I tend to read a lot of novels, not the pulp variety but usually older works. Maybe I am trying to fill in my literary education that went on hold for many years when I was watching too much TV. Granted, I love biographies and books about art and artists, but recently I got a hold of a copy of René Gimpel’s Diary of an Art Dealer and I have been thoroughly engrossed in it for the past few weeks.
Gimpel was one of the most important and successful art dealers in Paris in the first half of the 20th century and perhaps not surprisingly, he knew nearly everyone who was rich, famous, or collected art.
He recounts numerous visits to an aging Claude Monet at Giverny, to an equally frail Auguste Renoir in his home in Southern France, dinner parties where companions recounted stories of Degas’s rudeness, his meeting Marcel Proust on vacation on the seacoast of Normandy, his mistrust of the American expatriate art historian Bernard Berenson, and so-on.
But he doesn’t confine himself merely to art or the rich and famous; Gimpel was an astute and sensitive man who could capture the essence of his time with a few words: about World War I, “On a bench: five soldiers with seven wooden legs.” His journal entries about the “Great War” and its aftermath are sobering.
Of significant interest to a curator in an American art museum are his frequent visits to America and his meetings with collectors like Henry Clay Frick (“America’s most hated man”), J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford (who he describes quite unflatteringly), as well as dinners and cocktail parties—(and this was during Prohibition)—with museum directors like W.R. Valentiner of Detroit and George and Nina Spalding Stevens of Toledo.
He frequently notes prices for works of art that he has sold, works others (like the famed British art dealers, the Duveens, into whose family he married) have sold, works he knows to be fakes, and some famous art scandals of the time. If you love art, larger-than-life personalities, “culture gossip,” European and American history during the important years leading up to the outbreak of World War II, you certainly will enjoy this book.
Gimpel’s entries tend to be brief and pithy so one can read as much or as little as one has time for. Unfortunately, I believe this book, originally published in translation in 1967, was reprinted in 1992, but copies can be found on the Internet through various book dealers. Good reading!
Dominique H. Vasseur
Curator of European Art