Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939)
The French art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard was a key figure in the Parisian art world of the late 19th-century and early 20th-century. An important dealer in modern art, especially French painting, he provided publicity as well practical and emotional support to numerous unknown artists - several of whom are now world-famous - including the Impressionists Renoir (1841-1919) and Cezanne (1839-1906), the Post-Impressionists Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Van Gogh (1853-90), the sculptor Aristide Maillol (1861-1944), the Cubist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), and the colourists Georges Rouault (1871-1958) and Kees van Dongen (1877-1968). Vollard was also known for his book publishing and illustration activities, involving Degas, Picasso and others, as well as his exceptional personal art collection.
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A Leading Dealer of Modern Art
Vollard came to Paris at the age of 21 from his native island of Reunion, abandoned his chosen career as a lawyer and began a new art career as a clerk in a small gallery. He opened his own gallery in 1893, and a year later 'adopted' Cezanne, from whom he bought four paintings, which he resold within 12 months for twice the price. Shortly afterwards he held the first major solo exhibition for Cezanne, whose reputation soared. Traditionalists were scandalized by Cezanne's modernism, in which more open-minded collectors were happy to invest. In the same year (1895), Vollard also staged shows of Post-Impressionist painting by Van Gogh, and by Paul Gauguin. Other important exhibitions included a second retrospective for Cezanne (1898), a group showing of Les Nabis (1899), and the first one-man shows for Picasso (1901), Matisse (1904) and Van Dongen (1904). Vollard was therefore well in advance of his younger dealer contemporaries like Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler (1884-1979) and Paul Guillaume (1891-1934).
As a result, Vollard's gallery - his 'cellar' as it was called - became the most brilliant centre of avant garde art in Paris, and a magnet for famous painters and pioneering collectors including: Gertrude and her brother Leo Stein, the Russian Ivan Morozov, Henry Osborne Havemeyer, the American Dr Albert Barnes (of the Barnes Foundation, Pennsylvania), and the King of Serbia. His gallery was also a meeting point for many members of the Ecole de Paris, as well as numerous cultured bohemians of Paris, who clamoured for invitations to his creole curry dinners.
An indication of Vollard's status can be gleaned from the fact that his portrait was painted once by Cezanne, Rouault and Dufy; twice by Pierre Bonnard; three times by Picasso; and four times by Renoir. Picasso himself once commented: "The most beautiful woman who ever lived never had her portrait painted, drawn, or engraved more often than Vollard." Several of these portraits can be seen at the Musee d'Orsay.
About 1905, Vollard became interested in art publishing and sponsored the production of numerous literary works, illustrated by his artists. He also organized the publication of several editions of original fine art prints, including sets of engravings and etchings, such as Picasso's Vollard Suite.
Art Collector and Patron
A shrewd businessman, Vollard was a particularly astute art-buyer: in 1905, for example, he acquired over 30 paintings from Picasso for less than $500. He also made a fortune buying and selling works of Impressionism, - including American Impressionism - as well as Post-Impressionism, plus Fauvism (Les Fauves), Cubism and Expressionism. He also ran a kind of swap-shop trading set-up. According to his accounts, Picasso exchanged his own paintings for works by Degas and Matisse, while Degas and Renoir drew lots for a work by Cezanne, and Matisse pawned his wife's favourite emerald ring to acquire Cezanne's Three Bathers.
He could be highly proactive in his dealings with his artists: he even despatched Andre Derain to London to boost his creativity. In later years he completed biographies of Cezanne, Degas, and Renoir. He died from injuries received in a car accident, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, when his chauffer-driven car skidded off the road. He was 73 years of age. A significant number of the artworks in his collection went missing during the War, while the final remnant - itself worth millions - was only auctioned by Sothebys in June 2010. It included works by Derain, Cezanne, Degas, Renoir, Mary Cassatt, Picasso and Marc Chagall, some of which are inscribed by the artists with fond personal messages in scrawling, century-old signatures.
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