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The Vente Degas and the Artist Paul César Helleu

Posted On September 21, 2017 | 16:04 pm | by jamesc | Permalink
James N. Carder (October 2014)

 

Drawing by Paul César Helleu on the back flyleaf of the Bliss copy of Atelier Edgar Degas (1re Vente).

In 1918 at the height of the First World War, the Parisian Galerie Georges Petit famously auctioned the contents of Edgar Degas’s studio. Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, who lived in Paris at the time due to Robert Bliss’s posting at the U.S. Embassy, attended the auctions and successfully bid on the painting now known as The Song Rehearsal. In order to protect their anonymity in this purchase, the record price of 100,000 francs was bid by their close friend and advisor, the American expatriate artist Walter Gay. This created some confusion in the press, and Roger Valbelle reported in the Excelsior that Gay was rumored to have acquired the painting for the Metropolitan Museum. He added, however, that others believed the painting was to enrich the private collection of an American woman living in France, who had sold her pearl necklace in order to purchase the master’s work. Gladys, the Duchess of Marlborough, another attendee at the auction, was reported by Hugo Vickers to have later recalled the sale “as ‘fearfully exciting’ and watched in fascination as Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, of Dumbarton Oaks, climbed ‘the ladder of prices’ and bought a very good Degas. ‘As her purse is castor oil, I should think it must be fat enough to draw upon,’ commented Gladys.”

The Dumbarton Oaks Archives holds the four Vente Degas catalogues that the Blisses used at the auctions. The first catalogue has two original pencil drawings on the flyleaves by the French artist Paul César Helleu (1859–1927), who also must have attended the sale. One drawing of the head of an unknown man is titled “l’expert” and is dedicated “à Mm. Bliss” and signed “Helleu.” In this catalogue, the Blisses also have indicated their preferences with one, two, or three check marks and have noted the high bids achieved for each painting. Number 106, the painting they acquired, is the only one to have three check marks and is annotated with the winning bid of 100,000 francs.

Drawing by Paul César Helleu on the front flyleaf of the Bliss copy of Atelier Edgar Degas (1re Vente). Drawing by Paul César Helleu on the front flyleaf of the Bliss copy of Atelier Edgar Degas (1re Vente).

Title page of the catalogue Atelier Edgar Degas (1re Vente). Title page of the catalogue Atelier Edgar Degas (1re Vente). Annotated catalogue page with no. 106, The Song Rehearsal. Annotated catalogue page with no. 106, The Song Rehearsal.