Esmé O’Keeffe takes a look at the forgotten life of French art dealer Berthe Weill, who played a vital role in the creation of the market for twentieth-century art.
Any discussion of Amedeo Modigliani is often accompanied by the story of the solo exhibition in Paris in 1917, when his languid nudes, with their erotic depictions of female pubic hair, caused such a scandal that the police intervened and banned the offending artworks.
Modigliani is held in high regard for his audacity and vision, but he is not the main hero of this story. Without Berthe Weill, Paris’ first female gallery owner, there would have been no exhibition in the first place. 70 years on from her death in 1951, Weill’s contribution to twentieth century art is finally earning the recognition it deserves.
Berthe Weill gave Modigliani the only solo exhibition of his lifetime. As the first person to sell work by Matisse and Picasso, she launched the career of two of the twentieth century’s most influential artists.
She was also the making of Georges Braque, André Derain, Francis Picabia, Robert Delaunay and Raoul Dufy. As an art dealer, gallerist, patron of the arts and friend to the struggling creatives of Montmartre and Montparnasse, Berthe Weill overcame rampant antisemitism and misogyny to shape the avant-garde.
Weill was an unusual character for her era: opinionated, prickly, steadfast and fiercely loyal, she consistently defied convention. Born into a large Jewish family of modest means in 1865, Weill was apprenticed to an antique print dealer in Paris at a young age. Rather than marry and share her dowry with a man, she decided to become a marchand d’art, and opened a gallery at 25 Rue Victor Massé in 1901.
For want of space or money, or no doubt both, Weill hung artworks on a clothes line strung across her gallery, held up by pegs and sometimes with the paint still wet. Weill ate and slept in her gallery, too, living and breathing art that broke the establishment’s rules.
Her one aim was to create a space for ‘Young People’, to rebel against the rigid framework of the Academy that had stifled French painting in the nineteenth century, and whose foundations the Impressionists had begun to shake three decades earlier. With limited financial resources but a sharp eye, and influenced by the art critic Roger Marx, she set out to promote penniless avant-garde artists; as Weill wrote in her memoir, Pan! Dans l’œil, in 1933, she “took the risk of going modern”.
In those early days, as Paris’ first female gallerist, it was a significant risk. One of the very first artists to catch her eye was a young and unknown Spaniard named Pablo Picasso. In 1900 Weill bought his Moulin de la Galette, a depiction of the decadence and ribaldry of Belle Epoque Montmartre, which now hangs in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. When she made this leap of faith, she couldn’t have anticipated Picasso’s meteoric rise to fame.
But once a raw talent had caught her eye, she remained committed to them; although works from Picasso’s ‘Blue Period’ achieved little acclaim at the time, and despite her own misgivings about this phase in Picasso’s artistic development, Weill purchased several of these ‘Blue’ works to help out her struggling protégé.
A few years later, Weill discovered a group of artists, including Matisse and Derain, at the Salon d’Automne in 1905. Captivated by their vibrant colour palette, loose, expressionist brushwork and fresh approach to pictorial space, she was the first gallery owner to exhibit their work. They would go on to be known as ‘Les Fauves’ or the Fauvists, a name coined by the art critic Louis Vauxcelles, meaning ‘The Wild Beasts’.
Weill tried to encourage Leo and Gertrude Stein to buy a Matisse but, despite their promotion of the avant-garde, the Stein siblings considered it too much of a risk. The fact that even Gertrude Stein, the doyenne of Paris’ literary and artistic scene, shied away from such a purchase shows the full extent of Weill’s remarkable vision.
Weill turned the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and their contemporaries into household names whose works now regularly fetch seven- or eight-figure sums at auction. (When Picasso’s ‘Nude, Green Leaves and Bust’ was sold at Christie’s in 2010 for $106.5 million, it was the highest price ever paid for a work of art at that time). But she also championed female artists such as Marie Laurencin, Suzanne Valadon, Emilie Charmy and Alice Halicka who struggled for recognition in a world where the men were the ‘artists’ and the women were their ‘muses’.
Like Weill, Suzanne Valadon fought to challenge this status quo throughout her forty-year period as an artist: born to an unmarried laundress in the slums of Montmartre, the young Valadon began life as an acrobat and artist’s model for Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec, learning to paint by watching the artists for whom she posed.
She gave birth at 18 to a son, Maurice Utrillo, whose works were also exhibited by Berthe Weill, and which now hang in the Musée d’Orsay. Were it not for Berthe Weill providing a space for women artists like Valadon to show their work, it is hard to imagine how they would have succeeded in building such reputations in their lifetime.
Weill knew better than anybody the challenges of being an unmarried woman in a man’s world, where her status turned the routine procedures of daily life into an obstacle. In early twentieth century Paris, a woman was not allowed a bank account without her husband’s permission – a sticky situation for an unmarried female art dealer.
The name she chose for her shop, ‘Galerie B. Weill’, bearing her initial rather than her name, withheld any information as to the gender of its owner. And the heavy-drinking, debauched artists she patronised were not always easy to work with. In his book Bohemian Paris, Dan Franck recounts how Picasso kept his Browning pistol on him at all times. Once, when Weill expressed some doubts about the amount of money she owed him, he didn’t answer, just took out his gun and placed it on the table.
Far worse than dissolute and fiery-tempered young Spaniards, however, was the unbridled antisemitism in French society. This was the era of the Dreyfus Affair, when a French-Jewish artillery officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was convicted of treason on what were largely believed to be trumped-up and politically-motivated charges.
The scandal, which ran from 1894 to 1906, highlighted the systemic antisemitism in French society and the dangers of being a Jew in France. Weill was Jewish, female, unmarried, financially unsuccessful, four-feet-nine-inches tall and so short-sighted that she wore magnifying glasses. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson described her somewhat unflatteringly as a “homely Jewish spinster with spectacles think as goldfish bowls”. But she overcame all the odds, and commanded immense respect in artistic circles, where she was known as “La Merweil” (‘merveil’ in French means ‘marvel’).
The cruelty of the art world was such that, once Weill had helped to establish an artist, they would move on to more established dealers, with the promise of financial security. Weill’s commitment to hunting out and supporting unknown artists meant that she made little money, but she was remembered with gratitude by those whose careers she had launched.
In 1946, a few years before she died, a group of artists donated and auctioned off eighty artworks and bought Weill an apartment with the proceeds, so that their great champion could live out her last years in dignity and comfort. With her death, Weill lapsed into obscurity.
It is all too easy to claim that Weill was written out of twentieth century art history because she was a woman. After all, her male contemporaries – Paul Rosenberg, Ambrose Vollard and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler – are considered some of the world’s most important dealers of modern art.
However, Weill’s memory is complicated by the fact that, apart from her memoir in 1933, she left a scant written legacy with very little personal correspondence. Marianne Le Morvan, a French art historian, has worked tirelessly to rehabilitate Weill with her biography Berthe Weill 1865-1951: La petite galeriste des grands artistes. An exhibition of approximately eighty of the works which passed through Weill’s gallery is set to open at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2022, and later at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery.
An old saying goes that behind every great man is an even greater woman. Certainly, in the French art world in the first decades of the twentieth century, there was a good chance that Berthe Weill was that woman. As Gertrude Stein wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, “practically everybody who later became famous had sold their first little picture to her”. Weill championed around 400 emerging artists, but she also carved out a space for herself, paving the way for other women to become art dealers too.
As she wrote in her memoir, “To struggle! To defend oneself! That is the story of my life!”.