Roland Frank Knoedler (usually referred to as Roland F. Knoedler), was born 17 August 1856, the eldest of the four children of Michael (or Michel) Knoedler and Léonie Le Brasseur. Michel had come to the United States in 1846 to set up a New York office for the French firm of engravers, Goupil & Cie, Paris. The New York branch was established in 1848 as Goupil, Vibert & Co., the first business of its kind in America. In 1857 Michel bought out Goupil's interest in the firm and the business was conducted under his own name. In doing so he was able to take advantage of the impact on the world of art, of the immense industrial expansion, which followed the Civil War, and the new era of railroads. Over the next eighty years there were many moves of location of the New York premises, following the growth of the city, as economic success drove expansion to the north of the city, and the country as a whole. Passenger lists show that in the 1870s and 1880s Roland, now associated with the business, frequently crossed the Atlantic between England and the Continent, via Ireland and the USA. (Liverpool - Queenstown (Cobh) - New York). In 1877, upon reaching his twenty-first birthday, he became a partner in the firm, which, from then on became known as M. Knoedler & Co., New York. On the death of his father in 1878, he became the head of the family. Then, following the death of his uncle, John Knoedler, in 1891, he also became head of the firm and, after purchasing the interests of his siblings, the sole proprietor. Under his governance the firm's business expanded to include Old Master paintings, and M. Knoedler & Co. became one of the world's leading international dealers in European and American art, vying with such prodigious firms as that of Duveen. Its client list read like an American Who's Who. Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon, Henry Clay Frick, H.O. Havemeyer, John Jacob Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan were among it's patrons. Along with Charles S. Carstairs, who became associated with the firm in about 1895, he opened galleries in Paris (1895) (Knoedler & Co., Place Vendôme, by 1913) and London (c.1895) (Knoedler & Co., Old Bond St. by 1910). In 1907, at the age of fifty-one, he married Louise Théo. She had been a star of the French Opera-bouffe, the attractive lead in two Jacques Offenbach productions in Paris in 1873, Pomme d'Api, and La Jolie Parfumeuse, and came to New York in 1882. Although a devoted couple, they married too late to have children. She died in 1922, the year of the present portrait, and the black armband worn by him is a tribute to her memory. Something of a bon viveur and lover of good food, Roland Knoedler retired in 1927, at which time the firm was incorporated and run by his nephew Charles R. Henshel, Carmen Messmore, Charles S. Carstairs and his son Carroll. He died in Paris in 1932.
'It is my business in life to study faces'1, Orpen declared in an interview in 1925, 'It is also my lot in doing my job to get to know automatically what is in the mind behind the face'. A little later, P.G. Konody observed that such a study did not preclude the injection of humour, 'No more did Orpen presume to make fun of his sitter, when he allowed his good-natured sense of humour to peep through his reading of...''Rowland Knoedler'' (Konody's spelling)2.
Knoedler's stance, his demeanour, the way he sits, tells us a great deal about his personality. Here more than ever, Orpen's naturalism reminds us of the central tenets of the creed, first articulated in Edmond Duranty's La Nouvelle Peinture, in 1876. He held that 'a back should reveal temperament, age and social status, a pair of hands should reveal the magistrate of the merchant, and a gesture should reveal an entire range of feelings'. Painters of Duranty's generation like Degas and Manet were looking for vital clues, which would reveal a life story, rather than simply reproducing facial features with the stiff formality of photographers or conventional portraitists. It was therefore important to note that Knoedler sits back in his chair. Alert and inquisitive, his right thumb tucked into the armhole of his waistcoat, he has just removed his pince-nez and addresses the spectator. He is making a point. Although it is said that he knew clients better than he knew art, Knoedler, like many art dealers of his day, would consider himself something of a connoisseur. It is not fanciful to assume that Orpen portrays him removing his pince-nez after studying a picture, even though there is no internal visual evidence to support this. He sits alongside distinguished portraits of dealers and connoisseurs such as Frank Holl's William Agnew, 1883; Sargent's Asher Wertheimer, 1898; his Hugh Lane, 1906; George Henry's James Staats Forbes studying a picture, 1902; and others.
Like many dealers, Knoedler is a dapper individual. He poses dressed in the cream waistcoat and cotton ducks, which had been fashionable in the Edwardian period, which for Konody created a 'very unusual and enchanting harmony of salmon pink, yellow and white in a daringly high key of colour'. His waxed moustache and carefully knotted tie tells us that he is fastidious - a man of precise judgement. These and his neatly trimmed hair tells us of his vanity, and more deeply of his generation's fascination for the manners of the Second Empire, when Ingres' M.Bertin and Bonnat's Ary Renan were much admired, whilst the black armband tells us of his sensitivity and loyalty, and the importance of family and personal relationships, along with a sense of propriety.
Two classic predecessors come immediately to mind. One is Giovanni Boldini's Self-Portrait 1911 (Museo Boldini, Ferrara). Here a portly figure with a waxed moustache turns to engage the spectator. The other is closer to home. Walter Russell's Mr Minney, (fig. 1, Tate, London) was 'picture of the year' at the Royal Academy in 1920. Russell had been an instructor at the Slade in the nineties and was a regular exhibitor at the New English, before being sucked into the Royal Academy where he eventually succeeded Clausen as keeper of the Schools. His grand portrait of Mr Minney was seen as a great 'Pickwickian' expression of London character. While he shares Knoedler's vanity, for depth, subtlety and 'edge', the ageing art dealer holds the stage.
Certainly Konody approved of Orpen's compositional arrangement, ranking it among 'Orpen's greatest achievements'. However, its first unveiling at the Royal Academy was to some extent eclipsed by the controversial To the Unknown British Soldier in France. Currently The Illustrated London News carried a full-page photo of Orpen stating that The Unknown British Soldier will be 'one of the most-talked-of canvases at this year's exhibition'3. However, The Times critic approved the 'flicker of amusement' in Orpen's portraits. He had failed to find it in Miss Aldrich Blake MS, MD, but it was there in abundance in the Knoedler 4. Interestingly, The Studio considered 'Sir William Orpen's contributions (to the 1923 Royal Academy Exhibition) ... are conspicuous as technical exercises of amazing power, a little too demonstrative in manner but consummately able in accomplishment and vigorously insistent in characterisation' 5. Somehow such a description is totally in keeping with what we know of the sitter's personality and character, and appropriately underscores Orpen's already stated view of his role as a portrait artist.
Orpen's own association with Knoedler's dates to February 1910 when the London gallery purchased a Self-Portrait from the artist. In a letter of the following year, Orpen set out his prices for portrait commissions obtained through the gallery. In 1912, Knoedler's, in conjunction with Colnaghi's under the auspices of the Grosvenor Gallery, purchased a number of important genre works that included, Improvisation on a Barrell Organ, 1904, (National Museums on Merseyside, Liverpool); At the Bar, circa 1908; The Wreck of the Toy Boat, 1909; In the Tent, 1912; Afternoon Sleep, 1912; and Looking towards the Sea, 1912 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin). In 1914, Knoedler's in New York hosted the Orpen's first solo exhibition outside London, at their Broadway Gallery. This resulted in the sale of the self-portrait, Leading the Life In The West, 1910, to Mrs St George's father, the New York banker, George F. Baker, for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Exactly how well Orpen knew Roland is not clear, but a close relationship with the firm then followed, especially with the London representative Charles S. Carstairs, whose wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, Lily, Orpen painted in 1914. He also painted Charles, and his son Carroll Carstairs, who was both friend of the artist and involved in the business with his father 6. Many of the works sent over to the USA in 1914 for the exhibition, stayed with Knoedler's, New York during the next few years, and a number were returned in July 1921, once the Grosvenor Gallery re-opened after the war. Many of Orpen's American clients came about as a result of his association with Knoedler's. It was probably a combination of all these factors that prompted Orpen to paint the ageing Roland Knoedler as a mark of gratitude.
1 Quoted in Arnold, p. 406.
2 Konody and Dark, p. 234.
3 The Illustrated London News, 5 May 1923, p. 7.
4 Anon., 'The Royal Academy: The Portraits', The Times, 7 May 1923, p. 7.
5 The Studio, 85, No. 363, June 1923, p. 324.
6 It has not been possible to establish the date of Charles Carstairs' portrait.