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Surrounded by beauty

Dealer Ambroise Vollard saw what he wanted and pursued it. His vision, studied in a new show, was quite Modern.

September 17, 2006|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

New York — WHEN student Ambroise Vollard first saw a Cezanne painting in a Paris dealer's window, he regretted bitterly that he couldn't afford it. "I thought to myself how nice it must be to be a picture dealer," he wrote later. "Spending one's life among beautiful things like that."

Vollard, who within a few years did indeed become a picture dealer, soon lacked neither beautiful things nor interesting people around him. In 1895, he hosted the first major exhibition of Paul Cezanne's work. He gave Pablo Picasso his first Paris show in 1901 and Henri Matisse his first solo exhibition in 1904. He bought up entire studios of artists he admired, wrote books about Cezanne and Edgar Degas, published lush illustrated books and prints, and frequently hosted chicken curry suppers in his fabled gallery cellar.

Success came early to Vollard, just 27 when he opened shop on Paris' Rue Laffitte. To pull off his landmark Cezanne show just two years later, he first queried paint-sellers to get the reclusive artist's old studio address, then called on former neighbors to get his new one. When he eventually learned where Cezanne lived, he approached the artist's son first. He got his pictures -- an achievement that brought as much attention to Vollard as to the artist. Cezanne purchases at that first show were made by, among others, Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro.

Cezannes from Vollard's 1895 exhibition are at the heart of "Cezanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde," which opened Thursday and continues through Jan. 7 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jointly organized by the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago and Paris' Musee d'Orsay and Reunion des Musees Nationaux, the exhibition brings together more than 100 paintings, plus prints, sculpture, illustrated books and other works.

"There are amazing pictures in the exhibition, but they have to have a double whammy," says Rebecca Rabinow, associate curator of 19th century, Modern and contemporary art at the Met. "They all were owned, commissioned or passed through Vollard's gallery. We also really tried to narrow down our choices by picking works that were either purchased from Vollard by contemporary artists or important collectors, because part of Vollard's importance is that his gallery ended up being a place where people could come away seeing art they couldn't necessarily see anywhere else."

Born in 1866 on La Reunion, an island in the Indian Ocean, Vollard was the oldest of 10 children and came to France to study law. As he later wrote in his autobiography, "Recollections of a Picture Dealer," he soon moved to Paris, bought drawings and engravings at book stalls along the Seine and started thinking bigger. When Vollard mounted his Cezanne show in 1895, says Rabinow, "Cezanne was completely forgotten. He'd exhibited in Paris, then gone back to the South of France and holed up there; no one, not even his friends, had seen his work. Vollard got these things that no one had seen, and it was a revelation. It's really because of that show that Cezanne's reputation and the market for Cezanne took off."

Vollard was also intimately involved in the promotion of Picasso, adds Stephanie Barron, chief curator of Modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has loaned Paul Gauguin's 1889 painting "The Red Cow" to the Met show. "It's a wonderful opportunity to focus on a dealer who was so important for artists at the turn of the century," says Barron.

Exhibition co-curator Ann Dumas, a London-based art historian, describes Vollard as "a mountain of a man, well over 6 feet tall, with heavy-lidded eyes and a slight lisp." Dumas, who first suggested the exhibition to the Met, also quotes Gertrude Stein's observation, in "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," of Vollard as "a huge dark man glooming. This was Vollard cheerful." Essays in the exhibition catalog document Vollard's eccentric ways: napping in his shop in view of collectors, keeping as important a collector as Louisine Havemeyer waiting so long that she missed her boat back to the U.S., declining to let potential buyers see paintings they'd come to see. "He was also sort of erratic as a communicator, silent for long times, then bursting into voluble passages of conversation," Dumas adds.

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