Ambroise Vollard, the foremost Parisian art dealer of the early twentieth century and the man who gave Cezanne, Picasso, and Maillol their first one-man shows was the subjest of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The show's nearly three hundred items-prints,illustrated books, and bronzes-were all commisioned by Vollard and reveal him as the vortex of the Paris art world from the 1890's until his death in 1939.
What Vollard understood-as any successful dealer must- is that artists, in order to survive, need exposure and emotional support as much as they need money. Maillol once said, "It is thanks to Vollard that I am able to live." At a time when most dealers and critics ignored or castigated the modernists, Vollard boldly and perceptively bought their work. His gallery on the rue Lafitte became the rendezvous for the avant-garde, and an invitation to a boisterous banquet in Vollard's cellar was highly prized among fashionable aesthetes.
A shrewd businessman, Vollard bought cheap and sold dear to adventurous collectors, such as H. O. Havemeyert, Gertrude and Leo Stein, and Alfred Barnes. With this fortune Vollard launched a second career as a publisher of prints and fine illustrated books. He commissioned graphics from Maurice Denis, Odilon Redon, Degas, Rouault, Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Picasso. He also wrote biographies of his favorite artists, brought out bronze casts of sculptures by Maillol, Bonnard, Picasso, and Renoir, and found time somehow to sit for portraits.
A large, gruff, boorish fellow-who was once described as "looking like a giant ape"-he nevertheless inspired his artist friendsicasso did a cubist study of him, Bonnard painted him as a genial host, and Renoir portrayed him as a toreador. "The most beautiful woman who ever lived," Picasso said,"never had her portrait painted, drawn, or engraved more often than Vollard."
(CBS) Painter Henri Matisse called him fifi voleur — a crude way of saying thief. Paul Cezanne called him "an honest man." The relationship between artist and dealer is certainly love-hate, and Ambroise Vollard was one of the most powerful art dealers of all time.
The results of his unrivaled eye for spotting talent and making a fortune are on view for another week in "Cezanne to Picasso" at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"Monet looked at Cezanne. Degas bought Cezanne, then Picasso's given a show," one of the curators of the show, Gary Tinterow told CBS News correspondent Morley Safer. "Soon Picasso is painting like Cezanne and creating cubism. So the formation of early modern art in Paris the first years of the 20th century was very much in dialogue with what was happening in Vollard's gallery.
Vollard was born in 1866 on the island of Reunion, a French colony in the Indian Ocean. He arrived in Paris in 1887 as a law student. Between lectures he wandered the banks of the Seine, hunting the book stalls for prints and drawings — and a dealer was born.
With a small inventory, he set up shop on the rue Lafitte, a "street of pictures" he called it. Art dealers lined both sides of the boulevard. Paris at the turn of the century was the art capitol of the world, and Vollard was in the heart of it.
In 1895, at the age of 29, he mounted his first major show in Paris. He bought 150 works for next to nothing from a relatively unknown artist, Paul Cezanne. One of the painting is "The Eternal Feminine."
"We can recognize this brush stroke as something that he would use later in life, but the subject matter of this woman being celebrated by trombones it's just a riot and the kind of paintings that when people saw them gave rise to the epithet, 'Cezanne is a madman'" Tinterow said while looking at the painting with Safer
Cezanne was a madman who became a modern master almost overnight. Renoir, Monet and Matisse bought his work — and Vollard's reputation, not to mention his fortune, was made.
About 680 paintings — two-thirds of Cezanne's work — passed through Vollard's hands at double, even triple the price, and sometimes even more, like this portrait of "The Smoker." Vollard bought it in 1899 for $1,000. He sold it 10 years later for $88,000.
"I think he made purchasing difficult, and therefore people were all the more hungry to come in and get what they couldn't have," Tinterow said. "Louisine Havemeyer, the wife of the great sugar magnate, waited for an hour while Villard was chewing the fat with an artist friend of his. Finally, she tapped him and said, 'Excuse me Mr. Vollard, you know I've come to buy a Cezanne, as you know. And I have a boat.' And he turned to her imperiously and said, 'Well, madame, if you want to buy a Cezanne, there's always another boat.'"
Vollard showed off his eccentricities: He napped while collectors waited, he never showed buyers what they wanted to see, he even hid paintings in the back of his shop — but he had an extraordinary eye for talent and promotion. He gave artists one-man shows, some successful, some not, like Matisse.
In 1904, Vollard organized his first solo exhibition. It was a big disappointment. Nothing sold, not even a lovely portrait of a Musketeer painted in 1903 by Matisse. It's a work that many people wouldn't even recognize as a Matisse, Tinterow said.
"One wouldn't see Matisse's hand, except for the strange color sense here," Tinterow said while he examined the painting. "The blues and greens juxtaposed with this violet in the foreground this is Matisse avant les letters — before he had discovered his signature style."
Vollard did not buy his work, Matisse found another dealer — and soon after became a roaring success. They maintained a relationship, but were never close. The artist felt shunned by the dealer. For Vollard, Matisse represented a costly mistake.
"I think the relationship with any artist with their dealer is fraught, when one person has the money and the other one wants it," Tinterow said. "But it is clear that Vollard was not entirely forthcoming in his relationship with artists."
Artist Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin met Vollard in 1893 after he returned from his sojurn in Tahiti. Tinterow said the two never were able to agree and actually hated each other.
"And you know it's such a perfect human anecdote," he said. "Gauguin called Vollard deceitful, manipulative, basically called him a liar. And that's everything Gauguin was with Vollard."
In 1898, Vollard held an exhibition of his work. The centerpiece was this. Gauguin called it "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" It was to become his masterpiece, the signature painting of this complicated, self-destructive man.
Gauguin was furious that this painting was exhibited at Vollard. He thought it was too good to be exhibited at Vollard and wanted his friends in Paris to sell it to a serious collector.
It made Vollard a pretty profit. He sold the painting for almost double what he paid Gauguin. With Picasso, Vollard was much more accommodating partly because he knew Picasso's financial sense was as good as his aesthetic sense. As a result, their relationship lasted for decades. It began in 1901 when Vollard gave Picasso his first show.
Vollard met Picasso when the artist was only 19-years-old and had not yet made his mark in the art world, but Vollard saw something special in him.
"He (Picasso) was imitating Lautrec," Tinterow said. "He was imitating Vuillard. He was looking at Degas. He was imitating Van Gogh. He was like a magpie and taking in different aspects of the Parisian avant-garde and producing in a sense inexpensive replicas of well-known styles."
Everybody who was anybody passed through Vollard's gallery, from lesser knowns, like Rouault, to the celebrated, like Degas and Renoir, a father figure and close friend. He was the most influential art dealer in Paris, which really meant the world. A celebrated merchant whose dinner parties were legendary. He was vain. He loved to dress up. He loved to be painted.
"Picasso's phrase, you know there's so many interesting variations on this phrase, 'Never has the most beautiful woman in the history of art been painted by so many painters.' You could also say, 'Never has such an unattractive man been painted by so many great modern artists,'" Tinterow said.
There are portraits by Renoir, Bonnard, Cezanne, and this remarkable one by Picasso. It is, as Gary Tinterow calls it, one of the most glorious cubist portraits ever painted. There relationship lasted until Vollard's death.
Ambroise Vollard died in a car crash on July 22, 1939, at the age of 73. It is said he was struck in the head by a small bronze sculpture by Maillol that he kept in his car. Is there a more fitting end to the life of a dealer than death by art?