Pioneers of the Global Art Market: Paris-Based Dealer Networks, 1850-1950

Ed. Christel H. Force, 2020. London : Bloomsbury, 288pp., 16 colour & 56 b/w illustrations. Hardback £90, Paperback £24.99, eBook and/or EPUB £81. ISBN 9781501342769 (hardback), ISBN 9781350282841 (paperback), ISBN 9781501342776 (eBook), ISBN 9781501342783 (eBook & EPUB) 

– Marie Tavinor

This book, edited by Christel H. Force and published as part of the growing Bloomsbury series on ‘Contextualising Art Markets’ edited by Kathryn Brown (Loughborough University) dissects the dealer networks responsible for disseminating French modernism internationally, from its beginnings to its solidification as a key part of the art historical canon. The timespan of 1850 to 1950 enables the authors to scrutinise every development of the aesthetic shift, from the Barbizon school to the ‘isms’ which took pride of place in the artistic hierarchy over time. Paris is presented as the centre of this revolution which radiated outward to the rest of the world, not just in Europe and North America, but also to Asia and South America.

While modernist art histories are widely researched and questioned, this book rides the academic wave chipping away the ‘self-referential and self-sustaining’ avant-garde narratives by showing how embedded in commercial circles they were.[1] Its novelty lies in contending the widespread cliché of a ‘winner-takes-all’ environment riddled with merciless competition. Instead, it places a fresh emphasis on pragmatic, tactical, sometimes ad hoc cooperation between dealers, in particular across national borders. The emphasis is on the characters and networks who responded to external factors and used tools at their disposal (exhibitions, articles, catalogues) to carve market shares amidst a highly fluid and risky environment. In so doing, it illustrates the chain of value creation in the art market, and it argues that these ‘dealers’, a term used in the widest possible meaning, actively shaped the modernist canon. This is a fascinating perspective which is developed over fourteen case studies roughly arranged in chronological order and built on serious archival research.

The introduction eschews some of the difficulties linked to the long chronological span and broad range of case studies contained in this book by recasting it as a discussion of ‘webs of relationships’ (p.1), a looser and less constraining approach to the topic.  Gaps such as the absence of discussion of women dealers are then openly addressed (p.2), as are the discrepancies between the title’s focus on ‘Paris-based dealers’ and many case studies of dealers based outside of France thereby creating a case for a globalised art market fostered by a tumultuous historical and economic context in France. Then, the introduction grapples with the thorny definition of ‘dealer’, broadly defined in relation to modern art as a ‘champion of innovation’ with a taste for risk-taking (p.3). Force charts the rise of mainly primary market dealers against the demise of the Salon system; she usefully highlights dialectical tensions between key publications such as Moulin, White and White, Galenson and Jensen while unpacking traditional epistemological differences which have appeared in the literature over time (pp.3-4; pp.11-13).  In this book, dealers are understood as covering a range of roles ‘from gallery owner… to manager, salesman, agent and scout’ (p.10). Such a fluid definition is followed by a fascinating discussion of the business and legal framework in which these dealers operated. While specific syndicates were created in France in the twentieth century to increase the dealers’ status and to lobby regulation,[2] unregulated art market practices included collusion, lack of transparency, international cartels, and oligopolies (pp.13-14).

Ego-centric Case Studies of Dealers

A book on pioneers of the global art market could not be written without an article on some key figures, traditionally described as ‘ideological’ dealers who placed aesthetic aims before commercial gain. Authors show that dealers reacted and anticipated on adverse circumstances to explore new markets with the help of locally implanted peers.

Primus inter pares is Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922), closely connected to the impressionists and one of the few dealers who was the object of a travelling exhibition.[3] While Jennifer A. Thompson acknowledges the great amount of academic writing on Durand-Ruel, her aim is to provide a synthesis of his transnational strategy across six decades (44). Pushed by a difficult economic context at home, Durand-Ruel turned to overseas markets. Nine trips strategically aligned with the New York season between 1886 and 1898 substantially grew the market for Impressionism thanks to travelling exhibitions, a mix of established and emerging artists on offer, deft publicity, and a sound reputation (p.45). His solid network comprised not only dealers (notably Paul and Bruno Cassirer) but also his own roster of artists, who like Mary Cassatt or Max Liebermann, supported their French peers in their homeland.

The other key dealer of modern art is German-born Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979), best known for his championing of Cubism and his exclusive and strict relationship with Picasso, Braque, and later surrealist artist Masson.  Building on Vérane Tasseau’s longstanding work on the dealer, this chapter analyses his strategy centred on exports (p.75), international publicity, and scarcity in Paris (p.77). Shows abroad took place at Heinrich Tannhauser’s Moderne Galerie in Munich; Alfred Flechteim’s galleries in Dusseldorf, Berlin, Frankfurt and Cologne, the Armory Show in 1913 after which Kahnweiler developed exclusive business relations with Michael Brenner and Robert Coady, the owners of the Washington Square Gallery in New York. Transnational contacts became key after the First World War when his stock was confiscated and that he went into exile in Switzerland, and during the dire economic context in the 1920s and 1930s.

Another early champion of Cubism, Paul Rosenberg, is used in Mary Kate Cleary’s chapter to go beyond the traditional distinction between ‘entrepreneurial’ and ‘ideological’ dealers. Instead, she presents Rosenberg as a ‘transnational patron-entrepreneur’ (p.173) who responded to the political and business contexts by shifting operations across the Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. Building on primary sources, Cleary unearths the difficult and sometimes repugnant anti-Semitic context in which he operated, and how anti-competitive practices and the lack of transparency sometimes soured the relationships between dealers and collectors.

Beyond these well-known figures of the modern art market, this book introduces key players who have not received as much academic attention. The book editor Christel Force develops two such fascinating cases: Walter Halvorsen (1887-1972) and Etienne Bignou (1897-1950). Both chapters clearly demonstrate the art world’s great fluidity in which individuals successfully circumvented the operational and strategic limitations of more established dealers. A student at the Académie Matisse before World War I, Norwegian painter, critic, agent and dealer Walter Halvorsen exemplifies adaptable behaviour in the face of changing circumstances. At the centre of a vast network of Paris-based dealers, artists and collectors including the Steins, Halvorsen’s brokerage of sales and exhibitions in Scandinavia during the war years started in a serendipitous manner, as an act of solidarity towards the plight of fellow artists (p.137). Hence, the void left by exiled dealers and artists at war created opportunities in neutral but Francophile countries with better economic prospects crystallised in the 1916 exhibition at the Kunstnerforbundet i.e., the Norwegian Artists Association in Kristiana, but was followed up on in 1918 and after the war with solo exhibitions of Renoir and Matisse. Halvorsen destroyed his archives (p.140) so Force has done excellent work piecing together the archival material that is left and managed to unveil some of his strategies such as transnational agreements on price control and anti-competitive practices (p.141). After the Scandinavian economic downturn in the 1920s and 1930s, Halvorsen continued being a conduit between France and Scandinavia with notable paintings such as Guernica reaching Oslo as early as 1938 (p.140).

The interwar dealer and entrepreneur Etienne Bignou (1897-1950) was apprenticed to his stepfather the respected art dealer Theodore Bonjean between 1909 and 1913 (p.202). Having been educated in London, Bignou developed strong business relationship in Great Britain in the 1920s, notably with McNeill Reid in Glasgow and Lefèvre in London, organising with them no less than six group exhibitions of post-Impressionist art. Later the highly entrepreneurial and mobile Bignou turned to America to find clients for his first-rate works spanning the whole development of French modernism. Bignou’s coup during the Depression years was to help organise a travelling exhibition of ‘Paintings from the Ambroise Vollard Collection’ first in Paris in November 1933 and then in New York in December of the same year (p.211). This inaugurated a series of high-profile exhibitions of French modern artists in New York during the 1930s and 1940s. However, Bignou’s biographical and sympathetic portrayal was balanced with a discussion of some of his questionable sales during the war years.

International Networks

Transnational networks are analysed in more depth in some of the chapters and take on their full meaning in adverse political and economic contexts. Valerie Nikola Ender examines the Thannauser Galleries mainly based in Munich and Berlin and observes the owners’ (Heinrich and son Justin) strategic decisions over a period of thirty years between the 1910s and 1940s. Collaborations with the likes of Paul Cassirer, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler and Paul Rosenberg enabled them to access important stock of modern art early on. Further business arrangements with peers such as a consortium in 1910, allowed them to acquire works from the noted Auguste Pellerin collection. They exhibited not just French modern art, but Munich Secession and Blue Rider artists. They also organised the largest Picasso retrospective ever put together in 1913. The war and Franco-German antagonism forced the Thannausers to relocate to Lucerne, Switzerland and to move their premises to Berlin in 1927. In the 1930s Justin moved to Paris first, then to New York where he eventually donated part of his collection to the Guggenheim Museum.

Complementary perspectives on the same case studies are developed throughout the book. They all point to the central importance of networks in organising supply chains, exhibitions, promoting works across borders and finding collectors. First, the Svensk-Franska Konstgalleriet in Stockholm analysed by Christina Brandberg provides a brick-and-mortar counterpoint to Halvorsen’s fluid and flexible support of French modern art. The author reconstructs the gallery founder Gosta Olson’s activities between 1918 and 1950 with the help of previously untapped Swedish archival material. Once again serendipity and lack of strategic thinking characterised the initial set up of the Konstgalleriet, which grew organically from his owner’s own interests and networks in Paris such Berheim-Jeune and Paul Durand-Ruel (p.160). His first exhibition Fransk Konst in May 1918 follows a well-established pattern offering a mix of works belonging to private collections (his own) and works for sale with a 5% commission and a modest entrance fee. Negotiations are not only conducted at the business level, but also highlight concerns around semantics and roles: for example, Halvorsen insists on being presented as a gatekeeper rather than a ‘merchant of art’ (p.161) while nationality labels were used consistently to market foreign schools, especially in shifting international geopolitics.[4]

Similarly, Frances Fowles’s chapter brings into light Etienne Bignou’s longstanding collaboration with Reid and Lefevre. She analyses this triumvirate of well-connected dealers who worked together in the early 1920s at a time when prominent British collectors such as Samuel Courtauld and William Burrell acquired works on a greater scale than before. These entrepreneurial dealers joined forces and networks to organise exhibitions, acquire stock and to capitalise on the growing taste – and prices – for French modern art in Great Britain. A highlight of this chapter is the rediscovery of another little-known but key collector of those years, Elizabeth Russell Workman (1874-1962) who developed a taste for French avant-garde art before Courtauld and who acquired first-rate works from Reid such as Degas’s Portrait of Diego Martelli or Toulouse-Lautrec’s Jane Avril leaving the Moulin Rouge (pp.192-193).

Julia May Boddewyn’s contribution demonstrates the practical importance of international networks at a time when travel and communication were substantially slower and less reliable than they are now. F. Valentine Dudensing (1892-1967) and his wife Bibi set up the New-York Valentine Gallery reputed for showing avant-garde French artists from the 1920s and 1930s. Access to important works would not have been possible without their agents and partners in France such as Pierre Matisse, who secured the famed Seated Odalisque (now at the Metropolitan Museum) for a show in 1926; or Paul Guillaume who supplied first-rate material for a De Chirico show in 1928 (p.248). Built mostly on archival sources, this chapter reflects on changing allegiances and the fluidity of networks. When Pierre Matisse opened his own gallery in New York, Valentine turned to Paul Guillaume and his wife Domenica in 1934 for supply of avant-garde artists from the School of Paris such as Maurice Utrillo, Chaim Soutine or Amedeo Modigliani.

The important issue of discourses and semantics is analysed over three case studies of periodicals which appeared in the 1920s by Ambre Gauthier as a way of exploring how information dissemination supported the academic discourse, exports of art, and helped shape the taste for new forms of art (p.91). Firstly Paul Guillaume’s twenty-one issues of Les Arts à Paris (1918-1935), to which Apollinaire contributed, served to propagate his credentials as an expert and to advertise upcoming exhibitions. The journal helped reinforce links between Guillaume and his client Albert Barnes who contributed to the journal and in turn invited Guillaume to deliver talks at his home in Merion, PA. Léonce Rosenberg’s Le Bulletin de l’Effort moderne (1924-27) named after his gallery l’Effort moderne, supported his exhibition programme both locally and internationally. Finally, Alfred Flechteim’s Der Querschnitt (1921-1936) was broader in scope as it covered arts, literature, sports. However, the periodical allowed many European figures of modernism such as Huxley, Marinetti or René Clair to contribute; collectors such as Albert Barnes; even other dealers such as Paul Guillaume and Léonce Rosenberg. Similarly, to the other periodicals studied in this chapter, it provided a shared outward-looking platform for burgeoning art critics to further an understanding of the avant-garde and to service their international networks.

The visual semantics of display are further explored in Yaëlle Biro’s analysis of the nine-year collaboration between Paul Guillaume and New York-based Marius de Zayas. She explores the growing taste for African art which accompanied the expanding market for modernism after the First World War. Branching off from the ethnographic interest which had developed from colonialist roots, its international development was fostered by the Guillaume-de Zayas collaboration between 1914 and 1923. The author deftly analyses taxonomic shifts underlined by changing display methods which she called ‘artification’ (102). Central to their common strategy were exhibitions and publications to foster connoisseurship and an aesthetic sensitivity towards the objects.

Contextualising the Modernist Canon

While this book mainly dissects the rise of the modernist canon thanks to dealers’ networks and international collaborations, its core narrative is expanded by bringing in comparisons with other market segments as well as an economic context. Using the Getty Research Institute archives, Paolo Serafino’s chapter presents several artists who did not fit in the modernist canon. Indeed, Orientalist Alberto Pasini (1826-99), genre painter Vittorio Matteo Corcos (1859-1933) and plein-air landscapist Antoine Chintreuil (1814-73) exhibited at the Salon instead and were represented by the highly successful Goupil & co, then Boussod, Valadon and Cie from 1884 onwards, famous for supporting Gerome’s career and for selling European academic artists as well as works from the Barbizon school.[5] Serafino’s comparative analysis covers common art market practices in the second half of the nineteenth century such as exclusive contracts, right of first refusal, information asymmetry, joint ownership of works and anti-competitive agreements. His findings show that dealers across the aesthetic spectrum sought to position themselves as gatekeepers and used their international networks to promote their roster of artists using national labels as convenient introductory tools.

On the other hand, David Challis focuses on Cezanne’s series of thirty-seven Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings created between 1870 and 1906 and analyses the evolving economic context which underpinned the dissemination of French modern art. Indeed, what he termed the ‘mechanisms of translocation’ can also be partly explained by the strong currency fluctuations which took place in the 1920s. A weakened Franc rendered exports of art necessary to local impoverished owners and more attractive to international collectors, who sometimes benefitted from substantial discounts. For example, the famed Philadelphia collector Albert Barnes acquired a Mont-Sainte Victoire (among other works) in 1920 using the favourable dollar to franc currency exchange rate (p.65). Challis argued that the global demand for French modern art accelerated during the 1920s (p.67), not only in America but also further afield in Japan and in South America. This caused Paris-based dealers to either expand their activities abroad or to work collaboratively with agents on the ground, pushed by difficult economic conditions at home and spurred by international prospects.

Finally, Diana Kostyrko’s chapter builds up on her longstanding work on old master dealer René Gimpel (1881-1945). The son of a dealer, Gimpel first partnered with Nathan Wildenstein until 1919, then married Florence Duveen, Sir Joseph’s sister: as underlined here, family connections were generally the most ready forms of networks in the art trade. Gimpel provides a fascinating addition to this book as he had to adapt to changing taste and difficult economic context in the 1930s, thereby exploring the primary market in addition to his traditional secondary market activities. (p.231).


This book showed that over the period 1850 to 1950, the market for French modernism was mainly sustained by sales abroad thanks to dealers’ transnational cooperation. Thus, not only artists but also their dealers actively contributed to support the radical aesthetic shift which took place during those years. Academic dissemination through exhibition catalogues, journals and catalogues raisonnés, promotional strategy and exhibitions formed the foundational pillars which fostered the shift in taste, as described in Véronique Chagnon-Burke’s well-rounded conclusion. The market mechanisms underpinning the export from French modern art are analysed in depth here, yet this book calls for an expanded interdisciplinary approach in which contributions from legal historians would help clarify the blurred legal boundaries on which the art market widely operated. To conclude, while Paris is presented as the main centre of avant-garde artistic production during the period 1850-1950, the diffusion of French modernism primarily took place outside of France, an interesting perspective to explore further in an era characterised by nationalism. From that perspective, oblique manifestations of the proto Etat culturel are fascinating to detect as they grew and transformed the state’s relationship to avant-garde production in the second half of the twentieth century.[6]

[1] John House, ‘Coda: Impressionism’s Histories Reviewed’, in Paint and Politics (Yale: Yale University Press, 2004), 207.

[2] Julie Verlaine, ‘Les associations professionnelles de marchands d’art après 1945 : lobbying et modernisation à Paris et à New York’, Le Mouvement Social 2013/2 (n° 243) : 53-65.

[3] Sylvie Patry and Anne Robbins, Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market (London: National Gallery, 2015).

[4] Jan Dirk Baetens and Dries Lyna, Art Crossing Borders: The Internationalisation of the Art Market in the Age of the Nation Staets, 1750-1914 (London: Brill, 2019).

[5] Agnès Penot, La maison Goupil, Galerie d’art internationale au XIXe siècle (Paris : Mare & Martin, 2017).

[6] Marc Fumaroli, L’Etat culturel, essai sur une religion moderne (Paris : Editions de Fallois, 1991).

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