Wildenstein was founded in Paris some one hundred and thirty years ago by Nathan Wildenstein (1852-1934), who elected to leave his native Alsace in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War in order to remain a French citizen. He was endowed with a sure instinct for quality, an ability to spot the masterpiece lost among a multitude of mediocre objects, a flair for seizing opportunity the instant it appeared and an intrepid spirit. The business he created in the 1870s has grown into a vast, far-flung enterprise that today includes galleries in New York and Tokyo and a research institute in Paris.
Inspired by the writings of the Goncourt brothers, Nathan Wildenstein specialized in French paintings, drawings and sculpture of the eighteenth century, but his acquisitions of Italian, Dutch, Flemish and Spanish art were no less remarkable. By the turn of the twentieth century, he had amassed in the storerooms of his eighteenth-century townhouse on the rue La Boétie, in the heart of Paris, an inventory of Old Master paintings, drawings, sculpture, furniture and objets d’art that gave him a preeminent status among European art dealers.
Realizing that the market with the most potential was in the United States, in 1903 Nathan Wildenstein and his associates Ernest and René Gimpel opened a gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Some thirty years later Wildenstein & Co. relocated to an elegant five-story building on East 64th Street commissioned from the renowned Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer that today serves as the company’s headquarters. The second stage of Wildenstein’s international expansion occurred in 1925 when a gallery was opened in London. Finally, in the early 1970s, sensing that Asia was a new, vital and as yet untapped market, Wildenstein opened a branch in Tokyo.
Nathan Wildenstein’s son, Georges (1892-1963), inherited his father’s business acumen, aesthetic sensitivity and legendary “eye,” but as he was of a scholarly temperament, much of his effort was devoted to art-historical pursuits. It was he who began to assemble the vast library and photographic archives that in the course of time have proven to be two of Wildenstein’s greatest assets. Georges’ passion for French art and culture knew no bounds, and his profound understanding of them was conditioned not only by his reading and the elaborate research projects he initiated, but also by his visits to art museums, exhibitions, commercial galleries, auction houses and homes of private collectors.
In time his expertise was widely acknowledged and his opinions eagerly solicited. The list of Georges Wildenstein’s writings is imposing. The important reference works he authored – notably the catalogues raisonnés of the works of Nicolas Lancret, Jacques Aved, Jean Siméon Chardin, Maurice Quentin de La Tour, Jean Honoré Fragonard, Louis Moreau, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Édouard Manet, Berthe Morisot and Paul Gauguin – still have considerable weight. In 1929 Georges Wildenstein assumed the direction of the prestigious Gazette des Beaux-Arts, the oldest continuously published art journal in the world. There he published the writings of numerous independent art historians, among them Paul-André Lemoisne, Walter Friedländer, Millard Meiss, Lionello Venturi, Richard Offner, Louis Réau, John Rewald, Meyer Schapiro and Sir Denis Mahon.
As a young man, Georges Wildenstein turned his attention to French artists of the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly those painters of modern life who threw academic conventions to the wind and in so doing revolutionized the course of modern art. Manet, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Pissarro and Sisley are all names that ring familiar to us now, but when Georges became interested in them they were barely emerging from obscurity. Inspired by the example of another venerable dynasty of French art dealers, the Durand-Ruels, Georges set about buying and promoting their works in earnest. And in an remarkable association with the dealer Paul Rosenberg, he championed the work of Pablo Picasso.
Daniel Wildenstein (1917-2001), Georges’ son, represented the third generation of the Wildenstein family. He, too, devoted a major portion of his time to administering the Gazette des Beaux-Arts and the many research projects undertaken by the Wildenstein Institute, which he and his sister Miriam Péreire founded. His scholarly credits include the revised and expanded catalogues of the works of Jean Honoré Fragonard, Jean Siméon Chardin and Édouard Manet, as well as a multitude of scholarly articles. Between 1974 and 1991 he produced what is undoubtedly his greatest achievement, the five-volume catalogue of the paintings and drawings of Claude Monet, an indispensable tool for all historians of Impressionism. Moreover, until his death in October 2001, he directed research and initiated the publication of authoritative catalogues of the paintings of Diego Velázquez, François Boucher, Antoine Vestier, Théodore Géricault, Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, Paul Gauguin (the first two volumes of which came out in 2002), Gustave Caillebotte, Odilon Redon, Jean Béraud and Édouard Vuillard. He also sponsored the publication of François Souchal’s monumental survey of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French sculpture and Charles Sterling’s ground-breaking study of Medieval painting in Paris. Daniel Wildenstein’s art-historical contributions were officially recognized in 1971, when he was elected a member of the prestigious Institut de France.
The roster of the artists whose lives and works are currently being researched by scholars affiliated with the Wildenstein Institute in Paris is impressive indeed: Émile Bernard, Jacques Louis David, François Gérard, Jean Antoine Houdon, Albert Lebourg, Albert Marquet, Amedeo Modigliani, Jean Marc Nattier, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Hubert Robert, Kees van Dongen, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Maurice de Vlaminck and Francisco de Zurbarán.
Nathan Wildenstein held that one must be bold when buying and patient when selling, a rule to which his descendants have scrupulously adhered. Over the years, Wildenstein & Co. has gained considerable recognition for its acquisition of important private collections. Moreover, the gallery has been instrumental in building the collections of an impressive number of the captains of industry and high finance. At one time or another in its history, Wildenstein & Co. has counted among its clientele such art patrons and philanthropists as Calouste Gulbenkian, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, J. Pierpont Morgan, Henry O. and Louisine Havemeyer, Jules Bache, Benjamin Altman, Sir A. Chester Beatty, Sir Samuel Courtauld, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, Robert Lehman, Duncan Phillips, John G. Johnson, Edward G. Robinson, Helen Clay Frick, Sterling and Francine Clark, John T. Dorrance, Henry P. McIlhenny, Henry Ford II, Francisco de Assis Chateaubriand, Samuel H. and Rush H. Kress, Josephine Bay Paul, John Hay Whitney, John D. and Nelson A. Rockefeller, Walter P. Chrysler Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, De Witt and Lila Acheson Wallace, Norton Simon, John Paul Getty, Charles and Jayne Wrightsman, Stavros Niarchos, Gianni Agnelli and Ambassador and Mrs. Walter H. Annenberg.
Some of the best known masterpieces now located in museums and art foundations throughout Europe and in North and South America have at one time or another passed through the hands of Wildenstein & Co. The gallery’s constantly evolving stock includes major examples of European and American art. The general public has benefited from the numerous exhibitions organized in the company’s various locations. Moreover, Wildenstein & Co. has always endeavored to cooperate with scholars and museum curators by lending its works to shows held in public institutions.