Who was Berthe Weill?
In spite of her critical role in the advent and promulgation of Modern Art, Berthe Weill (1865 - 1951) remains unknown and her story unpublished until now. To remedy this unfortunate oversight records have been put together and many initiatives taken to reconstitute the surprising career of this pioneer. Should you not yet know the story of this purveyor of modern paintings, let us put it in a nutshell by saying that she was the first woman ever to open an art gallery which she did in a tiny little shop in Montmartre in 1901. Since it was so very small she hung the still moist canvasses with clothes pins on lines stretched throughout the gallery. Paris at this time was the centre of an unprecedented , enthusiastic artistic outpouring in which Berthe Weill, with the innate instinct of a blood-hound, always recognized instantly the very best and so became the representative of the entire avant-garde of painters. Artists, authors, poets and the simply curious all assembled at the B. Weill Gallery. In this way Berthe was an art dealer who became more than a merchant but someone who had a major influence on the Art of the period in spite of the antisemitical and misogynistic climate of the day. She had an imposing personality and was known for her force of character. In the days when the right of vote was for men only, Berthe Weill did not hesitate to post her political opinions in her shop window in spite of the collective disapproval that ensued.
With an impressive lucidity and ability to valorize the first works of beginning artists, Berthe Weill is the first to have sold the works of Picasso in Paris.
She also discovered the Fauves before the 1905 Automne Salon and soon was promoting early examples of cubism. Throughout her 35-year career, she came out ahead of all possible rivals with a record in first recognizing and upholding the tenants of the modern art movement
and in being the first art dealer for such artists as Bonnard, Braque, Derain, Dufy, Léger, Maillol, Matisse, and Picasso among others. In 1917, her gallery was the first and only one to propose an exhibit of Modigliani’s works within his lifetime, It caused a scandal. And in spite of the resistance of the Gallery owner, the paintings of naked subjects were censored.
Let us not forget to mention that the B. Weill Gallery was unique in that, from the day of it’s opening and for a quarter of a century, it proposed the works of men and women artists on a completely equal basis thus bestowing legitimacy to the talent of female painters and going against the misogynist tendencies of the cultural milieu of the times. One will have to wait 24 years to find a another Gallery owner who will show similar initiative and an additional quarter of a century to find a another woman in charge of a gallery.
The history of Berthe Weill brings into focus the unique way in which Art was lived in a privileged relationship with the artists themselves and a high consideration for the profession of the gallery owner including the pedagogical skills prerequisite to the role. Additionally, this biography is a window into the life of a Jewish woman of modest origins who manages to come out of the two world wars alive, changing History by her personal insistance on her own independence !
Georges Kars, Portrait of Berthe Weill, 56 x 46 cm, 1933,
private collection, ©Maxime Champion - Delorme & Collin du Bocage