Portrait of a picture dealer

ART dealers aren't usually considered the stars of the art world. They are at times even thought of as something of a ``necessary evil.'' Their function is to be the shrewd middlemen through whom an artist can reach the buying public. Part of the dimness of their repute may, of course, have to do with the possibility of exploitation from this arrangement. They can make great fortunes, for example, by buying cheaply the work of scarcely known artists, holding on to them, and then selling them years later at vastly inflated prices. Ambroise Vollard, a Parisian art dealer from the early 1890s to the start of World War II, did just that. In fact he did it with unusual brilliance and foresight.

Una E. Johnson has written: ``It is a recognized fact that most of the great paintings created during the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th had passed through Vollard's hands.'' This may be a slight exaggeration. But it is true that you can hardly read a book about any of the major artists of late-19th- and early-20th-century Paris without encountering Vollard.

He was the first dealer to give C'ezanne (in 1895, when the painter was 54) a one-man show, and the first to exhibit Picasso in Paris, in 1901, soon after his arrival from Spain. He encouraged Renoir, very late in his career, to start making sculptures - and got exclusive rights as agent for them.

Rouault occupied a studio in Vollard's residence. In 1913 the dealer bought Rouault's entire output to date. And he stimulated the artist's interest in engraving, which became a central facet of his art. And it was Vollard who helped to make Gauguin's financially precarious self-exile in the south seas somewhat less impossible.

Vollard's enterprise was of benefit to his chosen artists as well as to himself. As his wealth grew, he spent much of it on publishing illustrated books and original prints, often by ``his'' artists, of high quality.

Vollard opened his gallery in the early 1890s, having come to the French capital from one of France's colonies, the island of La R'eunion in the Indian Ocean, near Madagascar. His father was a notary, and Ambroise was the eldest of 10 children. He claims he ``commenced collecting'' at the age of 4. He wrote, ``I simply had a lively sense of property.'' At that time he collected pebbles and bits of broken crockery.

Eventually the young Vollard was sent to Paris to study law; but the lure of art proved far more attractive, and he embarked daringly on his preferred career. He didn't care what anyone thought of him, least of all the other dealers and the general public, who were outraged by the art of les jeunes - the young and modern artists he espoused.

If Vollard turns up often in books about the period, his face and figure also recur in its paintings. It is clear from these portraits that the dealer - once described by another Parisian gallery owner, Rene Gimpel, as ``a sort of alert old bear'' - was recognized by his contemporaries as one of the more colorful individuals of the Parisian art world; he became something of a myth in his own lifetime.

Gertrude Stein, the American writer, once drew an unnamed verbal silhouette - which Vollard recognized as himself. He refers to it in his ``Recollections of a Picture Dealer.'' He comments: ``...incapable though I am of putting a name to any character in a roman `a clef, in the silhouette Miss Stein has drawn of me I recognized myself at once, as the fellow leaning with both hands on the doorposts, glaring at the passers-by as though he were calling down curses on them. That is a thing seen. How many times have I not regretted that nature has not endowed me with an easy-going, jovial manner!''

By the 1930s, when Vollard had become a virtual recluse and no longer needed to sell paintings, he did admit to sometimes taking a rather high-handed attitude toward hopeful buyers. He refused to sell to some buyers because he wanted to retain his stock and watch the prices go up.

Such tactics must have been at the back of less-than-flattering characterizations like the one in Pierre Cabanne's book on Picasso: ``Ambroise Vollard was no ordinary man. He was said to doze most of the time, between naps turning away potential customers, for each time he awoke, the requested paintings had gone up in price. No one knew exactly what he had stashed away in his little treasure house on the Rue Lafitte, where he crawled, virtually on all fours, among stacked C'ezannes, Renoirs, and Gauguins.''

But in the visual portraits of him, Vollard does not appear to be as cantankerous or eccentric as all this suggests. The almost-caricature of Bonnard's etching of him suggests massive amiability - that large, comfortable hulk completely swamping whatever seat was only just supporting him, his chin burying itself in his beard, his hefty hand poised to stroke the cat. The print is striking evidence of Vollard's appeal as an impressive, and also compliant, figure to depict. That he was also a sort of patron probably has bearing on the number of times artists portrayed him.

Vollard was a hospitable man. He was inexhaustibly fond of telling anecdotes. He wrote books on C'ezanne and Renoir, and a volume of his own recollections that is really just a string of anecdotes. Many of these brief episodes (though not always strictly accurate) offer revealing insights into the artists, while others describe little more than occurrences that tickled his sense of humor.

Vollard seems to have remained on fairly good terms with most of the artists whose work he bought; C'ezanne, particularly, could be very difficult indeed, but seems to have tolerated Vollard.

Vollard's description of how he sat for C'ezanne is telling. It suggests not only Vollard's patience, but also the unrelenting and exacting character of C'ezanne's efforts.

The dealer had to sit as still as a jug, and felt it necessary to be very careful not to say anything that could annoy the painter - who might at any moment have cut the canvas to shreds with his palette knife. After ``a hundred and fifteen sittings'' the portrait was abandoned, still unfinished, the artist observing that ``the front of the shirt is not bad.''

Fortunately the picture survived in all its penetratingly solid frontality and rocklike repose.

As for Picasso's Cubist portrait of him, now in Moscow, Vollard tells a story about this ``very notable'' picture to illustrate how wrong people can be about the difficulties of ``seeing'' Cubist paintings.

He wrote: ``The son of one of my friends, a boy of four, standing in front of the picture, put a finger on it and said without hesitation: `That's Yoyard.'''

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