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His Son the Art Dealer

1.

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.

2.

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.

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