The great Impressionist art movement might have perished at birth except for the faith of a
French customs clerk.
An artist who dies of starvation or is driven to another line of work cannot create an art
movement. A century and a third ago the Impressionist artists whose greatness we now
universally acclaim were at the point of premature extinction.
One man who saved them was Victor Choquet (1821-91). He was a collector of extremely
modest means, but art was a passion. His every penny went into art. If he had a choice between
buying a painting or a new overcoat (or even a meal), the painting always won.
Here is Cezanne's portrait of Victor Choquet. It belongs to the Collection Victor Rothschild, Cambridge, England.
Choquet got off to a bad start early in his career by showing up at an important official function
in a threadbare suit. It was typical of him. He was a minor official in the Paris customs office. He
could have risen to a better job by leaving Paris, but he could not forsake the excitement of
galleries, art shows, and Seine River bookstalls.
Although Choquet had no formal art training, he had remarkable inborn taste. Truman Madsen
says everyone is a genius in something. Choquet's genius was an eye for art that would become
important. Everything he bought stood the test of time.
He began by collecting Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), the giant of French Romanticism.
Ultimately he acquired 89 works by Delacroix, including nearly two dozen oil paintings.
Choquet befriended Claude Monet (1840-1926), Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), and Paul Cézanne
(1839-1906). Choquet's Delacroix collection was so impressive that when Cézanne saw it he
was moved to tears.
The first exhibit held by the Impressionists was a terrifying fiasco. But the artists needed money.
So they dared next to put their works up at public auction in the Hotel Drouot, March 24, 1875.
The hall was jammed with jeering people. Prices? Well, Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) sold best,
at the equivalent of $50 a canvas. Monet sold for $35, and a Sisley (1839-1899) actually went for
Incensed, Choquet argued with the crowd but was beaten down. Finally he purchased a Monet
for $20 and escaped. During the next few years, Choquet's purchases often stood between bread
and starvation for some of the artists, particularly Monet.
Soon after the catastrophic auction, Renoir and Cezanne painted Choquet portraits. Choquet
probably paid them pittances, but it was the best he could do. The Renoir portrait shows that the
collector was not a rich man. His beige coat is edged in dark brown piping, his band-collared
shirt unbuttoned at the neck. His head is narrow, an illusion heightened by a tremendous crop of
graying, combed-straight-back hair. His moustache is light, his beard darker. The fingers on his
clasped hands are long and sensuous. The portrait, oil on canvas, belongs to the Fogg Museum,
Renoir painted Choquet's wife. Although the date for both portraits is supposedly the same, I
am inclined to question the 1875 dating. The wife's portrait is more dramatically Impressionistic
and has been called a masterpiece. It belongs to the Staats Gallerie, Stutgart.
The same year Cezanne also painted Choquet, in a portrait that is now in the Rotschild
Collection, Cambridge, England. An 1877 Cezanne portrait shows Choquet sitting sideways in
an arm chair. It belongs to the Gallery of Fine Arts, Columbus, Ohio.
These portraits done so early in the blossoming of Impressionism demonstrate how important the
customs officer was to the survival of the artists.
When Choquet died, his collection included many Monets, 20 Renoirs, 30 Cézannes. But
perhaps more important than the purchases be began making a quarter of a century earlier was
the fact that Choquet's faith and understanding gave the artists courage.
Lawrence Jeppson is an art consultant, organizer and curator of art exhibitions, writer, editor
and publisher, lecturer, art historian, and appraiser. He is America's leading authority on
modern, handwoven French tapestries. He is expert on the works of William Henry Clapp, Nat
Leeb, Tsing-fang Chen, and several French artists.
He is founding president of the non-profit Mathieu Matégot Foundation for Contemporary
Tapestry, whose purview encompasses all 20th-century tapestry, an interest that traces back to
1948. For many years he represented the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie and
Arelis in America.
Through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the American Federation of
Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and his own Art Circuit Services he has been a contributor to
or organizer of more than 200 art exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan.
He owns AcroEditions, which publishes and/or distributes multiple-original art. He was co-founder and artistic director of Collectors' Investment Fund.
He is the director of the Spring Arts Foundation; Utah Cultural Arts Foundation, and the Fine
Arts Legacy Foundation
Lawrence is an early-in-the-month home teacher, whose beat is by elevator. In addition, he has spent the past six years hosting and promoting reunions of the missionaries who served in the French Mission (France, Belgium, and Switzerland) during the decade after WWII.