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Saturday, September 1, 2007

My dealer, saint and sinner - The


My dealer, saint and sinner
Sep 1st 2007

Profile: The Wildensteins, a power before Picasso

LEGEND maintains that in 1918 Picasso lashed out at his dealer, saying, “Le marchand - voilà l’ennemi!” As Picasso, a shrewd operator, knew only too well, dealers can be aggravatingly powerful. They are the saints of the art world—supporting struggling artists, shining a light on unacknowledged genius, exemplifying the highest standards of scholarship and connoisseurship; and also the sinners, accused of every possible skulduggery in pursuit of a higher price for their artists and a higher profit for themselves.

The dealer who bore the brunt of Picasso’s wrath was called Léonce Rosenberg. His silent partner at the time, in what was to become an historic deal with the artist, was Georges Wildenstein.

The Wildenstein name was already well-known in the art world. Nathan Wildenstein, an exile from Alsace, established a dealership in Paris in the late 1870s founded on his passion for French 18th-century painting—Fragonard, Boucher, Chardin, David, de la Tour and others. The son of a family of horse dealers, who had left school early, Nathan developed his eye studying masterpieces in the Louvre. Within 20 years he had a collection of French, Dutch, Italian and Spanish old masters to rival the Rothschilds' and the Gulbenkians'.

He saw that the real money in fine art was to be made not in Europe, catering to a declining aristocracy, but in America. In 1903 he and a partner opened a gallery on Fifth Avenue where they became indispensable advisors to financiers, industrialists and celebrities including Rockefeller, Mellon, Morgan, Frick, Bache, Lehman, and Edward G. Robinson.

Nathan's son, Georges, expanded the firm’s interests from old masters to impressionists and post-impressionists, nurturing the reputations of figures such as Manet, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Pissarro, and Sisley, and establishing long-term relationships with artists such as Picasso. The holdings of impressionist art in American museums and galleries owe much to the Wildensteins’ work in shaping the taste, and sourcing the art, of several generations of philanthropic collectors.

Georges Wildenstein became an acknowledged scholar of Western art, writing many books and founding the Gazette des Beaux Arts, France’s longest-established and poshest arts journal. His son Daniel, who died in 2001, formalised the family’s scholarly interests by setting up a Wildenstein Institute in Paris in 1970. The institute runs conferences and publishes catalogues raisonnés, including the founder’s own 36-year labour of love on Monet.

For all its grandeur, Wildenstein has kept up with the times. In 1993 it teamed up with Pace, a firm specialising in post-modern and contemporary work, to launch a joint venture called Pace Wildenstein. The gallery deals in blue-chip modern artists from Picasso, Alexander Calder and Josef Albers, through Mark Rothko and Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd, to Fiona Rae, James Turrell and Keith Tyson.

Black square

The Wildensteins famously guard their privacy, but their name has made the headlines involuntarily now and again. In 1991 the family sued an author who claimed that Georges Wildenstein, though Jewish, had dealt knowingly with the Nazis in occupied Paris. In 1998 a spectacularly messy and expensive divorce made one of Daniel's sons, Alec, and his wife, Jocelyne, a mainstay of the tabloids.

Much is rumoured, but little is known for certain, about the art the Wildensteins have collected for themselves down the years. A 1973 inventory of the “vault”, or New York storeroom, was said to have included 20 Renoirs, 25 Courbets, ten Van Goghs, ten Cézannes, ten Gauguins, two Boticellis, eight Rembrandts, eight Rubens, nine El Grecos and five Tintorettos, among a total of 10,000 paintings. Not bad, if true, even for a century's work.

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