Special Lecture: The art of the deal
Thursday 6 November | 2.30pm
Ernest Gimpel (Rene Gimpel's senior's father) summer gallery in Trouville, France - he also had one in Paris (undated but circa 1898)
René Albert Gimpel (Diary of an Art Dealer, 1966) was born in Paris in 1881, to Ernest Gimpel (1858-1907) and Adèle Vuitton (niece of Louis Vuitton). He died in Neuengamme concentration camp in Germany 3 January 1945. René Patrick Gimpel (b. 1947), co-director of Gimpel Fils in London and co-director of Gimpel & Muller in Paris, is his grandson.
The Gimpel family art dealership began in Paris in 1889, the year of the great Paris exposition, when Ernest Gimpel left the Paris Bourse (stock-exchange) – where he was a bank employee, and art intermediary on the side – to begin his own business dealing in modern pictures in rue Lafayette.
The business failed after two years but Ernest regrouped and began afresh by dealing in the arts of the eighteenth century, which was then enjoying popular revival in upper-crust Europe. He quickly made a success of this and he and Nathan Wildenstein (1851-1934) – who was Ernest's mother's first cousin (the Gimpel and Wildenstein families in Alsace have a history of intermarriage) – began making joint purchases as well as operating independently. Nathan had been a haberdasher in Strasbourg, Vitry-le-François, and Paris where he moonlighted as an intermediary; he did not begin his own business in Paris as an art dealer until the mid to late 1880s (contrary to common knowledge).
Ernest and Nathan had some stiff competition in Paris but what distinguished them, owing to Ernest's ability to speak English, was that the partnership decided to take its business across the Atlantic; traditionally North American buyers had been compelled to come to Paris and London to furnish their townhouses in period style in the manner of the Rothschilds. In 1902 Ernest opened E Gimpel & Wildenstein for business in New York (Wildenstein never travelled to America) and in early 1903 made two important sales to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: a Nattier and a Largillierre, for $70,000. In 1878, Joël and Henry Duveen had pioneered and proven the value of buying in Europe and selling in America, and consequently were ahead of their more established competitors in London. Joël Duveen's youngest of twelve surviving children, Florence (1886-1978) – sister of Lord Joseph Duveen – married Ernest Gimpel's only child, René Albert, in London in 1912. Two of their children, Charles and Peter, founded Gimpel Fils in London in 1946 and spearheaded the market for modern British art by promoting emerging young artists – which has remained their mission.
The art dealership which began in Paris in 1889 is now in its fifth generation.
E Gimpel & Wildenstein, second New York gallery at 509 Fifth Avenue, from 1907 to 1910
Background to Diary of an Art Dealer, published 1966
René Albert Gimpel (1881-1945) was born in the heady era of la belle époque, the son of an art dealer and Louis Vuitton's niece. His father established the art dealership E Gimpel & Wildenstein (now Wildenstein & Co) in New York in 1902, and the success of the business can be judged by the increasingly salubrious buildings it occupied, culminating in 647 Fifth Avenue (the partnership was severed in 1919). René's father, Ernest, died tragically of diphtheria in New York in 1907, aged 48. His twenty-five year old son was then obliged to step into his father's shoes at a time when he, Nathan Wildenstein and Duveen Bros were negotiating to buy the fabulous Rodolphe Kann collection in Paris.
René kept a journal for twenty-one years: from 1918, the end of the First World War, until 1939, the beginning of the Second World War when he saw his sons mobilised. In it he documented the rise of the modern art market. But he was a keen observer and he also documented sections of Paris and New York society in the interwar period. Gimpel was privy to a cultural field which allowed him to visit Claude Monet at Giverny and buy work from his studio; he himself owned several Monets, including the National Gallery in Washington's, The Artist's Garden at Vétheuil, which he hung eclectically in his Louis XVI drawing room in Paris. He received Marcel Proust in his apartments at midnight, and introduced Marie Laurencin to Rose Adler. When Diary of an Art Dealer opens, Gimpel records his painstaking journey by horse-drawn carriage with his pregnant wife and two sons, via the gorges du Loup, to visit the expatriate American artist, Mary Cassatt, at her hill-top home in Provence, where they discuss the impending sale of Degas' own museum-quality collection of art. Gimpel did not attend the estate sales but he did later own Degas' portrait of Hélène Rouart (National Gallery, London), which he displayed in his period drawing room.
Portrait of Rene Gimpel in the Gimpel Fils gallery, Mayfair, September 2008
While much has been made of René Gimpel's ostensibly more successful contemporaries – his brother-in-law Joe, or his sometime partner, Nathan Wildenstein – the value of the Gimpel journal is that it was written at first-hand. When Monet says that Garden at Sainte-Adresse (MMA, NY) featured his father, and that the composition was daring for the time, we know this because he said it to Gimpel and Bernheim during one of their visits to Giverny, and Gimpel recorded it. When Gimpel writes that Degas' brothel scene La fête de la patronne, later owned by Picasso, is 'rude', he is responding to having seen it at Durand-Ruel's prior to the Degas estate sale.
René Gimpel himself was in the business of the arts of the eighteenth-century, but he lived the late nineteenth and twentieth. In 1920, he surveyed the private collection of the Durand-Ruel family galleries and noted prophetically that never again would there be assembled such a collection of Impressionists: 'Perhaps a hundred Renoirs, a hundred Monets, Degas, Manets, Pissarros, Cézanne by the dozens, pictures hung quite simply in two adjoining apartments on the rue de Rome'.
Gimpel documented the demise of living Impressionists, and the rise of the modern decorative arts and Expressionism as he lived it.
Dr Diana Kostyrko, ANU, August 2008