I have said it often and others have said it to me: “Someone should write a piece about Pierre Matisse.” Throughout his long career as a distinguished art dealer in New York, he remained a taciturn and extremely private man who was felt to be remote and somewhat cold by many visitors to his gallery. Unlike, for instance, Leo Castelli, who became as famous as his artists, whose oracular pronouncements about art were treated as Delphic, Pierre Matisse never made a public or quoted statement that I can recall.

A list of the artists he represented, most of whom he introduced to America and promoted during the most difficult years of the art market, should be enough to ensure him lasting fame.[1] They include Calder, Miró, Giacometti, Chagall, Matta, Dubuffet, Matisse (his father), the Spaniards Saura and Millares, Zao Wou-ki, the sculptors Ipoustéguy and Reg Butler, Riopelle, and the Americans Loren MacIver and Theodore Rozak. He always denied that he “made” the reputations of his artists, claiming “My artists made me.”

Typically, a collector or a fellow dealer, even a friend, would ask Pierre if he had any decent Mirós for sale. Silently, without any sales talk, Pierre or Walter, his longtime handyman, would bring out three somewhat varied Miró paintings and put them on the floor in front of a black curtain. When asked “Is that all?,” Pierre would shrug and say, “That’s all I have right now.” Unbeknownst to the collector or the art world at large, there would be as many as 500 Mirós in the gallery’s warehouse. This was only revealed after Pierre’s death in 1989 as he approached his 90th birthday. The gallery’s holdings at that time totaled more than 3,500 pieces by most of his best artists. This inventory needed to be sold en bloc to avoid the forty percent corporate tax on top of the nearly sixty percent estate tax both of which would have applied had the gallery continued to operate. The executors negotiated the largest single sale in art history, selling the gallery corporation (not the inventory per se) to a Sotheby-Acquavella joint venture for more than $160,000,000 (not the amount reported at the time).

Pierre started out to become an artist, studying with André Derain, a friend of his father’s and someone who was particularly fashionable in the early twenties when classicism and figuration were returning to favor. Pretty soon he realized that his talent was not robust enough for a real career as a painter (especially one bearing the name Matisse).

In 1924 he came to New York and began his life as an art dealer working the first few years for a particularly knowledgeable and tasteful dealer named Valentine Dudensing. His was one of the seminal galleries for European modernism at its most adventurous, where one could find cubists, fauves, and other such post-Armory show items, but also Mondrian and curious new 57th Street oddball fashions such as Louis Eilshemius.

In 1931 he left Dudensing and opened his own very modest gallery on a high floor in the Fuller Building at 57th Street and Madison Avenue. He stayed in that location for almost 60 years until his death, renting larger space on a lower floor which became a legendary location because of the high quality of the shows, the superb instal- lations, and the beautifully designed catalogues. During the war when so many celebrated French artists took refuge in New York, the Matisse gallery was their natural gathering place, where French was spoken more than English and Paris was the real home base. In 1942 Pierre organized what is now a legendary exhibition, “Artists in Exile,” mostly surrealists, but also Leger, Mondrian, and Chagall.

At the end of the war in 1945, he put up an exhibition of the great series of intricate gouaches by Miró called “Constellations.” These small pictures on paper were like Bach contrapuntal chamber music and were immediately recognized as masterworks by the collectors who had first chance to buy them. Pierre told me that a couple of sales were cancelled, however, when the buyers arrived at the gallery to find that the works were only gouaches and not oils. If I remember correctly, he said they were priced at $5,000 each. The most recent one up for public sale about a year ago brought $5,600,000.

1948 saw the gallery displaying the first of a series of stunning Giacometti shows with the great existential sculptures, the “Pointing Man,” the “Chariot,” the “Nose,” etc. At that time or a little later in the early fifties, several prominent Abstract Expressionist artists, including Jackson Pollock, offered themselves to be handled by the now much admired Pierre Matisse Gallery. But Pierre, after mulling it over, refused. His roots were simply too European and his plate already too full with the major artists, especially Miró, whom he needed to promote and sell. Miró in particular was admired by Pollock and his friends.

Of course, another impediment to adding the major New York School painters was the fact that Pierre worked differently than most American art dealers. He bought his artists’ work outright, choosing during regular studio visits, yearly or half-yearly.

After the war, as the art market in France and Europe generally began to improve, Pierre had to divide his representation with others like Galerie Maeght for Miró and Giacometti. Each bought half the artist’s annual releases and in the case of cast sculpture, half the edition. Pierre, therefore, no matter how much he sold, was always short of funds and fell well behind sometimes in his payments to artists.

The gallery archives, now permanently housed at the Pierpont Morgan Library, contain hundreds of interesting letters to Pierre from Miró, Balthus, Giacometti, Dubuffet, and above all Henri Matisse. The artists write a lot about money and their immediate need for it—please send something! But the letters are also filled with genuine friendship and gratitude for what Pierre was doing. Henri Matisse, famous in art legend as a difficult, selfish, cold, martinet of a father, reveals in his letters to Pierre a genuine warmth and constructive interest in his career, and, in later years, a real dependence on Pierre for advice and family diplomacy. All this is very well told by John Russell in his book Matisse: Father & Son (Harry N. Abrams), which annoyed the current Matisse heirs because he quoted too liberally from the letters and somehow intruded on the turf of Hillary Spurling, who had written the first volume of a brilliant biography of Henri Matisse, and who was well into writing her concluding volume (soon to appear, I suppose). Russell’s book never got the attention it deserved, suffering from Pierre’s lifelong lack of a public persona and his excessive pursuit of absolute privacy.

I was lucky to get to know Pierre when I was a young and struggling art dealer. My wife, Clare, hit it off immediately with Pierre’s wife Patricia, who still had the considerable remains of great beauty, a surrealist sense of madcap humor, and adventurous ideas of entertaining friends. After drinks at their beautiful house filled with marvelous works of art, we and the other guests would, at Patricia’s orders, end up at a crazy Egyptian nightclub or an obscure spaghetti house behind a family grocery store. Her creative spirit and antic naughtiness seemed from another era, but it kept the somewhat dour Pierre amused as it did his small circle of friends.

Having admitted Clare and me into that circle, Pierre saw to it, in his own reticent and backhanded way, that I shared in some prosperity. He let me sell certain family paintings for him that he wanted sold discreetly; he gave me half-share partnerships in some of the things which were offered to the Pierre Matisse gallery. The only other art dealer with whom he shared in this way was his contemporary Frank Perls, whose gallery in Beverly Hills became a kind of West Coast outlet for Pierre. Frank’s raffish ways and his sense of humor fit Patricia Matisse’s “outré” style and Pierre’s need to be stirred from his melancholy and workaholic habits. (He would usually go to the gallery on Sundays to poke around and improve the installations.)

Patricia died suddenly in 1974, and, since she had been the office manager of the gallery, Pierre hired Maria-Gaetana von Spreti as her replacement. She was an Austrian diplomat’s daughter who had worked for the Paris dealer Heinz Berggruen, knew the art world, spoke the major European languages. Since her father had died, tragically, at his post in a terrorist incident, Tana, as she was called, needed a father figure. Pierre, who was more than forty years her senior but still hale and hearty, with a villa at Cap Ferrat and a sailing yacht on the Mediterranean, as well as the charm of a Charles Boyer when he wanted to show it, soon married Tana. She fitted perfectly into his transatlantic life and developed her own close friendships with Miró, Zao Wou-ki, and the other gallery artists who were still alive.

Pierre even allowed himself to lean a bit in a Teutonic direction for Tana’s sake. I remember meeting him in Vienna where the Matisses were visiting Tana’s delightful mother, Countess von Spreti, and Pierre hosted a real “gemütlich” dinner at “Die Drei Husaren.”

It was only after Pierre’s death in 1989, as one of his executors, pouring through the effects and documentation of his long life, that I realized what a great man he had been, how much of the history of modern art he had affected, how superb had been his taste.

With very little prodding from me, Tana and Pierre’s children created the Pierre Matisse Foundation, which secured and put in order the entire archive of his life and career. They commissioned the book by John Russell, they chose the Morgan as the repository which in turn produced the great exhibition “Pierre Matisse and his Artists” which closes in May of this year.

Before her own untimely death last year, Tana reestablished a foundation (Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Foundation) to carry out her own philanthropic plans. Again, I am an executor and now a trustee of her foundation. Pierre’s legacy and Tana’s generosity will be perpetuated as a continuing reminder of these two remarkable people who never sought any public applause while they were alive.

 

Notes
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  1. This article is occasioned by the exhibition “Pierre Matisse and his Artists,” on view at The Morgan Library, New York, from February 14 to May 19, 2002. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 9, on page 83
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