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Who is Ambroise Vollard?
Posted by TK on 4/2/2008 1:16:56 PM (ET)
Filed Under: General
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Ambroise Vollard was the ultimate wheeler-dealer of the early 20th century art world; the man who gave Cezanne, Picasso, and Maillol their first one-man shows. He was the vortex of the Paris art world from the 1890's until his death in 1939. Henri Matisse called him fifi voleur — a crude way of saying thief. Paul Cezanne called him "an honest man." Either way, he wielded great power to shape artists’ careers.

Born on July 3, 1866, in Saint-Denis, La Réunion, Vollard moved to Paris in 1887. In 1893, he established his own art gallery on Rue Laffitte, then the center of the Parisian market for contemporary art. In 1895, at the age of 29, he mounted his first major show in Paris. He bought 150 works for almost nothing from a relatively unknown artist named Paul Cezanne. Renoir, Monet and Matisse bought his work, entrenching Vollard's reputation and his fortune. About 680 paintings, two-thirds of Cezanne's work, eventually passed through Vollard's hands.

Vollard had an exceptional eye for talent and promotion and he understood that artists, in order to survive, need exposure and emotional support as much as they need money. Maillol once said, "It is thanks to Vollard that I am able to live." At a time when most dealers and critics ignored or chastised the modernists, Vollard boldly and perceptively bought their work.

His gallery became the rendezvous for the avant-garde, and an invitation to an animated banquet in Vollard's cellar was highly coveted among the elite and fashionable. Everybody who was anybody passed through Vollard's gallery. He represented Matisse at one time as well as Renoir, Degas, Bonnard, Rouault and Gauguin. Vollard met Picasso when the artist was just 19-years-old and had not yet made his mark in the art world, but Vollard recognized something special in him. Their relationship would last until Vollard’s death.

A shrewd businessman, Vollard made a fortune with the "buy low, sell high" mantra, selling to adventurous collectors, such as Albert C. Barnes, Henry Osborne Havemeyer, Gertrude Stein and her brother, Leo Stein. With this fortune Vollard launched a second career as a publisher of prints and fine illustrated books. He commissioned graphics from Maurice Denis, Odilon Redon, Degas, Rouault, Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Picasso. He also wrote biographies of his favorite artists, brought out bronze casts of sculptures by Maillol, Bonnard, Picasso, and Renoir, and found time somehow to sit for portraits.

Grimly described as a "large, gruff, boorish fellow" with "downcast eyes” he still inspired his artist friends: Picasso did a cubist study of him, Bonnard painted him as a genial host, and Renoir portrayed him as a toreador. "The most beautiful woman who ever lived," Picasso said, "never had her portrait painted, drawn, or engraved more often than Vollard."

Ambroise Vollard died in a car crash on July 22, 1939, at the age of 73. It is said he was struck in the head by a small bronze sculpture by Maillol that he kept in his car. Death by art seems a fitting end to the 20th century’s most influential art dealer. Vollard died without direct heirs. Much of his extensive art collection was left to family and close friends, although a significant number of works apparently were sold, dispersed, or disappeared during the war.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard
Paul Cezanne, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard
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