This essay is part of an extended series by Jeanne Willette. You can find other pieces in this series (to date) in the Avant-Garde section of this website.

Key Series: Art and Aesthetics

By Jeanne Willette

In his well-known 2013 article, “How Paris Gave Rise to Cubism (and Picasso): Ambiguity and Fragmentation in Radical Innovation,” Stoyan V. Sgourev took a sociological approach to the question of how change happens or as the author put it, “What makes radical innovation possible if peripheral actors are more likely to originate radical ideas but are poorly positioned to promote them?” The question is an interesting one, indicating that being innovative is one thing and being “discovered” is another – in other words, in modern political-economy making a difference is more a matter of appropriate conditions, rather than of genius or destiny. Somewhere in the impetus towards change there is, Sgourev argued, a singular individual. Although Sgourev concentrated on Picasso in his article, it would be just as appropriate to point to André Level,[i] a French financier with an eye to the main chance. The year was 1904, when a slow, long-burning fuse was lit by Level. Who was André Level, what did he do and how did his action change the cozy art world of Paris? For most art historians, the year 1904 is the year before the Fauves were “discovered” at the Salon d’Automne; but by the beginning of the twentieth century, it had become clear to discerning observers that decades of disruptions caused by the avant-garde had caused significant problems for art audiences. The production of avant-garde art and the public’s knowledge of the work of these artists was very much out of joint. So many avant-garde artists in Paris had been working on the margins, known only to those associates on the fringes, that the press, accustomed to covering Salon exhibitions, was just beginning to catch up with past events. Newspaper coverage on individuals, such as Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, were mixed in with discussions of Symbolist artists, newly arrived, at a time when the mainstream was still attempting to grapple with Impressionism. Although, in retrospect, it is easy to understand how avant-garde art and the public knowledge of those works could have gotten out of synch,[ii] the situation at the fin-de-siècle could be described as a critical log jam, with various artists and movements running into each other and landing on the public consciousness in a state of disorder.

Ambroise Vollard at the Salon d’Automne_ 1904_ Salle Cézanne

Ambroise Vollard at the Salon d’Automne, 1904, Salle Cézanne

It was just this generational confusion that attracted a new kind of collector of works of art—the speculator, the discerning art collector who was aware, not just of the vanguard art of twenty years earlier but also of the newcomers of the new generation, such as Pablo Picasso. Perhaps because of his job with the docks of Marseilles, Level thought in terms of commodities. Art was like any other product to him, it existed to be bought and sold. As such, he believed one could invest in art and make money, resulting in the increasing influence of modern capitalism over art and art production. Although the idea of art as an investment was not a new idea, most art collectors purchased art because they liked the work and/or because they were interested in acquiring cultural capital. But here it is necessary to make two important distinctions. First, most collectors bought established art, supported by the establishment from art dealers and held it permanently. Second, the idea of a secondary market, that is buying art at one price and reselling it (as an investment) at a higher price was very new. Equally new was how in 1904 Level shifted the collectors’ perspective towards little-known artists, who were what the investors of today would term “start-ups.” The scheme was a simple one, but its high risk was stressed by the name of the syndicate Level put together: La Peau de l’Ours. The idea of investment symbolized by the acquisition of a live bear’s skin – betting on the future – came from an amusing morality tale by Jean de la Fontaine, who wrote a poem of two gamblers who sold the skin of a bear, “Of which the bear was living still”; but when they set out to kill said bear, the bear won the encounter and the poem ends with the caution:

“Never dare / Again to sell the skin of bear/ Its owner has not ceased to wear.”

Despite the high stakes, the thirteen gamblers (investors) pooled their resources of two hundred fifty francs each, and Level made the purchases, acquiring works by Matisse, Gauguin, Denis, Redon, Dufy, a combination of Post-Impressionists, Symbolists, Fauvists, and Picasso in 1904. For ten years, the members of La Peau de l’Ours held on to their acquisitions, betting that Level’s taste and access to the artists’ studios would reap monetary rewards. At the famous auction at the Hôtel Drouot in early March of 1914, they were repaid ten-fold and shared their gains with the artists themselves. Far from being a discrete enterprise, Level’s auction was well advertised, attracting dealers and artists alike. The event showcased Picasso and Matisse, whose paintings attracted the highest bids. La Peau de l’Ours was but a symptom or a clue about the future of art. The lesson that investing in the art of unknown contemporary artists would be lucrative was be lost in the din of the “guns of August,” as Barbara Tuchman put it, and it would be decades before the lessons of La Peau de l’Ours auction would take effect. La Peau de l’Ours results marked a significant shift in how artists would do business, suggesting that, if the artist was lucky enough to attract the attention of an adventurous collector willing to spend money on art that was unproven and unvetted and without a peer group to vouch for it, then the artist could become an independent cultural producer. But the success of a ten-year investment was predicated upon what had happened to the artists during that decade.

Pablo Picasso. Family of Saltimbanques (1905) purchased in 1914 by Modernen Galerie Heinrich Thannhauser_Munich

Pablo Picasso, Family of Saltimbanques (1905). Purchased in 1914 by Modernen Galerie Heinrich Thannhauser, Munich

Therefore, there is another half of this account when it comes to the significant shift in how art was purchased and how artists acquired reputations. To understand the source of La Peau de l’Ours profit, it is necessary to look in another direction: the perilous middle years between an artist’s emergence and an artist’s establishment. For Picasso and Matisse, the support of American (outsider) patrons allowed them to weather those uncertain years while they were finding their own unique voices. The collectors who helped these artists during those very sensitive and vulnerable years were, of course, the famous Stein family. Hailing from Baltimore, this family of expatriates, Michael, Leo and Gertrude, rescued Picasso and Matisse from the task of organizing dissent from within a community and building a base from which to attack the established core, which at this time would be the Salons. Matisse was willing to gather like-minded artists around him – the Fauves – and join them in a “movement” at the Salon d’Automne of 1905. But Picasso, as a Spaniard, had no such intention of involving himself in such a time-consuming chore. Deliberately staying independent, Picasso courted the Steins, especially the poet Gertrude, whose portrait he painted in 1906. Although this is not a discussion about the Stein family per se, the siblings were critical presences in that they apparently collected art out of a genuine passion for the artists in whom they believed and were not the dénicheurs of La Peau de l’Ours. Without this rather traditional patronage, the fates of Picasso and Matisse would have been very different. And the Steins were not their only sources of financial support: Matisse found a Russian collector, Sergei Schchukin, and Picasso found a German art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.

These independent dealers and collectors provided a measure of independence for the two largest egos that strutted in the famous salons, now the home of the Steins. Picasso was able to partner with Braque and explore the logical consequences of the paintings of Paul Cézanne in the hermetics of Cubism. Matisse was able to shake off the dead end of Fauvism and go beyond the circle of admirers and develop his own vocabulary. The next post will explore the benefits of secession for these artists.


It is a surprising but perhaps little known fact today that, it was not until 1970 that Parisians had any idea of the accomplishments of Henri Matisse at the Centennial exhibition of the artist’s work at the Grand Palais. For decades, Matisse’s major works, his significant paintings, his transition away from the flirtations with so-called “Fauvism” had been hidden away in vaults guarded by the Soviet Union or languishing behind high walls in Pennsylvania. Writing in 1984 on the occasion of the publication of the definitive work on Matisse by Pierre Schneider, American art critic, John Russell stated:

Not so long ago there were people who thought of Henri Matisse as a leisure-class lightweight – a man who turned out paintings of pretty interiors beside a southern sea. Many were the women of fashion who needed one of those interiors the way they needed a trim little Chanel suit. This state of affairs did Matisse no good, but it persisted in Paris, where until 1970 there had never been a comprehensive exhibition of his work.

However astonishing the revelation of this centennial exhibition might have been, surely it was marred by a noticeable and famous absence, Le Bonheur de Vivre, renamed Joi de Vivre by its owner, Dr. Albert Barnes, who promptly hid the painting in his private collection. No one was allowed to view this astounding and legendary assemblage of the best of modern art, unless Barnes opened the doors personally to an arbitrarily privileged visitor. In the early 1940s a reporter for the Saturday Evening Post, Carl McCardle, was allowed to visit. He described the grounds of the Barnes Collection in Merion Pennsylvania thusly: “A tall iron-spiked fence encircles the grounds protectively. It is a walled-in little universe.” When Barnes died in 1951 his practices lived on: visits by permission only and no color reproductions of his works. The infamous Violette de Mazia,[iii] who became the guardian of “The Barnes,” was famously more fanatically doctrinaire than her predecessor. Barnes was known to occasionally lend his art, but, under the rule of de Mazia, it would not be until the 1990s that the public in Washington D. C. at the National Gallery would be allowed to view the most expensive painting Barnes ever purchased in full and living color.

Henri Matisse, Le Bonheur de Vivre (1905)

Henri Matisse, Le Bonheur de Vivre (1905)

Indeed, as early as 1947, the curator of the Philadelphia Museum, Henry Clifford, attempted to persuade Barnes to lend his Matisses to the 1948 Matisse retrospective. Barnes refused. As did the Soviets. The Russian Matisses were literally on their way to Philadelphia when stopped in transit, victims of the cold war.[iv] These odd sequestrations, personal and political, were the result of independent art dealers and artists recognizing the resistance of the Parisians to modern art. In the name of capitalism and earning a living, French art disappeared from France and joined the tide of international works of art pouring into a global market that erased context and origin. If one counted the amount of modern art gathered together in America alone, in the Barnes Foundation, the Chester Dale Collection and the Duncan Phillips Collection, not to mention all the long lost works in Russia, it must be concluded that few avant-garde works had remained in Paris. From the very start, Le Bonheur de Vivre belonged to Matisse’s American patron, Leo Stein (Gertrude collected Picasso) and was seen by the French public in the Salon des Indépendants in 1906 before it was sold some years later to Barnes. It is interesting to note that the last painting Stein purchased from Matisse was the 1907 work, Blue Nude, Memory of Biskra, leaving Matisse without a patron at a critical point in his career. Enter Sergei Shchukin, the Russian collector who rescued Matisse and who, in turn, introduced the collector to his emerging rival, Pablo Picasso.

Although there was no particular impediment to either Picasso or Matisse showing in the independent Salons, one fared better with supportive patrons than in the hands of hostile critics and colleagues. Indeed, Matisse was well-known in the Salons, and Bonheur was defiantly painted in reaction to attacks on his art. That said, through the Steins and Shchukin, both artists received crucial financial support at a time when their resources were almost exhausted. Picasso’s association with Kahnweiler began in 1907, when the young dealer was attracted to Picasso upon viewing Les Demoiselles d”Avignon (1907) and realized that he had found an artist to invest in. In fact, Les Demoiselles d”Avignon is a greatly overestimated work of art, more important as an attention-grabber than as a painting in its own right.[v] The work was a reaction to Matisse’s Blue Nude at a time when both artists were competing – not for fame in the salons – but for patrons who could support them. Picasso’s incendiary painting, kept rolled up under his bed, should be understood as a sort of sales pitch. When Picasso had signed on with Kahnweiler, he had already moved beyond this experimental painting and was well into his period of early or “proto” Cubism, suggesting to the dealer that this was an artist of more than one painting. It should be pointed out in passing that Les Demoiselles d”Avignon was Picasso’s mysterious counterpart to Matisse’s Bonheur de Vivre. As famous paintings for later art history, each work, in their own time, was unseen and un-exhibited until very late in both artist’s lives, long after their era had passed and the pre-war avant-garde was over.

Henri Matisse, La Luxe I and II (1907, 1907-08)

Henri Matisse, La Luxe I and II (1907, 1907-08)

Matisse endured a fallow period between 1907 and 1908, perhaps due in part to his unease at Picasso’s quick comeback. But into this void walked Shchukin, who was recovering from devastating family deaths and collected painting to fill the void. Although Shchukin would go on to amass an important collection of Picassos, he fell in love with Matisse’s work and commissioned a number of significant paintings. If Blue Nude was a farewell to the days of Fauvism, La Luxe I, which Matisse loaned to Leo Stein, was a precursor to his authoritative break through when it comes to establishing his definitive style. With its understated and clean lines, La Luxe I and II (1907-08) revealed a new sophisticated simplicity, important to his later direction seen in the decorative panels he painted for Shchukin’s home, Dance and Music (1909), which were delicately drawn celebrations of human creativity in their Ur-state. The promise of large blocks of clean color suggested in Bonheur came to fruition in the straightforward panels: the blue of the sky, the green of the earth and the pale of the human skin. Part of the series on Arcadia, a theme that appeared in Bonheur, Game of Bowls (1908) was a companion to a work that Shchukin had admired, Bathers with a Turtle.

Henri Matisse, The Dessert: Harmony in Red (The Red Room) (1908)

Henri Matisse, The Dessert: Harmony in Red (The Red Room) (1908)

Perhaps the most stunning and liberating work painted by Matisse in 1908 was The Red Room, which began as Harmony in Blue. Upon working in Shchukin’’s home in Moscow, Matisse came to understand that blue was not the appropriate color for his new patron and so he repainted the entire work, covering it in a deep red fabric design, enlivened by a pattern in blue and white. Embedded in the red world, a carefully limned woman works in the dining room, which looks out to a green landscape beyond. It is with these definitive works that Matisse would find his mature voice and his future direction.

Georges Braque, Houses at Estaque (1908)

Georges Braque, Houses at Estaque (1908)

In closing, it is important to note that in 1908 Kahnweiler also acquired Georges Braque, an artist whose work he had been collecting since he arrived in Paris. Braque was now a Picasso convert and creative partner, but not yet a proven money-maker for venture capitalists. The two artists were a package deal, and Kahnweiler not only signed them to an exclusive contract but also, as part of their agreement, forbade them to show publically in the Salons. Whether by design or not, this move on the part of Kahnweiler removed Picasso and Braque out of the Parisian art community and their exclusiveness led to elusiveness, which created an aura of mystique to the duo. Kahnwelier also sundered his artists from a new movement whose name began to appear in the dispatches, “Cubism.” My artists, he insisted, were not Cubists, as indeed they were not. But they were connected to Cubism, through the common links among Parisian artists to the legacy of Paul Cézanne. The strong response from Picasso and Braque to the important retrospective of 1907 of the reclusive Cézanne led to a turning away from Post-Impressionism and Fauvism. This new movement was named after paintings seen in Braque’s 1908 exhibit at Kahnweiler’s gallery, but despite the origin of the term “Cubism,” the “cubists” were divided (by Kahnweiler) into two groups: the public Salon Cubists and the invisible Picasso and Braque, who were the “not Cubists.” Meanwhile Matisse had escaped from Fauvism and had arrived at his personal destination.


[i] Noah Horowitz. Art of the Deal: Contemporary Art in a Global Financial Market (Princeton University Press, 2011)

[ii] Michael C. FitzGerald remarked: “During their short careers, the Post-Impressionists were lost in the wake of the Impressionists. This limited span of time and the artists’ secondary position in the development of the market are crucial in any evaluation of their reception. Given lives of normal length, the Post-Impressionists might be remembered very differently today.” Making Modernism: Picasso and the Creation of the Market for Twentieth-century Art (University of California, 1996)

[iii] John Anderson. Art Held Hostage. The Battle over the Barnes Collection (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013)

[iv] John O’Brian. Ruthless Hedonism: The American Reception of Matisse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)

[v] Exhibited in public only once in 1916 during the Great War, the work disappeared into the private collection of Jacques Doucet and did not surface until an auction of his estate in 1937, when the Museum of Modern Art acquired it to be put on permanent display in 1939. It was at this point that the painting began to acquire its chronological art historical reputation.

Did you appreciate this publication? Please consider donating.

Jeanne Willette

Jeanne Willette

Art historian and art critic, Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette lives and works in Los Angeles. An art historian at Otis College of Art and Design, the widely published author covers the local art scene and is the publisher of the website Art History Unstuffed. With an international audience, this website and its accompanying podcasts provides the 21st version of learning about art, history, philosophy and theory. Synthesizing the most updated research and commentary on topics in modern and contemporary art and theory, the website issues weekly posts which explain challenging concepts for an audience of art history peers and advanced students of art and philosophy. Designed to built knowledge for the reader, the posts are arranged chronologically and categorically. Beginning art history students are invited to view a series of almost thirty videos, written and produced by Dr. Willette, on the survey of art, an Art History Timeline, from the Caves through Romanticism, accessed through iTunesU and YouTube by thousands of readers. In addition to Art History Unstuffed, Dr. Willette has published a book of her podcasts, Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts is available through the iBooks. Long interested in the creation and construction of discourses, Dr. Willette has published a book on the intellectual matrix of original art critical response to Cubism, The Writing of Cubism: The Construction of a Discourse 1910-1914 and New Artwriting. Creating a Culture of Cyber Criticism, an examination of the production of knowledge in a postmodern age of “little narratives,” both available on her Amazon page.
  • Get Livefyre
  • FAQ