Dealer's Choice

Paul Guillaume bought and sold paintings for a living, but he kept the best for himself. Now his superb collection is coming to North America for the first time ever.

Unlike artists, whose fame often grows after their death, art dealers tend to be forgotten as soon as they are no longer of use. One such victim of collective amnesia is Paul Guillaume, who died in 1934 at the early age of forty-three and whose full biography is now unwritable, since practically everyone who knew him has joined him in the hereafter. That Guillaume should be so poorly remembered might seem a bit strange, considering that he assembled, together with his wife, Juliette (whom he called Domenica because they'd met on a Sunday), an art collection stupendous enough to fill a large building in the center of Paris; but even in his lifetime people began to take him for granted. After the publication, in 1927, of a memoir by the poet Francis Carco that was largely devoted to the painter Amadeo Modigliani and completely ignored Guillaume, the dealer wrote to Carco in a bitter open letter: "In the shadow of that sad and visionary genius you have traced several silhouettes, but not my own. . . . In a little apartment that I occupied in 1915 on the Avenue de Villiers, I had so many Modiglianis that they covered the walls, and the canvases stacked at the foot of the walls so packed the rooms that you could hardly squeeze by."

It was indeed Guillaume who alerted the world to the existence of Modigliani and also that of the painter Chaim Soutine. The now-forgotten dealer represented his friend André Derain for more than a decade, assembled a major African-art collection, and became Dr. Albert C. Barnes' preferred agent in Paris: Most of the 20th-century material now at The Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, was funneled to Barnes by Guillaume. The magnificent collection that normally fills the Musée de l'Orangerie, the former greenhouse that lies parallel to the Jeu de Paume in Paris, is essentially the consequence of Guillaume's efforts.

In 1998 the Orangerie, having closed its doors for renovation, decided to send most of its treasures on a world tour; the traveling exhibition, titled "From Renoir to Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée de l'Orangerie," is now on view at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The show presents 81 of the 145 pictures in the Orangerie's permanent collection; they include 17 Renoirs, 14 Cézannes, ten Matisses, nine Soutines, seven Picassos, six Derains, six Henri Rousseaus, five Modiglianis, four Marie Laurencins, and three Utrillos. The selection, made by Pierre Georgel, chief curatorof the Orangerie, is a delight, and it offers us the opportunity to view the collection as a reflection of its builder's acumen and drive.

Modigliani's two best-known portraits of Paul Guillaume—there are four altogether—show a self-confident young man with a fussy little mustache and Trilby hat, lips half-parted, chin held high. He seems to have been a rather unimposing figure, one of those sharp-tongued shopkeeper types who form the backbone of the class known as petits parisiens; his mother had kept a milliner's shop on the Rue de Miromesnil, where he himself would one day open a small gallery. After a checkered adolescence—he was dishonorably discharged from the army for reasons that remain unclear—he suddenly found his vocation one day as he stood before an idol from the French Sudan that he'd spied in a laundry window. "How can one explain," he would later wonder, "the presence of such a remarkable object in such an ordinary place? . . . Whatever the explanation, my taste was formed."

Guillaume breezed into the art trade before he was twenty: down-to-earth and devoid of pretension, he held his first shows in his little flat in the Avenue de Villiers. His successive galleries, all in or near the high-rent Rue du faubourg-Saint-Honoré, were often narrow and cramped, although beautifully appointed; and even in 1929, in the full bloom of success, he was obliged to enlist the good graces of the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune for an exhibition of his private trove. Under the aegis of his friend and mentor Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet, prankster, and African-art lover, Paul Guillaume cultivated Picasso and the other Cubists and the primitivist Henri Rousseau. Still, sub-Saharan art would always remain his chief enthusiasm, and he eventually became an outspoken exponent of what the French call cultural métissage, or crossbreeding. Author and coauthor of two books on African sculpture, he liked to insist that "negritude" was an essential ingredient in the modern spirit—a view that would later attract the attention of Dr. Barnes, himself a passionate champion of the black minority in America.

It must be said that the memory of Paul Guillaume has long been ambiguously served by the Orangerie, which has not published anything about him beyond a useful prefatory notice in its catalog of his collection. Fortunately, the story of how Paul and Domenica Guillaume's pictures came to inhabit the museum is well documented. By the time Guillaume died he had assembled a phenomenal quantity of fine African and European art; and his widow (who in 1941 married the wealthy architect Jean Walter, builder of the hulking Faculté de Médecine on the Rue des Saints-Pères) was able to add many paintings to the collection, which she sold to the French state for a nominal sum in 1959 and 1963. Dubbed the Walter-Guillaume Collection, the pictures were presented to the Orangerie in 1966. For the occasion, André Malraux, then minister of cultural affairs, had the building's roof raised and a grand staircase installed. (The collection didn't go on view permanently until 1984.)

What grabs the visitor to the Montreal show is that here is a collection of great paintings spanning the years 1875 to 1934—the height of the modern period—during which modern art, at least as it is most simply defined, is almost entirely absent. There is no Fauvism, little Cubism, no abstraction, virtually no Surrealism, and nothing by Matisse at his most audacious, his most color-saturated. In part, this circumstance was fortuitous. Like any canny dealer, Guillaume, as his fortune grew, picked up all sorts of blue-chip items from earlier periods, especially Renoirs and Rousseaus. Domenica's later contribution consisted largely of Cézannes. But even if we look only at Guillaume's own contemporary art purchases, we find that they are limited exclusively to figurative artists—Derain, Matisse, Modigliani, Soutine, Utrillo, Marie Laurencin—and to mostly neoclassical works by Picasso.

What accounts for this traditionalist, at times deceptively salonlike character of Guillaume's collection? Picasso's Large Bather, from 1921, the most commanding of the contemporary pictures he acquired, may help to provide an answer. Like almost all of Guillaume's Picassos, this huge nude is painted in the master's classical-revival manner, which had become the dominant style in advanced Paris painting by 1921. Neoclassicism is usually defined as the imitation of themes from antiquity, and what's antique—that is, Greco-Roman—about this masterpiece is the concept of the seated nude, her monumentality, the almost mathematical exactitude of her placement, and a kind of flesh-rendering that's superficially similar to conventional modeling. As it happens, Guillaume was never Picasso's dealer, nor was he an ideological promoter of neoclassicism—far from it. But as a practical-minded businessman he came along just as this movement was building up steam, which gave him every reason to sell and collect good examples of it.

Doctrinaire modernists were disappointed by Picasso's postwar attraction to naturalism, but careful scrutiny of this bather could call into question her classical credentials. With her sausagey limbs and massive hands and feet, this matronly figure, who harks back to Ingres' willful distortions, violates the academic canons of beauty. Likewise, the flesh-modeling, in its suppression of reflected light, is closer to self-taught handling, to what we think of as plain old "bad painting," than to what was taught in the French academies of the day. The picture derives its power from its abstract proportions, somber colors, grainy sfumato effects, and a kind of nostalgia that borders on parody. Picasso is not so much trying to get back to the past here as he is showing what happens when you make the attempt; he's not solving a problem but basking in it, wallowing in loss, in the anxiety of the irrecoverable. Over time, Guillaume managed to acquire five of these playfully archaic Picassos, most of which have come to Montreal. They surely feel less mordant than they once did, but seen in context, they also suggest that offering a gloss on the past was for a time one of the more adventurous things a Paris painter could do.

In addition to dealing, Guillaume published, at irregular intervals, a small-format glossy magazine titled Les Arts à Paris, whose latest issues he would display in his gallery window. The articles, devoted to the visual avant-garde, were signed by writers nobody had ever heard of, and eccentric letters rampaged through the correspondence pages. People with names like Captain W. Redstone, Docteur Alainby, and Colonel Bonardi would air more or less vehement opinions. (In 1927 a fierce dispute erupted between "V.," an "antiques purveyor by appointment to the Court of Belgium," and Guillaume's "second secretary," a shameless vamp much given to insults and threats of violence.) Enjoying particular authority in the magazine's pages was somebody calling himself The Blue Negro, who in the fourth issue was pleased to announce Paris' "First Black Festival," including music by Poulenc and Honegger and body art by the portraitist Kees van Dongen. The pseudonymous author of all these items was, of course, Guillaume himself.

The jewel in Guillaume's crown, and the man to whom his gallery owed most of its cachet, was André Derain. British and American audiences tend to think of Derain as a minor if talented artist, one of the best of the Fauves, but actually he abandoned the Fauve style in 1907 and soldiered on productively until 1954. For a long period, roughly 1918 to 1934, he was widely regarded not only as the third-greatest painter working in Paris, after Picasso and Matisse, but also as the most truly French of the three. Morose and energetic (he once rode a bicycle from Paris to Avignon), the green-eyed, meaty-faced Derain regularly held forth at a table in the Deux Magots and for a while owned a manor house, the Château Parouzeau. A motorcar and aircraft enthusiast, he haunted automotive fairs, tooled around Saint-Germain in a tiny Bugatti, and built model airplanes in his studio. Guillaume mounted his first Derain show during the war, in 1916, when the painter was still technically represented by D.H. Kahnweiler, and by 1922 he had captured him for himself; the two would remain close friends until Guillaume's death.

Of the 28 Derains that are owned by the Orangerie—they comprise almost one-fifth of the entire collection—only six have traveled to Montreal. (The condition of several of the works kept them in Paris.) The many virtuosic Corot-inspired Provençal landscapes are absent, and the pictures that were selected tend to show the artist in a rather anguished mood. The most unclassical dimension of Derain's work is his obsession with in-between emotional states—half-revelations, truncated memories, shards of will or conviction. The fact that he used a lot of vestigial painting conventions and even flirted with kitsch doesn't mean he was conventional; to read his work that way would be like missing the sarcasm in a bartender's voice.

Derain's pseudoclassicism was about style: Just as a jazz pianist can hear a "standard" running through his head while he's actually playing inventive riffs, Derain coaxed highly personal variations out of a fairly fixed tradition. Starting in 1919, he also did the sets and costumes for about 20 theatrical productions, working with Diaghilev, among others, and later with Balanchine. Like most stage designers, he resorted to an exaggeration of symbolic elements to put across dramatic themes. Much of his easel painting, like the Pierrot and Harlequin that Guillaume commissioned in 1924, shows the impress of this theatrical mindset, this flamboyant enlistment of known prototypes—it's as if he's desperate to remind his public that his paintings are reveries or fictions, stories going on in his head. His portrait of his little niece Geneviève, who throws one white-stockinged leg backward as if in unconscious betrayal of her otherwise chaste pose, seems like a moment in an imaginary play. Guillaume steadfastly supported Derain, who ate up a lot of money, and when Guillaume died the painter was brokenhearted.

Guillaume's commercial strategy, which he shared with several other Right Bank dealers, now seems obvious, but at the time was startlingly novel. Ignoring the profitless official "salons" and the chimera of state patronage, these merchants borrowed a lot of capital, acquired a substantial quantity of stock, released it slowly, and above all, tried to ensure that their artists' work appeared regularly at the Hôtel Drouot, the auction hall, where bidder competition was conspicuously rising. The scheme worked: The constant circulation of new paintings and the jump in speculative buying caused contemporary art prices to double between 1918 and 1927. Still, it must be said that, forall his natural cunning, Guillaume's fortune was really made on that day in 1920 when he first shook the hand of Dr. Albert C. Barnes.

Barnes was probably drawn to Guillaume because of their shared interest in black art. But it was also through Barnes' patronage that Guillaume was able to elevate Chaim Soutine, then an unknown, to Montparnasse stardom. "One day," Guillaume reported in his magazine, "I went to a painter's studio to look at a canvas by Modigliani when I noticed in a corner of the studio something that instantly thrilled me. It was a Soutine showing a pastry cook . . . cursed with an immense ear, wonderful, unexpected, and perfect: a masterpiece. I bought it. Dr. Barnes saw it in my gallery and cried, 'That's a peach!' " Guillaume's association with Barnes lasted until 1927: The Parisian (aided by his wife, who had the knack of jollying along the famously cranky Barnes) would sell not only Soutines and other Paris paintings but also a great deal of African sculpture to the Pennsylvania millionaire. As it happens, The Little Pastry Cook hasn't come to Montreal—it belongs to The Barnes Foundation—but Soutine is well represented by portraits, still lifes, and terrific squiggly landscapes from the Côte d'Azur. Guillaume was not actually Soutine's primary agent (Léopold Zborowski was), but these Soutines, which of course owe much to Van Gogh and thus form an anomaly in Guillaume's collection, remind us of an important truth of the art trade: that the best picture dealers can spot anything of value, even if it's outside their purview.

It was probably Apollinaire who introduced Paul Guillaume to Marie Laurencin, the only French woman painter to achieve note in the twenties. By then Laurencin—once Apollinaire's mistress— had pretty much given up on men and was living in virtue with various pets and stuffed animals in a small, super-decorated flat in the Rue José-Maria-de-Heredia. Whether or not Guillaume coveted her for his gallery, as one might gather from an incident related by René Gimpel in his Diary of an Art Dealer, he never actually got her. He did, however, acquire some of her best pictures for his private collection. These days Laurencin doesn't appeal to art-world sophisticates—there's something a bit confectionary or illustrationy about her work—and word has it that the Montreal show has four Laurencins only because of pressure from venues in Japan, where the exhibition started. (The Japanese have a particular taste for Laurencin.) But she was remarkably original, and on the evidence of these canvases—which include a portrait of Domenica Guillaume and another of Coco Chanel—she may be due for a revival. In the Orangerie's pictures we see her embracing not exactly neoclassicism but a woozy, window-dresser's version of Italian Mannerism. Confining herself to grays and to cool, dissonant colors, Laurencin toys with a theme, female narcissism, that chimes perfectly with her caresslike way of stroking on paint.

It's highly unlikely that anybody's estimation of Renoir, Cézanne, Rousseau, Matisse, or Modigliani will be much altered by the Montreal show. But both Renoir and Cézanne in their later years wanted to pull their painting into alignment with the French classical tradition, and their respect for clarity and solidity clearly influenced many of the pictures—particularly the Picassos, Derains, Laurencins, and Modiglianis—that Guillaume acquired in the twenties. The case of Modigliani is especially curious in that his blend of classicism and primitivism paralleled Guillaume's own habit of showing examples of contemporary naturalism together with African sculpture. A little masterpiece like Woman with Velvet Neckband fuses Cézannesque color with the geometrical severity of the Gabonese masks that Guillaume often put on display. (Unfortunately, Guillaume's collection of African and Oceanic art no longer exists; most of it was auctioned off at Drouot in 1965.)

The only thing one finally misses in this superb show is some sign of explicit attention to Paul Guillaume's role as the chief builder of the Orangerie's collection. Unhappily, there is an irresolvable conflict (call it a case of the quick versus the dead) between the deceased collector whose pictures have been bequeathed to a museum and the curator who must conserve and present those pictures. Granted, the implicit script of an art collection like Guillaume's may not fit in with the curator's conception of history, or it may seem to represent an extinct aesthetic viewpoint; yet isn't there something to be said for presenting pictures as (among other things) memorials to those who gathered them? Pleading the case for the vanished Guillaumes of this world are our historical curiosity, our personal admiration, and our natural loyalty to the touching, higgledy-piggledy way that things come down to us from the past. No human accumulation, we feel, is without its hidden order; the most haphazard attic junk heap is in some way a reliquary and a clue to our forebears' sensibilities. Guillaume himself liked to point out that the French public collections, starved by the state and the parsimonious upper classes, owed almost everything to merchants and to traders. On the strength of what we see of his legacy today, he had a point.

Dan Hofstadter wrote about the photographer Arnold Newman in Departures' March/April 2000 issue.