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The Passionate CollectorEighty Years in the World of Art
By Roy R. Neuberger
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-471-27343-0
Chapter OneMEMORIES OF PARIS IN THE 1920s
My years in Paris as a young man spawned my passion and my eye for art. For all the years thereafter, I gravitated with special fondness toward artists who I felt showed French, or at least European, sensibility.
I was first attracted to the work of Milton Avery because I felt that Matisse influenced him. I liked Max Weber for the same reason. My earliest important purchase, Peter Hurd's Boy from the Plains, reminded me of the Italian Renaissance. Lyonel Feininger's High Houses evoked for me early Picasso and Braque.
Paris was the dawn of my life as a passionate collector.
LINDBERGH CONQUERS PARIS
When Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris on May 21, 1927, after his solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, I was living at 119 Boulevard St. Germain on the Left Bank.
This daring young man in his single-engine airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, electrified the world. Excitement spread through the cafés of the Left Bank and all of Paris. Several hundred thousand people went to the airport to cheer his arrival.
Lindbergh's feat brought back to me a vivid memory of my own "exploit" three years earlier. Commercial flying was in its precarious infancy when I took a plane-an old biplane crate-from Paris across the English Channel to London.Only a few brave souls had done it. A relative traveling with me thought I was nuts. He took the boat-train and met me in London. My flight was a three-hour stomach-churning affair. After we landed, it took me three days to recover. I knew not what I was doing.
But Lindbergh knew what he was doing. His was a fantastic adventure, flying alone from Long Island 3,000 miles across the ocean in this little one-engine plane without any of the modern protections.
The odds looked bad when he took off all by himself. Others had made earlier unsuccessful efforts. But Lindbergh made it.
The French were a little unhappy that an American rather than a Frenchman had flown across the Atlantic. But they had to admit it was sensational.
On that day, Lindbergh instantly became the most famous person in the world. Then he spent the rest of his life proving what a relatively low-class fellow he was otherwise. He became a pal of Adolph Hitler's. He thought Hitler was a genius.
Before Lindbergh's flight, I was spending my days engrossed in art, paying little attention to the scientific and political worlds. But Lindbergh's attainment created a contagious excitement, a feeling that one individual could do anything. The world was opening up. Art and literature were flourishing. Now Lindbergh had proved that voyages of the mind and the imagination could be made real.
FROM BRIDGEPORT TO PARIS
I got to Paris via Bridgeport, Connecticut, and New York City. I was born in Bridgeport on July 21, 1903, the youngest of three children. My father was a businessman. My mother, a native of Chicago, was an accomplished pianist.
We moved to New York City when I was six to give my mother greater access to the concerts and operas she loved and to provide a broader cultural and social life for my sister, brother, and me. We had been in New York only about three years when my mother died. Four years later, when I was twelve, my father died. My safety net was the love of my remarkable sister Ruth, with whom I lived in Manhattan near Columbia University.
I was twenty years old when I read John Galsworthy's popular novel, The Forsyte Saga. Among other virtues, it described the practice of well-to-do English families sending their children to the continent to broaden their education.
Unlike the Galsworthy characters, I had no parents to send me abroad. After one semester at New York University, I quit college and went to work in the home decorating department of B. Altman & Company, a fine department store in its day. A coworker, Anne Washington, reputed to be a direct descendant of George, told me that I had aesthetic talent. I was just seventeen when she said that, and I have never forgotten it, nor the kindness of Anne and her friends. They took me to concerts and art galleries and encouraged me to study painting. In less than six months, I decided that I would never be a really good painter. Instead, I became a passionate art lover.
I had a $30,000 inheritance from my father that provided an income of about $2,000 a year, almost enough to live on in that long ago time. Under the spell of the Galsworthy novel, I decided to use my income to send myself to Paris.
It was a terrific decision. The years I lived in Paris, from 1924 to 1929, were my substitute for a college education and my training ground for a future as an art collector.
In the summer of 1924, I sent myself to France in style, sailing first class on a French liner, meeting fascinating people and eating obscene quantities of caviar. The magnificent meals continued on the boat train from Cherbourg to Paris as I gazed out at the beautiful French countryside.
I moved into a Parisian hotel room on the Right Bank, on the Rue de Rivoli, just a short walk to a feast for my eyes that would profoundly influence my life-the Louvre.
LOVING THE LOUVRE
On my first day in Paris, I went straight to the Louvre. I continued to go at least three times a week. It was not nearly as crowded as it is today, so it was possible to see masterpieces without security barriers.
Instead of entering through today's glass pyramid, you walked directly up the Daru staircase. I was overwhelmed, as were millions before me, by the enormous Hellenistic Winged Victory of Samothrace. The eight-foot marble goddess of victory, an idealized female body with huge wings, was created for the prow of a battle ship. It literally took my breath away. The sculpture signified everything: the power, the ship, and the earth traveling through the universe. We will never know the name of the artist who carved this masterpiece.
In the Egyptian section, I was captivated by a small wooden sculpture called The Scribe. That intriguing little piece made a big impression on me, spurring my interest in ancient art. My reaction to The Scribe was almost reverential. I was an extremely idealistic young man with a bit of an inferiority complex. I felt I had to learn all the time because I knew so little. To me, The Scribe represented great knowledge. Revering it somehow gave me confidence in my own judgment, which helped me in my personal life and in the art world.
After being so moved by Winged Victory and The Scribe, I found myself less impressed by the Louvre's large roomful of Rubens. We now know that some of them were really painted by his atelier. Of course, several famous artists had virtual factories.
None of the great artists in the Louvre-not even Michelangelo or da Vinci (notwithstanding my fascination with the Mona Lisa)-had the same impact on me as the anonymous sculptures I saw on my first day in Paris: Winged Victory and The Scribe.
But I found, returning again and again to the Louvre, that certain paintings were increasingly interesting. This was an early lesson in self-education. Each time you return to a work of art, you observe different things about the composition, the draftmanship, the placement of figures and objects, the relationship between colors. It is the confluence of all of these elements, and many others, that evokes an emotional response.
Anyone who has seen my collection, or at least a substantial part of it, knows that I love color. It was Matisse's marvelous colors that attracted me to his paintings in Paris. I had the same response when I first saw Milton Avery's work. I think Jackson Pollock's Number 8, which hangs in the Neuberger Museum, uses color better than many of his other paintings. People who love Mark Rothko certainly respond to his sense of color, which is evident in his Old Gold Over White, another purchase that I gave to the Neuberger.
Sometimes it is a passionately strong use of color that attracts me, or sometimes it is a romantic subtlety, as in the various shades of green used by Georgia O'Keeffe in her haunting landscape, Lake George by Early Moonrise, evocative of Matisse's use of various shades of one color.
One principle is as true today as it was when I first entered the Louvre: Whether you are studying the composition, the color, or any other aspect, you never tire of looking at a masterpiece. You can go back to it countless times and each time see something new. This is the excitement of loving art.
SETTLING INTO PARIS
It was my good fortune to run into a man who had spent several years in Paris under assignment from R. H. Macy. They were training him to be a merchandiser and he was on his way home, giving up his room and selling his Citroen convertible, which I bought for $400. I also took over his room in a large house with an attached garage on a little street called Rue Nicholas about a half-mile from the Bois de Boulogne in the Passy section of Paris. I think the number of the house was 36.
In the house were a French school teacher, his wife, their little boy, and me, the new tenant, who seized this great opportunity to accelerate my fluency with a French family. A frequent visitor contributed to my extra-curricular education-the school teacher's thirty-year-old sister, who lived in a province outside Paris. She came to the city ostensibly to shop, perhaps a Madame Bovary type, a little bored with her country husband, but apparently not with me. I sometimes felt like a character in a Colette novel.
Many years later, in 1984, I was standing on line outside the Louvre with my wife Marie and our daughter Ann on our last day in Paris. Impulsively, I said, "Goodbye, girls, I am going to see the city on foot." I took a long walk, strolled up the Champs Elysee, turned left, and found Rue Nicholas. The house had been replaced by a six-story apartment building. My memories remained.
As a young man, it had been hard to leave that comfortable house, with its many amenities, but I really wanted to be on the Left Bank where the artists were. I found a large, airy apartment in the heart of the Left Bank, at 119 Boulevard St. Germain.
The apartment was a four-minute walk to the Café des Deux Magots, where I joined a group of young people who gathered nearly every day. We sat for hours and talked about ideas and art, as young people had done at that café for more than a century.
But though I had friends and a romance or two, I did not have nearly the same pace of social life in Paris as I had in New York. The flood of Americans in Paris included very few Jews who were reading and studying art as I was.
My roommate on Boulevard St. Germain was Herman Wechsler, whom I had met in a French course at the Berlitz school. Herman was on a two-year scholarship from New York University to study art in Europe. We shared several apartments over the years, and we became close friends. He, too, was an avid reader. Together, we took a course in book binding. I didn't think I had any particular facility for it, but I found to my amazement that I became pretty good at it. I enjoyed it, particularly when I could bind Aldous Huxley and other favorite writers. I still have some books I bound more than seventy years ago.
Herman and I often walked from our apartment to the Café des Deux Magots, where, like most of the customers, we drank moderately, often a creme au chocolat or something called export cassis, not a very intoxicating drink.
Only a few expatriates like Hemingway drank heavily of pernod and red wine.
One July evening in 1926, I entered the Café des Deux Magots and noticed a young man under verbal assault by some pseudo-intellectuals who were baiting him. He was obviously a brilliant student with a remarkable mind.
His name was Meyer Schapiro, he was twenty-one years old, a year younger than I was, and he had already earned a Bachelor of Arts degree with honors in art history and a Master of Arts degree from Columbia. He would later become a MacArthur Fellow and a University Professor at Columbia.
In this architectural debate at the café, Meyer's adversaries were trying to trip him up in a discussion of the flying buttress. Meyer said that this motif, revealed in the artistic rendering of a horse with its legs extended out both in front and in back, impossible in reality, first appeared in two works a thousand miles apart. The two artists could not possibly have known each other, or been familiar with each other's work. This kind of coincidence has occurred many times in history. Often a breakthrough invention takes place in one part of the world and a similar invention occurs in another part of the world. So it was with the flying buttress.
Meyer Schapiro was a vigorous, extremely knowledgeable speaker, a fanatical salesman of ideas, and a pretty good painter as well. He came out fine in the debate and we became instant friends.
Shortly after this incident, Meyer left Paris for a long trip through Europe. He returned in October, when most American tourists had gone home. Herman Wechsler was in America visiting his parents so there was room for Meyer to stay at my Left Bank apartment. After working hard on scholarly projects, studying Romanesque art during his travels, he was ready to relax and enjoy the sights of Paris. Later, he returned to New York to complete his doctoral studies in art history at Columbia.
Meyer Schapiro, who died in 1996, became the preeminent twentieth-century art historian and teacher of art history. I was an early and lucky beneficiary. His students at Columbia were astounded by his eloquence and teaching ability. He often came to dinner at my home in New York. I was never more pleased than when Meyer would put his stamp of approval on a new work of art in my collection.
I always felt that Herman Wechsler also had the potential to be an important scholar, in the Meyer Schapiro mode. But he did live a lively life and was fun to be with. He had a flair.
He became quite successful in the arts, writing books on prints and becoming one of the first to open a gallery on Madison Avenue, the F A R Gallery (Fine Art Reproductions), a beautiful place. I thought he made a mistake by dealing in reproductions rather than originals. But Herman reasoned that because of the depression, it was better to deal in less expensive pictures. If he had dealt in originals, he might have been an outstanding dealer.
He also had a business on the far East Side of Manhattan where he framed paintings beautifully, including some in my collection. He framed Milton Avery's Gaspé Landscape, which I brought to him directly after I purchased it in January 1943.
Herman died in 1976.
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