Ambroise Vollard and Important Artists and Artworks
The Coiffure (1892-95)
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.
Oil on canvas - Collection of The National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design, Oslo, Norway
Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-98)
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.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Morning Bouquet, Tears, plate 3 from Amour (Love) (1898, published 1899)
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".
Color lithograph - Collection of The Art Institute of Chicago
Ambroise Vollard (1899)
The art historian Robert Jensen highlighted the historical significance of Vollard and Cézanne's partnership when he observed that Cézanne "was the first important French artist to forge his reputation within the context of a commercial gallery rather than through public art exhibitions". Indeed, Vollard's Cézanne exhibition of 1895 made the artist's name overnight. The event also sealed a professional relationship that would make Vollard a wealthy man and set Cézanne on the path to becoming one of the most influential painters in the history of modern art.
Vollard was known to be a shrewd businessman who was often accused of exploiting his artists. Unlike Gauguin, however, Cézanne was happy to enter into a contract with Vollard (he would in fact handle about two-thirds of Cézanne's entire output over the course of his career) to whom he attributed his success. Indeed, he described the dealer as a "sincere man".
Cézanne's portrait features Vollard dressed in a brown suit and bow tie, seated with one leg crossed over the other and his hands resting in his lap. He wears a serious expression and the portrait is rendered through the loose, strong brushwork that are so characteristic of Cézanne's style. Seven years after it was created, the art critic J.F. Schnerb saw the painting on display in Vollard's shop, praised it as "very complete, very solid" and wondered what other modern portrait was fit to "be hung at its side?". Several artists painted portraits of Vollard, but Cézanne's is probably the first and is the only one known to have been commissioned by the dealer. It was in fact treasured by Vollard who, by Dumas's account, held on to it until his death and duly "bequeathed it to the Musée du Petit Palais" (one of only a few works from Vollard's vast collection specifically designated by name in his will).
Oil on canvas - Collection of Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Paris
Homage to Cézanne (1900)
Homage to Cézanne is a visualization of the process of viewing a painting. The Musée d'Orsay described the picture's setting as follows: "Maurice Denis has assembled a group of friends, artists and critics, in the shop of the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, to celebrate Paul Cézanne, who is represented by the still life on the easel. This painting, Fruit Bowl, Glass and Apples [1879-80] had belonged to Paul Gauguin, who is also evoked among the tutelary examples to whom Denis is paying homage. Effectively, a painting by Gauguin and another by Renoir can be made out in the background. Odilon Redon is also given pride of place: he is shown in the foreground on the far left and most of the figures are looking at him. He is listening to Paul Sérusier who is standing in front of him. From left to right, we can recognise Edouard Vuillard, the critic André Mellerio in a top hat, Vollard behind the easel, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Pierre Bonnard smoking a pipe, and lastly Marthe Denis, the painter's young wife".
Vollard had acquired three pieces by Denis in 1893 and, through him, became closely associated with a group of avant-gardist who went by the name Nabis (the Hebrew word for "prophet"). The Nabis, made up of Denis, Bonnard and Vuillard (all pictured here) were active between 1892 and 1899 and were devotees of Gauguin; following his example of an art that conveyed ideas and emotions through an explosion of color and form. Vollard held two successful Nabis exhibitions in 1897 and 1898 but he was keen to push the three men to experiment in other mediums such as painted ceramics, sculpture, book illustration and color lithography. It was in fact their lithographic albums that proved most successful; producing results that are considered the highest achievement in color printmaking during the 19th century.
Today Homage to Cézanne serves as a memorialization of the Nabis group given that by the time Denis's painting was first exhibited, the Nabis had, according to curator Gloria Groom, "ceased to exist as a coherent movement and had found other dealers to represent them". Nevertheless, it was Vollard who "helped to shape their careers at important turning points" and as such the painting can be read as much as an homage to the dealer himself as it is the artists that formed the movement.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Charring Cross, Bridge, London (1906)
André Derain's painting captures a famous sight in London, that of the Charring Cross Bridge. Rendered in loose, quick brushstrokes, the work is a celebration of colors including the blue of the bridge, the green of the buildings in the background, and a swath of shades of yellows and oranges capturing the reflection of the sun on the water.
This work is an important example of a series of thirty paintings Derain painting between 1906 and 1907 of London. Through his exhibition of the works of Fauvist artists Vollard helped bring the movement to the attention of the French public and specifically, he had a profound influence on the trajectory and early success of Derain's career. According to curator Nicole R. Meyers, "Vollard was clearly satisfied with the [London] paintings, for he lent many of them to international shows from New York to Moscow. Reflecting on the controversy and success he sparked by sending both Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck to paint abroad, Vollard later quipped: I was bitterly reproached at the time for having taken these artists 'out of their element' by diverting them from their usual subjects. Now that time has done its work it is easy to see, on putting the French paintings beside those done in England, that a painter 'who has something to say' is always himself, no matter in what country he is working".
Oil on canvas - Collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Dinner at Vollard's (Vollard's Cellar) (ca.1907)
Bonnard depicts a group seated around a table enjoying a splendid feast of food and wine. The man at the top of the table, holding aloft a bottle of wine, is the evening's host: Ambroise Vollard. A regular attendee of Vollard's notorious rue Laffitte cellar parties, the street photographer, Brassaï, recalled, "for thirty years, his famous cellar - a white vaulted room without a single picture on the walls - had been the center of Parisian artistic life. What joyful feasts, what parties and conferences, what planning sessions had been held there with all those artists, writers, critics, and collectors who were now famous".
Rendered in loose brushstrokes and bold coloring, the painting is representative of the decorative Post-Impressionist style to which Bonnard aligned. As a regular guest of the gatherings, Bonnard, evidently Vollard's favorite Nabis member, and the only one of the group whose paintings he collected, was hardly a neutral observer of the scene. As such, he was able to capture on canvas something of the energy and vitality of the gatherings. Speaking of this painting in particular, the curator Gloria Groom notes that "Bonnard gave the guests at Vollard's table only vague physiognomies, inviting numerous possibilities for identification. However, the artist stated "that the painting shows the German collector Count Harry Kessler, artists Odilon Redon and Jean-Louis Forain, and 'a severe-looking man, a manufacturer in business in the French Indies' [while others] have suggested that the guests include Degas". Groom records that the host bought the painting from Bonnard, and the fact that it "remained in Vollard's collection throughout his life suggests the personal meaning [it] held for him".
Oil on cardboard - Private Collection
Ambroise Vollard (1908)
While Renoir painted or sketched Vollard on several occasions, this portrait best captures the essence of the man; a lover of art who was dedicated to his trade. Vollard is pictured in a brown suit, with loosened tie and ruffled pocket square, seated with his elbows resting on a covered tabletop. He adopts the demeanour of a working professional; here fully absorbed in the business of examining a small figurine. According to curator Rebecca A. Rabinow and art historian Jayne Warman the Vollard is pictured, "holding a statue by Maillol [...] who had been commissioned by Vollard to sculpt Renoir's likeness two years earlier".
Vollard first met the artist in 1894 when Renoir was at the height of his career and Vollard was just starting out on his. Renoir, who was already contracted to Durand-Ruel, supplied Vollard with smaller pieces - pastels and sketches - to sell. Vollard counted many artists as friends but, as the curator Anne Distel notes, "of all the Impressionists", Renoir was the artist who "would forge the most lasting bond with Vollard" with the two men remaining close until the artist's death in 1919. Indeed, Vollard had a significant impact on creating Renoir's legend, not only by promoting his art through sales in his gallery, but by encouraging him to enter the field of wax sculpture (after arthritis had forced the artist to move from the capital to the sunnier climes of southern France in 1908) and by memorializing his career through his 1919 monograph La Vie et l'oeuvre de Pierre-August Renoir.
On a more good-humoured note, Vollard told the tale of how Renoir had asked him to pick up a toreador costume whilst on a business trip to Spain. Vollard had one specially tailored and on his return Renoir asked his friend to sit in it for a portrait. One of several portraits of himself, Vollard's toreador portrait was not offered for sale, however, and took pride of place rather on a wall in his mansion.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London
Ambroise Vollard (1910)
The relationship between Vollard and Picasso was ambivalent but long lived. Vollard gave Picasso his first show (with Francisco Iturrino) in Paris in 1901; the Spaniard still aged just nineteen. The dealer wrote off the exhibition as a failure, though in fact many works did sell, albeit at lower prices that the artist would have liked. According to curator Ann Dumas, once he had become an established artist, "Picasso would later complain that the dealer [when he was first starting out] had bought the contents of his studio for a derisory sum, although, as the artist's friend Jacques Prévert was quick to remind him, the prices offered were not notably low at the time for work by an unknown name".
Vollard did buy several pieces from Picasso's Blue and Rose periods in 1906 having noticed that American collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein were taking a keen interest in the artist's work. In 1910, by which time Picasso's Cubist technique was moving more and more towards abstraction, Vollard mounted a retrospective of his works that emphasized his pre-Cubist period. That exhibition came at a time when Picasso's reputation was in the ascendence and the artist was looking for a primary dealer. He painted portraits of several leading candidates, including this treatment of Vollard. The portrait is a celebration of the artist's Analytical Cubist style, with the sitter rendered through a series of geometric shapes and planes. While most of the portrait is rendered in shades of brown, including his suit jacket, the viewer's eye is drawn to the dealer's facial features and his pronounced bald head which is painted in a vibrant gold. Though he described the portrait as "notable", Vollard was rather unmoved and sold it to a Russian collector in 1913. For his part, Picasso stated, "the most beautiful woman who ever lived never had her portrait painted, drawn, or engraved any oftener than Vollard - by Cézanne, Renoir, Rouault, Bonnard, Forain, almost everybody in fact. I think they all did him through a sense of competition, each one wanting to do him better than the others. He had the vanity of a woman, that man [...] my Cubist portrait of him [...] is the best one of them all".
In the 1920s and 1930s, Vollard commissioned from Picasso several livres d'artiste for his print series. It was in part the result of Vollard's publication of engravings and illustrated books that the Spanish master's profile rose significantly in Europe and America. Yet it was on the understanding, only made possible by Vollard's intervention in the first place, that Picasso became the natural heir to Cézanne. It is on this art history "orthodoxy" that Picasso's place has been secured in the pantheon of European modernists.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow