The show, in an unusual display for the generally conservative institution founded by financier J. Pierpont Morgan in the late 19th century, underscores not only the great artists promoted by Pierre Matisse (1900-1989), the second son of renowned French painter Henri Matisse, but also reveals his exceptional relationships with them, as well as his uncanny ability to convince American collectors and museums to buy their production.
Pierre Matisse arrived in New York shortly before Christmas 1924, determined to make his mark. In October 1931 the Pierre Matisse Gallery opened its doors in the Fuller Building on 57th Street, just around the corner from the provisional headquarters of the recently instituted Museum of Modern Art.
By the time of his death, more than 60 years later, Matisse had not only sold pieces by well-established artists like Pablo Picasso and Giorgio de Chirico, but had shifted the focus of critical and public attention in the United States to younger, lesser-known artists, including Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola; 1908-2001), Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), and Joan Miró (1893-1983).
Comprised of more than 60 paintings, drawings, sculptures and memorabilia -- many of the latter never exhibited before to the general public -- "Pierre Matisse and his Artists," which will remain open until May, brings to the forefront how much this remarkable dealer changed the artistic climate in America.
Among others, he relentlessly promoted the work of Chilean-born Surrealist master Roberto Matta (born in 1911), who would become a major influence on Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s.
The roster of his gallery's artists was impressive by all counts. From Marc Chagall to Wifredo Lam, and from Yves Tanguy to Antonio Saura, most of his century's influential figures had some connection with Matisse's legendary gallery.
"It also reveals his exceptional relationship with Europe. He was not just selling for the sake of selling. And above all, Pierre Matisse was convinced himself of the talent of the artists he was promoting," said Alessandra Carnielli, the current director of the Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Foundation, which collaborated with Morgan's curators in the selection of the works.
The show was the original idea of Matisse's third wife, Maria-Gaetana, known in the arts community by her nickname "Tana."
Carnielli, who did the preliminary research until after Tana Matisse's death in 2001, told United Press International, "Tana was instrumental making sure that the Morgan Library would do the exhibition."
A slow and careful process ensued to locate the works, many of which had to be tracked back to the original collectors. Some of them had bought the artwork from Matisse and kept it, or donated it to major art institutions, Carnielli said.
The results are astonishing. Among Matisse's clients were renowned collectors ranging from Walter P. Chrysler Jr., Joseph Pulitzer and Edward G. Robinson to Joseph Hirshhorn and Duncan Phillips, founders of the Hirshhorn Museum and the Phillips Collection in Washington.
The exhibition also shows how Matisse, in the course of his transactions, had developed close friendships with some of the most influential museum professionals of his day, like A. Everett "Chick" Austin, Alfred H. Barr Jr., James Johnson Sweeney, and later, William S. Lieberman and William Rubin.
The elegant catalogues of his gallery's exhibitions, some of which are on display at the Morgan and have been donated by the foundation to the library, illustrate the sophistication and refinement of Matisse's presentations to the American audiences, one of his most notable contributions to the history of contemporary art.
Pierre Matisse's son Paul wrote for this exhibition's catalogue: "His absolute belief in art was the source of the great respect with which he treated his artists. It was also the heart of the esteem in which he in turn was held by his artists, his friends, and his clients. His life was entirely illuminated by art."
Indeed, what is visible at the Morgan confirms that he was a highly gifted dealer and a formidable force in the development of last century's artistic scene in the U.S. and elsewhere.