Property from the Collection of Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill
Across more than half a century, the collectors Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill engaged in an inspired deeply shared journey in fine art. Early patrons of Modernism and Abstract Expressionism, the couple expanded their connoisseurship in the latter decades of the twentieth century to encompass a diversity of categories. Their private collection stood as a tangible expression of the curiosity and zeal with which they lived. The visual and intellectual richness of the Weills’ assemblage of fine art was only further illuminated by the couple’s unassuming reverence toward it: “Our collection is not a large one,” Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill stated, “but it reflects our taste and judgment about what is worth living with day after day.”
Born and raised in Switzerland, Guy Weill was an eager collector of drawings and prints by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner—a harbinger of the impressive collection he would later assemble with his wife. In the late 1930s, both Guy and Marie-Hélène’s families immigrated to the United States separately. At the onset of the Second World War, Mr. Weill enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served in Military Intelligence under General Dwight D. Eisenhower. A respected translator who was never without his sketchbook, the collector went on to aid in the investigations preceding the Nuremberg trials, and was awarded a Bronze Star for his military service. During this same period, Marie-Hélène Weill earned a degree from Radcliffe College, where she developed a passion for art historical scholarship that would guide her years in collecting.
A “COLLABORATION OF LIKE MINDS”
From their marriage in 1942, Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill were true partners in art and intellect. The collectors’ life together was, in their telling, a “collaboration of like minds.” In the years following WWII, Guy Weill opened British American House, a menswear emporium on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue that was the first to feature labels such as Burberry and Aquascutum.
The dynamic artistic scene of post-war New York provided the Weills with a wealth of opportunity in collecting and scholarship, and the couple were quick to embrace the new work of Abstract Expressionist and Neo-Expressionist artists such as Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Sam Francis, and Phillip Guston. For the collectors, acquiring fine art was a dialogue with artists and ideas. Motherwell, Frankenthaler, Rivers, Nevelson and Appel visited the Weill family on holiday in Cape Cod; Guy Weill was known to exchange a raincoat from his shop for a sketch from an artist he admired. The Weills were enthusiastic patrons of the Whitney Museum of American Art during its formative years, lending works by figures such as Lyonel Feininger and Larry Rivers in addition to serving on the institution’s acquisitions and exhibition committees.
In the late 1960s, Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill discovered the rich history and beauty of Asian art. While visiting one of their daughters in California, the collectors happened upon the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Having so fervently embraced Abstract Expressionism’s sense of boldness and spontaneity, the Weills were overwhelmed by the simple forms and graceful lines of Chinese painting, porcelain, and bronzes. When they returned to Manhattan, the collectors began what they later described as a “lifelong process of self-education,” honing their united connoisseurial eye through art historical scholarship and involvement with the Asia Society and the China Institute, where Marie-Hélène Weill volunteered as a docent.
From the 1970s onward, Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill carefully built one of New York’s premier assemblages of Asian art. Inspired by their annual pilgrimages across China and the wider Asian continent—where Guy Weill fostered his own artistry as a photographer—the collectors discovered new possibilities. At the Weills’ Manhattan residence, treasured Modern and Post-War canvases came to stand alongside Southeast Asian statuary, fine Chinese paintings, and other works of Asian art. The collectors’ devotion to Chinese painting was notable: “The Weills have collected at a level of excellence and with a passionate enthusiasm,” wrote former Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Philippe de Montebello, “that rival that of distinguished Chinese connoisseurs.” After being outbid by the Weills at an auction of Chinese art, Met Museum curator Wen Fong approached the couple to become involved with the institution. Over the years, Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill were volunteers, benefactors, and friends to the museum’s Department of Asian Art, where Mrs. Weill lectured on works of Chinese and Southeast Asian origin.
In addition to the China Institute, the Asia Society, and The Met Museum, the Weills were keen benefactors of the Metropolitan Opera, the Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Hall, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University, among others. The couple donated many works to museums, including their superb collection of Chinese painting to the Metropolitan Museum. Commemorated by the 2002 exhibition “Cultivated Landscapes: Chinese Paintings from the Collection of Marie-Hélène and Guy Weill”, the bequest was, according to the Weills, a message “to those who love art as much as life: to enjoy art, you must share it.”
ART AS LIFE
Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill’s lifelong affinity for fine art transcended history and geography: from trailblazing works of Modernism, Abstract Expressionism and to the spiritual beauty of Chinese painting and Southeast Asian sculpture. The Weills saw collecting as an essential means of engaging with the world: “For us,” the couple stated simply, “art is, and always has been, life.”