Modigliani, Barnes and Billy Rose

Modigliani, Barnes and Billy Rose

The portrait of Jean Cocteau by Modigliani seems to have traveled and been exhibited widely and been in various collections before it finally settled in mine. I know the sitter hasn't yet visited the United States and has therefore not seen the portrait for a good many years. Recently Cocteau wrote an article in the French weekly magazine Arts along the following lines:

When Modigliani did my portrait, he worked in the same workshop as Kisling on rue Joseph-Bara. I do not know what has become of the portrait by Kisling where one can see Picasso having lunch in the background, and wearing a black checked shirt.

The portrait by Modigliani was on a large canvas. He sold it to me for 5 francs. I had not, alas, enough money to pay for the car which would enable me to take the portrait to my house. Kisling owed 11 francs to the Cafe Rotonde. He proposed to give the proprietor this portrait in exchange. The proprietor accepted, and the canvas commenced a voyage which was terminated by a sale of 17 million francs in America.

I am not telling you this story to complain, but to tell you that we could have become wealthy, and that we did not become so.


Alfred Barr told me he thought this painting and one in the Museum's collection were the two finest works of Modigliani. I have a letter from Jean Cocteau stating that, "It does not look like me, but it does look like Modigliani, which is better."

I was once at the Museum of Modern Art when they had a Modigliani show, and while going through it I stopped in front of the Portrait of Jean Cocteau, which I had just purchased from the George Gard “Buddy” De Sylva Collection. It was to be delivered to me after the exhibition. While I was in front of the painting, a fellow sidled up to me and said, "I am Billy Rose, and I owned this painting at one time, but Buddy De Silva wheedled it out of me, and I am sorry I let it go," adding that he was glad that I owned it. We struck up a nice friendship. Rose came to visit, looked over some of my art works, and invited me to his Beekman Place home. He took me all through his home; over the mantelpiece on an upper floor he had a Renoir that didn't look good to me, and I asked him where he had gotten it, and whether he had any pedigree on it. He said no, but that a refugee had brought it over from Europe and sold it to him. We continued on through the house, and on the top floor, over a fireplace, was a Soutine landscape ["Gorge du Loup"], quite dark as a result of the smoke from the fireplace. Billy said, "I like this painting, but my wife doesn't." I told him that I liked it very much; he offered it, and I agreed to buy it.

He explained that he had purchased this painting at an auction some six or seven years earlier, for $1500, and he thought that due to inflation it now must be worth $2500, and he would be satisfied with that amount. I gave him a check for $2500, and took the painting to my office. The frame was quite poor, so I ordered a new frame, and had the painting cleaned while it sat in my office waiting for the frame. Subsequently, when I met Albert Barnes again, he asked me whether I knew of a Rembrandt for sale, as he would like to buy one. Billy Rose had mentioned to me that he had a Rembrandt that he would like to sell, so I told Barnes about it. He said he didn't have the cash just then, so I offered to pay for the Rembrandt and exchange it with him for one of his Cézanne still lives.

Soon thereafter, Barnes came to my office with a colleague, and while there, he became very interested in the Billy Rose Soutine. He commented to me, "Henry, this is the best Soutine landscape I have ever seen – you can hang it next to a Tintoretto." This remark made me quite pleased with my purchase; Dr. Barnes had originally made Soutine one of the popular artists in Paris galleries by buying his entire output.

As the visit by Barnes was for the purpose of going to Billy Rose's home to see the Rembrandt, I made the appointment, Rose rushed home from his office, and the three of us went up to visit him. Billy was waiting for us downstairs in his large living room, and as we walked in, he introduced himself by saying, "So you are the terrible tempered Dr. Barnes!" At that remark Dr. Barnes's hair stood on end, and his face turned colors. I am sure that if there hadn't been a Rembrandt at stake, he would have crushed Billy. However, after a few minutes things became tranquil again. By way of making conversation, Barnes told Billy that he had just seen a great Soutine landscape, without going into particulars; as we were going upstairs to the next floor, Barnes starred to talk about the Soutine landscape again in wonderful terms. Rose then turned to me and said, "Henry, it looks like you made a good buy." As we continued through the house from floor to floor, Barnes eventually saw the Renoir that I was suspicious of. He turned to Rose and said, "Now Billy, take this off the wall, it doesn't belong in your collection." Billy started to tell him about the refugee who sold it to him, and Barnes said, "You shouldn't use your emotions when you are buying pictures." Barnes was quite satisfied with the Rembrandt, and asked Billy to get him an infra-red photo of it. Within a week of this date, Barnes was tragically killed in an automobile accident.

My suspicions about the Renoir in Billy Rose's home were later confirmed by Dr. Barnes and Violette de Mazia, his co-author, in a book they wrote about Renoir. It was interesting to read in the newspapers later that Celeste Holm was suing the Billy Rose estate on the grounds that the Renoir that Billy Rose left her in his will was a fake.

Billy Rose told me a story once about a New York dealer who sold him a group of old masters. Of course, these paintings had all kinds of pedigrees, and eventually Rose found out that some of them weren't too good. He told me the story of inviting the dealer to see him, and after he sat him down, he took out a gun, put it on his desk and said, "I want you to take these paintings back with you, and give me a check fat what I paid for them." The dealer agreed promptly.