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You expect a great institution like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to put on an exhibition of masterpieces. And the Met's current offering, Cezanne to Picasso, is just such a show. It has works by Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso.

But the focus of the exhibition is not so much on the masterpieces as it is on the Frenchman who first spotted these artists and then sold their works, which became part of every important collection of modern art all over the world.

NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg makes the introductions to this little known art dealer.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Ambroise Vollard - I am Americanizing his name - was not the first dealer in modern art. But starting in the 1890s, he was one of the first to recognize certain unknown young artists and then helped to make them famous. And Vollard was certainly the most interesting, even difficult art dealer of his day.

Mr. GARY TINTEROW (Curator of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art): He would never sell anybody what they wanted. He would never show them what they wanted.

STAMBERG: Gary Tinterow is curator of modern art at the Metropolitan Museum.

Mr. TINTEROW: If they came in to see a Cezanne, he would bring out a Gauguin. If they wanted a still life, he would say, well, here's a landscape.

STAMBERG: Not only was Vollard difficult, very often he was wrong. In 1895, a few years after Van Gogh died unknown and unlauded, Vollard presented the first Van Gogh solo show. Even though there weren't many sales, Vollard bought some 60 to 80 Van Gogh canvases to sell. Curator Rebecca Rabinow says Vollard later wished he had bought more. She reads from his memoir.

Ms. REBECCA RABINOW (Curator, Metropolitan Museum of Art): (Reading) I was totally wrong about Van Gogh. I thought he had no future at all and I let his paintings go for practically nothing.

STAMBERG: Ambroise Vollard could be wrong. Ambroise Vollard could be rude. Louisine Havemeyer, the great mega-millionaire American art collector, always made a stop at Vollard's gallery on Rue Laffitte when she was in Paris.

Ms. RABINOW: And she went in to buy a Cezanne, and he was talking to an artists and she waited for quite some time. And she said, excuse me, I'm here to buy a Cezanne - she finally interrupted him. And he said, just one minute, Madame. And so for another hour she waited, and then she interrupted again and she said, excuse me, Mr. Vollard, I have a boat to catch. I need to go back to he United States.

Now any other dealer would have immediately stopped what he was doing. But not Vollard. He said, Madame, if you really wished to have a Cezanne you'll take a later boat. And she did.

STAMBERG: A lot of nerve for the son of a notary who had been sent to Paris from a small French colony in the Indian Ocean to study law but found more fun and profit buying art prints for next to nothing from street vendors on the Seine and then selling them for twice what he paid.

Vollard made his mark as a dealer in 1895 with his Cezanne show. The painter was living in obscurity in the south of France. His work hadn't been exhibited in 20 years. The dealer learned about him from some painter pals.

Ms. RABINOW: It was Vollard listening to the advice of other artists. Like Degas and like Pissarro, he'd spent weeks, perhaps months, tracking down Cezanne.

STAMBERG: Once he found the artist in Provence, Vollard bought 150 canvases, had them sent to Paris, and put them up in his gallery.

Ms. RABINOW: It was a revelation to collectors, to artists, and instantly his work began to influence the next generation of artists. It had an immense impact.

STAMBERG: Matisse scraped together every cent he had to buy a Cezanne from Vollard. Later, Vollard gave Matisse his first solo show. And the young Picasso was mesmerized by Cezanne.

Ms. RABINOW: And if you think about all the people who passed through Vollard's gallery, all the artists who became influenced by Cezanne. Had Vollard not tracked him down in the south of France, would cubism even exist? Because Picasso always says that his example was in Cezanne, and it was at Vollard's gallery that he saw Cezanne's work.

STAMBERG: Vollard paid Cezanne about 150 francs - not very much - per canvas. Over the years, he would sell some 680 Cezannes, doubling, tripling, quadrupling his selling price as the painter grew more and more revered. Over the years, Ambroise Vollard became a wealthy man. Even more, a man of influence.

Ms. RABINOW: The important thing about this gallery is it was the place to go to see cutting edge art.

STAMBERG: Ambroise Vollard, with his dealer's eye and his willingness to take risks, was the impresario merchant of the avant-garde. Picasso, who had his first solo show in Paris at Vollard's, painted the dealer's portrait. So did Cezanne, Valadon, Renoir, Bonnard. Picasso said the most beautiful woman who ever lived never had her portrait painted, drawn or engraved more often than Vollard. The dealer looks different in every picture.

Cezanne shows him young. Valadon sees Vollard as broody and tough. Renoir makes him a sweetie pie. Picasso chops him into cubes. Vollard sold off all the portraits. He was a dealer, not a collector. But his selling techniques were so peculiar.

Curator Gary Tinterow describes what happened when rich collectors would show up asking for their favorite painters.

Mr. TINTEROW: Do you have any works by Cezannes? No I have none. I only have Gauguin. And yet there would be maybe 100 pictures with their backs turned to the viewer in his back room. And they would come back the next day: Do you have anything else? Oh no, only just this one. Do you have anything else? Oh no, only this other one. And it would take them weeks in order to get to be able to see what it is that they came to Paris for.

STAMBERG: By most accounts, Vollard was not driving up the price, just toying with his customers. He loved game play.

Did he love art?

Mr. TINTEROW: Oh clearly. He loved art and he loved artists.

STAMBERG: Ambroise Vollard also loved selling; maybe that most of all. And how lucky for lovers of modern art and visitors to the exhibition Cezanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde. It's at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through Jan. 7th, then it travels to Chicago and Paris.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: Take a look at some of the prized work Vollard spotted and then sold at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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