One of the most legendary art dealers, collectors, patrons, and publishers of all time, Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) put modern art on the map by launching the careers of some of its most important artists. He is credited with providing exposure and emotional support to numerous artistic greats such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Pablo Picasso. An enigmatic and often difficult individual, Vollard was a visionary businessman with a keen eye for artistic talent.
Born on July 3, 1866, Vollard grew up on the island of Reunion, a small French colony in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar. Vollard’s father, a notary, sent Vollard to Paris to study law, but Vollard found more fun and profit in buying art prints for next to nothing from street vendors on the Seine and selling them for twice what he paid. He soon stopped studying law and embarked on a career as an art dealer.
In September of 1893, Vollard opened a small art gallery at 37 rue Laffitte in the heart of the Paris art world. Vollard’s sharp intuition and business savvy initially led him to three important artists: Edouard Manet, Paul Cezanne, and Vincent Van Gogh. In 1894, Vollard acquired a group of Manet’s drawings and unfinished paintings from Manet’s widow and exhibited them to resounding acclaim. As a result, he acquired a larger gallery space down the street at 39 rue Laffitte. It was in this space that Vollard hosted Cezanne’s first solo exhibition in November 1895. This exhibition became an overnight sensation and set the art world on fire, paving the way for Cezanne’s reputation as a revered modern master and Vollard’s reputation as a knowledgeable and progressive dealer of avant-garde art. In 1896, Vollard continued to gain prominence in the art world by hosting a posthumous exhibition of major works by Vincent Van Gogh. As a result of these two major exhibitions, Vollard met the artists Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas and began to deal works by (and forge friendships with) both artists.
In the early 1900s, Vollard worked with such artistic greats as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Henri Rouault. In 1901, Vollard hosted Picasso’s first show to mediocre financial success. However, this collaboration sparked a lifelong professional and personal relationship between Picasso and Vollard. Vollard continued to purchase, exhibit, and sell works by Picasso throughout his life and inspired Picasso’s celebrated series of etchings The Vollard Suite (1930-1937). Vollard also hosted Matisse’s first solo exhibition in 1904 to limited financial success. Unlike his relationship with Picasso, Vollard’s relationship with Matisse was short-lived; however, Vollard formed a significant partnership with fauvist Georges Rouault when he purchased 770 works from Rouault prior to World War I.
With the outbreak of World War I, Vollard was forced to close his gallery. Following the war, he dissembled his gallery space and operated as a private dealer. Vollard began to commission and publish artist’s books and encouraged artists such as Renoir and Picasso to experiment in a range of artistic mediums such as printmaking, sculpture, and ceramics.
Vollard played a vital role in the modern art movement and left an everlasting impact on the art world. His legacy was left unfinished when he died unexpectedly in a car crash in July 1939, leaving behind unfulfilled projects and countless works in his personal collection. His importance to the modern art movement is evident in his exchanges with famed artists such as Cezanne, Renoir, and Picasso, who created portraits in his likeness. However, despite these visual portrayals of Vollard, Vollard remains a mysterious and private figure.
As art historian Ann Dumas (2007) states, “Opinions about him [Vollard] differed widely. Some artists, like Matisse, complained that the dealer exploited them… Others, however, valued his loyalty and generosity. Cézanne was eternally grateful to Vollard for rescuing him from obscurity, and Renoir was a lifelong friend.” A moody and unpredictable individual, Vollard was subject to his often-rash whims and would quickly switch from the role of animated salesman to silent passerby. However, regardless of his personality and temperament, Vollard remains the most iconic and significant art dealer of the 20th century.
- Dumas, A. (2007). Cezanne to picasso: Ambroise vollard patron of the avant-garde. Retrieved from http://www.artic.edu/aic/exhibitions/picasso/themes.html
- Stamburg, S. (2006, October 17). The art of the dealer: From cezanne to Picasso. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6279921
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