Nathan Wildenstein (1851-1934) was born on 8 November 1851 and grew up in Fegersheim, a village in Alsace south of Strasbourg. The Wildenstein clan had resided in Fegersheim since the beginning of the 18th century, and for generations many of them made their living in the buying and selling of horses. Nathan left school at an early age and worked for a time selling men's ties in a shop in Strasbourg run by Wildenstein cousins. He considered himself a Frenchman and against his father's wishes nineteen-year old Nathan had elected to leave his native Alsace after the Franco-Prussian War. However, his departure created a serious rift between him and his family, with whom he had little further contact.
From Strasbourg, Nathan traveled to Paris, which was still under siege so he was turned away and may have worked for a while in Liège. Once he returned to France, he settled in the province of Champagne, where he apparently worked in the shop of a tailor or cloth merchant. He is said to have visited the Château of Vitry-la-Ville belonging to Comte de Riancourt, where he saw among the other paintings a portrait of a woman by Nattier, a work with which he became infatuated and which his gallery would later acquire and sell to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. In Vitry, Nathan met Laure Lévy (1856-1937), the daughter of Samson Levy and Leah Milhaud. Nathan courted her for a number of years and they finally married on March 31, 1886.
Nathan ultimately settled in Paris, where he and a partner named Lachatroulle ran a manufactory of neckwear and cuffs at 111, rue Montmartre, a business that was still operating in 1876. One day, a Countess Potocka with whom he was acquainted asked him to sell an Old Master painting for her, a portrait of a Flemish dignitary by, or at least attributed to, Anthony van Dyck.
Although he knew nothing about art at that point, he spent days haunting the corridors and galleries of the Louvre in an experience that was overwhelming revelation to him and that he later termed "heavenly disorder". He left the museum convinced he had found his calling. He successfully negotiated the sale of the lady's painting, and with the profit bought other pictures. Nathan took a gamble, totally abandoning his early career and putting all of his meagre income into acquiring works of art. He trained his eye by constant visits to museums, private collections, dealer's shops on both sides of the Seine, flea markets and the auction rooms of the Hôtel Drouot and the Galerie Georges Petit. Sheer will power led him to become a connoisseur in the fullest sense of the word. He was sought out for his expertise, which some collectors came to regard as nearly infallible.
In the late 1870s Nathan Wildenstein opened in Paris where he began buying and selling French paintings. Enamoured with the creative brilliance of the French ancien regime and the Enlightenment, Nathan was quick to see that the vagaries of fashion and taste had dispersed these underappreciated masterpieces into unjustified obscurity. He was endowed with an instinct for quality and an ability to recognise the masterpiece lost among a multitude of other objects. In 1890, he was able to move to the more prestigious location at 46, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
He and his wife were an ideal couple. Well-educated, an omnivorous reader, a talented hostess, Laure added a certain distinction to the marriage and was the soul of the family. A modern woman, she oversaw the firm's bookkeeping, the preparation of invoices and the correspondence exchanged between her husband and a growing number of clients.
A smart dresser, Nathan Wildenstein is said to have had a wry, jovial, entertaining and infectious sense of humour that endeared him to many with whom he came into contact. Moreover his enthusiasm about the works he was selling was absolutely contagious. By the turn of the 20th century, he was considered as one of the pre-eminent art dealers in Europe and with a flair for seizing opportunity the instant it appeared. Nathan Wildenstein's intrepid spirit meant that he had amassed a superb collection of Old Masters and established himself as one of the leading art dealers in Europe.
Ahead of his time and sensing opportunities across the Atlantic, Nathan opened a gallery in New York in 1903, followed by another in London in 1925. Seizing on the importance of educating the new generation of Industrialists and railroad magnates, Nathan's careful and informed cultural tutelage of the likes of Jules S. Bache, Henry Ford, Edward G. Robinson, the Havermeyers, Henry and Arabella Huntington and Mortimer Schiff ultimately provided the backbones of the great bequests to American Museums. The business he created in the 1870s, grew into a vast enterprise that today includes galleries in New York and Tokyo and a research institute in Paris.
From before the turn of the century to the end of his life, Nathan Wildenstein began a collection which was housed in his principal home in Paris at 57, rue de la Boétie which he had acquired in 1905 following the continued success of the business. The building had been designed in 1776 by Charles de Wailly, one of the two architects of the Théâtre de l'Odéon, for his own use.
Nathan gave the building its present configuration with the succession of sitting rooms and galleries designed to showcase works of art and house a library. Many of the pieces he acquired were from some of the most prestigious collections including the French Rothschilds, Doucet, David-Weil, Kann, Lion, Burat, Bensimon, Helft, Seligmann, Lévy, Kraemer and Veil-Picard.
While a few of the pieces were illustrated in Charles Packer's Paris Furniture published in 1956, the majority are little known, even in illustrations.
Nathan's son, Georges Wildenstein (1892-1963) inherited his father's eye and instincts and also cultivated a broader interest in the academic pursuit of art history itself. He assembled an extraordinary library and photographic archive, concentrating particularly on the late 19th century, and purchased works by Cézanne, Degas, Manet and Monet. Georges' passion for French art and culture knew no bounds, and his profound understanding of them was conditioned not only by his reading and the elaborate research projects he initiated, but also by his visits to art museums, exhibitions, commercial galleries, auction houses and homes of private collectors.
Daniel Wildenstein (1917-2001) was born to Georges and Jane Wildenstein in Verrières-le-Buisson, near Paris. Educated at the Sorbonne, he joined the family business in New York in 1940.
He continued to expand his family's collections and published catalogues on the works of Monet, Renoir and others. At the Wildenstein Institute, Daniel Wildenstein revised and expanded the catalogues raisonnés on Chardin, Gauguin, Houdon, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Redon, Renoir, Hubert Robert, Van Dongen, Vigée Le Brun and Vlaminck. Like his father, Daniel was elected Membre Libre de l'Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France.