Yves Montand is still considered one of France’s most emblematic talents. The Italian-French actor and singer, who died in 1991 at the age of 70, and whose career spanned five decades, is also remembered by many for his passion for the arts.
Montand, who was born Ivo Livi in Tuscany but was taken to France by his parents when he was two, made his name as a music-hall singer before breaking into films in the 1940s. Known for his smooth baritone voice, he is often described as France’s answer to Frank Sinatra, and in 1977 he became the first popular singer to perform solo at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.
On 21 October Christie's Paris will present two works from his collection: a Giacometti painting, Pommes (1958, estimate: €1,000,000-1,500,000), and Georges Braque’s Vase de tournesols (Les trois soleils) (1961, estimate: €150,000-250,000).
Straight-talking, and with strong political views, Montand’s personal life was not without controversy. Part of a power couple with the actress Simone Signoret, to whom he was married for 34 years until her death in 1985, he had a notorious affair with Marilyn Monroe, his co-star in the prophetically titled 1960 film Let’s Make Love.
Yves Montand in 1970. Photo: AF Archive/Alamy
Despite this much publicised dalliance, his reputation as a French national treasure remained intact throughout his life, not least because of his charming demeanour. He was a popular figure within the visual and performing arts worlds – among his friends were Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, the poet Jacques Prévert and the Oscar-winning Costa-Gavras, who directed him in a number of gritty thrillers including Z (1969), The Confession (1970) and State of Siege (1972).
Brought up in a working-class family in Marseilles, Montand claimed not to understand modern art until he moved in these creative circles, but by the time he reached his 40s he had become a bona fide collector.
‘Yves Montand acquired the Braque painting from the Galerie Louise Leiris,’ explains Antoine Lebouteiller, Director of Impressionist & Modern Art at Christie’s Paris. ‘The Giacometti oil was purchased by Montand from Galerie Maeght, also in Paris. We don’t know exactly when, but it was definitely before 1969 because we have an exhibition reference that mentions Montand as the owner of the painting from that year.’
The works stand out for different reasons. Giacometti, best known for his figurative sculptures, painted the still life in 1958. It is similar to an earlier painting from 1937, titled Still Life with an Apple, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
‘After attending a major Cézanne exhibition in Paris and Basel in 1936 Giacometti was inspired to try his hand at more naturalistic subjects,’ says Lebouteiller. ‘It was around this time that he turned his back on Surrealism and moved back into figurative art. Flowers feature heavily in Braque’s work. Vase de tournesols was created in 1961, quite late in Braque’s career, but it is interesting in terms of composition: it features a brown monochrome ground and very energetic yellow brushstrokes for the flowers.’
Because the paintings have been in family ownership for more than 60 years they are, Lebouteiller explains, ‘entirely fresh to the market, which is a very exciting thing’.
Georges Braque, Vase de tournesols (les trois soleils), 1961. Oil and sand on canvas. 21¾ x 18⅛ in (55 x 46 cm). Estimate: €150,000-250,000. Offered in Paris Avant-garde on 21 October 2021 at Christie’s in Paris
While we cannot know how Montand felt about the artworks himself, he did speak candidly about his love of modern art during an interview for French television in 1969, in which he described meeting both artists almost 20 years earlier in Saint-Paul de Vence, a hilltop town in the South of France famous for its artistic community, where Montand had a home. ‘The thing that struck me most about Braque was the way he dressed,’ the actor said. ‘He didn’t fit the image of a typical painter – he looked very dapper, in smart trousers, a velvet jacket and a cap. But he was very handsome.’
Giacometti, he recalled with an affectionate smile, was a drôle de personnage [amusing character] with an enormous head of hair.
This year marks the centenary of Montand’s birth. Giacometti has also been celebrated this year with two major exhibitions – one at the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul de Vence (The Giacometti: A Family of Creators, until 14 November) and one at the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco, which finished in August. It is no wonder that Lebouteiller says ‘the timing is absolutely perfect’.