Ambroise Vollard was an art dealer in Paris. We know that he bought some of Henri’s paintings, including Surprised, Jardin du Luxembourg, and a small reproduction of Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo [Henri Rousseau, Jungles in Paris, National Gallery of Art, p.142] . But we do not know how many of Rousseau’s paintings he bought for himself or sold. We can assume that Henri was dealing with Vollard at least as early as 1894, because in January, 1895, Henri visited Vollard to pick up some paintings that did not sell. Vollard was age 29; Henri was 50.
Ambroise Vollard had come to Paris to study law, but he had a collector’s instincts and was attracted to artworks that were sold very cheaply. Before long he decided that he wanted to be a “picture dealer.” He started working at a small gallery, Union Artistique. But in 1893 or 1894 he opened his own little shop on rue Laffitte, the street in Paris where artists took their paintings to sell, and where art-lovers went to buy. Ambroise had very little money when he began. He said that he “was reduced to living on ship’s biscuits because they were cheaper than bread.” He could not afford to buy paintings from the more established artists, so he started dealing with paintings by artists who were not accepted by the public or by the better art salons. The established art dealers did not want to ruin their reputation by exhibiting these outcast artists, but Ambroise was young, poor, and had nothing to lose. His career spanned about 45 years, and he lived long enough to become rich and successful as one of the most well-known art dealers in France. He wrote some of his memoirs in a book, Recollections of a Picture Dealer (Souvenirs d’un Marchand de Tableaux) [Dover Publications, NY, 1978, translated from the French by Violet M. MacDonald]. Vollard died in a car accident at age 73. At the time of his death in 1939, just before World War 2, he had literally thousands of paintings and works of art, worth a fortune, stacked and piled up in his house.
This website is about Henri Rousseau, but there are several reasons why I am including this section about Ambroise Vollard. The main purpose is to show the relationship between the artists and the art dealer, whether it was Vollard or someone else. (This is not intended to be a biography of Vollard or any of the artists.) I chose Vollard, because he was , at least sometimes, a dealer for Henri Rousseau. The second reason is to show the desperate situation of some of the artists, some of whom are now very famous world-wide; and to show that in their own time, at least some of the artists, including Henri Rousseau, were not accepted; and some of them died without seeing any fame or fortune.
“The Cellar” of Vollard’s shop became a well-known meeting place for many artists, art collectors and other distinguished guests; and the guests often brought their friends. Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Odilon Redon, Edgar Degas, Henri Rousseau, Auguste Rodin, Jean-Louis Forain and the others came to “the Cellar” for a good meal and conversation. It was “meet-and-greet” “social marketing.” And of course, they could review the art in his shop before going down to eat.
Vollard told of a time when Rousseau was one of the guests. Rousseau “did not utter a single word during lunch. At the end of the meal he took a little notebook out of his pocket and began to draw.” Among the guests was the painter, Henri Gervex, who did not know Rousseau. After Rousseau had left, Gervex asked Vollard who it was.
Vollard: “It’s the painter, Rousseau.”
“You haven’t heard of the Douanier Rousseau ?”
“You know, the customs officer who has started painting.”
Gervex: “And he exhibits?”
Vollard: “Yes, at the Independents.”
Gervex: “Good Lord! The salon where they exhibited the picture a donkey painted by swishing its tail about after it had been dipped in paint!” Gervex rose up from the table. “Let us be serious. I have a meeting at the Academie.” [Recollections, p.94]
Ambroise Vollard and Paul Cezanne.
Vollard’s first successful exhibit was in November, 1895. He scraped together all the money he could get and displayed about 150 paintings from Paul Cezanne. Cezanne had been a painter over 30 years, but his art was still rejected by the established art community. One art critic, Duranty, said Cezanne “painted with a bricklayer’s trowel.” Another critic for Journal des Artistes called Cezanne’s paintings “atrocities in oils”, and other artists agreed. Puvis de Chavannes considered Cezanne’s work as “no better than a joke.” However there were some who liked his art, especially among the younger artists. Vollard’s Cezanne exhibit was a big gamble, but it paid off well. Vollard made good money, and it was the turning point for Paul Cezanne, who became a celebrated artist.
Claude Monet bought 3 of his paintings. Monet bought many paintings by his friends “by way of protest against the indifference of the public.”[pp.167-169]
At his first Cezanne show, Vollard offered to sell a “magnificent landscape” for 400 francs. When prices went up, it was sold for 700 francs. 25 years later it was being offered for 300,000 francs. [p.74]
Ambroise Vollard and Vincent van Gogh.
Van Gogh had died in 1890, and I don’t think the two had ever met. Vollard put together an unsuccessful Van Gogh exhibit in 1895. In 1897, he tried again. He brought together the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings ever exhibited up till that time, which including over 60 paintings brought from Amsterdam. The public was still not ready for Van Gogh. He wrote,”the boldest were unable to stomach his painting.”[p.24]
Vollard tells of a couple looking at some Van Gogh portraits: The man said to the woman, “You who always make out that my painting hurts your eyes–well now! What do you say to this?”
The young painters were about the only ones interested. “Poppy Field” was sold for only 400 francs or less. [pp. 24, 62-63] Vollard later admitted that he sold his Van Gogh’s too cheap. But at that time, most people did not want them. How did anyone know they would later sell for millions?
In his book Vollard told an interesting story of a man who was entrusted to look after his sister’s fortune. (I will give just a summary of the story.) The man came to Paris and spent almost all the money on art. From Vollard he bought paintings by Steinlen, Maurin, Van Gogh, and Cezanne.
A few years later, Vollard was told that the man was “in the lunatic asylum at the Hague.” When the man had returned home after spending all the money on art, “the purchases were submitted to experts and the man was medically examined. The experts were unanimous in declaring that the old pictures merely showed him to be a perfect ignoramus in art, but the modern paintings–the Cezannes and the Van Goghs–could only have been bought by a madman. The mental specialists having confirmed the conclusion of the experts, the connoisseur was immediately shut up.”
When the man died, “his family hastened to liquidate the whole stock of paintings . . . .At the sale, one of the Van Goghs fetched 35,000 francs. The Cezannes had been carefully laid aside, so as not to frighten the public. But a little painting . . . got slipped in among the others, and fetched 15,000. It was then decided to bring out the whole collection. The collectors fought over it, and the sale produced over 2 millions.”[pp.126-129]
Ambroise Vollard and Picasso
Picasso’s father was an art professor in Spain, so Picasso had a much earlier start than most of the other painters. His father sent him to Spain’s premier art school, but he quit. He moved to Paris, and at age 18 he had finished about 100 paintings which he brought to Vollard for an exhibit. The paintings did not sell well. Vollard wrote, “I have had in my shop many of his pictures which are the most sought-after today, but for which the artist, at that time, could not obtain the price of a stretcher.” But you know the end of the story. He was in the right place, Paris, at the right time, when people were flocking from America and all over the world to see and buy the new revolutionary art. And he was able to enjoy huge success in his lifetime.[pp.219-220]
Ambroise Vollard and Paul Gauguin.
The relationship between Vollard and Gauguin was more difficult. In 1894 (?), the famous Impressionist art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, was no longer selling Gauguin’s paintings, and Gauguin’s reputation seemed to be declining. Gauguin was respected by Degas and some of the other artists, especially the “nabis”; but the official salons refused to show his art. Vollard exhibited and tried to sell Gauguin’s paintings in March, 1895, but Gauguin’s art was not appreciated. One critic said that “Gauguin’s art had everything against it – women, collectors, museums- . . . . .” (Recollections, pp.175-176)
Gauguin did not help himself when he made his final move to Tahiti in June, 1895. He was not in Paris to help sell his art, and his art had become too morally offensive to be acceptable to most people. His financial situation and his health became worse. In 1903, age 54, he died in the Marquesas Islands.
Much of his correspondence has been preserved. Here are some rather extensive excerpts from Gauguin’s letters during his last stay in Tahiti. They are from the book, Paul Gauguin, The Writings of a Savage,(edited by Daniel Guerin, translated into English by Eleanor Levieux; Da Capo Press, New York, 1996.) I am giving these direct quotes from Gauguin to demonstrate from his own words the difficult, but necessary, relationship he had with Vollard. Gauguin needed someone to sell his paintings and give him publicity; but he felt like he was being cheated out of a fair price for his paintings.
In August, 1897, Gauguin wrote in a letter from Tahiti to his good friend, Georges -Daniel de Monfreid, ” . . . I haven’t a cent left, and no one will give me credit anymore, not even the Chinaman who sells bread. . . . .” [p.125]
September, 1897 From Tahiti, To Monfreid: ” . . . Without a dealer, without anyone to find me a year’s supply of grub, what’s to become of me? I don’t see any way out except Death . . . .”[p.125]
October, 1897, From Tahiti, To Monfreid: ” . . . Since my paintings are unsalable, let them go on being unsalable. A time will come when people will think Ihttp://henrirousseau-flowerchild.com/?page_id=1093 am a myth . . . .” [p. 125]
August, 1899 From Tahiti, To Monfreid: ” . . . I have no canvas left to paint on, and anyhow I am still too discouraged to paint, . . . and, besides, what’s the point, if my works are just going to pile up in your house . . . or be sold by the lot to Vollard for practically nothing.”
“Commercially speaking, where anything new in art is concerned, there have to be a few people who run the risks of trying it out first, before it becomes acceptable.” [p.187]
January, 1900 From Tahiti, To Ambroise Vollard: “And when I was in Paris myself, I sold for prices starting at 2000 francs down to 500 at the lowest. No, the truth is that it’s the art dealer who decides what the price is to be, when he knows how to go about it. When he’s convinced and especially when it’s good painting. Good painting always fetches a good price.”
“Also I’ve had a letter from Maurice Denis . . . . He tells me that Degas and Rouart are fighting over my paintings and that at the Hotel des Ventes they bring pretty handsome prices. So when you say, ‘No one wants [my painting],’ this is enough to astound even a man inured to being astonished.”
“I have always said . . . that a lot of money could be earned through me, because: (1) I am fifty-one and have one of the biggest reputations in France and elsewhere; and (2) since I took up painting very late, there were very few paintings by me . . . .” [p.205]
March, 1900 From Tahiti, To Monfreid: ” . . . What is to become of me if nothing works out with Vollard within the next three months, with nobody in Paris from now on who can look after my affairs?” “This month I am sending him ten drawings, which at 40 francs each, the price he is offering, makes 400 francs . . . .” [p.207]
April, 1900 From Tahiti, To Monfreid: ” . . . This Vollard deal! . . . . If it doesn’t go through, then I will be more and more in the soup, deeper and deeper in debt again; right now I place all my hopes in an arrangement with Vollard.” [p.207]
May, 1900 From Tahiti, To Monfreid: “. . . The 300 francs from Vollard every month will be amply sufficient to let me work without having to worry . . . . Once I’ve begun working again I don’t want to have to sell anything dirt cheap, except to Vollard.” [p.208]
May, 1900 From Tahiti, to Emmanuel Bibesco (another art dealer): “I’d have been happy to carry out the proposed transaction with you, an art lover, instead of with Vollard, an art dealer, who has not only speculated on my poverty but has also done a lot to bring down the prices of my paintings temporarily so as to make a clean sweep, as they say.” “Daniel sold you five paintings at 150 francs each, an exceptional price, because he knew I was short on money . . . .” [pp.206-207]
November, 1900 From Tahiti, To Monfreid: ” . . . Any day now I’ll get rid of Vollard if he keeps on playing tricks on me . . . .” [p.208]
December, 1900 From Tahiti, To Monfreid: ” . . . Vollard wants to make a fat profit off me . . . .You see, he asks me how much I want for my big painting; I tell him 2000 francs; he immediately goes to see clients and finds an offer of 10,000. . . . and there is no doubt he is robbing me.” [p.208]
December, 1900 From Tahiti, To Vollard “By now I don’t understand a thing about your way of doing business and, to be perfectly frank, I am very sorry not to be dealing with Mr. Bibesco. If I gave you what you wanted at such ludicrous prices! (you know they were), that was because I was temporarily hard up.” [p.209]
1901 From Tahiti, To Monfreid: ” . . . If it all works out in a year from now and I have a few thousand-franc notes to my name, I’ll see to it that Vollard raises the price of my paintings, or else the hell with him.” [p.209]
The price of Gauguin’s paintings increased greatly after his death, but Gauguin himself never enjoyed much financial benefit from his own work.
For more on Paul Gauguin, SEE “Henri Rousseau & Paul Gauguin” in Part 17. GO to PART 17
NEXT: Henri Rousseau, Part 17 | Alfred Jarry | More “War”| Paul Gauguin GO TO PART 17
1. The Story of a Man determined to be one of the Greatest Painters in France GO TO PART 1
2. Born in FRANCE|Kings & Castles|Revolution|Napoleon|Victor Hugo GO TO PART 2
3. Henri Rousseau | His Family and Childhood GO TO PART 3
4. Henri Rousseau | SOLDIER BOY GO TO PART 4
6: Henri Rousseau | Sunday Painter | Love and Life in Paris GO TO PART 6
7. Henri Rousseau | Six Children Died / Only Julia Lived Past Age 18. GO TO PART 7
8. Henri Rousseau | Paris Customs Office (The Douanier) | Painting on the Job GO TO PART 8
9. Henri Rousseau | 1884 – not good enough | The French Art Salons GO TO PART 9
10. Henri Rousseau | 1885 Debut | 1886 A Carnival Evening GO TO CHAPTER 10
11. Henri Rousseau | Adieu, Mon Cher Amour. GO TO PART 11
12. Henri Rousseau | 1889 World’s Fair GO TO PART 12
13. Henri Rousseau | 1891 | Surprised! GO TO PART 13
14. Henri Rousseau | Looking for Love in Paris | 1893 | Moving to Montparnasse GO TO PART 14
15. Henri Rousseau | full-time painter | “War” in 1894 | Julia: “Au revoir, papa” GO TO PART 15
18. Henri Rousseau | 1895 Paintings |short Autobiography GO TO PART 18
Enfant de Fleur: Authentic, Unretouched Portrait by Henri Rousseau: GO TO PORTRAIT
Enfant de Fleur/Flower Child: Child Portraits Compared: GO TO CHILD PORTRAITS
Enfant de Fleur: Is Flower Child his granddaughter ? GO TO GRANDDAUGHTER
Henri Rousseau Paintings in Museums around the World GO TO MUSEUM PAGE
Enfant de Fleur/Flower Child: Fine Art Investment Opportunity GO TO OPPORTUNITY
Contact Page GO TO CONTACT PAGE