Big Dealer: Sharp-Eyed Patron Pushed the Paris Avant-Garde

Anyone extolling the virtues of Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Anyone extolling the virtues of Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, should start with one caveat: As with most blockbusters, the exhibition of paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, books, ceramics—you name it—is impossible to take in during a single visit. There’s a ton of stuff to look at, and it’s of an intensely high caliber. Viewing the relentless parade of Post-Impressionist and early Modernist art feels like continuous multiple orgasms over several hours: pleasurable but exhausting. Best to pace one’s satisfactions over repeated excursions.

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The first gallery sets the tone, with masterworks or near-masterworks by Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Odilon Redon, Aristide Maillol, Mary Cassatt and Édouard Vuillard, a painter whose greatness we have yet to grasp fully. Some surprises set us happily off-kilter—a tabletop sculpture by Bonnard, for one. A treasure trove of paintings by Cézanne awaits in the second gallery. We’re not even a quarter of the way through the exhibition, and it’s time for a breather.

Patron of the Avant-Garde is the first comprehensive exhibition devoted to Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939). What took so long? A show detailing the efforts of one of the most significant movers and shakers of modern culture seems like a no-brainer. Vollard was an art dealer—please, let’s not use the term “gallerist”—of prescient gifts. Though his Paris gallery was not the first to exhibit avant-garde works, it was pivotal to the fortunes and development of modern art.

Vollard took enormous risks, both financial and aesthetic, promoting artists whose merits were misunderstood, considered dubious or otherwise ignored. He exhibited paintings by van Gogh in 1895, when the volatile Dutchman, now regarded as the prototypical outcast-genius, was still far from a staple of mass culture. “The boldest were unable to stomach [van Gogh’s] paintings,” Vollard said.

The Hungarian photographer Brassaï recalls Vollard saying that “Cézanne was considered a madman or impostor” and that other dealers held his art “in contempt.” Vollard’s reminiscences were clouded by a measure of self-mythologizing: The critical response to the 1895 Cézanne exhibition was mostly positive. Still, the paintings were known only to a passionate few. That the few became the many is due in no small part to Vollard’s promotion of Cézanne’s monumental accomplishment. The relationship with the French master was the lynchpin of Vollard’s career.

Along with van Gogh and Cézanne, Vollard went on to give major (and often first-time) exhibitions to Bonnard, Maillol, Renoir, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, Henri Rousseau, Georges Rouault, André Derain, Kees Van Dongen and a 19-year-old Spaniard by the name of Pablo Picasso. Vollard’s gallery became a hot spot in Paris—“a place,” writes independent curator and art historian Ann Dumas, “where one went to be shocked.”

Clearly, Vollard possessed an extraordinarily perceptive eye. His winning streak is astonishing. In some ways, Vollard’s aesthetic sensibility was as advanced as that of the artists whose work he championed. Vollard’s like-mindedness and enthusiasm did not go unnoticed, particularly by those who might profit from his advocacy. “He shows nothing but pictures of the young,” wrote the painter Camille Pissarro. “I believe this little dealer is the one we have been seeking.”

The “little dealer”—Vollard was actually a shambling bear of a man—was also a savvy entrepreneur. He knew the value of causing a stir and took pride in being a visionary operating in a world of philistines. Later in life, when his success and status were secure, Vollard sought to maintain his anti-establishment cred.

Artist and patron have always had a vexed relationship. Vollard’s business practices did not always sit well with his roster. Gauguin dismissed him as “a crocodile of the worst sort,” Matisse called him a “thief” and Émile Bernard dubbed him “Vole Art.” But in one gallery, Vollard is seen more favorably through the eyes of artists whose work he represented. According to Picasso, whose painting of Vollard is among the greatest portraits of the 20th century, “The most beautiful woman who ever lived never had her portrait painted, drawn, or engraved more often than Vollard.”

Bonnard rendered the dealer sympathetically in three homey tableaus. To Cézanne, Vollard was as inevitable and imposing as his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire. Renoir painted Vollard, an admirer of exotic fashions, as a toreador. The bond between the two men is patent in this flamboyant, endearing and somewhat ridiculous picture. Intimacy and good humor are equally evident in a tender, moving film clip of Vollard lighting one up with Renoir, whose hands are contorted by arthritis.

Oohs and aahs will greet the inclusion of Gauguin’s epochal Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-98), yet this hambone of a painter is better seen in the equally iconic and probably definitive Spirit of the Dead Watching (1892). Here the mysteries of the Other—has that condescending bit of jargon expired yet?—are imbued with a respect for Tahitian culture that’s a welcome change from Gauguin’s usual take on the noble savage.

Van Gogh has an entire room set aside for his paintings, including Starry Night Over the Rhone (Starry Night, Arles) (1888). The depth and reach of his influence is seen two rooms later in a gallery set aside for the Fauves. With Bank of the Seine at Chatou (ca. 1905) and Harvest (1904), Maurice de Vlaminck beats van Gogh at his own game.

Among the most startling pieces on view is Edgar Degas’ The Bath (c. 1895). The subject—a woman stepping into a tub—will come as no surprise, nor will its casual shaping. But Degas’ canvas is still outrageous and even a bit alarming in its roughness and freedom. Its loose-limbed nature probably owes something to the artist’s failing eyesight. There was some disagreement as to whether the painting was finished when Vollard purchased it from Degas’ estate. Who cares? Vollard didn’t. Neither should we. The Bath is a bravura performance.

The surfeit of riches culminates with Picasso’s Vollard Suite (1939), a portfolio of 100 lithographs. A dazzling meditation on myth, the artist’s vocation, antiquity, Rembrandt and a raging libido, the Vollard Suite deserves its own exhibition. As it is, the prints are crammed into the final gallery, sharing space with what is basically an adumbrated retrospective of Picasso’s paintings. Visitors can barely muster the energy to take in one or two of the prints (forget 100).

One disappointment is the skimpy showing of work by the sculptor Aristide Maillol (1861-1944). His Venus with a Necklace (ca. 1918) teasingly opens the show, and his uncanny sculptures—among them an incisive and loving portrait of Renoir—punctuate the exhibition. Their scarcity leaves one hankering for more.

Perhaps the curators felt that Maillol’s swelling volumes, languorous contours and stolid sensuality are too tranquil and subtle for a public weaned on Big Names. Or maybe they just couldn’t secure the loans. Whatever the case, such a small gaffe doesn’t diminish the heady momentum of Patron of the Avant-Garde.

Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until Jan. 7, 2007.

Big Dealer: Sharp-Eyed Patron Pushed the Paris Avant-Garde