In 1890, when Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) took a job with “L’Union artistique”, a small Parisian gallery which specialised in academic painting, he was still a young law student with no contacts or experience in the art world. Yet he quickly became the greatest contemporary art dealer of his generation. It was he who launched the careers of Cézanne, Picasso and most of the Fauves, and exhibited the work of the Nabis, Redon, Matisse… He also became a writer and innovative publisher of original prints and art books.
His versatility made him one of the giants of the history of modern art. And yet the man himself remains an enigma. Although he published his autobiography in 1936, Souvenirs d’un marchand de tableaux, his account is largely anecdotal and reveals nothing of his private life and his business methods. Vollard’s exotic origins thicken the mystery surrounding him. His father moved to Reunion Island when he was still very young and Ambroise Vollard spent a happy childhood there. Those who knew him seem to have been impressed by his physical presence. Suarès wrote: “To see him coming, you would think he was a giant; but a gentle giant.” All his gestures suggested a calm, thoughtful nature, the patience which was an asset in his work as an art dealer. By the turn of the century, Vollard was holding at least ten exhibitions a year and had attracted an international clientele.
Vollard moved to France in 1887, and set up his own business in 1890. In a humble two-room apartment near the church of Sacré Coeur, he started to sell the drawings and prints of Félicien Rops, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen and Constantin Guys, which he bought along the quays of the Seine. The young man started from scratch and most of the Impressionist paintings were already beyond his reach. It was when he bought a set of Manet’s drawings and oil sketches from the artist’s widow that Vollard’s business really took off. His exhibition of these purchases in November 1894 drew praise from the critics, but above all it gave him the opportunity to meet Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas and he began to sell their work.
Vollard was also interested in the work of young avant-garde artists. Maurice Denis, whom he also met at the Manet exhibition, introduced him to some of the Nabis: Bonnard, Roussel, Vuillard. Vollard bought some of their paintings then asked them to illustrate the books he planned to publish. In June 1894, the sale of the deceased estate of “Père Tanguy” gave Vollard an opportunity to buy canvases by Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh very cheaply, along with works by better known artists such as Pissarro or Guillaumin.
In September 1893, Vollard set up his first real shop at 37, rue Laffitte. It was small but was ideally situated in the heart of the Paris art market. “At the time, rue Laffitte was Painting Street,” Vollard wrote. Dealers and collectors were often in the vicinity, attracted by auctions in the nearby rue Drouot. Pissarro was pleased by Vollard’s arrival: “I think that this young dealer will fill the bill. He swears by stuff from our school or work that shows similar talent. He is very keen and knows what he’s talking about.” Besides it was a propitious time to open a gallery. In the 1980s, after being the official exhibition centre and marketplace for contemporary art for a century, the Salon was in decline. In 1895, Vollard positioned himself in the avant-garde market by exhibiting Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin.
Vollard and Cézanne
The Cézanne exhibition in November 1895 was a key event in the careers of both the artist and the dealer. Vollard was struck by a painting by Cézanne in the window of Tanguy’s paint shop: “I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach.” Even better, Cézanne did not yet have an art dealer. With this exhibition, Vollard asserted his skill as a talent scout and his nonconformist outlook. The Cézanne retrospective drew with lukewarm reactions, apart from a glowing review by Thadée Natanson in La Revue Blanche, but for artists and collectors it was a revelation. With the 1895 retrospective, Cézanne became a venerated master and Vollard laid the foundations for his future success. Indeed he secured the monopoly of Cezanne’s work and began to build up a network of international collectors.
The profits from the Cezanne exhibition enabled Vollard to move into larger premises at 6, rue Laffitte in May 1896. This new address became the centre of gravity of the Paris art scene until the First World War. Vollard held a series of remarkable exhibitions there while diversifying his activity. In the 1890s and during the first decade of the twentieth century, he played a leading role in the revival of printmaking. In June 1896, the first exhibition in his new premises was linked to the Album des peintres graveurs, Vollard’s first major publishing venture. In 1897, an exhibition of “painter-engravers”, accompanied the publication of Album d’estampes originales de la galerie Vollard. At the time, Pissarro wrote to his son: “Vollard is going to put a lithographic press in the rue Laffitte. This Creole chap is amazing. He flits from one thing to another with astonishing ease.” The Nabi artists worked with him on these two albums. Vollard also published collections of prints by Bonnard (Quelques aspects de la vie de Paris, 1895-1899), de Denis (Amour, 1892-1898) and Vuillard (Paysages et intérieurs, 1899). Apart from these publications, the Nabis were also offered two group exhibitions, in 1897 and 1898, an unusual practice for Vollard who preferred one-man shows.
Vollard and Van Gogh
Vollard organised his first Van Gogh exhibition in 1895. It was a commercial failure. Undaunted, he presented another, even bigger, retrospective of the Dutch painter’s work, in his new premises in 1896-1897. The public had never before had an opportunity to see so many of Van Gogh’s paintings assembled in the same place. But once again it was a failure. Vollard then gave up promoting Van Gogh’s paintings. Difficult relations with Jo Van Gogh-Bronger, Théo’s widow, who became the legatee of both brothers when Théo died, probably influenced his decision. In his memoirs, Vollard admitted his mistake: “I was totally wrong about Van Gogh. I thought he had no future and I let his paintings go for a song.”
Vollard and Gauguin
Relations between Gauguin and Vollard were characterised by mutual misunderstanding. The two men met for the first time in Paris in 1893, shortly after the painter had returned from his first sojourn in Tahiti. They did a little business together in the next few years. When he set off for Polynesia again, in 1895, Gauguin at first refused to give Vollard access to the works he sent back to France. But the artist’s agents in Paris could not reasonably do without Vollard. So it was Vollard who, in 1898, exhibited several recent works by Gauguin, including the monumental Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (Boston, Museum of Fine-Arts).
In difficult financial straits, Gauguin steeled himself to sign an agreement with Vollard in 1900 which guaranteed him 300 francs a month, as an advance on sales, and 200 francs for every painting sold. This modest proposal, which clearly reflected the difficulties Vollard encountered in finding buyers for Gauguin’s paintings, was a bitter pill for the artist who tried to sell his works through other agents. Gauguin called Vollard “the worst kind of shark” while the dealer remained surprisingly silent about his relationship with the artist.
Vollard as a Dealer
Squabbles over money were inevitable between artists and the dealer and Gauguin was not the only one who thought Vollard was a profiteer. His bulk purchases at very advantageous prices reinforced this image. Picasso in particular, whom Vollard welcomed in his gallery in 1901 when he was still an unknown artist of nineteen, reproached him for having taken the entire contents of his studio for a pittance. Matisse, admittedly pleased to be offered his first solo exhibition, was left with the disagreeable impression that the canvases of young artists just served as an alibi in the rue Laffitte gallery: “On the opening day, showing no respect for the exhibitor’s work, they soon started to bring out etchings by Renoir, Cézanne and others.” However, other people depicted Vollard as loyal and generous. His correspondence with Cézanne and Renoir provides evidence of their friendships.
Sole agency contracts, like that signed with Georges Rouault, or the purchase of studio collections (Cézanne in 1899, Emile Bernard in 1901 or Picasso in 1906) enabled Vollard to build up a large stock of works over the years. He applied the latter method to the Fauves whose work he particularly appreciated, buying everything in Derain’s studio in 1905 and in Vlaminck’s the following year.
He also purchased lots, sometimes more selectively. From Odilon Redon, he first bought the Black works in 1893-1894, 1897 and 1899, before taking an interest in his drawings, pastels and paintings in subsequent years. He was sometimes restrained by the difficulty of selling a particular artist, such as Henri Rousseau, or by his own distaste for a style, as with the Neo-Impressionists. Although he bought The Models, and two or three other works by Seurat and even exhibited Maximilien Luce in 1902, he confessed that he did not understand Pointillism, which always made him think of “a lady’s embroidery”.
Vollard and the Impressionists
To compensate for the risks he took with young artists, Vollard tried to buy works by the best known Impressionists. He often traded with the artists themselves. In November 1894, for example, Pissarro swapped a Snow effect and perhaps other works for Manet’s Funeral. When Degas was building up his outstanding collection in the 1890s, he often exchanged his own works for paintings that Vollard had for sale.
Vollard’s friendship with Renoir lasted until the artist’s death in 1919. When Renoir was crippled with arthritis towards the end of his life, it was Vollard who advised him to model his sculptures in wax. The monographs written by Vollard – Paul Cézanne (1914),La Vie et l’oeuvre de Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1919) and Degas 1834-1917 (1924) -, show his admiration and affection for these painters.
Post World War I
The pace of the exhibitions organised by Vollard slowed down after 1908. The outbreak of the First World War forced him to close his gallery. After the war, Vollard preferred to receive his customers in his apartment at 28, rue de Grammont. He then spent a great deal of time publishing art books, which were less profitable but the true passion of his life. He supervised their publication from start to finish, working closely with the artist, engraver and printer, carefully choosing the paper, font, and binding and designing the layout.
About 1924, Vollard moved his art dealing and publishing business into a building in the rue de Martignac, in the Faubourg Saint Germain. Most of his huge collection remained hidden behind closed doors. On 22 July 1939, Vollard was involved in a road accident on his way to his property at Tremblay sur Mauldre. The exact circumstances of his death are unclear, but his neck may have been broken by a copperplate or a sculpture by Maillol falling from the back shelf of the car. It is a tragic irony that his death may have been caused by a work of art. He was seventy-three. The subsequent dispersal of his collection is a story in itself. As no exact inventory was made, nobody knows how big it really was. Estimates range from five to ten thousand works. Some were found in the hands of a young Yugoslav adventurer; others were sold during the war or have simply vanished.