The art collections of a 'thief' and an 'honest man': Ambroise Vollard

Ambroise Vollard was born in the little French colony of Reunion, near Maritius. Two decades later he arrived on the French mainland and Paris never knew what hit it.

Vollard, with his large, bald head was variously described as 'tall and imposing' and 'large, gruff [with] downcast eyes'. He came to study jurisprudence and completed his degree in 1888. But his real gift was for finding artistic talent ...and profiting from it.

This vocation started by the book stalls trading along the river Seine. Vollard would wander along them during the breaks between his lectures to hunt for prints and sketches for sale, and honed his eye.

Vollard's eye for art and nose for a bargain were perhaps best exploited when it came to the work of Paul Cézanne.

Paul Cézanne's portrait of his friend, the novelist Emile Zola
Paul Cézanne's portrait of his friend, the novelist Emile Zola

Cézanne had been painting for many years by the time Vollard took a shine to his work, but had only enjoyed quite modest success and sometimes brutal reviews (a critic suggested one of his portraits, viewed by a pregnant woman, might cause her child to fall sick in the womb).

Vollard bought a full 150 of Cézanne's works, including some of the most controversial, and gave him his first solo exhibition in 1895. The dealer then sold some of them on for two, three, four ...or sometimes dozens of times what he paid for them, notably The Smoker, which he bought for $1,000 and sold for 88,000.

For Cézanne, who had sometimes been described as a madman, this represented the pinnacle of his career. Vollard also held grand exhibitions of Manet, Van Gogh, Gauguin and later Picasso with great success, though there were also some failures such as a Matisse exhibition.

No one shared the dealer's eye when it came to Matisse at the time. Nothing sold, and the artist was left bitter by the whole experience. He referred to Vollard as a 'thief', though the men maintained an uneasy friendship.

Likewise the firey Paul Gauguin spat that he was 'deceitful' - in contrast to Cézanne's description of him as 'an honest man' - and in this case the two could not be reconciled.

In some ways it seems extraordinary that Vollard sold anything, as he did not always make it easy for the buyer - refusing to show them the paintings they wanted from his store and sometimes pointlessly delaying them by chatting or even napping while they waited.

Louisine Havemeyer was one of those who received this treatment, and after waiting for an hour exclaimed that he knew she was there to buy a Cézanne and needed to catch a boat. Vollard replied, "Well, madame, if you want to buy a Cézanne, there's always another boat."

Paul Cézanne Still Life Pichet et Fruits sur use Table
A Cézanne still life - Vollard owned several
(Click to enlarge)

The intention appears to have been to create an air of mystique about the works; money was not enough - the buyer had to work hard to reach the work because it was worth waiting for. This just encouraged collectors to pay more.

Vollard's clients also included Gertrude Stein, whose Picasso: Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, recently became the most valuable art work in the world.

Vollard went on to publish a biography of Cézanne, and also ones of Degas and Renoir.  He also spotted Picasso's talent when the artist was just 19 and copying other paintings - albeit with great skill.

Vollard's personal collection included works by all of these artists. Those which have appeared at auction include Gauguin's Te Poipoi (sold for $39.2m in 2007), Renoir's Dans les Roses - Madame Leon Clapisson  ($23.5m in 2003) alongside some eight-figure still lifes by Cézanne.

Of these, the most valuable was Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier, sold at Sotheby's for $60.5m in 1999.

Pablo Picasso's cubist painting of Ambroise Vollard
Pablo Picasso's cubist painting of Ambroise Vollard

Some of the most fascinating works to be left are those which are portraits of the collector himself: such as a classic Cubist depiction by Picasso and an earlier painting by Renoir depicting the artist studying a figurine.

In a terrible irony, Vollard is thought to have been killed by a blow from a figurine which struck him on the back of the head when he was involved in a car crash.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir's portrait of dealer and collector Ambroise Vollard
Pierre-Auguste Renoir's portrait of Ambroise Vollard

His collection passed through friends and relatives with the exception of 141 paintings placed in the Societe Generale Paris branch vault by Vollard's assistant Slomovic. Following the resolution of a legal dispute, these are finally to be sold.

Sotheby's Treasures from the Vollard Safe sale, which includes works such as Cézanne's portrait of his childhood friend, the novelist Emile Zola, takes place on June 29 in Paris.


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