with the emergence of capitalism in seventeenth century europe the figure of the intermediary became important in the economic life of artists. An early picture dealer was the British consul in Venice, Joseph Smith, who as Canaletto’s agent, advised him in 1746 to make what was a very successful visit to London. Smith was ideally placed to supply the Venetian landscapes that were being bought by the British ruling classes making the Grand Tour. His activities coincided with the economic decline of Venice and of various Italian Principalities. Similar economic changes occur about the same time with a weakening of Spanish domination of the Low Countries, coinciding with the Reformation. The subsequent iconoclasm and destruction of religious paintings obliged Dutch painters to seek other sources of income.
Hendrick van Uylenburgh was one of a number of Dutch artists who combined their artistic activities with picture dealing, restoration of paintings and running profitable art academies. In his early years in Amsterdam, Rembrandt lived and worked on Van Uylenburgh’s premises (where he met his future wife, van Uylenburgh's niece, Saskia.) and marketed his works through the dealer. Rembrandt himself never actually engaged in picture dealing but, rather, was an active and obsessive art collector, to the point that it ruined him. In Georgian Britain artists tended to round out their earnings by picture dealing, the most notorious being Sir Joshua Reynolds. Although a successful president of the Royal Academy, the greatest part of his wealth was in the end the result of dealing in Old Masters.
Rembrandt working in Van Uylenburgh’s workshop
”These are all genuine Rembrandts; after I’ve added my signature”
The French Revolution saw the growth of the private picture-dealer trade that arose from the need to sell paintings of the deposed ruling classes now coming on to the market. A number of these moved from Paris to London including Colnaghi gallery New Bond Street, founded in 1780s and still active. The art dealer market developed from print dealers buying original oils and watercolours by prominent artists from which to make engraving for sale. This unexpectedly opened up new markets when they discovered that selling original paintings was proving more profitable. Vincent van Gogh’s uncle was an associate of one of the most prominent of these, the firm of Adolphe Goupil that had begun life in a similar manner; not that having a relative in the business proved of much use to Vincent himself.
The annual Paris Salon attracted the serious picture buyer and was often the only means available to the working painter of making sales and showing his works to the general public, but by the end of the nineteenth century its influence was waning. The Salon still represented an omnipresent worry that created feelings of economic insecurity and uncertainty in nineteenth-century painters from Corot, thru Manet and particularly for the Impressionists. Photographers like Nadar with the larger premises necessary for their trade often made space available especially to the Impressionists. Dealers’ premises were essentially small shops where, at the most, they could display one or two paintings in their window.
Faute de mieux, the dealers Durand-Ruel and Georges Petit acquired a monopoly of the impressionist school. Their enterprise in exploiting the burgeoning United States market increased their power in tandem with a corresponding weakening of the Salon’s power to control picture sales. The rise of the new dealer class who often provided the painter a monthly stipend and also his studio space, effectively acted as shopkeeper and gatekeeper to the artist preventing direct access to the new bourgeois collectors. Economically speaking, the artist was not in any great sense, much better off.
The twentieth century and with it a new school of painters, created a group of dealers who catered for the new tendencies, and saw the emergence of powerful individuals like Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler and Ambroise Vollard. The new generation represented great names like Picasso, Derain, Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault. They, like the Durand-Ruel’s of a previous era, kept an iron control on their artists and only the most successful, Picasso comes to mind, could exert a certain economic freedom by playing the dealers, anxious to acquire their canvases, one against the other.
Rembrandt visits his dealer.
”Sure, that’s all we need is more artists.”
The end of World War ll brought a tectonic shift in the art world. The German occupation of Paris forced important artists to flee to the United States and French art never really recovered. The United States, particularly New York, could not have been more different; a country from which talented artists of earlier generations had emigrated, James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent and Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky). Modern art was a backwater mostly ignored. The arrival of the greats of French art changed all that.
Rembrandt down and out.
“Mom, does dad really need to be an artist?”
With varying degrees of difficulty, intellectuals and painters like André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, and Yves Tanguy, Matta - who lived in his final years in Monaco Ville - managed to reach New York. They were mostly surrealists or Dadaists and this infusion of new blood into the New York school of painting provided the impetus necessary for the automatic-painting style being explored by Jacson Pollock, Maxime Gorkey, de Kooning to take off.
The intellectual gadfly of the Paris school, Peggy Guggenheim the friend of everyone from Samuel Bckett to James Joyce also managed to get out of occupied France for the United States taking her newly acquired husband, the painter Max Ernst. Peggy Guggenheim, an American, was the catalyst that united the Paris and the New York schools. She opened a Gallery in New York to show both the exiled Paris painters but also the new generation of emerging American artists, eventually identified under the banner of Abstract Expressionism. Other powerful New York galleries like Leo Castelli and Betty Parson began promoting the new direction art was taking. The power of New York dealers and their relationship with painters reached their peak in 1962 with the arrival on the New York scene of the two Polish dealers Frank Lloyd and Harry Fischer and their Marlborough Gallery. They established their first gallery in London in 1945 and others around Europe later including Rome, also in 1962. The abundance of food and drink lavished on the throng of painters who, including the author, attended the opening of Rome Marlborough continued to be commented on with awe in Rome for many years after. Marlborough’s innovation, developed first in the UK with Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth then extended to the United States, was to acquire a portfolio of established artists by cherry-picking the best from rival art dealers and binding them through lucrative contracts, with chains of gold, a technique gradually adopted by other art dealers.
In 1982 Rome lost its Marlborough branch because of the heavy costs associated with a disastrous law suit brought by the daughter of the deceased colour-field painter Mark Rothko against them and owner Frank Lloyd. Marlborough Gallery acquired on the artist’s death under opaque circumstances a large number of Rothko’s paintings at give-away prices. When uncovered Frank Lloyd was, additionally, convicted of tampering with the gallery’s books to conceal the deception and paid $9m in damages and fines, narrowly escaping a prison sentence.
However, by the 1960s big art auction house were making inroads into the tight hold private dealers had on the modern art market, drawing away an important part of their clientele. They were perceived as bringing to modern art dealing, open bidding, easy accessibility and accountability lacking in the art-gallery world. Some important collectors, and the artists themselves of that generation, were dying off and their estates coming on the market. Trustees often found it easier to deal with the established charges and commissions of auction houses. Additionally, the auctioneers had acquired remarkable marketing skills using the arts of showmanship and publicity to attract a wider range of potential buyers (often captured humorously by contemporary novelists like John Grisham). The Economist, quoting Clare Mc Andrew, a Dublin-based analyst of art-market statistics in November 2009, estimated that art auction houses controlled as much as 45% of the fine arts market.
In recent years, scandals in the arts auction industry; partly deriving from their near-monopoly position have put a dent in their once-seeming invincibility. Price fixing involving sales at Christies and rivals, Sotheby’s, in 2001 resulted in Adolf Taubman, owner of the latter being jailed in the United States and his CEO, Diana Brooks, put under house arrest and fined $350,000. In addition, the emergence of disruptive technologies that allow online selling of major (and lesser) works of art has, to a certain degree, threatened the auction house industry. Some have reacted by making parts of their auction tools and techniques available online. It is unpredictable whether or not this will protect them from others making inroads into their market. For the practicing artist selling your art online is a godsend and can only be a benefit.
Artists know that setting up your own art gallery online is fairly easy. It is not the end of the picture dealer per-se or the disappearance of the bricks & mortar private art gallery any time soon but rather the great freedom placing your paintings online gives you. Showing your works of art worldwide is a new and important instrument, a valuable way to gain access to your public and to a wider market.
For artists it is as simple as acquiring a web store to show your paintings online in an attractive manner. You want also to make it easy and secure for collectors to purchase your paintings using a simple automatic method to receive and process payments. Marketing your works of art through social networking channels such as Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook and Linkedin your costs are virtually nil. Artists can still choose to pursue art gallery exhibitions without the once ever-present fear of being cut off from the vast market of art lovers and collectors. Artists Liberation. Bring it on.