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Cézanne's portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1899), at the Met.Photo: Petit Palais, copyright Photothèque des Musées de la Ville de Paris/Pierrain/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I n 1895, an ambitious young art dealer in Paris named Ambroise Vollard decided to make a market for a forgotten painter. He bought, or had consigned to him, 150 canvases from the artist—a recluse living far from Paris—and mounted an exhibit in his cramped gallery on the Rue Laffitte. The pictures were slapped into “two-sou wooden slats” because he lacked money for frames. Almost overnight, Cézanne took his place as a modern master. The next year, Vollard mounted a show of another almost forgotten artist. Van Gogh. Soon he became the key supporter of a marginal crank. Gauguin. Over time, Vollard (1866–1939) developed into a critical figure for, among others, Degas, Renoir, Picasso, Rouault, Bonnard, and Matisse.

No wonder historians are loath to call him just a dealer. Vollard was the human hub of the Parisian art world, a big, sleepy-eyed and beguilingly secretive man who not only bought and sold but managed, promoted, and commissioned. (We have Vollard to thank for many of the most beautiful illustrated books of the twentieth century.) The main attraction of the sumptuous “Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde,” which opened last week at the Met, is naturally the work that passed through Vollard’s hands. Its three central rooms are filled, in turn, by Cézanne (24 paintings), Van Gogh (13), and Gauguin (24). Not bad. And there are brilliant moments galore: a wall of late Degas, a collection of artist books, a dazzling arrangement of Picasso prints, three early Derains.

Of course, a cynic could suggest that organizing a show around Vollard is just an excuse to exhibit, yet again, crowd-pleasers from the Post-Impressionist period. And cynics are rarely wrong. But this collection of plums is not only a collection of plums. Focusing upon Vollard puts the period into eccentric perspective. Too often in museums, the work of great artists or movements is presented with a false, linear clarity. What’s lost is the free, vital, and disorderly life of art. “Vollard,” organized for the Met by Gary Tinterow and Rebecca Rabinow, is not just masterpieces and this-begat-that. Offbeat or weaker works, rarely exhibited, are let into the light. Some major artists aren’t there to steal the stage (because of the vagaries of history or Vollard’s taste), and lesser figures like Rouault take a turn.

The familiar freshens. The period awakens in new ways. Those interested in Vollard himself can immerse themselves in the nitty-gritty of his time, particularly through the catalogue. That helps give human grounding to genius. Artists, then as now, squabbled with dealers. Vollard enjoyed making puns with his name (“voler” means “to steal”). Viewers even gain a license to indulge in one of the guiltiest pleasures of art, which is to dream of money while contemplating great works of the imagination. A kind of high-low bliss. A dirty paradise. Vollard got in on the ground floor, again and again. Imagine 150 Cézannes, cheap. He bought up more than 700 Rouaults.

In “Vollard,” the great artists become both more pointed and idiosyncratic. You can find Cézanne’s mountain, apple, and bather in one room. Gauguin is the South Seas Gauguin. The centerpiece of his room is the rarely lent and modestly titled Tahitian masterpiece Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (The best answer comes from Tonto in the old joke when, surrounded by hostile Indians, he responds to the Lone Ranger’s What will we do? with What you mean we, white man?)

Some of these pictures were once owned by other artists, giving them an intensely personal character. Monet felt compelled to buy a rude and powerful early Cézanne—The Negro Scipion—that is so unlike a Monet that suddenly Monet himself seems like a different artist. Matisse had to have Cézanne’s small, great Three Bathers. The picture, he wrote, “has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance.” That’s also the way art can change hands.

Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Through January 7.

Buy Low, Sell Very High