A phone call from Picasso
When Pablo Picasso wanted to speak with the art dealer who represented him, Paul Rosenberg, in early 20th century Paris, he didn’t have to go very far. They were next door neighbors conversing through their windows, sometimes setting her up with a phone call. The artist and the dealer knew each other as “Pic” and “Rosie” respectively.
This reflects the important role of Jewish art dealers and collectors in the art world for decades before everything collapsed during WWII and the Holocaust, with the Nazis looting collections of Jewish art or forcing their owners to sell under duress; restitution efforts are underway. This story is shared in a new book, “Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Modern Art World, “By the professor of history at Boston University Charles Dellheim.
“The real impetus for writing the book came from my curiosity about the art stolen by the Nazis,” Dellheim explained. “I certainly found this story extraordinarily fascinating. At the same time, I was struck by the fact that there was so little attention paid to the dealers and collectors themselves.
In addition to Rosenberg, Picasso’s previous merchants were also Jews, including Rosenberg’s brother, Léonce Rosenberg, whom Dellheim calls one of his favorite characters in the book. A veteran of the First World War, Léonce uses military terms such as “avant-garde” in his correspondence with the artists he represents. He left the family art business after an argument with his brother and started his own gallery that focused on modern artists like Picasso.
By that time, whether in modern art, the Old Masters, or both, the Jews had become quite prosperous as dealers and collectors while struggling against alien status and anti-Semitism – all of it. narrated in Dellheim’s 600-plus-page tour de force, well illustrated by paintings which his cast of characters collected and sold, including what he calls the most famous example of art with a disputed provenance, the “Portrait of Adèle Bloch-Bauer I” from 1907 by Gustav Klimt.
As Dellheim asks: “How did these Jewish foreigners acquire so much art from the great old masters and come to play a central role in European culture?” How did they become the most prominent champions of modern art? What does this tell us about the Jewish encounter with modernity?
The book opens with one of these encounters at the end of the 19th century in Alsace, France. A horse dealer named Nathan Wildenstein received an unexpected request from a neighbor. She had a painting to sell and asked him if he would sell it for her.
“He had a lot of nerve and not a lot of money,” Dellheim said. “He said yes. He didn’t know anything about art.
Many Jewish compatriots who joined Wildenstein to enter the art world also lacked formal training and came from seemingly unrelated fields. Ernest Gimpel sold commodities and had a seat on the French stock exchange, the Bourse. The Duveen brothers, who moved from the Netherlands to England, had family roots in the sale of textiles, iron foundries and plant products. In New York, haberdashery dealer Benjamin Altman built a fortune and an art collection from the department store he founded.
“[To] to be a successful art dealer you have to be more than a good seller, ”noted Dellheim. “It’s not a commodity like rice or grain… [You have to know] which makes a Rembrandt a Rembrandt, a Titian a Titian.
As they developed their knowledge, Jewish art dealers and collectors found a new clientele: wealthy Americans wondering if the artwork they wanted to buy was genuine. Bernhard Berenson, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe in Boston, has become quite good at it. Prominent Bostonian Isabella Stewart Gardner relied on her expert eyes to select paintings for what has become her eponymous museum.
“Berenson has become the great connoisseur of his age,” Dellheim said.
The era also saw the rise of something quite different from the masterpieces of the past: modern art. Here again the Jews played an important role.
“Some of the reasons Jews got involved in modern art are sociological,” Dellheim said. “Jews tended to gravitate towards new and rapidly expanding fields or activities, commercial or cultural, with limited barriers to entry and an ability to rise up … [with] established hierarchies yet to be formed.
An insurmountable barrier, however, appeared with the takeover of Germany by the Nazis. Dellheim chronicles the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism, including an infamous exhibition of “degenerate art” and the loss of position of German Jews in the art world. Then World War II broke out.
Paul Rosenberg, who had tried to conceal his art in various places across France, fled to Portugal. According to Dellheim, when his family fled to the United States, it was likely in part thanks to another connection to Massachusetts – Paul Sachs, then director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.
Leonce, meanwhile, stayed with his own family in Paris as the Nazi occupation dismantled Jewish rights.
“There is danger everywhere, there is insecurity everywhere,” Dellheim said. “As best I could, I tried to capture this from the perspective of the participants. In some cases there were letters, in others there is diary evidence.
There are also primary sources that reveal the extent of the Nazi looting, including from the Nazis themselves, who cataloged the works they stole. Meanwhile, an artist and art historian named Rose Valland joined the resistance and courageously and secretly documented the looting, including by Marshal Hermann Goering, while the Monuments Men sought to recover stolen works.
“The whole question of restitution is darkly fascinating,” Dellheim said. “The end of the 1990s was focused on the return of stolen works of troubled provenance. “
Dellheim cited a 1997 example from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in which a 1904 Monet painting of water lilies was slated for exhibition before its provenance was disputed.
“I guess over time the new cases and controversies would fade and subside now,” he said. “In fact, there are new revelations and arguments. “
Today, said Dellheim, “Most of the survivors are already gone. We are talking about children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews, their heirs. Yet, he said, “there is much better information today on the whereabouts, provenance, history of stolen art than ever before.”