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‘How vast his legacy’: Treasures from the collection of Ambroise Vollard

With almost 30 works from the legendary art dealer’s collection offered in Paris on 23 March, art historian Gilles Genty illuminates a career that encompassed friendships with some of the greatest names in Impressionist and Modern art 

In July 1939, just a few months before the start of the Second World War, French art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1868-1939) was killed in a car accident as he returned to Paris from his home at Tremblay-sur-Mauldre in north-central France. At the time of his death, no one knew of the treasures to be found in his Paris gallery on the rue Lafitte, and in storage at his town house on the rue de Martignac.

As with the collection of Edgar Degas, which Vollard and colleague Paul Durand-Ruel  had discovered upon his death, the art dealer’s hitherto unsuspected riches were astounding. Jacques-Emile Blanche wrote to fellow French artist Maurice Denis in December 1939: ‘Have you heard how vast his legacy is, finds are being made everywhere, valuable items are scattered around, none of them displayed or recorded, priceless things are being found under stacks of canvases.’

On 23 March, a collection of nearly 30 works from Vollard’s collection, including pieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pablo PicassoAristide Maillol, Maurice Denis, Émile Bernard and Louis Valtat, among others, will be offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art  sale at Christie’s in Paris.

No one could have predicted that Vollard, a native of La Réunion — a French colony in the Indian Ocean — who had studied law in Montpellier and Paris, would become one of the greatest art dealers of the first half of the 20th century.

In Paris, having abandoned his lawyerly ambitions, Vollard struggled to make ends meet by selling prints and drawings picked up on the quays of the Seine. But he also had the foresight to acquire a group of unfinished paintings and drawings by Édouard Manet from his widow. His exhibition of these works in 1894 was a great success, and as a result he was introduced to Degas, Berthe Morisot, Renoir and Paul Cézanne, who would become his favourite artist.

The cover of Vollard’s memoir, Souvenirs dun marchand de tableaux (Recollections of a Picture Dealer), 1936. © All rights reserved

The cover of Vollard’s memoir, Souvenirs d'un marchand de tableaux (Recollections of a Picture Dealer), 1936. © All rights reserved

Vollard’s firsthand accounts of his career, recorded in two publications, En écoutant Cézanne, Degas, Renoir (Listening to Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, 1938) and Souvenirs d'un marchand de tableaux (Recollections of a Picture Dealer, 1936), are crucial sources of information about the history of art in the first half of the 20th century. Vollard bought hundreds of paintings by Renoir, then encouraged him to practise sculpture. Renoir later confessed: ‘If I have tried my hand at sculpture, it was not with the aim of annoying Michelangelo, nor was it because painting was no longer enough for me, but because Mr. Vollard very gently forced me into it.’

Heeding only his instinct, Vollard visited Van Gogh’s heirs, borrowing works from his estate and mounting exhibitions that kept the artist in the public eye. He organised the first major exhibition of the work of Paul Gauguin, who had fled to the tropics. He was also central to the promotion of the Nabi artists in the late 19th century, collecting work by Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard and Odilon Redon, shaping their careers and even encouraging their move to colour lithography. Vollard was similarly fascinated by the École de Pont-Aven, especially Émile Bernard, from whom he bought no fewer than 127 works on a single day in May 1901.

The art dealer’s shop at 6, rue Lafitte soon attracted the most eminent foreign collectors, who were invited, along with avant-garde writers and artists, to enjoy a glass of red wine and charcuterie in his gallery basement.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1908. The Courtauld Gallery, London. © Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London, UK  Bridgeman Images

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1908. The Courtauld Gallery, London. © Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London, UK / Bridgeman Images

Above all, Vollard never stopped looking to the future. A tireless talent scout, he was soon supporting the next generation, foremost among whom was Pablo Picasso, whose work he viewed as the missing link between Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fauvists; Vollard would give Picasso his first Paris show in 1901.

Like so many other Parisian art dealers, Vollard was forced to close his gallery at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914; at war’s end, he chose to maintain a private dealership out of his apartment, and published and commissioned artist’s books. By the time of his death he was the proprietor of a vast artistic estate. He left no heirs, and it was divided between his brother and an alleged mistress.

During the Second World War, Vollard’s collection was dispersed. Hundreds of paintings were dispatched by ship to the United States for safekeeping, only to be intercepted by the British Royal Navy. Released by the United Kingdom after the war, many of these pieces soon began appearing on the New York market. Erich Šlomović, a protégé of Vollard, stashed hundreds of additional works in a farmhouse in the Serbian village of Bacina. Subsequently confiscated by the Yugoslavian government, these became the centre of protracted legal disputes. In 1979, the world was stunned by the discovery, in a Paris bank, of hundreds more previously unknown works from Vollard’s collection, likewise hidden by Šlomović. Their rediscovery touched off an 11-year legal battle.

All told, Vollard was perhaps as much a collector as he was a dealer. But as the full scope of his acquisitions remained unclear in his lifetime, sales continue to be an opportunity to shine a light on the incredible venture he undertook.