Ambroise Vollard and Important Artists and Artworks
Degas first made Vollard's acquaintance in 1894 when he attended the dealer's first exhibition. Soon after, the artist was supplying Vollard with pastels and drawings in exchange for pieces by Cézanne, Gauguin and Manet. It was only following Degas's death in 1917, however, that Vollard became aware of The Coiffure, purchasing it for 19,000 francs in a posthumous auction of Degas's works. The Coiffure is one of several paintings Degas made of women self-grooming. Speaking of the work's importance, curator Asher Ethan Miller argues that it ranks as one of the artist's "most impressive late oils [and] belongs to a series focusing on the intimate theme of women combing their hair that Degas explored in all media from the mid-1880s until the early twentieth century".
Vollard's acquisition of the painting demonstrates the efforts he made in furthering his clients' reputations beyond France. According to Miller, "Vollard tried to place works by Degas with museums outside France when he could [and it] appears to have been Vollard who made the sale [of this painting] to the Nasjonalgalleriets Venner, a group founded in 1917 and dedicated to acquiring major works for the Oslo museum". Vollard further promoted Degas's reputation by producing a series of ninety-eight reproductions of his works in 1914, which has been referred to as the "Vollard Album", and through a monograph on the artist which he published in 1924. These published works, combined with the poet Paul Valéry's 1938 treatise on the artist, secured Degas's international reputation and gave the public an insight into the life of a most private artist.
Suffering from depression (not helped by his loathing of Vollard) Gauguin was contemplating suicide when he created this masterpiece. Featuring several Tahitian women in a tropical setting, the painting reflects the stages of one's life and corresponds to the questions in the work's title; perhaps the very questions Gauguin himself was pondering in his moments of despair. Where one "comes from" can be seen in the image of the young baby resting in the far-right foreground of the painting who is at the start of her life. The struggle of what one "should become" is manifest in the figure in the center of the painting who stands arms raised above her head looking upwards as if the answer lies with God. Lastly, the question of "where one goes" at the end of one's life is explored through the wise (gray haired) woman seated in the far-left foreground.
Gauguin and Vollard's relationship was tempestuous at best; the artist even referred to his dealer as "a crocodile of the worst kind". The men had met in 1893 while Gauguin was struggling to find a dealer to take on his new Tahitian works. Vollard, then a newcomer, was (like other dealers) put off by the exotic nature of the works, though he was an admirer of Gaugin's pre-Tahitian works. In 1895, Gauguin set sail for the South Seas once more and, in desperate need of funds, he sold Vollard some of his ceramics and canvases (and some canvases by van Gogh) at bargain prices. The forced sale stuck in Gaugin's craw who, in an attempt to dispense of the future services of Vollard, left his collection in the care of friends who he hoped would sell his work to serious collectors, at their proper value, and forward him the proceeds. His plan failed and, somewhat by default, he became dependent on Vollard to market his art.
In November 1896, Vollard held an exhibition featuring some of Gauguin's Tahitian paintings. The artist was less than happy with the situation and, having completed his new series of canvases, which included Where Do We Come From?, Gauguin wrote to his friend Daniel de Monfreid in Paris in the hope he could find him a more reputable (as he saw it) dealer. It proved a forlorn wish and Gauguin was alarmed to learn that Vollard was to take charge of the exhibition which opened in the fall of 1898. Vollard had effectively "cornered the market" for Gauguin works. With no other viable options, Gauguin signed a contract with Vollard who became the artist's principal dealer. The two men fought over the future direction of Gauguin's career but this conflict stimulated the artist to explore new areas of experimentation. And despite Gauguin's profound misgivings, Vollard's dealership proved critical in supporting the artist during the latter years of his life.
This lithograph, one of thirteen in Maurice Denis's Amour series, features a woman in the front left foreground looking down as she reaches out for a pink flower with her right hand. She stands in a garden with a house partially visible in the distance. Rendered in pastel shades, the curator Cathy Leahy picked out, "the heightened colours, reductive form and emotional content of the prints [that] are characteristic of Denis's art of the 1890s and reveal his engagement with Symbolist ideas". The prints had deep personal meaning for Denis who, as curator Gloria Groom explains, conceived of the album as "a 'record of courtly engagement' to his fiancée Marthe, whom he married in 1893". She adds that Amour amounted to an "illustrated poem, insofar as each print is accompanied by evocative captions taken from the private notes of the artist, written from June 1891 through 1893". And if one is aware of the underlying motivations for the series, one is left to imagine the contemplative woman depicted in the print is probably thinking about the man she loves (Denis).
One aspect of Vollard's legacy was to revive interest in the process of lithography. According to art historian Jonathan Pascoe Pratt and museum director Douglas Druick, early on in his career, "Vollard became interested in the idea of commissioning and publishing original prints by contemporary artists", and, in a move that lent them greater status (and commercial value), he insisted that his painters make their own prints rather than having the work done by professional engravers. Denis's work provides a prime example of the prints Vollard commissioned and, in Leahy's opinion, this suite of lithographs in particular, was "one of the great print albums produced in Paris in the 1890s".