The Steely Connoisseur

21 rue La Boétie

an exhibition at the Musée de La Boverie de Liège, September 22, 2016–February 19, 2017; and the Musée Maillol, Paris, March 2–July 23, 2017
Catalog of the exhibition based on the book by Anne Sinclair
La Boverie/Tempora, 287 pp., €15.00 (paper)
Private Collection/Studio Sebert/Galerie Troubetzkoy/© 2017 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Pablo Picasso: Portrait of Paul Rosenberg, 1918–1919

The Belgian city of Liège was a fitting location to inaugurate the riveting exhibition “21 rue La Boétie.” At the sale in Lucerne in June 1939 of 125 works of “degenerate” art deaccessioned from German museums, Liège acquired nine outstanding paintings, including works by Gauguin, Ensor, Marc, and Picasso, for the municipal collections. Paul Rosenberg—the preeminent Parisian dealer of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French painting who was the subject of the exhibition—was outspoken in his opposition to collectors or institutions making purchases that brought revenue to the Nazis’ coffers.

At one level, this ambitious project devoted to the life and times of Rosenberg (1881–1959) continued a trend of recent exhibitions on art dealers of the early modern era, such as Paul Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard. Yet it also covered terrain—memorably brought to light in Stephanie Barron’s “‘Degenerate Art’: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany,” shown in Los Angeles and Chicago in 1991, and more recently in the Neue Galerie’s “‘Degenerate Art’: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” (2014)—that is far less often treated in art exhibitions.

This Franco-Belgian collaboration was based on the elegiac memoir 21 rue La Boétie by Anne Sinclair, a granddaughter of Rosenberg’s, in which she recounts her family’s history and above all her grandfather’s escape from Paris to New York in the summer of 1940.1 Sinclair, from 1984 to 1997 the popular host of the French television show 7/7—a Gallic equivalent of CBS’s 60 Minutes—enjoyed a brief (and unwelcome) notoriety in New York in May 2011 when her husband, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the IMF, was accused of assaulting a maid in a midtown Manhattan hotel. (Sinclair and Strauss-Kahn divorced in March 2013.)

Paul Rosenberg was one of five children and the third son born to Alexandre Rosenberg (1845–1913), from Bratislava, and Mathilde Jellinek (1857–1923), from Rechnitz, then part of Hungary. They were married in Vienna in October 1878 and made their way to Paris shortly thereafter. A successful grain merchant, Alexandre Rosenberg changed professions after five of his steamships arrived from Argentina with ruined cargo. He turned to art dealing in the late 1880s, establishing a gallery at 38, avenue de l’Opéra, and engaging two of his sons, the eldest, Léonce (1879–1947), and Paul, as apprentices in the family business.

Although his father dealt primarily in old masters and modern salon painting, Paul remembered being taken by him to an exhibition of Van Gogh’s paintings in April 1892, and shrinking in horror at the sight of Bedroom in Arles. (In the 1920s, two of the three versions of this painting—those now in the Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée d’Orsay—would pass through his hands.) “After my father had calmed me down,” Rosenberg…

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