Stay in the Loop
BSR publishes on a weekly schedule, with an email newsletter every Wednesday and Thursday morning. There’s no paywall, and subscribing is always free.
The descriptions have an eerie familiarity: Scores of paintings by Chaïm Soutine, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, Amedeo Modigliani, and other Impressionists and post-Impressionists, all assembled by a fiercely independent collector who pioneered new ground in introducing modern art to 20th-century audiences. The Barnes Foundation collection in Philadelphia, maybe? In considering the numbers and artists, American museum-goers can be easily forgiven for thinking of that Philadelphia institution, the world's largest repository of such modern works. And, of course, they would be wrong — at least in Paris.
Welcome to the Musée de l'Orangerie, home of the Walter-Guillaume Collection, an array of 145 paintings that rivals the Barnes as a showcase of many of the same modern artists who once called upon Paris for inspiration and livelihood. For Philadelphians, especially those steeped in the lore of the Barnes collection and its visionary founder, the eccentric, taciturn Dr. Albert C. Barnes, the Orangerie is a kind of foreign pilgrimage to a place that can rightfully be called the Barnes's French "bookend," even its precursor.
Plenty of parallels
That the two museum collections are almost a matched set, presenting similar catalogs of artists and their works, is hardly coincidental, in that Barnes (1872-1951) and the Orangerie collection's founder, Paul Guillaume (1891-1934), equally admired and promoted the same favored artists. Similarities between the collectors, who were in equal parts friends, competitors, and business associates, don't stop there.
One of the most fascinating aspects in the tale is that both men were products of improbable rags-to-riches personal histories, each winding up, equally improbably, with domineering female love interests whom, for better or worse, ended up burnishing their lover's legacies. In Guillaume's case, it was actually his widow, Domenica, who arranged for his collection to be installed at the Orangerie. In Barnes's case, it was his mistress, Violette de Mazia, who, following Barnes's death in 1951, was responsible for fine-tuning the Barnes legacy and myth.
As important as the twinned narrative is in defining the Guillaume-Barnes relationship and the development of their individual holdings, it frays in a significant way regarding their personalities. One man, Guillaume, was sociable, with an autodidactic born-to-the-manor politesse; the other, Barnes, was crude and rude, with few long-lasting friends. His enemies were legion.
Rival and mentor
The Guillaume-Barnes relationship was forged by shared interests. There was a twist to Guillaume's role, in that he also became in time a prominent Paris art dealer and the source of many of the works that later wound up in Barnes's private gallery in Philadelphia. Important, too, he was also Barnes's mentor, and it was largely thanks to Guillaume that Barnes successfully navigated the intricacies of the new bohemian art community in early 20th-century France, recognizing for the first time that period's emerging greats. Barnes also met Soutine, Picasso, Matisse, and other artists through Guillaume's good graces. The Philadelphian's interest in native African art? Also attributable to Guillaume.
But the exchange wasn't one-sided — it was largely Barnes, a fabulously rich inventor-scientist, who accounted for the "riches" part of the Guillaume rags-to-riches story.
Guillaume started his stranger-than-fiction odyssey by showcasing then little-known African art in the window of a garage, in a display that attracted the favorable attention of Guillaume Apollinaire. By 1914, Guillaume had gone on to establish working relationships with, among others, Picassco, Modigliani, and Giorgio de Chirico (from whom Barnes years later commissioned a self-portrait). Three years later, in 1917, Guillaume opened his second gallery, this one in the tony rue Saint-Honoré.
An artistic soap opera
Meantime, Guillaume husbanded his growing personal collection in his equally posh Avenue Foch residence. This holding was constantly in transition; Guillaume was not above raiding his apartment's walls to buy other pictures or simply to raise cash. The collection only became forever fixed (as is also the case with the Barnes collection) when the widowed Domenica, who died in 1977, bequeathed the works to the state. It was 1984 — 50 years after Guillaume's death — that the latest incarnation of the Orangerie museum finally opened with Guillaume's works on display.
How this eleemosynary benevolence transpired is another larger-than-life story. Domenica was still a fetching beauty when Paul died unexpectedly at 44, and, not unexpectedly, a scant few years later she remarried. Her new husband was a rich mining magnate, Jean Walter. During this time, she began deaccessioning the collection's African pieces. She also sold many of Picasso's works, replacing them with those by Cézanne and Renoir.
A bizarre twist came in the late 1950s, when Domenica allegedly attempted to murder her adopted son, Paulo. At trial, she was found not guilty — though it was widely believed that the verdict that set her free was tied to a pledge to eventually deed the collection to the Orangerie. In a last malevolent development, Domenica bequeathed the works as the Walter-Guillaume Collection; in other words, in her married names, and thus virtually usurping recognition of Paul as the collection's true driving force.
Quality, not quantity
By whatever name, the collection is impressive, as I learned when I visited the museum recently. (I also made a secondary pilgrimage, a walk-by to Guillaume's apartment house at 22 avenue Foch). It's impressive despite its size — it has significantly fewer works by those artists who are also represented at Barnes. The Barnes has 181 Renoirs, the Orangerie, 25; the Barnes's Matisses number 59, the Orangerie's, 9; 16 Modigliani versus 5. The exception is the number of paintings by Soutine. At 24 works, the Orangerie has the largest number anywhere. Still, the Barnes is a close runner-up with 21. But as in most things, quality often trumps size, and it's often been said that the Barnes collection suffers from Dr. Barnes's indiscriminate and profligate buying habits.
What really distinguishes the Orangerie is that it eschews all the silly exhibit and attendance strictures that Dr. Barnes imposed on viewership. Pictures are hung at eye level for easy, close examination, not, as at the Barnes, in a lazy salon manner. (Even a wheelchair-bound visitor gets to see the pictures at the Orangerie). Additionally, wall space isn't cluttered, as it is at the Barnes, with conflicting pieces of fabricated metalworks. Gee, more space for real art.
Important, too, the Orangerie has an open-door admission policy. While interior space is at a premium and crowding is always an issue, as at the Barnes, the Orangerie recognizes that visitors need to be accommodated on an ad hoc basis, especially those who travel long distances. Sure, I had to wait in line almost an hour. But I got to see the museum. Without a reservation, made well in advance, by the way, a Barnes visit is always problematic.
The result is that the Orangerie has an annual attendance of more than 800,000. The Barnes admits just more than 200,000. Given that the late Dr. Barnes was misanthropic, he probably wouldn't have been disappointed by this disparity. The current Barnes administration should be.
For a response by Robert Zaller, click here.
Sign up for our newsletter
All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.