Silicon Valley symbolizes boldness, innovation and the American accomplishment. What if the best museums on the East Coast (Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York) were also showing us the same success story in addition to the aesthetic emotions they provide? They tell us about the world, about the genius and weaknesses of France as much as they exhibit the audacity and passion for innovation of the American people.
How to explain differently the fact that a few museums or foundations own the most emblematic works of the greatest innovators, namely the Impressionists and those who followed them? At that time, our "Silicon Valley" was in Giverny, Montmartre or Montparnasse. There are two reasons for this.
First, these artists have been "rejected" by those who dictated taste, namely the Academy and the museum curators who organized the “Salons” together with art critics. They are still rejected today since the works that remained in France are not presented at the Louvre. The second and equally important reason is that a generation of successful business leaders and American bankers who loved novelty and risk, was very enthusiastic about these artists and established their prodigious collections, despite the condescending indifference of the French authorities. Indeed, the French authorities did not mind letting them go because they were happy to hold on to their expensive Meissonier and Thomas Couture.
The story begins in 1885 with a young artist, Mary Cassatt, who befriended Degas and shared her enthusiasm with her friend, Louisine Havemeyer, whose husband was the boss and shareholder of The Pennsylvania railroad. The Havemeyer collection, given to the Metropolitan Museum in New York is full of wonderful Courbet, quite daring for the time, and includes a superb set of Manet, Renoir and Monet. Gradually, the American establishment, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Erwyn Davis, Johnson, banker Chester Dale, the Widener, who owned the Philadelphia streetcars, and many others will follow this trend that will not stop until the 1960’s, when there is no more work to be acquired. Gertrude Stein, whose brother owns the San Francisco railroad, became friend with Picasso and Matisse. She is passionate about the modern art that emerges in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century. She introduces her friends, the Cone sisters, to this new scene. They collected the Matisse paintings that can now be admired in Baltimore.
Around the same time, Albert Barnes, who made his fortune in the pharmaceutical industry, commissioned a young American painter, Glackens to buy Impressionist paintings from Ambroise Vollard. Barnes comes to Paris later, in 1912, and buys himself from Vollard, but also, after the war, from an ambitious and young merchant, Paul Guillaume, several hundred major works made by the Impressionists and by Picasso, Matisse and Soutine. It was difficult to see this collection when it was displayed in his private mansion, in Merion. Now it is presented in a beautiful building, next to the Philadelphia Museum of Art that often battled against Barnes. Moreover, it faithfully reproduces its original display.
Only a few hundred meters will now separate Cezanne’s two famous versions of Bathers. Barnes claimed rightly that his version was superior to the one owned by Widener. Barnes’ version was actually the one before which the artist was photographed in his "atelier" shortly before his death. How these manufacturers, these businessmen could have had access for so long to such masterpieces and have acquired them for ridiculous amounts compared to their current value? The art critic Duncan Phillips acquired The Luncheon of the Boating Party – Renoir’s masterpiece, – and Barnes bought Seurat’s Poseuses in 1923. Jacques Doucet had bought the "Demoiselles d'Avignon", Picasso’s founding work, for a pittance. The state refused this legacy, as it refused, earlier on, half of the Caillebotte bequest. The works are now at the MOMA in New York. As for Cubist masterpieces held by merchant Kahnweiller and seized after World War I they had been auctioned in 1920 in the general indifference.
Have we finally learned from these mistakes? Not really. Last year, for the first time, a set of paintings by Gustave Caillebotte, who was the inspirational friend and even the mentor of the Impressionists, was exhibited in the house of the painter's family, in Yerres (Val de Marne). This wonderful exhibition, which owed nothing to the state, remained unnoticed. Soon after, another great friend and dealer of the Impressionists, Paul Durand-Ruel, was the subject of a retrospective. This was a late but clearly justified tribute to his role and influence on these outstanding creators who contributed to the worldwide influence of France. But the retrospective was held in an annex of the Luxembourg Palace – one should not ask too much.
These paintings had already been hung there for a little while between the two world wars. This is also ironical since the works that Caillebotte bequeathed to the State had been briefly exposed there before the latter rejected half of them. There will be a Caillebotte retrospective next month at the National Gallery in Washington. The paintings of this great precursor will be hung not far from those of Raphael, Titian and Rembrandt. As for the tribute to Durand-Ruel, it will be made at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which hosts, besides the Widener collection, dozens of major impressionist and modern works. These two great innovators, Caillebotte and Durand-Ruel, will get the recognition they deserve, but in the United States, not in France.
If we dare, we would make the following suggestion to president Hollande: why not finally welcoming to the Louvre, in a dedicated gallery, what remains of this unique moment in art history? A specific room could gather Manet’s Olympia, Renoir’s two Dances and Seurat’s Circus, the last important work of the painter that is still in France, and of course the two Luncheon on the Grass, the one by Manet and the other by Monet along with Courbet’s Workshop when restoration is completed. This will free up space and the Louvre could send back to Orsay the paintings from Gérôme, Cabanel and all the works praising the Salons.
This is a cheap initiative that would leave a trace in history as strong as the creation or the embellishment of a museum. The message conveyed by such initiative, against conservatism and for boldness and innovation, might be finally understood.