Expressionism and effectively launched his career.

Consistent with this approach, Vollard sought out the greatest Fauves. Half a dozen of the most powerful Fauve works to be seen anywhere are in the fourth room of the show, which is devoted to the movement: André Derain's "Houses of Parliament at Night [in London]" and his "Charing Cross Bridge" of 1906, bought by Vollard within weeks of their completion, and Maurice de Vlaminck's ultimate masterpiece "Harvest," which turned up at Sotheby's London last year and is now in a U.S. collection.

Was it really megalomania, as dark hints would have us believe, that induced Vollard to have himself portrayed by Cézanne, Picasso, Renoir and others? I doubt it. By the early 20th century, the dealer, who was now rich, was also locked up in his solitude.

In an introductory biographical outline, Ann Dumas characterizes Vollard as "a profoundly secretive man" who "remains an enigma." But, until recently, all dealers (and collectors) were "secretive." The rules of the game demanded it. You did not say where you bought, from whom, for how much, nor what you planned to do. As for "communication," those who love art with a passion do not blab. Silence is the homage that contemplation pays to art.


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