Biography of Ambroise Vollard
Childhood and Education
The first son of Marie-Louise-Antonine Lapierre and Alexandre Vollard, Ambroise Vollard was the eldest of ten children. Raised in the French colony of Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean, he endured a strict childhood. His father was a serious man who worked in an official capacity as a notary clerk. Alexandre set high moral standards for his children with Ambroise recalling how as a twelve year old boy he was forbidden from reading Hans Christian Andersen's fairy-tale The Emperor's New Clothes because it featured a naked man. According to the art historian Ann Dumas, Vollard found an escape in collecting. She wrote: "a boy with a precocious visual sense, he delighted in the variety of tones in an all-white bouquet; his accumulations of pebbles and bits of broken blue crockery were early signs of a collecting instinct".
Vollard had planned a career in medicine. However, once his father had taken him to a hospital to observe a live surgery, and when the sight of blood had nearly caused him to faint, his father decided Ambroise might be better suited to a career in law. Having spent two years studying in Montpellier, Vollard continued his training in Paris, of which he recalled, "Paris! The very magic of the name predisposed me to admire everything". It was in Paris that his love of art took hold, spending his downtime hunting, according to Dumas, "through boxes of books, prints, and drawings at the stalls along the quais of the Seine". Within the year Vollard gave up law and decided to become an art dealer; a decision which angered his father who responded by withdrawing his allowance.
Having been turned down for an apprenticeship by the dealer Georges Petit (on the grounds that he spoke no foreign languages) Vollard worked briefly for the dealer Alphonse Dumas who specialized in academic painting and who actively discouraged Vollard's interest in Impressionism. In 1890 Vollard took the bold decision to go out on his own, opening a small shop in one of the two rooms he had rented as his lodgings. He initially struggled to earn a living, reselling artworks he had bought from the stalls that lined the banks of the Seine. Lacking the income needed to purchase important paintings, he showed incredible foresight and ingenuity by buying up prints and drawings by the lesser known "Seine" artists, the sale of which helped him accrue funds and even tie artists to contracts. In September 1893 Vollard moved into a small shop at 37 rue Laffitte, putting him in the vicinity of many of Paris's key galleries. Dumas notes that the opening of the gallery was well timed since it coincided with "the decline of the unwieldy state-sponsored Salon system, which was centered around large, annual exhibitions that were highly publicized" only to be overtaken by "the rise of the commercial dealer".
Vollard's first important break came when, operating on instinct, he took it upon himself to visit Édouard Manet's widow from whom he purchased a selection of her husband's unfinished paintings and drawings. These he presented to rave reviews at his first full gallery exhibition in 1894. The exhibition drew the attention of Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir who were so impressed with Vollard they agreed to have him represent them. Vollard's status as a dealer to be reckoned with was duly secured and he began to attract the attention of many influential collectors.
Speaking of Vollard's relationship with Cézanne, journalist Susan Stamberg explains how the artist, who had "not exhibited in 20 years" and was "living in obscurity" in Provence, was tracked down by Vollard (after first seeing one of his paintings in the window of Père Tanguy's shop) who bought up "150 canvases" from Cézanne's son, who was his business manager. Dumas adds that Vollard was "opportunistic enough to recognize Cézanne as the only major figure of the Impressionist generation without a dealer". She adds that the 1895 exhibition would be a crucial turning point in the dealer's career since it enabled him to "become Cézanne's sole dealer and thus gain a monopoly on his output; this, together with the fact that Vollard had begun to attract sophisticated French and international customers, laid the foundation for his subsequent success".
Once settled at 37 rue Laffitte, Vollard sought to consolidate his reputation as a dealer of avant-garde art with an exhibition of about twenty artworks by the likes of Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh and Émile Schuffenecker. The exhibition was only a minor critical and commercial success but that didn't deter Vollard from holding a dedicated van Gogh exhibition in the following year featuring works borrowed from the recently deceased (1890) Dutchman's estate. The general public was yet to be won over by van Gogh's works and, disappointed in the lack of sales, Vollard never hosted another full exhibition of the Dutch artist's work. It would prove to be one of Vollard's most regrettable professional misjudgements: "I was totally wrong about van Gogh!", he said later, "I thought he had no future at all, and I let his paintings go for practically nothing". Despite the negligible returns, Vollard did help keep van Gogh's work in the public eye and can therefore take some small credit for securing his building reputation as a Post-Impressionist master.
As his reputation soared, Vollard moved to a larger shop on rue Laffitte; premises that would soon become one of the most important galleries in Paris. Vollard would host several solo exhibitions of key artists' here, including an 1898 exhibition of Paul Gauguin's Tahiti paintings, and the first solo shows by Émile Bernard (in 1901), Aristide Maillol (in 1902) and Henri Matisse (in 1904). But perhaps the most notable of these exhibitions came in 1901 when Vollard gave a nineteen-year-old Pablo Picasso his first exhibition. Vollard followed this in 1910 with a comprehensive exhibition of the Spaniard's pre-Cubist works.
Through his gallery, Vollard was also responsible for promoting the artists associated with the relatively unknown Fauvist and Nabis movements. This came about in part through his interest in printmaking, and he encouraged artists such as Maurice Denis and André Derain to create prints which he then exhibited at his gallery. Vollard stated, "I was hardly settled in the rue Laffitte when I began to dream of publishing fine prints, but I felt they must be done by 'painter-printmakers.' My idea was to obtain works from artists who were not printmakers by profession". Impressionist Camille Pissarro, who had been represented by Vollard, praised the ingenuity of the dealer stating, "Vollard is going to have a press for lithographs in his place, rue Laffitte. This Creole is amazing; he wheels from one thing to another with startling ease". His first album of engravings, the successful, Les Peintres-Graves, published in 1896, included twenty-two original prints by a number of significant artists including Pierre Bonnard, Edvard Munch, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Odilon Redon.
The rue Laffitte gallery would double as a social hub where the Parisian "in crowd" gathered to enjoy fine dining. As Dumas explains, these meals were "held in its cellar, the legendary cave, where Vollard served his native Creole chicken curry to a galaxy of artists, writers, and some of the more unconventional collectors. These celebrated gatherings were captured in paintings and sketches by [Pierre] Bonnard". On any given evening, one could dine with some of the most important people in Parisian society with often unexpected occurrences. For instance, Vollard describes one incident involving a guest who introduced his dinner partner as the holy Sister Marie-Louse. Vollard introduced her to Renoir, but was shocked to learn that she was not actually affiliated with the church at all. He recalled, "when I apologised to Renoir for having brought him into contact with a false nun, he replied: 'Wherever else I go, Vollard, I can say that I know beforehand whom I shall meet, and what we shall talk about. At your place one does at least meet with the unforeseen".
Never married, Vollard came to view his artists community as his family amongst whom made an imposing presence: "exceptionally tall and heavily built [with] darkish skin and heavy-lidded eyes", writes Dumas, Vollard spoke with a "slight lisp, in a voice surprisingly light and high-pitched for a man of his bulk", while his "unhurried and ponderous" movements belied his astute business savvy. Otherwise, stories of Vollard's private life are scarce and anecdotal with even his autobiography focusing almost exclusively on associations with his colleagues and peers (there is nothing at all relating to any romantic relationships Vollard may have pursued). He did, however, offer an interesting aside on the idea of taking a spouse when he stated, "I have always appreciated-where others are concerned-the usefulness of being married. If you are asked to do something that bores you: [you can say] 'My wife won't hear of it!".
Vollard was not without his distractors and it is known that he was given to sudden mood swings and bouts of morose silence. The renowned writer and collector Gertrude Stein once described him as a "huge dark man"; and that was when he was in a "cheerful" mood. The curator Gary Tinterow added that Vollard could be a thoroughly obstinate man who "would never sell anybody what they wanted: he would never show people what they wanted. If they came in to see a Cézanne, he would bring out a Gauguin. If they wanted a still life, he would say, 'Well, here's a landscape".
There were also the inevitable disagreements between dealer and artist. Museum director Douglas Druick explains how early in their relationship Gauguin "frequently expressed vehement hostility to Vollard in letters to friends" and was often critical of the commission he took as a dealer. And yet some of these disagreements were no doubt due as much to his artists' personalities and expectations as to those of Vollard as their dealer. As Dumas explains, "Vollard was full of contradictions, and opinions of him differed widely. Artists who complained that he exploited them found a convenient pun equating his name with the word voleur, meaning 'thief' [but] others valued his loyalty and generosity. 'I believe absolutely in Vollard as an honest man,' insisted Cézanne, who was eternally grateful to Vollard for rescuing him from obscurity". Vollard and Renoir would, meanwhile, become lifelong friends.
As much a friend as a dealer, Vollard sat for many portraits. These ranged from simple sketches to Cubist canvases by artists including Cézanne, Denis, Picasso, Renoir and Georges Rouault. While they varied in treatment, all were engaged in trying to capture something of the enigma of this guarded and private man.
Vollard proved to be a somewhat restless figure when it came to his creative interests. When reflecting on his move into publishing he supplied the following anecdote: "strolling along the quays, I dipped one day into the books in a second-hand dealer's box. On the title-page of a fine octavo I read: Ambroise Firmin-Didot, éditeur. 'Ambroise Vollard, éditeur ... that wouldn't look bad either,' I thought. Little by little the idea of becoming a publisher, a great publisher of books, took root in my mind. I could not see a fine sheet of paper without thinking: 'How well type would look on it!". Vollard soon directed all his energies into this new pursuit, with the books he published designed to include illustrations by the artists he represented. In 1916, he published an revised edition of Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal which included illustrations by Émile Bernard; a controversial choice given that the first edition of the book (published in 1856) prompting a national scandal in which a court found six of the poems to be indecent and ruled that they be removed from all future editions.
Having become a successful art dealer and book publisher, Vollard took up the pen himself: "not satisfied with being a publisher, I tried my hand at writing as well", he wrote. He wrote monographs on key artists, starting with Cézanne in 1914. Of the process of writing his first book, Vollard enthused, "in the joy of seeing myself in print, I hung about the machines all day". He followed with books on Renoir in 1919 and Degas in 1924. As he was personally acquainted with all these artists the books carried a certain authenticity in their insights. For his book on Renoir, Vollard stated, "I gave a great deal of space to painting, though merely, I must add, as a reporter of Renoir's sayings on the subject. But here also the person and life of the artist deserved the fullest treatment I could give them". Commenting on the books a century on, Dumas observed that though "anecdotal and in many ways lightweight, these books nonetheless retain the freshness of firsthand accounts, and art historians have relied on them as a unique fund of information".
The outbreak of the first world war forced Vollard (like other dealers) to close his gallery and to retreat to the commune of Varaville in Normandy (northwest France). He remained active, however, managing to sell a few paintings and, at the behest of the French government's Propaganda Services, touring Switzerland and Spain to lecture on (French) artists Cézanne and Renoir.
After the war, Vollard was able to reinvent himself. The center of the Paris art world had moved to an area close to the Champs-Élysées but Vollard chose to pursue a different path as a private dealer, promotor and book publisher working from his own residence. According to Dumas, in 1924 he purchased a former hotel which, with its many rooms, could accommodate his sizable collection of artworks. He turned the first floor into a gallery where he could exhibit and sell works. Vollard's prestige was now such that he signed with an English publisher to write his autobiography, Recollections of a Picture Dealer. It was so well received when it debuted in 1926 that a French edition was published a year later. He made his one and only visit to the United States in late October of 1936 where he gave a lecture at a New York City gallery in conjunction with a Cézanne show, as well as a talk at the Barnes Foundation in early November, most likely to further the relationship with Albert Barnes who had been a patron at Vollard's Paris shop.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, the 73-year-old Vollard was involved in a car crash. He was the only passenger in his chauffeur driven car making a return trip to Paris form his home in Tremblay-sur-Maudre. He died the following day in the hospital from complications resulting from the accident. In his will, Vollard left everything to his brothers and sisters, a family friend, and a few works to the City of Paris (the latter setting up a room dedicated to Vollard at the Musée du Petit Palais in 1940). While Vollard had amassed an impressive collection of modern art, there was no definitive record of what he did or did not own outright and a significant number of works "disappeared" during the war years. As a result, several scandals and lawsuits followed concerning the distribution and legal ownership of his collection. These legal squabbles have extended well into the twenty-first century.
The Legacy of Ambroise Vollard
There can be little doubt that Vollard made a significant impact on early twentieth century art. According to Dumas, "he rapidly became the leading contemporary art dealer of his generation and a principal player in the history of modern art [helping launch] the careers of Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and the Fauves [not to mention] the Nabis, Odilon Redon, Henri Matisse, and many others". Of his Cézanne exhibitions alone, curator Rebecca A. Rabinow states, "if you think about all the people who passed through Vollard's gallery, all the artists who became influenced by Cézanne. Had Vollard not tracked him down in the south of France, would cubism even exist?".
Vollard set the standard for what an art dealer could achieve. If one takes the example of Cézanne alone, Vollard showed how self-belief and a special faith in an (unknown) artist - evidenced in his purchase of a whole portion of his work - could influence the future tastes of a generation. Vollard also refused to be held down by the narrow definition of "art dealer"; expanding his influence into publishing and illustration. As an author himself, his monographs on Cézanne, Degas and Renoir are to this day highly regarded as primary sources by historians. Furthermore, he encouraged many of his clients to take up the art of printmaking including Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, the latter, according to Dumas, playing "a key role in the rebirth of printmaking (particularly the emergence of the color lithograph) that took place at the end of the nineteenth century".
Some have noted that Vollard failed to exploit the full potential of Matisse or Picasso, while he remained largely unresponsive to some of the major movements including Cubism and Surrealism. Yet these shortcomings were more than outweighed by Vollard's dedication to his artists' development and a level of persistence and self-belief that saw him shape the canon of turn-of-the-century modernism.
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd
First published on 31 Oct 2020. Updated and modified regularly