Manhattan’s 57th Street, the world’s “most expensive” street, was laid out and opened in 1857 as the city of New York expanded northward.
With the Hudson and East Rivers on either end, the area was until then largely uninhabited and clustered with small factories and workshops. As late as the 1860s, the area east of Central Park was a shantytown with up to 5,000 squatters.
Half a century later it was Manhattan’s cultural heart and an intercontinental meeting place of artists, collectors and dealers.
In 1823, society doyenne Mary Mason Jones inherited the wasteland of what is today Fifth Avenue & 57th Street from her father, the President of Chemical Bank. In 1868 she commissioned architect Robert Mook to build her a spectacular mansion in the mode of a French chateau along with a row of similar marble dwellings (the project was completed in 1871). The block of five between 57th & 58th Street was treated as a single unit. After Jones moved into her corner mansion, she rented the remaining four to others in her social circle.
Her initiative had an immediate impact. In the mid-1870s, wealthy New Yorkers began to put up “choice” family residences in a mixture of styles, from brownstone mansions to French chateaux and Gothic palaces. These grandiose erections were interspersed with structures dedicated to the arts.
During the 1890s and early-twentieth century an artistic hub developed around the two blocks of West 57th Street from Sixth Avenue to Broadway. Predating the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891, the thirty-eight Osborne Apartments at 205 West 57th Street were built to provide soundproof residences for musicians. During the mid-1920s, the piano showrooms of Chickering Hall and Steinway Hall were developed there. The composer Bela Bartok spent the last year of his life at 309 West 57th.
On the south side of the street studio apartments were constructed that offered artists the advantage of light from the north, including the Rembrandt Studios at 152, Sherwood Studios at 58 (both demolished), and Rodin Studios at 200 West 57th Street. Childe Hassam worked in a double-height studio at 130 West 57th. The same street also served as headquarters of organizations such as the American Fine Arts Society, the Art Students League, and the Architectural League of New York.
In 1839 Jean-Marie-Fortuné Durand and Marie-Ferdinande Ruel set up an art shop at 1 Rue de la Paix in Paris, naming it the Galerie Durand-Ruel. In 1865, their son Paul Durand took over the family business and moved the gallery to 16 Rue Lafitte with an additional branch at 111 Rue Le Peletier.
During the 1860s and early 1870s he represented the landscape painters of the Barbizon School. He then became intrigued by a group of young Impressionist painters who, at the time, were lambasted by the critics and ridiculed in the press. When he filled three rooms of his Le Pelletier gallery with paintings for the second impressionist show in 1876, French critics were viciously hostile.
Durand’s dealings with American collectors began during the 1860s, but were initially kept to short-term ventures such as exhibitions in Boston and Philadelphia. Struggling to make a living in Paris, he packed up some three hundred works in forty-three crates and sailed to America. In April 1886, the American Art Association (AAA) used its premises at 6 East 23rd Street to present a major exhibition of French Impressionism. The show consisted of 289 paintings that were assembled from Durand-Ruel’s stock.
The favorable reception of the exhibition motivated him to open permanent quarters at Fifth Avenue & 42nd Street. It proved to be the cornerstone to his phenomenal success. Durand’s name became interlocked with the migratory history of Impression. He turned Manhattan into an Impressionist haven.
Durand-Ruel & Sons was the official name of his venture which by 1893 included the participation of his sons Joseph, Charles and Georges. Having moved the firm’s location to 12 East 57th Street in 1912, the pioneering gallery supported a new breed of American art lovers in their foundation of some important private collections which, in turn, would form the basis of major museum holdings.
Motivated by the success of Durand-Ruel, other galleries soon followed suit and relocated to “arty” 57th Street. It was just a matter time before additional exhibition spaces and auction houses opened up in the immediate vicinity. One of the newcomers was a young man named F. Valentine Dudensing.
Valentine & Foujita
In 1926 the Dudensing name was well known in New York. Born in 1892, Valentine was the third generation of his family to be engaged in the art business. His grandfather Richard had emigrated from Germany in 1853 and worked as an engraver and printer.
In 1904 his father Frank opened the Dudensing Galleries at 45 West 44th Street, specializing in Barbizon School paintings and the work of young American artists. Valentine joined him after graduation in 1913. It was, from a dealer’s point of view, an exciting time. In the wake of the Armory Show there was a sudden interest in and enthusiasm for modern (European) art.
During a trip to Paris in the early 1920s, Dudensing became acquainted with Pierre Matisse, the painter’s younger son. Together, they conceived the project of a gallery managed by Dudensing in New York, while Matisse organized and curated art from Paris.
The F. Valentine Dudensing Gallery opened on February 8th, 1926, at 43 East 57th Street with an exhibition of work by the Franco-Japanese painter Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita. It was the artist’s first American showing. While his work was acclaimed in Parisian circles (he was hailed as the “Japanese Ingres”), his work was virtually unknown in New York.
The artist’s obsession with the female nude was highlighted with Déese de la neige (1924), a painting over six feet in length. Dudensing sold the painting of this lady with “porcelain” skin to Carl Weeks, a collector from Des Moines, Iowa, and owner of the highly profitable Armand cosmetics company who, at the time, was in the process of building Salisbury House, a grand manor that he planned to fill with his extensive art collection (the painting was donated to the Fogg Art Museum in 1974 by the owner’s son).
The New York gallery was instantly hailed as an important venue for contemporary art. The show’s success was in part due to the gallery’s ground-breaking décor of pale grey walls, bare floors and abundant natural light from south-facing windows. Valentine created a Continental model that would followed by other Manhattan galleries. In 1927 he changed its name to the Valentine Gallery to distinguish it from his father’s art firm.
Valentine & Picasso
The Dudensing-Matisse partnership was hugely successful and lasted until 1931 when Matisse decided to open his own gallery in the Fuller Building on 57th Street where, for about six decades and some three hundred exhibitions, he introduced to New York some of the latest European art. He also promoted the careers of emerging American talent.
Valentine’s program alternated between shows of contemporary French art, arranged with Matisse’s help as an agent and shows of American artists organized by Dudensing. The gallery presented the first American solo exhibitions of many (now household) names, including Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and others. In addition Dudensing arranged retrospectives of the work of Henri Matisse, Chaïm Soutine and Maurice Utrillo.
Valentine and his wife Margaret [Bibi] van der Gros, an American artist who had studied in Paris, befriended Picasso during the late 1920s. In a letter of November 1928 he complained to Matisse that he had been unable to find buyers for Pablo’s work, but his fortunes would change rapidly. In early December that same year he sold a 1906 gouache Woman with Kerchief to the prominent New York attorney and collector T. Catesby Jones. The latter was one of a small group of Picasso collectors in the city who had purchased work from other sources, either in Paris or elsewhere.
This sale seemed to have been the catalyst Valentine needed to begin handling and promoting the artist’s work. According to its sales records, the gallery sold six Picassos in 1929 and seven in 1930. This sudden interest motivated Dudensing to present the first Picasso exhibition at the Valentine, by then located at 69 East 57th Street.
Making initial arrangements for the show, Matisse visited Picasso in April 1930 and reported that the artist was very keen on the project and promised to lend pictures. Abstractions by Picasso opened in early January 1931 with works dating from 1914 to 1930 and became one of the gallery’s most notable exhibitions. It gained Dudensing the reputation as a leading dealer and connoisseur of Picasso’s work.
Just days after Abstractions show closed, he was alerted to the fact that Pablo’s masterpiece Family of Saltimbanque (1905) was offered for sale. The painting had been owned since 1915 by Hertha Koenig, a private collector in Munich, who had pledged it as collateral for a bank loan on which she defaulted. Dudensing immediately alerted Chester Dale and negotiated a deal on his behalf. The painting was shipped to America and put on view at New York’s Museum of French Art. Today it is part of the Chester Dale Collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Throughout the 1930s Dudensing sold more works by Picasso than any other European artist and he did much to promote and establish the painter’s reputation in America. He included Picasso’s paintings and drawings in numerous group exhibitions over the years and mounted seven solo shows between 1931 and 1939.
Early in the Spanish Civil War, the country’s Republican government commissioned Picasso to paint a mural for the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. Living and working in the capital, Picasso read in horror of the April 1937 German carpet bombing of Guernica, a Basque town that had sided with the Republicans against Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces. The latter had authorized the attack as a means of intimidating his opponents in the region. More than a thousand residents were killed.
In 1939, Picasso placed the painting in the care of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and decreed that it would not return from exile until democracy was restored in Spain. In May that year the American Artists’ Congress, chaired by the industrialist and gallery owner Sidney Janis, helped organize an American tour of Guernica along with a set of related drawings in order to raise funds for refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War.
Although MoMA’s new Goodwin/Stone Building at 11 West 53rd Street had opened that same month with enormous publicity, Picasso did not want the painting to be shown there fearing that the commotion would deflect attention from the serious purpose of the occasion. Janis selected the Valentine Gallery as the painting’s venue not only because its main room could accommodate the large painting, but also in recognition of Dudensing’s personal relationship with the artist.
The gala opening on May 4, 1939, was attended by nearly one hundred guests, including the former premier of the Spanish Republic, Juan Negrín, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; and many other dignitaries. Two thousand visitors paid the admission fee to see Guernica during the show’s four-week run in New York. It left Willem de Kooning in awe; Jackson Pollock visited the gallery on various occasions to closely study the painting; for Lee Krasner it was a deeply emotional experience.
The painting was put on display in the Stendhal Gallery Los Angeles, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Chicago Arts Club, before returning to New York for a Picasso retrospective at MoMA. By then war had begun in Europe and dealers were feeling its effects. New York’s art world was changing. An influx of dealers fleeing the Nazis stiffened competition in the modern art market. One recent arrival from Berlin was Curt Valentin who opened the Buchholz Gallery at 32 East 57th Street in 1938 (in 1951 renamed as the Curt Valentin Gallery). Although Jewish, the latter had gained permission from the Nazi authorities to sell German art in America to help fund Hitler’s war efforts. The similarity between names caused confusion (which continues to this today).
In the spring of 1947, without a murmur to the press, the doors to the Valentine Gallery were left shut as the owner and his wife had quietly moved to France. Once Manhattan’s most influential dealer had departed, his name was soon forgotten. The man who had made Pablo Picasso a widely admired painter throughout the United States, lived his final years in obscurity tending to his cattle and vineyards.
Spain’s transition to democracy led to the approval of the 1978 Constitution. In 1981, eight years after Picasso’s death and an exile of forty-two years, Guernica arrived in Madrid for the very first time.
Illustrations, from above: Mary Mason Jones’ marble mansion in 1917/8 (demolished in 1929); portrait of Paul Durand-Ruel, c. 1910 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (The National Gallery, London); Foujita exhibition the Valentine Dudensing Gallery, East 57th Street, February 1926; Tsuguharu Foujita, Deésse de la neige, 1924 (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA); Picasso exhibition at the Valentine Gallery, November 1937; and Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso (Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid).