His Son the Art Dealer


Three days before Christmas in 1924, the twenty-four-year-old younger son of Henri Matisse arrived in New York with the intention of selling modern art to Americans. His success in doing so can be measured by the time he was to spend in America and by the fortune he was to make there. On his arrival, Pierre Matisse had a big name, little money, and no English. After his death in 1989, his heirs sold the inventory of the gallery that bore his name to Sotheby’s and the Acquavella Gallery for $142.8 million. As well as becoming president of the Art Dealers Association of America, for sixty-five years Pierre was a one-man conduit through whom much of the best contemporary European art found its way into our public and private collections. Miró, Balthus, Dubuffet: all were given their first one-man shows in America at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in the Fuller Building on the corner of Madison and 57th Street.

Pierre chose to work from New York for practical reasons. The success of the Armory Show in 1913 suggested the potential in America for the appreciation of modern European art. But there was little market for new art in the US because collectors like John Quinn and Albert Barnes either went to Paris themselves or else used European agents to buy important pictures for them. Had Pierre remained in Paris, then the center of the art trade, he would have had to muscle in on the long-established dealers such as Ambroise Vollard and Léonce Rosenberg. In New York no dealer possessed this kind of stature until the arrival of Curt Valentin in 1937.

Pierre got his start by trading on his only asset, his name. Within five days of his arrival, he had bluffed his way into the little gallery run by the book dealer Eberhard Weyhe. The show of his father’s watercolors, pastels, prints, and paintings he mounted there made a bit of money, but more importantly, it helped to make New Yorkers aware of Pierre’s presence in the city. Two years later he was buying art in Europe and selling it from an apartment on East 60th Street, in a building where a jazz band played every afternoon in the downstairs lobby, amusing him, he wrote his parents, with “the velvety sobbing of the saxophones and the dynamic beat, Charleston-style, of the trombones.” By the time he was ready to open his own gallery he was still only thirty-one, and already a full-fledged player among the tiny coterie of American dealers specializing in modern art.

John Quinn’s friend Jeanne Robert Foster explained the next step in an art dealer’s education:

Selling paintings is an art, and it depends on a skillful whetting of the buyer’s appetite, a certain amount of withholding, an intensive publicity, the element of surprise, the element of rivalry and of rarity, and a certain psychological something called personality.

Pierre was to become the master of the carefully choreographed soft sell. In his fine book on Pierre, John Russell writes that when visitors came to the gallery,

It was not in Pierre Matisse’s nature to glad-hand them. But he was somewhere there, noiseless (and, from his point of view, preferably wordless). He never presumed to intrude. But if visitors showed the kind of interest that sets up an unmistakable… buzz, he would eventually come into view, as if taking an unmotivated stroll round the show.

But the suave approach to selling requires patience and a steady nerve. Writing to his father as early as March 1934 Pierre noted that

My gallery is getting more and more popular…. I get many compliments about my exhibitions—the installation, the quality of what I have to show—but sales are few, and they take forever to bring off. The first flicker of interest has to be coaxed along.

In reply, his father drew upon his experience both as an artist and as the offspring of the owners of a seed and hardware store. “A picture is never sold until it’s been paid for. An offer may have been made and accepted, but collectors are so dependent upon every last turn and twist in their private affairs that they can always find a way to get out of it.”

Self-evident though this advice may sound, Pierre was to be frustrated throughout his career by clients who wouldn’t pay, paid late, or changed their minds. I wonder whether he remembered his father’s words when, in 1952, the widow of the American industrialist Albert Lasker wished to commission a stained-glass window by Henri Matisse for a mausoleum she intended to build in Newport, Rhode Island. Pierre, who envisaged a decorative scheme as lovely as the one Matisse had just created in the Chapelle du Rosaire at Vence, encouraged his father to accept. But after Matisse had spent sixteen months working on the maquette for Ivy in Flower—purple and green ivy leaves against a background of buttercup-yellow frosted glass—Mrs. Lasker simply decided not to go ahead, canceling the project as though it were an order for a new hat. Pierre’s verdict on the person who had caused his father to waste the last months of his life: “Pearls before swine.”

Successful art dealing also depends on presentation and marketing. The infinite attention Pierre paid to the smallest details of his exhibitions set new standards for the display of modern art. It wasn’t just the framing, lighting, and hanging of the show that created an impression of understated elegance, but the design of the poster, the catalog, and the invitations to the private view. The stylish catalog cover Pierre designed for his 1948 exhibition of Giacometti’s sculptures, paintings, and drawings, for example, is itself a work of art. Through a vertical slit in the cover, the reader catches his first glimpse of one of Giacometti’s standing nudes, photographed by “Patricia,” who at that time was married to the Chilean artist Roberto-Sebastian Matta Echaurren and was later to become Mrs. Pierre Matisse. Inside we find more of her photos, an introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre, and a biographical sketch written by Giacometti himself.

Dealers in new art trade not in a commodity whose value has been established at auction, like an old master painting, but in something which is for sale at a certain price because the dealer believes, or pretends to believe, it is worth that price. Unless his client trusts him to establish a fair price and to sell him a good picture, he doesn’t come back for another. Pierre’s customers were loyal because they discovered that however strange the art they saw in his gallery might look at first sight, with time it proved to be of very high quality indeed.

And how strange, remember, the art of Miró, Giacometti, or Dubuffet did once look, even to Pierre himself. When he first came across the paintings of Joan Miró, to take one example, the Spaniard’s work meant little to him, but then, he told the writer Rosamond Bernier (who is John Russell’s wife),

In 1928 [Miró’s] dealer Pierre Loeb gave me a painting [to sell]. There was a blue star and a red dot. I thanked him and put it away in a closet. I just didn’t get it.

Then one day I went to the Salon des Indépendants in Paris. I suddenly became indifferent and suspicious. I thought that none of those paintings meant anything. I was disgusted and saturated by the avalanche of meaningless art.

I came home, terribly depressed. I took everything off the walls. In the closet I saw the Miró. It was a composition that had a precision all its own. There were no empty words. Miró wanted to do the maximum with the minimum. I didn’t need to know what it was about. It was a revelation. Life was bursting out everywhere.

The story illustrates another of Pierre Matisse’s strengths as a dealer: his intellectual honesty. He did not sell art he did not believe in or did not understand. When Miró sent him Object, a surrealistic assemblage featuring a stuffed green parrot and a man’s black derby hat, Pierre was puzzled.

It is…of the highest importance that the authentic artists, whether or not they are or have been Surrealists, should tell us exactly what is the sense of the three-dimensional objects that have played a part in their work…. If I am to give a sane and rational account of these works, I have to know how these objects relate to your two-dimensional work.

In Miró’s answer (“My work has nothing whatever to do with Freud… nothing to do with ‘literature’ or ‘intellectuality”’) can we detect a hint of impatience with a Frenchman’s plodding rationality? When airily explaining that by putting two objects together he aimed to provide “a poetical shock, a mutual and immediate infatuation,” what Miró perhaps forgot is that Pierre was the son of one of the most articulate artists who ever lived.

This is something readers of the remarkable and previously unpublished correspondence between Pierre and his father don’t lose sight of. Writing about his slow progress with a large experimental painting of 1934, Interior with a Dog (The Magnolia Branch), Henri seems to be thinking aloud about the spatial and decorative effects which he achieves—or fails to achieve—by the interaction of certain colors.

The red floor had to be changed. I made part of it gray. I also had to rework the dog…[because the picture] looked thin, and almost superficial, for so large a surface. I had to pull it together. So I covered the red floor with some painted paper…. It then seemed to me that, whereas the complementary red of the floor had dominated and immobilized the movement of the green branch, the branch had suddenly recovered all its former energy…. I thought that my painting was well constructed from the point of view of the choice of colors and the way they interacted with one another. But I also felt that the final effect was meager, and that I was capable of a much greater richness of color. I missed that. So I put back some of the gray elements on the floor…. What I had done was that I had achieved a greater sensation of space. The picture was not empty.


During their fifty-year association, Miró and Pierre Matisse were seldom in the same city at the same time. As a result, we descend in their business correspondence into the boiler room of art history to watch a dealer and artist collaborate in the marketing, and even the making, of the ultimate luxury commodity. In 1934 Pierre guaranteed he would send Miró 1,500 francs every month and give him regular New York shows in return for three quarters of his production, plus any specific paintings Pierre might commission. When Matisse had clients who wanted a painting of a dog barking at a kite in the sky (one of Miró’s most famous images), the artist was surprisingly happy to paint them, even agreeing to the client’s requirements for a vertical, square, or horizontal format.

The high point of their collaboration was the exhibition in 1945 of Miró’s Constellations, the culmination of the abstract tendencies in Miró’s early work, and among Pierre Matisse’s most significant achievements as a dealer. In paintings begun a few months before the German invasion of France in May 1940, Miró returned to his Surrealistic dot and line imagery of the 1920s to evoke star-studded galaxies in oil, gouache, watercolor, pastel, india ink, and pencil. They are Miró’s meditations on the splendor and consolation of nature. John Russell not only understands their significance as works of art, but gives due weight to the historical importance of their being exhibited in America after the war.

Still the question of those commissioned replicas of the dog barking at a kite, made-to-measure and while-U-wait, is somehow worrying. Trading in art can become something of a moral maze, where the rights and wrongs of a given situation aren’t always obvious. Pierre chose his artists without regard for their commercial viability, supported them through hard times, and in almost every case won their loyalty and friendship. Giacometti was the most touching in his gratitude. “What a life I have, thanks to you! It’s the best thing that could possibly happen to me.” But at the same time, Pierre never lost sight of the hard economic realities of an art market he understood and his artists, very often, didn’t. Miró and Giacometti were easy to do business with. Not so Dubuffet.

In 1947 Pierre launched the unknown Dubuffet in New York by agreeing to buy one half his annual output. After his first one-man show Clement Greenberg, for one, realized that Matisse had discovered “one of the major painters of the 20th century.” But Dubuffet’s childlike draftsmanship and palette of brown sludge were anything but seductive to the average client. Though business wasn’t brisk, Pierre was happy to continue to show Dubuffet almost annually, meanwhile stockpiling unsold work in the certain knowledge that prices would rise.

In 1958, a European dealer began to compile a catalogue raisonné of Dubuffet’s paintings and works on paper. With the artist’s encouragement he asked Pierre to list all the work by Dubuffet he had received and to name the clients to whom the pictures had been sold. Though Pierre balked at revealing such information, after some delay Dubuffet learned that of the 526 paintings, drawings, and gouaches he had sent to New York, only 140 had actually been sold. The remaining 386 works were still in storage, the property of the Pierre Matisse Gallery.

Enraged that so little of his art was actually being seen by the public, Dubuffet then demanded that Matisse mount a touring exhibition of his stock of Dubuffets, then hold a giant sale to disperse them. Businessman that he was, Pierre knew how damaging to Dubuffet’s reputation it would be to flood the market with work priced for a quick sale. In his paranoia, Dubuffet assumed that Matisse hadn’t tried very hard to sell his work. In fact, to sell 140 works by such a difficult artist over so relatively short a period was, in those days, a significant accomplishment.

Unlike some of his artists, Pierre Matisse never seemed to be in a hurry. In part this was in response to the rhythms of an art market that turned out to be seasonal, like farming. If he didn’t make a sale by June, he could be sure that most of his rich clients would not show their faces in New York again until September. To the end of his life, he preferred to place important pictures in museums—ideally through direct purchase, but otherwise by selling to connoisseurs like Henry McIlhenny, Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Leigh Block, G. David Thompson, Duncan Phillips, and Joe Hirshorn, all of whom built up collections which eventually ended up in public galleries. Pierre Matisse was one of the first modern dealers regularly to present pictures by emerging artists to museums, knowing that their presence in an important public collection enhanced an artist’s prestige, and ultimately made the sale of his next picture easier. Largely thanks to him, the Museum of Modern Art acquired either through purchase or bequest its encyclopedic collection of work by Miró and Henri Matisse.

Sometimes a picture’s route to the walls of a great museum could be circuitous. In 1937 Pierre offered his father’s Dance (I) of 1909 to the actor and collector Edward G. Robinson, who turned it down, perhaps because its size (more than eight feet by twelve feet) made it hard to hang. No museum wanted it, and only in 1939 did Nelson Rockefeller pay $9,500 for it, ultimately presenting it to the Museum of Modern Art in honor of Alfred Barr. Most dealers could tell similar stories about lost opportunities. The point of this one is that Matisse was one of the most famous artists in the world at the time. How much harder it was to sell canvases by Kandinsky or Mondrian when they were virtually unknown outside a tiny world of curators, artists, and collectors in New York and in Paris! When Pierre gave Giacometti his big show in 1948, for example, the sculptor was almost fifty, yet Henry McBride of The New York Times could write that “these are the queerest sculptures that have ever come to us with such high recommendations.”

Russell is describing an art world much closer to that which existed in the late nineteenth century than to the one we know today, a world where Edward G. Robinson missed the chance to buy a Picasso because he couldn’t take the time off filming to travel to New York and back by train. Color reproductions were crude and telephoning between the US and Europe was difficult and expensive. Pierre sent his ten- and twelve-page letters to his father via the ocean liners that sailed most weeks from New York.


These letters to his father make up the bulk of the Matisse archive, which is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library and from which John Russell has drawn the material for his book. Their correspondence is filled with art world gossip, paternal advice, and a great deal of Gallic humor. One of its pleasures is the chance it gives us to eavesdrop on an artist and his closest confidant talking to each other when no one else is listening. Matisse, for instance, described the appalling Dr. Barnes, a man on whose patronage he depended, as “a monster, of course” and “a jumped-up boor. Fortunate are the future generations who will never know what he was like.” After describing a friendly visit from Picasso after the war, Henri tells Pierre,

He hasn’t come back. He saw what he wanted to see—my works in cut paper, my new paintings, the painted door, etc. That’s all that he wanted. He will put it all to good use in time. Picasso is not straightforward. Everyone has known that for the last forty years.

For his part, Pierre wrote to entertain and amuse his increasingly bedridden father. On whether the ultimate WASP, Nelson Rockefeller, might commission a decorative work, he wrote: “He won’t do anything. These are calm people, and on the chilly side.” And Pierre perfectly characterizes the Picassos shown by the American dealer Sam Kootz in 1947 as “to the American taste—hard and dry, like champagne extra brut.” During World War II he gathered together for an historic group photograph most of the European expatriate painters and sculptors who lived in New York. As Ozenfant, Lipchitz, Mondrian (“abstraction’s holy man”), Chagall, Masson, Tanguy, and Breton trooped into the gallery, Pierre worried that “as most of them didn’t speak to one another when they were in France, I was afraid there would be trouble when they were all thrown together…. But…all went well.”

Particularly revealing are Henri’s letters to Pierre about his poisoned relationships with his wife, Amélie, daughter, Marguerite, and elder son, Jean—what Henri called “a collective sickness of the heart.” When the book opens in the late 1920s Amélie, whom readers of Hilary Spurling’s recent biography will remember as the strong-willed young woman whom Matisse proposed to with the words, “Mademoiselle, I love you dearly, but I shall always love painting more,” has become a chronic invalid, driven half out of her mind with jealousy by the living embodiment of that painting, his model, studio manager, and muse Lydia Delectorskaya, who was a constant presence in the household. Similarly, Marguerite and Jean are both leading unhappy lives filled with unarticulated resentment and bitterness toward their father. Only Pierre remains aloof from family quarrels, which arise, he thinks, “because we love each other too much.”

In 1939 Amélie divorces Henri and moves to Paris, where she miraculously recovers her health and sanity, only to be transformed into a heroine of the Resistance who withstands arrest and imprisonment by the Gestapo. Marguerite, too, joins the Resistance, is arrested, but escapes from the train taking her to a concentration camp and emerges after the war transfigured by her experiences. Jean, a sculptor whose failure to win recognition contributed to his bitterness toward Henri Matisse, perks up after his father’s death, becoming “the archetypal good son” who would spend years compiling a catalogue raisonné of Matisse’s sculptures.

Russell lays to rest some of the old myths and rumors about Matisse—that he was indifferent to the fate of his wife and daughter during the war; that he offered Pierre no encouragement in his business. As an invalid, Matisse could do little except worry about his wife and children. In fact, his worry was so corrosive that it certainly contributed to the physical ailments that tormented him throughout the latter part of his life. (He had, he wrote Pierre, an “immensely painful” operation on his intestinal tract in 1941 and was bedridden for the last years of his life.) The emotional devastation he expresses to Pierre after yet another family quarrel is, paradoxically, what is most likeable about him. He never discards those close to him, as Picasso did. “I love my family, truly, dearly, and profoundly,” he told Pierre,

but from a distance. That remark is often, if not always, taken in a pejorative way. That is entirely wrong. A hyper-sensitive organism like mine can find human contacts unendurable and deeply wounding, even if the heart remains tender.

It is indeed easier to love from a distance. The hundreds of letters between Pierre and Henri were written because Pierre physically removed himself from personal contact with his father. Pierre once commented to the art critic David Sylvester, “Great artists shouldn’t have children.”

As a writer with full access to these letters Russell has made good use of them. But when writing about the Matisse family there are times when he is so cautious, so discreet, so anxious not to offend that he ends up leaving too much unexplained. Usually among the clearest and most vivid of writers, he fails to amplify or offer explanations at some points where they are necessary. To give one example, there is nothing in this book to suggest that Pierre was anything but an exemplary son, suave businessman, and delightful companion. How disconcerting, then, to come across a letter in which Henri Matisse writes about him in terms that suggest the very opposite of these qualities:

Your letter shows that you are not made of stone, as one might sometimes believe. You bear within you wounds that call out for healing. When faced with your indifference—or with your determination to protect yourself and not get involved—people used to say, “Pierre doesn’t give a damn.” They meant to say that you were like a heavy and immovable stone that just sat there while all around you other members of the family were gasping for breath. Your letter showed me a very different Pierre. If there were walls between us, they came tumbling down. I cannot say anything more now….

There are no footnotes to help the reader identify the people who appear in this book. In writing about Pierre, Russell never mentions the famous apartment in the East 90s between Fifth and Madison where, in the library, Pierre surrounded himself with a superlative collection of his father’s paintings. This room has been described to me and many others as one of the most beautiful in America, and since Russell knew it well, I regret its absence from his book. Finally, Russell doesn’t quite admit that as he got older Pierre made mistakes. The list of artists he introduced into the gallery in the 1960s confirms that, by then, the most important new art was being shown in New York by Leo Castelli.

The problem is that Russell was writing two books. The first is the story of Pierre Matisse’s professional career, the second a family chronicle. In trying to compress so much material into a single volume, Russell sometimes forgets how little most of us know about the people and the art world he himself knows so well. To understand the psychological complexities that are only hinted at here, we must wait for the second volume of Spurling’s biography.

But this is not a serious flaw in a book in which we discover fascinating new material on every page, a book beautifully written from the point of view of a man who was a close friend of many of the principal characters in it, and one that brings to life a cultural milieu—indeed a way of looking at and thinking about art—that no longer exists.