Artists in Motion: Impressionist and Modern Masterpieces from the Pearlman Collection

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from May 21 through September 17 and Norton Museum of Art from October 14, 2023, through February 18, 2024.

The exhibition is organized by the Princeton University Art Museum in collaboration with the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. Major support for this exhibition at the Norton was provided by the George and Valerie Delacorte Endowment Fund, the Mr. and Mrs. Hamish Maxwell Exhibition Endowment, and the Heidi and Thomas McWilliams Endowment.

When I regularly visited the Norton Gallery in the 1980s it was a small museum with a superb collection of mostly impressionism, post impressionism and modernism. Our recent return to the greatly expanded Norton Museum of Art, in West Palm Beach, Florida proved to be daunting requiring two visits. On the first one we focused on the dense permanent collection galleries on the ground level. The second floor entails more of the collection as well as two special exhibition spaces.

These displayed Presence: The Photography Collection of Judy Glickman Lauder a dense selection of iconic images, and the stunning, remarkable Artists in Motion: Impressionist and Modern Masterpieces from the Pearlman Collection.

The Pearlman exhibition features some 40 works from the collection of Henry Pearlman, whose widow, Rose, loaned the entire collection to the Princeton University Art Museum. The collection continues to be managed by the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation. The Princeton venue is closed for renovation. While there have been other loans and traveling exhibitions, here and abroad, the curators strove for a probing overview of selected works. Many artists on view were émigrés either drawn to the stimulus of Paris as the matrix of avant-garde creation, or refugees during WW11. The theme locates the notion of place such as Gauguin in Tahiti, or the Dutch painter van Gogh hoping to found an artist community in Arles.

Henry Pearlman (1895–1974) was a Brooklyn-born, self-made businessman, and collector of impressionist and post-impressionist art. Over three postwar decades, he assembled a collection centered on thirty-three works by Paul Cézanne and more than forty by Vincent van Gogh, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaïm Soutine, Paul Gauguin, Édouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and a dozen other European modernists.

What rivets a viewer is the quality of the work reflecting the superb eye of a man of means who dedicated himself to understanding the essence of works and artists he collected. That entailed befriending living artists he collected; the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, and painter Oskar Kokoschka. Portraits of their collector and patron are on view in the exhibition. He also enjoyed close relationships with dealers, historians and curators. He and Rose traveled extensively in their efforts to view, understand, and acquire works of the highest quality. That resulted in a remarkable private collection.

He learned and benefited greatly from these associations. It was the scholar John Rewald who directed his focus on collecting stellar paintings and works on paper by Cezanne.

While wealthy, he had limited means and acquired discerningly. During his era great works were expensive but affordable selling in the thousands compared to today’s millions. There is also a sense of adventure and luck in the pursuit of excellence.

An astonishing back story accompanies the acquisition of the monumental Van Gogh “Tarascon Stagecoach” which was painted in 1888 to impress Gauguin who briefly and tragically joined him in Arles.

The long lost painting was offered to Pearlman. He knew of it because it was sketched in a letter to his art dealer brother Theo. The painting had first been sold to an art dealer in Italy after van Gogh’s death. It then was sold to a family in Uruguay. From there, it traveled to Argentina. An art dealer brought it to Pearlman.

 

 

Edouard Manet, Young Woman in a Round Hat, circa 1877-1879.

Edgar Degas, After the Bath Woman Drying Herself, 1890s.

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jean Cocteau, 1916.

Chaïm Soutine Portrait of a Woman.

L.1988.62.27

Chaïm Soutine’s View of Céret, C. 1921-22, (formerly Village Square, Céret).

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Vincent van Gogh, Tarascon Stagecoach. Images courtesy of Norton Museum and Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation

It is a masterpiece I had been unaware of. The large work is vigorously painted with thick, saturated color. Typically, he sculpted the subject in low relief. Representing the theme of mobility the powerful painting is the logo for the show. There is a mural-scaled blowup of it as we enter the gallery. It is but one of several works that had me stunned and stopped in my tracks.

The eye and taste of Pearlman was discriminating as well as adventurous. As an outsider, that equated to less than mainstream acquisitions.

They started in 1945 with a serendipitous bid on Chaïm Soutine’s View of Céret, C. 1921-22, (formerly Village Square, Céret). With its strident, distorting expressionism, then and now, it is a difficult work and curious first acquisition. It is likely that the artist, then not well known in America, was affordable for a lucky and, I assume, low bid.

The painting was prominently hung in his home and a source for daily wonder and admiration. This became a niche in his taste acquiring six more Soutines, as well as, works by his émigré friends and associates Modigliani and Lipschitz. It may have appealed to the collector that they were Jewish artists in Paris.

It is always arresting to view the prescient expressionism of Soutine. His work was a major influence on Hyman Bloom and the Boston Expressionists I grew up with. My Brandeis professor, Mitchell Sipporin, often spoke of him.

Chaim Soutine, (born 1893/94?, Smilovichi, near Minsk, Russian Empire [now in Belarus]—died Aug. 9, 1943, Paris. He was born the 10th child of a poor Jewish tailor in Belorussia. In 1913 he emigrated to Paris, where he attended the École des Beaux-Arts. Modigliani introduced Soutine to the art dealer Leopold Zborowski, who enabled him to spend three years (1919–22) at Céret in the south of France. The Pearlman painting is from, this “fellowship.” He exhibited little during his lifetime and relentlessly reworked or destroyed old canvases. His depiction of a side of beef was inspired by Rembrandt and may be connected to Bloom’s flayed corpses. Soutine used up to 40 hues and as many brushes. Pearlman also acquired two paintings and a rare sculpture by Modigliani.

Soutine resided in the Beehive an artists’ settlement on the outskirts of the Montparnasse section of Paris. The complex housed the ramshackle living quarters and studios of many painters and sculptors, among them Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay, Chaim Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz, Henri Laurens, Alexander Archipenko, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, and André Lhote. The group attracted the poets Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Blaise Cendrars, and Pierre Reverdy.

For lively understanding of this group we strongly recommend “In Montmartre” by Sue Coe. The Pearlman 1916 portrait of Jean Cocteau is one of the great works by Modigliani. At the time, Cocteau ((1889–1963) was an aspiring artist, poet and playwright. While he socialized with Nazi artists and intellectuals during the occupation he was later exonerated of wrong doing. Today, Cocteau is best admired for his surrealist films.

While I was most taken by Soutine, van Gogh and Modigliani, Pearlman had a clear affinity for impressionism and post impressionism. “After the Bath Woman Drying Herself,” 1890s, is one of the finest examples of the seminal bather series by Edgar Degas. Anything extraneous has been eliminated as the composition focuses on the mass of the woman depicted from the rear. It has a monumental, sculptural quality.

Individually, as well as a group, the works by Cezanne, paintings and works on paper, are of the highest quality. Particularly unique is a rare vertical view of Mt. St. Victoire (1904-1906). The late work is particularly prized for its reduction and abstraction that inspired the early Cubism of Picasso and Braque.

Also notable are works by Gauguin, Lautrec, Manet, Sisley and Pissaro.

When renovation is completed this collection returns to Princeton.