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 …