I was privileged to meet Frances Brody for the first time at her elegant Los Angeles house, in the fall of 1978. The meeting began inauspiciously as she was convinced, in spite of my letter of introduction, that I was a jewelry specialist; and she had laid out her diamonds on the dining table for my inspection. Once we had cleared this awkward hurdle, she graciously took me through the house to admire, as I did unreservedly, her magnificent paintings and sculpture. I was, of course, well aware that some of the collection had been sold a year earlier, in October 1977: indeed, I had attended the auction at Parke-Bernet, which included, amongst many others, important paintings by Matisse and Courbet, a gorgeous Tahitian Gauguin fan and perhaps Modigliani’s chef d’oeuvre, his outsized portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne in a brilliant red shawl. It was all the more astonishing, therefore, to find the California house still replete with art of the greatest distinction.
Here was Picasso’s erotic but tender love poem to Marie-Thérèse Walter. Executed in the largest scale Picasso used at this time, the Brody picture is one of a number of superb portraits of her the artist made in 1932 when, having just turned fifty, he was preparing for his major retrospective at the Galeries Georges Petit in Paris. This is a tour de force even by Picasso’s standards, driven as he was to prove to the world that he was as creative as ever at this age. One "of the most memorable paintings of a memorable series," as John Richardson has written, it is a masterpiece by any measure.
Nearby hung another extraordinary work of art: Matisse’s Nu au coussin bleu of 1924, the Michelangelesque seated nude with her elbows raised behind her head in a favorite pose, one used again by the artist for a celebrated lithograph of the identical subject and also for one of his most important sculptures, the Grand nu assis. This was as good a Matisse oil as any in a private American collection at the time.
Every room revealed fruits of sophisticated connoisseurship: Vuillard’s striking early self-portrait, for one; Ensor’s charming small still life for another, a great late Braque still life of 1954 is only now coming in to its own. And then there was the sculpture: two of Giacometti’s greatest bronzes, his Le Chat (then prowling in the garden!) and his Grande tête mince, two inspired acts of collecting confidence at the time of purchase; a beautifully chosen array of Henry Moore at his very best, a perfect hand worked Marini bronze of a horse and rider, fine works by Degas and Calder, and not to be forgotten, the great Matisse ceramic tile composition, La Gerbe, in the courtyard outside, the unifying force in this harmonious synthesis of art and architecture. It was only later that I learned of the "dynastic" collecting tradition in the family, initiated by Frances Brody’s parents, Albert and Mary Lasker, whose extraordinary Impressionist and Modern painting collection was one of the finest in the United States. But whatever influence the Laskers, and others, may have had on the Brodys’ fledgling forays into the art market—a profound shared interest in the work of Matisse seems to be the most obvious—Sidney and Frances Brody struck out on their own to create a markedly beautiful and original collection, as original, in fact, as the daring modernist house, in which it was shown to such advantage. I was privileged to have seen it then and am honored to work with it now, together with my colleagues worldwide and Susan L. Brody, Special Art Trustee, to aide in its dispersal to a new generation of collectors.
Impressionist & Modern Art
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