“What are you doing here?” asked a fellow student wandering through one of the museum’s galleries.
“Um, looking at paintings,” I responded.
“Me too. But what are you really doing here?”
I decided to have a little fun.
“Buying paintings.” I said nonchalantly.
“These?” He pointed at a Monet.
While I wasn’t actually shopping that day, I was attending an exhibition that profiled a man who owned hundreds of paintings from Cézanne to Picasso. This man was Ambroise Vollard, and the exhibit was aptly titled Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard Patron of the Avant-Garde.
The exhibition showcases nearly 250 works possessed by Vollard during his lifetime. The exhibit begins naturally with the paintings displayed by a young Vollard. Paintings of Vincent Van Gogh are among the first. However, it is the work of Cézanne that defines the exhibit.
In 1895, Paul Cézanne was a man in his mid-50s with modest fame in the art community. Respected among his peers, there was one thing his career had been without up to that point: a solo exhibition. In that year, Vollard gave Cézanne his exhibition. With this, Cézanne was finally given his due in the art world and has since been elevated to a position as one of the most important painters of the 19th century and a father of modern art in the 20th century.
The exhibit contained paintings from Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, along with many others. One of the highlights of the show was Gauguin’s epic painting “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” This painting has since come to represent the total oeuvre of Gauguin.
The greatest thing about this exhibit, and one that sets it apart, is the fact that the viewer sees early work from brilliant artists before they had fully matured. Vollard, an art dealer to so many, owned a lot of early work hinting at future genius. Seeing early Cézanne from the 1870s before the seminal works depicting the lush landscapes of Provence in the valley of Mount St. Victoire is like hearing Dylan’s Gaslight tapes from 1962 when he was still relatively unknown. Standing before pre-cubist Picasso is like watching Spike Lee’s thesis film from NYU film school, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads.
The exhibit wonderfully illustrated the effect Cézanne had on not only his contemporaries but also on many of his followers. Artists like Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir bought many of the works from the 1895 exhibition. Vollard was only 29 at the time of the exhibition, a regular Irving Thalberg whiz kid in the art world. Matisse described an early work of Cézanne to be tantamount to his future success and style. The painting of Cézanne’s was entitled “Three Bathers.” Upon viewing this painting, it appears to be more Matisse than Cézanne, despite the fact that Matisse was a child when the painting was made.
Through works of art, the show gives the viewer an autobiographical delineation for Vollard. His life as an art dealer was defined by the art around him. As someone who reportedly did not really like cubism, he still recognized talent despite his own personal misgivings. He supported Picasso up until Vollard’s death in 1939. It was Vollard who gave Picasso his first solo exhibition in Paris soon after the young artist arrived there in 1901. On display in the exhibit is a cubist portrait of Vollard by Picasso.
This exhibition showcased some of the greatest artists and their relationships with a profoundly important art dealer. While Cézanne and Picasso’s influence has rarely been questioned, Vollard represents the man behind the scenes—that person able to recognize talent and harness that talent into fame and success that is essential to all art forms. Before Dino De Laurentiis produced La Strada and George Martin produced Abbey Road, Ambroise Vollard presented Paul Cézanne’s first solo exhibition.