Paul Cezanne, Gustave Courbet, Honore Daumier, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Edouard Manet, Amedeo Modigliani, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Chaim Soutine, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vincent van Gogh — their works make up the Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection and can be seen at the Princeton University Art Museum (PUAM) in “Cezanne and the Modern,” on view Saturday, September 19, through Sunday, January 3.
The collection – which has not been viewed in its entirety in a generation – first came to Princeton as part of a four venue tour that Henry Pearlman oversaw before his death in 1974 and through Rose Pearlman’s involvement returned to Princeton in 1976 where a long-term loan agreement provides curatorial care and security. With more than 70 masterworks, it is considered one of the most distinguished private collections of early modern art in the U.S. Some of the works, such as Cezanne’s suite of 16 watercolors, are light sensitive and rarely ever on view (they were last exhibited at PUAM in the early 2000s). Ranging in subject from landscape to still-life and narrative scenes, the watercolors are considered among the finest in the world and may not be on view again for decades.
“Cezanne and the Modern” centers on the post-Impressionist “Father” of modern painting, whose works compose half the exhibition, and offers insight into the development of modern art as well as the history of art collecting in the United States in the 20th century.
Henry Pearlman (1895-1974) considered himself a “Cezanne worshipper.” His is a tale of rags to riches, a self-made businessman from Park Slope, Brooklyn, who sought to make artwork accessible to the public. The son of Russian immigrants — his father worked as a foreman in a printing factory — and with only a high school education, Pearlman began his collection of modern art, then considered avant garde, in 1943 with a Chaim Soutine found in a New York gallery window.
A successful businessman, Pearlman founded the Eastern Cold Storage Insulation Corporation, which made vital contributions to marine shipbuilding during World War II. Later he founded the Styro Sales Company, distributors of such products as Styrofoam.
Pearlman hung “Village Square,” his first Soutine, in blue, yellow, and gold colors “slashed on as if by a trowel,” over his mantel. “When I came home in the evenings and saw it, I would get a lift, similar to the experience of listening to a symphony orchestration of a piece well known and liked,” he wrote in “Reminiscences of a Collector,” reprinted in the exhibition catalog. Prior to the Soutine, he had purchased a few old masters, along with a William Glackens, he considered merely wall coverings, but with the Soutine. “This first pleasant experience with a modern painting started me on a road of adventure that has been both exhilarating and satisfying. I haven’t spent a boring evening since.”
After purchasing the painting, Pearlman began reading all he could about Soutine’s life and fellow artists, and soon added a portrait by his best friend, Amedeo Modigliani. “Pearlman was self-educated through his relationships with dealers and collectors,” says Betsy Rosasco, research curator of European painting and sculpture. “He approached collecting as a hobby, avocation, and a learning experience. With his business acumen he was eager to capitalize on opportunities and held a passionate interest in this eclectic group of articles.”
After Soutine and Modigliani, Pearlman bought his first Cezanne in 1950 — “Cistern in the Park of Chateau Noir.” In 1952 he bought Cezanne’s “Mont Sainte-Victoire.”
“He was interested in the School of Paris — the foreign-born artists settling in Paris before World War I, working simultaneously to Matisse and Picasso,” says Rosasco. “But Pearlman wasn’t interested in abstract art. He liked figural art with strong composition, capturing interesting things that intrigued him. And he loved anecdotes around paintings.
“He grew to love Cezanne,” continues Rosasco. “He went to Aix-en-Provence and met people who knew the places Cezanne had been and experienced the life of Provence. He was intrigued by how artists’ minds worked.”
The Pearlmans “relished living with their collection in his offices and in their homes in Manhattan and Croton-on-Hudson,” writes PUAM director James Steward in his introduction to the catalog. “Henry loved both the thrill of the chase and the art of the deal. Little was more exciting to him than the discovery of a hidden masterwork (like the Daumier that he first thought might equally be a Rembrandt), a work that had previously flown under the radar (like Van Gogh’s ‘Tarascon Stagecoach’), or that was unique within an artist’s output. Equally striking are the omissions. Henry expressed a total lack of interest in Picasso and the Cubists.”
One of the other things Pearlman enjoyed about collecting was getting to know the artists. He had portraits made by painter Oskar Kokoschka and sculptor Jacques Lipshutz, developing lasting friendships with both during the studio sessions. He also came to know Albert Barnes, that other great collector of modern art. Both shared an interest in collecting Soutine.
One Sunday Barnes invited Pearlman to Merion, Pennsylvania, to see his paintings and listen to the stories of how he acquired them. The difference between Barnes and Pearlman, Henry recounts, is that Barnes would offer “ridiculously” low prices and wait out his sellers during the Great Depression. But for Pearlman, “If I wanted a painting, I simply had to have it, and quickly.”
After spending three hours with Barnes, “We got along beautifully until the last few minutes when, going through a group of Renoirs, we came upon one nude with a backside about a yard wide,” Pearlman writes. “I mentioned casually that I wouldn’t particularly care to have it in my collection. Barnes stopped in his tracks, looked through me, contained himself, and simply said that this Renoir was a masterpiece.”
Pearlman wrote about his encounters with purchasing other artists: Van Gogh, Modigliani, Gauguin, Utrillo, Rousseau, Marsden Hartley, Matisse. Bringing home a large Matisse painting of bathers, Pearlman realized it was too big to hang and after lending it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, traded it to the Art Institute of Chicago for a Toulouse-Lautrec.
The Pearlmans “collected with one eye to aesthetics and another to legacies and lineages — the impact of Honore Daumier and Gustave Courbet on the Impressionist generation, for example, or Van Gogh’s importance for Soutine,” writes Steward. “Henry was deeply interested in the provenance of the works he considered, particularly admiring works that had been owned by other artists such as Edgar Degas, writers such as Erich Maria Remarque, or prominent dealers and collectors such as Ambroise Vollard.”
Among the 50 works on view at PUAM, images of women are featured prominently, with canvases such as a classic bathing view by Degas (“After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself”); “Portrait of a Young Woman,” painted by Courbet while a student in Paris; Manet’s “Young Woman in a Round Hat,” focusing on ladies’ fashions of the time; and Soutine’s sympathetic “Portrait of a Woman” in which the sitter’s mood appears as dark as her little black dress.
Prior to its viewing at PUAM, “Cezanne and the Modern” has toured four museums: the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford, England; the Musee Granet in Aix-en-Provence, France; the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia; and the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, Canada.
The mission of the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, created in 1955 to serve as custodian of the collection, is to broaden the public reach of art and deepen their personal experience of it, while conserving the original works for future audiences, says foundation president Daniel Edelman. The Pearlmans were always generous in lending to museums, especially those where diverse audiences who might not get to see such art would have the opportunity. “They felt a moral obligation to better peoples’ lives through the collection,” says Rosasco.
Cezanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection, Princeton University Art Museum. Saturday, September 19, to Sunday, January 3.
Nassau Street Sampler, Thursday, September 17, 5 to 8 p.m. Part of the museum’s way of welcoming students and faculty back to the university, the event features local cuisine, student performances, watercolor demonstrations and a special campus preview of “Cezanne and the Modern.”
Living With Cezanne, McCosh 50, Princeton. Saturday, September 19, 5 p.m. Lecture by Bridget Alsdorf, assistant professor in Princeton’s Department of Art and Archaeology.
Exhibition Opening and Public Reception, Princeton University Art Museum. Saturday, September 19, 6 to 9 p.m. Includes live swing music by the French group Les Chauds.
Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays to 10 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free. www.princetonartmuseum.org or 609-258-3788.