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Ambroise Vollard
      
      

Ambroise Vollard

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Picasso said that the most beautiful woman who ever lived has never had her portrait painted, drawn, or engraved any oftener than Ambroise Vollard. The art dealer with a gloomy appearance but charming character let the world know of Gauguin, van Gogh and Cézanne — even though the public initially smashed the windows of the gallery with such art on display.
From 1888 — an art dealer
From 1893 — a gallery owner

From laws to paintings

At the age of 21, the son of a lawyer Ambroise Vollard came to Paris to improve his knowledge of law, and as a result, organically switched from jurisprudence to art. While studying, a student from the province (or rather, from the island of Réunion, a French colony) would have nothing to eat without a side job. The quick-witted Vollard started working as a clerk for an art dealer. Dealing with documents, he "spied" on his employer and learned art from him — the art of selling. Even before graduating from the university, Ambroise became an "amateur marchand".

Being almost 27, Vollard opened his first gallery on Paris' rue Laffitte. To be safe, he dried rusks — in case his gallery failed.
However, over time, Rue Laffitte became the main Parisian center of modern (at that time) art. Monsieur Ambroise chose unknown artists, promoted them, raised the price and earned his living that way.
Sometimes the customers left his gallery with a very expensive painting, saying: "I don’t understand why high art is so terrible." They wrinkled their noses and still bought canvases. That’s what the authority of the art dealer was.
In the photo: Parisian street Laffitte (rue Laffitte), where Ambroise Vollard’s gallery of the same name was located.

It was in Rue Laffitte where the first solo exhibitions of Cézanne and Matisse were held, as well as the first posthumous one of Vincent van Gogh (June 4−30, 1895).

A cheap Cézanne

According to the legend, once Monsieur Ambroise Vollard visited Paul Cézanne's workshop — and on the spot bought his entire output — about 150 canvases.

When the paintings appeared at Rue Laffitte, passersby threatened the owner to smash the windows for displaying such daub — but after a couple of months, there were queues of those, willing to buy that "daub". Vollard sold each canvas for a price 2−3 times more expensive than the initial one.

Paul Cezanne. Bathers at rest

At the opening of Cézanne's first solo exhibition, Vollard displayed in the window the painting Bathers at Rest, which the academics had previously officially denounced as a disgrace. He was challenging society that way.

The exposition made a stir in Paris, and the gallery workers were afraid that because of it the owner could get one in the eye — literally. However, the owner got a profit instead of a bruise.

Interestingly, Cézanne and Vollard had mixed feelings toeards each other — similar to the way women can be loved and hated at the same time. The artist half-jokingly called his art dealer a "slave trader," claiming that he was buying paintings too cheap compared to the sales proceeds. Vollard, in turn, believed that Cézanne had fits of narcissism, caused by his complexes. And it was impossible to understand when Cézanne loved or hated himself.
However, the art dealer emphasized that when Cézanne painted, all his bad qualities disappeared — and all that remained was the beauty of his personality.
Paul Cezanne. Portrait Of Ambroise Vollard
In gratitude for his fame, Cézanne painted a portrait of the marchand, and years later, Vollard wrote a book about Cézanne, in which he proved himself as an excellent portraitist: monsieur Ambroise created portraits with words no worse than the artists whose works he sold — with brushes.

In his Recollections of a Picture Dealer, Vollard described his meetings and retold his dialogues with Gauguin, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Rodin, as well as with writers Émile Zola, Stéphane Mallarmé and other outstanding contemporaries.


Vollard’s sharp wit and tongue did their part: the book perfectly conveys the spirit of its time and is a real page turner.

The books Cézanne and Renoir are dedicated to each artist individually.

Money for Gauguin

Despite the fact that Vollard had a nose for talent, he was rather wide of the mark when it came to Gauguin: the art dealer didn’t like the artist’s first paintings, preferring Van Gogh’s works from his collection. He purchased them instead of buying paintings by the master of the workshop.

However, Vollard cleaned up his act within a matter of months. By that time, Gauguin had moved to Tahiti. The art dealer wrote him a letter and bought all his paintings of the Tahitian period. In time, many of them ended up in Russia thanks to collectors Shchukin and Morozov: Vollard had close business and friendly relations with them. Now the canvases can be seen in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and the Hermitage.

At some point, Gauguin’s most expensive painting as of today When Will You Marry? got into Vollard’s hands. He bought it by wholesale for a cheap price. Today’s estimate of the work is $ 300 million.

Paul Gauguin. Woman holding a fruit
1893, 92.5×73.5 cm
Vincent van Gogh. Red Vineyards at Arles
November 1888, 73×91 cm
Paul Gauguin. Landscape
1899, 73×94 cm
Paul Gauguin. When are you getting married?
The list of Ambroise Vollard’s clients also included the writer Gertrude Stein, the doctor and collector Albert C. Barnes, and many others.

The first for Picasso: it's not a joke – using two colours at one stroke

In the Rose and Blue Periods of the Spanish master’s work, Monsieur Vollard bought and sold his paintings at a price that satisfied the artist and with a commission, satisfying the art dealer himself. In 1901, Vollard organized Picasso's first major exhibition. Then the Spaniard switched to cubism, but Vollard refused to sell such experiments. However, after a couple of decades, they started to work together again.

Many artists painted portraits of Vollard, but Picasso was, perhaps, the most productive in this matter. Vollard didn’t like his first portrait in the style of cubism (1910), but Shchukin did — the work went to Moscow and is now at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. In the following years, Picasso painted a lot of portraits, classical and not-so-classical — about 20 in total. People have seen far from all of them.

It was Vollard who encouraged Picasso to paint on ceramics, realizing that expensive souvenirs were exactly what rich buyers might be interested in. And they were.

Art is in the books

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were so many talents in Paris that it would have been a shame for Vollard if he hadn’t squeezed something completely new out of them. At some point, the marchand thought that the gallery was too small for his business. He realized that the world in the 20th century was changing rapidly, just like the demands of the public, which meant that it was necessary to be ahead of the game and guess what would become popular the next day.

Vollard was the first to invent art-books and involve artists into making them.
Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Chagall and many others cooped with Ambroise Vollard’s publishing house.


Picasso created for the art dealer a series of etchings about the Minotaur, while Chagall — illustrations based on the Bible.
Degas illustrated La Maison Tellier by Guy de Maupassant. By the way, this book was published in limited edition, and Picasso was very proud of having the exemplar of it in his collection.

In the photo — marchand in his Parisian apartment, where he kept many sketches for paintings, projects and art books.

Without Vollard, Chagall would have had a hard time in the early years of emigration. Marchand arranged orders for him to illustrate works by Gogol and La Fontaine — Chagall lived off those fees for several months.
Marc Chagall’s etchings illustrating The Fables of La Fontaine.

The forever-dissatisfied Matisse and a little bit of Fauvism
Fauvism is considered the first avant-garde art movement of the 20th century. It got its name in 1905, and it lived for only a couple of years, then each of the artists who called themselves the Fauves went deep into own creative search. The brightest representatives of the Fauvism are Henri MatisseAndré Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. Read more

Before getting to Vollard’s gallery, Matisse had spent quite a while roaming around Europe — for a long time, but to no avail. Having returned to Paris, he was so desperate that tried to get a shameful job at the theater: staying backstage and guarding a staircase without a railing, off which one of the employees fell to death. However, the artist wasn’t hired.

Vollard arranged Matisse’s first solo exhibition in his gallery. It was 1894. The Fauvist’s paintings sold well not because of a strong demand, but mainly due to low prices for them. It let the artist keep the lights on.

And yet, Matisse hated Vollard to death. After the end of their business relationship, having a short dialogue with one of their mutual acquaintances, he could easily drop a phrase: "Oh, are you having dinner at that bastard’s place today? I don’t envy you." Vollard, in turn, kept silent at every mention of Matisse.

Portraits of Vollard

The art dealer was painted three times by Renoir, countless times by Picasso, twice by Maurice Denis, and by many others. It seemed that all the art-bohemians of Paris wanted to please Vollard’s vanity in order to get an award — an excellent art dealer. However, monsier Ambroise was hardly just an art dealer — rather, he was a businessman and curator of art rolled into one.

Interestingly, Vollard’s favourite portrait was created not by Cézanne (1895), whom the art dealer loved, but by Bonnard (1924, in the photo).
The secret is simple: Bonnard "placed" the art dealer’s favorite cat on his lap. This technique was also used by other artists, but only Bonnard managed to complete the portrait without any kitsch and unnecessary experiments (the latter were typical of Picasso).

Work was Vollard’s life, and he never started a family. Those were only paintings and a cat that were next to him all the time — that is why the pet is immortalized along with its owner in half of the portraits.
Little is known about Ambroise Vollard’s personal life. He was called "a man with the face of a bulldog, but with a rich inner world," accused of excessive business acumen, but at the same time loved; his clients temporarily left him, choosing other agents — but then returned back to him.

The "patron of Post-Impressionism" died in a car accident at the age of 73 (1939), without seeing the horrors of war. Those horrors were seen by Ambroise’s children — his collection of paintings. Some of them got into the hands of his distant relatives, and the rest of the canvases can be found all around the world.

We tend to think that the muses are bodiless spirits or beautiful girls. But a real "muse" looks like Vollard: a man with a stern face, great taste and big plans.

When it comes to the art of the 20th century, he contributed to it no less than the artists themselves — giving them the freedom of creativity. How can you not like him?

Title photo: Auguste Renoir. Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1908.
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