Just over four and one half years ago I met a small group of Friends of the Institute of Fine Arts at the Park Avenue apartment of John and Frances Loeb. John Loeb was then serving as chairman of the Institute's Board of Trustees. His life-long commitment to higher education, his sophisticated intelligence, and his discerning critical judgment had earned him the unqualified respect and admiration of my colleagues, and as a younger member of the faculty, I considered it a special privelege to have been asked to speak about the masterpieces that graced the walls of his home. Mr. and Mrs. Loeb had invited me to their apartment to view the collection a week earlier. With special pride they spoke about their treasures, pointing out which paintings had been promised as gifts to museums around the world. For the Loebs saw themselves as temporary custodians of these great works of art. Although many of the paintings and sculptures in the apartment carried with them a lifetime of intimate memories, the Loebs sense of social commitment extended to the way they treated their collection: these were things to be shared--with family, friends, colleagues and, through generous loans to major exhibitions, with the wider public. When our group assembled at the Loeb home on the evening of October 19, 1992, that night's presidential debate provided an oddly prosaic reminder that historical events as much as hard work and inspired creativity had shaped the sensibilities of the artists we were about to study. And the Loebs, with characteristic aplomb, reminded us that they were interested in worldly affairs no less than in the great works of art with which they lived.
Over the course of almost seven decades together, Frances and John Loeb amassed an encyclopedic collection of modernist--that is to say French--painting and sculpture, extending from Manet to Matisse. The broad outlines, formal development, and social history of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century avant-garde art can easily be plotted in relation to these works. For most of the great names of French painting, in addition to some lesser-known figures, are represented in the Loeb collection: Emile Bernard, Eugène Boudin, Paul Cézanne, Henri Edmond Cross, Edgar Degas, Henri Fantin-Latour, Jean-Louis Forain, Paul Gauguin, Armand Guillaumin, Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro, Odilon Redon, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh and Maurice de Vlaminck. Certain works have achieved the status of masterpieces, objects that would be at home in any of the world's great museums: van Gogh's riveting Oleandres of August 1888, which in fact has already been given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Pissarro's Boulevard Montmartre, printemps of 1897, which will enter the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; Toulouse-Lautrec's intimate character study of a performer at rest (lot 111); Manet's debonair self-portrait (lot 107); Cézanne's monumental image of his wife, Hortense Fiquet (lot 115); and a superlative view of l'Estaque by Cézanne painted around 1883-1885 (lot 117). Other works provide significant accents to this venerable pantheon: an 1879 landscape by Armand Guillaumin (lot 116) of a site in the Ile de France that his close friend Cézanne also painted; a bucolic view by Renoir (lot 122) of the Seine at Argenteuil that takes its place beside Monet's celebrated images of the village and its environs; and at a location further upstream, a vivid landscape by Seurat (lot 106) that is closely related to his preparatory studies for Un dimanche à La Grande Jatte of 1884-1886. From Pissarro's grands boulevards to the backstreets of Montmartre (Utrillo's Rue de l'Abreuvoir, lot 129); from the sumptuous decorations of the bourgeois interior (Tissot's By the Fireside, lot 105) to country life in the Haute-Marne (Cross's Femmes liant la vigne, lot 112); from Renoir's classicizing nudes (Baigneuse debout, lot 119) to the bohemian world of the circus (Lautrec's Danseuse assise aux bas roses, lot 111); and from a provincal functionary (Cézanne's L'Oncle Dominique, lot 118) to a worldly boulevardier (Manet's Portrait de Manet par lui-même, en buste, lot 107), the Loebs' treasures speak to issues of quality and breadth that are the hallmarks of great collections.
If there is a clear formal and historical consistency among these works, it is in large measure due to the close contact maintained by the artists themselves. For this entire generation of painters, the figure of Edouard Manet, the modern Old Master, loomed large as a model of formal audacity and sophisticated elegance in both his personal and professional life. Manet inherited Courbet's mantle as an aesthetic, if not a political, revolutionary, and embodied Charles Baudelaire's painter of modern life; with inspired irreverence, Manet claimed the artistic past as so much raw material to be reworked, flaunting his innovations before the public. Cézanne openly acknowledged his debt to Manet. His burlesque A Modern Olympia was exhibited in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, both an homage and a challenge to the authority of the acknowledged leader of the École de Batignolles. Even earlier, Cézanne had defiantly brandished his weapon--a palette knife--in a series of portraits of his uncle Dominique, identifying himself as the stylistic heir to the painter from Ornans while tipping his hat to Manet: the tonal richness of the Loeb L'Oncle Dominique immediately points to Manet's liberal and innovative use of black.
In the wake of Manet's untimely death in 1884, Cézanne in turn assumed a position of leadership among his contemporaries. Gauguin owned a still-life by the artist, and Matisse purchased a bather composition from Vollard in the 1890s. Guillaumin worked at his side, and Renoir found inspiration in the arid landscape and clear skies of l'Estaque that Cézanne had so often painted. For Picasso, Cézanne was the indisputable master of form, the artist who had rejuvenated the tradition of the paysage composé extending from Poussin to Corot, and who announced the birth of Cubism.
However much these judgments may appear overly prophetic to some, there is no question that the artists concerned shared a deep sense of historical community: from Gauguin's friendship with the young Emile Bernard in the summer of 1888 to his ill-fated visit with van Gogh later that year; from Toulouse-Lautrec's admiration for Degas's dancers to Redon's careful study of his monotypes; from van Gogh's expressionism and the quasi-scientific methods employed by Seurat and the Neo-Impressionists to the explosive brushwork of Vlaminck and the impassioned old-age style of Monet. These connections were formative and determining. The Vollards and Durand-Ruels, Berthe-Weills and Kahnweilers of the French art world insisted on them, building bridges among artists and historical generations. And the annual memorial retrospectives of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters at the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d'Automne--Manet, van Gogh and Seurat in 1905; Gauguin in 1906; and Cézanne in 1907--insured that their legacy was inscribed in the annals of art history.
This is as much a part of the tradition that we call the avant-garde as are the well-worn tropes of agonistic sacrifices and social alienation. Baudelaire's painter of modern life was a worldly figure--savvy, educated, and passionately involved with the business and aesthetics of his profession. The outstanding collection assembled by Frances and John Loeb gives us pause to evaluate this legacy, and to reflect upon the thematic diversity and formal complexity of modernist painting.
Robert S. Lubar
Associate Professor of Fine Arts
Institute of Fine Arts, New York University