European Art

Berthe Weill: The Unknown Gallerist of the Avant-Garde

Maia Heguiaphal 29 July 2023 min Read

Do you know the name of the first female modern art gallery owner? Berthe Weill was born in 1865 and died in 1951 in Paris but nowadays she seems to be erased from public memory. In fact, the Galerie B. Weill was the first gallery to sell Matisse‘s, Picasso‘s, and other great artists’ paintings. As a result, her role in the promotion of art in the 20th century is major. Hopefully, thanks to the work of the French researcher Marianne Le Morvan we nowadays have archival material and a biography about her. Even, an exhibition about Berthe Weill took place in New York and Montreal! Her memoir Pow! Right in the Eye was written for the occasion.

Edouard Goerg, Portrait of Berthe Weill, 1929, private collection. © drawing of Berthe Weill's face in a blueish tone, she has a severe look and wears glasses
Édouard Goerg, Portrait of Berthe Weill, 1929, Weill Family Collection.

At a young age, Berthe Weill went to work with a cousin in Paris as a print and antique dealer. This cousin taught her everything there was to know about art dealing. She then used this experience and knowledge to open the Galerie B. Weill in 1901, thus becoming the first woman gallery owner in Paris. Her main ambition was to promote the work of young artists whose art broke the code of the Academy. This was something at which the avant-garde artists excelled.

George Kars, Portrait of Berthe Weill, 1933, private collection © Maxime Champion, Delorme & Collin du Bocage peinting of Berthe Weill dressed in black and standing in a room full of canvas
George Kars, Portrait of Berthe Weill, 1933, private collection. Maxime Champion, Delorme & Collin du Bocage.

What Is the Avant-Garde?

The artistic avant-garde first appeared in the 20th century. It started in Europe and then spread to the US through Abstract Expressionism. “Avant-garde” does not describe a single way of making art. It can be seen in many different movements including Futurism, Cubism and Expressionism. As varied as they are, these movements all have one common thing which makes them ‘avant-garde’: their vision of art. Avant-garde artists challenged figurative art and rejected the traditional perspective.

Gallerists, through their galleries and connections in the art market, played an important role in promoting the work of avant-garde artists. At that time the academic Salon refused artworks that did not match the official taste. We can take the 1863 Salon as an example. Cabanel’s Birth of Venus which is a depiction of a languorous, naked woman, was accepted. However, Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass was rejected. This was because Manet’s naked women in the painting were neither goddesses nor historical figures. In fact, they were prostitutes.

Berthe Weill Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863, Orsay museum painting of a naked woman lying down on the water, five putti are flying around her
Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.

Berthe Weill Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, 1863, Orsay museum three people are have a luncheon in a wood, there are two men who are dressed and a woman who is naked and looks at the spectator. A second woman is in the back, drawing water.
Édouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, 1863, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.

As a result, the Salon des Refusés was created to exhibit art that had a nonacademic subject or which was made using nonacademic techniques. However, this was not enough to support such artists. In order to live by their art, artists’ works must have some recognition, such as academic recognition. This is where the role of the gallerists became so vital. By buying, exhibiting, and selling their artworks, they offered avant-garde artists the recognition they needed from the art market.

The Artists in B. Weill Gallery

An Eye for Art

Berthe Weill used her own criteria in order to judge art. She had to feel the personality of the artist and the energy of the piece before she could consider a painting to be great work. Initially, her taste leaned towards Fauvism with its bright, unnatural colors. In fact, in October 1905 she became the first gallery owner to show the work of the Fauve artists. Her appreciation of the evolution of art as it developed from one movement to another then drew her towards cubism. This movement is known for its explorations of form expressed through three different styles: cézanian, analytical, and synthetic.

Poster for the Berthe Weill Gallery
Poster for the B. Weill Gallery, private collection. Archives Berthe Weill.

Berthe Weill; Invitation for the B. Weill Gallery, 1920, private collection. © The name of the gallery, the name and date of the exhibition are written in a circular manner. Two birds are depicted at the top.
Invitation for the B. Weill Gallery, 1920, private collection. Archives Berthe Weill.

A Talent Discoverer

In her gallery, Berthe Weill exhibited a lot of artists from all over the world. Did you know that she was the first person to buy and sell a Picasso? She acknowledged him when he first moved to Paris, before he created the paintings that made him the famous artist he is today. The painting that caught her attention was Le Moulin de la Galette. This painting depicts a festive night in Montmartre with a touch that captures its gaiety and bustle. Later she also exhibited some of Picasso’s blue-period paintings.

Berthe Weill Pablo Picasso, Le Moulin de la Galette, 1900, Guggenheim museum, Bilbao painting of a party at night, people are dancing or sitting at a table; Berthe Weill
Pablo Picasso, Le Moulin de la Galette, 1900, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain.

A few years later, in 1917, Berthe Weill became the first gallery owner to organize a solo show for Modigliani. This show caused a scandal in Paris bourgeois society as a result of the erotic depictions of women such as Nude on a blue cushion. In fact, the police made her remove some of the paintings.

Poster for Modigliani’s Exhibition in B. Weill Gallery, 1917, private collection. Archives Berthe Weill.

Berthe Weill Amedeo Modigliani, Nude on a Blue Cushion, 1917, National Gallery of art, Washington D.C A naked woman is lying on her back, facing the spectator who she is watching. A blue cushion is under the high half of her body.
Amedeo Modigliani, Nude on a Blue Cushion, 1917, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

A Gallerist Dedicated to her Protégés

The list of artists exhibited in Weill’s gallery is very long. It contains names such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Diego Rivera, Odilon Redon, and many others. Moreover, some of the artists, such as Rouault and Picabia, were given a real opportunity by Weill because she exhibited their work while they were still unknown.

She was one of the only ones to give beginners a chance.

Marianne Le Morvan. Berthe Weill (1865-1951) La petite galeriste des grands artistes (2011).

They had the privilege of being protected by a generous and passionate woman whose life was dedicated to modern art. Berthe Weill did not hesitate to sacrifice herself and the wealth of her gallery to help promote the artists she believed in.

She occupied a place of discoverer and protector of painters preferring to sacrifice herself to allow her artists to work, an essential step in the launch of painters’ careers.

Marianne Le Morvan. Berthe Weill (1865-1951) La petite galeriste des grands artistes (2011).

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