A fascinating collection of 20th-century art comes with a history that’s as colourful and dramatic as the works it includes
While the 65 works that make up the collection of Alain Bouret that are to be auctioned at Christie’s Paris on 21 October show what Lionel Gosset, Christie’s Director of Collections, calls ‘a welcoming, deeply sensitive collection that has some remarkable works,’ it is also the gateway into a fascinating tale of love and money from the 20th-century art world.
The collection was started by art dealer Paul Guillaume (1891-1934), the man responsible for introducing Soutine and Modigliani to the art market. He also, famously, collected African art. The collection of paintings was intended to be donated to the Musée du Luxembourg upon his death, while the African art was destined for the Louvre. This destiny was thwarted, however, by Guillaume’s wife.
Domenica Walter-Guillaume (1898-1977) married Paul Guillaume after he spotted her as the coat check girl at the Viking Club, a cabaret bar in Paris. She left behind her bohemian life and happily took to the high life. A few years later she met the architect Jean Walter (1883-1957) on a cruise, a man much richer than her husband, and became his lover. Guillaume died of peritonitis in 1934. Domenica and Walter married in 1941.
In order to be able to hold on to the collection, Domenica required an heir of her own. She managed to adopt a child, Paul, and kept possession of the collection. Several years later she had the great fortune to sell the collection of African art at auction and to sell some of the paintings to the Musée de l’Orangerie. Domenica and Jean Walter continued to add works by Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Alfred Sisley and Paul Cézanne to the collection.
The presence of the adopted son in her life was not ideal: Domenica tried to have him murdered – twice. Paul survived these attempts on his life and even inherited a small portion of the collection when his mother died. The lion’s share of the collection, however, went to Domenica’s last lover, the art critic Jean Bouret.
Just as Domenica and Walter had expanded the collection, so too did Bouret. Only, in the care of this owner, the artists that were added to the collection were the artists that Bouret championed as a critic.
Bouret was close to the artists of the École de Paris and discovered the artists who were as Gosset says, ‘the best of the best’; artists such as François Desnoyer, Wifredo Lam, Jean Dubuffet, Zao Wou-Ki and Pierre Soulages.
In a slightly more conventional manner, the collection was inherited by Jean’s son, Alain. Alain had grown up surrounded by the collection, which had become, ‘reflective, intellectual and friendly,’ says Gosset.
Alain, a publisher, continued to collect arts and even added the work that Gosset picks out as his highlight of the collection, Jean Dubuffet’s Cycliste. Gosset selects this as a particular favourite because of the ‘composition’, though it is not his exclusive favourite; Nicolas de Staël’s Paysage draws particular attention and was a gift to Alain following the publication of the de Staël catalogue raisonné by his publishing house.
Alain, along with his wife Katherine, developed the collection through their friendships with artists, introducing painters such as Pierre Alechinsky and Pol Bury, whose 41 boules noires sur un fond noir and 42 boules rouges sur un fond rouge are included in the auction, and Hans Hartung and Günther Förg.
This is a collection that reflects three different evolutions of art and collecting in Paris while at the same time reflecting a story that, in a more hidden way, tells of the passion and excitement that so frequently lies behind collecting art.