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Monday, April 13, 2020

Berthe Weill

 Nude on a Blue Cisjiion, 1917, Amedeo Modigliani,
When we think of the so-called "art market," we usually think in terms of a single buyer, perhaps haggling over a price with a single individual artists. To some extent, that image is still viable, especially at the "low end" with local artists. However, as the artist becomes more famous and the prices for his or her work rises there is always a third person involved--an intermediary between the between the two whose job it is to line up buyers, advertise, set prices, and thus free the artist from the onerous job of selling. (Artists are usually terrible salesmen.) Usually this person is referred to as an agent, many of whom own a storefront gallery and promote the most highly salable artists. Many artists search all their lives for a reputable agent only to find themselves barely tolerating their presence a few years later. And for their efforts, agents take as much as 50% of the sales price. That sounds like an exorbitant fee but given their time, expenses, and risk, many agents barely break even.
She was the only one to expose unknowns and so many unfamiliar artists,
it was a very risky commercial bet.
Most such art dealers you've probably never heard of, but among the most successful were Charles Saatchi (Co-founder of Saatchi and Saatchi gallery in London); Ambroise Vollard (credited with providing exposure and emotional support to numerous then-unknown artists, including Paul Cézanne, Aristide Maillol, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Louis Valtat, Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Georges Rouault, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh); Betty Parsons (an American artist, art dealer, and collector known for her early promotion of Abstract Expressionism); and Paul Durand-Ruel (a French art dealer who is associated with the Impressionists and the Barbizon School). He was one of the first modern art dealers. As important as all these, and predating most of them, was an eccentric, relatively unsung Paris art dealer from 1901 to 1939, Berthe Weill.
Le Moulin de la Galette, 1900,  Pablo Picasso
Weill bought, exhibited, and sold Pablo Picasso’s work before he ever moved to Paris or painted any of the works for which he’s now considered a modernist legend. “This homely Jewish spinster with spectacles thick as goldfish bowls,” as Picasso biographer John Richardson described her, exhibited the artist many times, including in a 1902 show featuring 30 early works. It was then that she sold his Moulin de la Galette (above), now in the Guggenheim Museum collection, for 250 francs to collector and newspaper publisher Arthur Huc. Weill exhibited many future modern art titans when no one else would, and she did so for more than 400 then-emerging artists—including André Derain, Georges Braque, Aristide Maillol, Kees van Dongen, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo (coincidentally mother and son). She consistently identified stars on the rise and was the first to show Georges Rouault and Raoul Dufy. She was the only dealer to give Diego Rivera a solo exhibition during the Mexican muralist’s roughly decade-long stay in Paris.

25th anniversary of Galerie Berthe Weill, 1926
She was the first dealer for Dadaist Francis Picabia and Orphist Robert Delaunay. Midway through her 40-year career, she began devoting around half of her exhibitions to female artists including Emilie Charmy, Hermine David, Marie Laurencin, Jacqueline Marval, and Valentine Prax. Amadeo Modigliani work at the time included Nude on a Blue Cushion (top)from 1917. The list of artists Weill championed goes extraordinarily on, full of hundreds of names—some blue-chip, some forgotten. Between 1901, when she opened Galerie Berthe Weill, and 1941, when she shuttered the space due to rising anti-Semitism and the onset of World War II, she hosted countless shows. Her risk-taking was admirable, but it didn’t always pay off.

Exhibition poster for Pan! Dans L’oeil
There wasn’t a thriving market for artists who were just starting out or for women artists. And the painters Weill did manage to sell weren’t reliable sources of income, either. As her artists grew higher in profile thanks to shows with Weill, they left her shop for established dealers like Am-broise Vollard, Paul Rosenberg, and Dan-iel-Henry Kahnweiler. These gallery own-ers could offer stipends and the security of an exclusive contract —expenses Weill simply couldn’t afford without resorting to showing recognized, safe artists (some-thing the prickly and opinionated dealer was against). Weill was a discoverer, the first access point to the market for artists who were then spotted by galleries of larger sizes, which offer better prices. Weill was constantly replenishing her ros-ter as successful artists moved to more estab-lished galleries, a pattern still play-ing out for scrappy and visionary dealers today.

Berthe Weill as seen by Picasso.
Even after the artists Weill championed moved on from her gallery, they still revered her. “They were however all very grateful to her in later years,” Gertrude Stein wrote in The Auto-biography of Alice B. Toklas, “Practically every-body who later became famous sold their first little picture to her.” Weill’s art-historical cre-dentials were impressive, but her fame never reached the level of some of her fellow Parisian dealers. She was instrumental in giving artists their starts, but the tables eventually turned so that she’s rarely more than an aside in the biographies of artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani. How has she slipped through art history? The answer lies in the fact that she was she was a feminist Jew, poor, ugly, and short. People don’t want to know about her because she wasn’t a big success. She never made a lot of money.

Berthe Weill,1926, Édouard Goerg

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