Renoir depicted his art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1865-1939) in a perfect profile, dressed in a brown wool cloth suit with his head curiously covered by a scarf tied at the back of the neck, a reminder of this Creole giant’s youth spent on Reunion Island. An influential figure in artistic life at the turn of the 10th century, Vollard launched Cézanne’s career and organised the first personal exhibitions of Van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse, in his gallery on Rue Laffitte. A publisher and collector as well as a dealer, he favoured direct contact with artists, whom he would invite to memorable dinners in the basement of his gallery.
“I posed a number of times”. Ambroise Vollard starts a short chapter of Memoirs of a Picture Dealer (1937) entitled “My portraits” with these words. Vollard shares a few anecdotes with his readers and describes sitting for various painters who painted his portrait. With Cézanne, who painted the first one in 1899, silence was essential and Vollard had to sit balanced precariously on a stool perched on a platform, and had to be as motionless as an “apple” on a pedestal table. With Renoir, the atmosphere was more relaxed and he could talk and even move. Bonnard, who was aware of Vollard’s tendency to fall asleep when posing, placed a small cat on his lap to keep him awake. Other artists from the gallery on Rue Laffitte would also engage in this exercise, for instance Louis Valtat, Pablo Picasso, Émile Bernard, Jean-Louis Forain, Raoul Dufy and Georges Rouault.
The history of Vollard’s portraits is interwoven with the pictorial revolution that was taking place in the capital at the turn of the century. It provided a glimpse of the many faces of this dealer, a private and debonair man of great intuition, whose commercial success contributed to the expansion of the Parisian avant-garde.