Bayou City

Pearlman Collection Makes a Definite "Impression" at the MFAH

"Tarascon Stagecoach," 1888, by Vincent van Gogh
Photo by Bruce M. White/Pearlman Foundation
"Tarascon Stagecoach," 1888, by Vincent van Gogh
Today, most people take it for granted that if they want to get somewhere, they can. Be it by plane, boat, car, motorcycle or Segway (remember those?), moving from Point A to Point B is simple.

But in the early 19th and late 20th centuries, travel took a bit more commitment—and cost.
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"Jean Cocteau," 1916, by Amedeo Modigliani
Photo by Bruce M. White/Pearlman Foundation
The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters of the time were an especially mobile bunch as they traversed (sometimes together) to studios, salons, museums, and locales around the world. This experience of transience drew them closer to each other, and in turn influenced their works.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s new exhibit uses that subject as a uniting theme in an exhibit opening on May 21. Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Pearlman Foundation features nearly 30 paintings and sculptures by many last-name-only-needed artists like Cézanne, Manet, Degas, Gauguin, van Gogh, Pissaro, and Toulouse-Latrec.

The exhibit is organized by the Princeton University Art Museum in collaboration with the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation.

“It does reflect the taste of one man, Henry Pearlman, and his wife, Rose, as opposed to some of the other exhibitions we’ve done. And it’s a clearly a defined taste with strong personal preferences,” says Ann Dumas, MFAH Consulting Curator of European Art over the phone while walking in one of the galleries. “There’s a lot of fabulous works in it!”

The exhibit is buoyed by a near identical amount of works specially culled and curated from the MFAH’s own Beck Collection, bringing the total amount of works on view to almost 60.

The main man behind this collection was Henry Pearlman (1895-1974). Born in New York City, the son of Russian immigrant parents was a self-made businessman who at the age of 24 founded a very successful Eastern Cold Storage Company which developed and manufactured marine insulation.

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"Mont Sainte-Victoire," c. 1904-06 by Paul Cézanne
Photo by Bruce M. White/Pearlman Foundation
One day in 1945 while randomly passing by the Parke-Bernet auction house (now Sotheby's) in Manhattan, he was stopped in his tracks by seeing a vivvid abstract landscape painting by artist Chaim Soutine, View of Céret.

A few days later at auction, he bid for the work and won it. It set him on a path of art collecting that would last three decades The result was one of the most impressive private art collections of the time. It is now housed at the Princeton University Art Museum, where it’s been on loan since the 1970s.

“I think he was immediately attracted to this work,” Dumas offers, noting that it was a “miserable winter’s day in 1945 in New York City, cold and gray” when he passed by the window and was “engaged by the energy and sheer force of Soutine’s brush work and the warmth of the palette.”

Dumas says that Pearlman then set out to self-educate himself about art, and had a special fondness for Post-Impressionist works, particularly by artists from the School of Paris, and that theme of transience.

“He was interested in people who came from different cultures and then settled down in a new [home] like he saw in America, with the roots of refugees and migrants,” Dumas says. “It was about moving around the world, and also the locations where the artists chose to work.”

Pearlman was also interested in the histories and relationships between artists, and this exhibit nods to one of the most famous—though not one with a happy ending. And that’s between Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin. In 1888, van Gogh had moved from the bustling city of Paris to the more sedate Arles, living in the famous “Yellow House.”

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"Young Woman in a Round Hat," c. 1877-79, by Édouard Manet
Photo by Bruce M. White/Pearlman Foundation
He had beseeched Gaugin to join him so that they could work and live together in the studio. He hoped they’d be inspired by both the countryside and each other, bringing both of their works to new levels. Gaugin arrived in the fall of 1888, and they both produced many important and creative pieces (Arles is where van Gogh painted many, many sunflowers).

Unfortunately, personal and artistic conflicts—sometimes fueled by alcohol—put a screeching halt to the nine weeks of their cohabitation. It ended when van Gogh famously mutilated part of his left ear in a rage, causing Gaugin to jump on a train back to Paris, leaving the madness—and a bleeding van Gogh—behind. The relationship has been documented and analyzed in movies, books, and other media.

“In the gallery right now, I’ve got van Gogh’s Turascon Stagecoach painted in Arles hung next to our own beautiful van Gogh, The Rocks. And on the same wall I’ve put three works by Gaugin,” Dumas says.

Turascon Stagecoach itself has an extraordinary history of the many owners and countries it passed through after it left the artist’s easel before it made its way to Pearlman in New York.

“One of the reasons he painted it is that when he arrived in Arles, his main ambition was to get Gaugin to come and work with him. He admired Gaugin so much, and he was such a charismatic character. Van Gogh sent him so many letters, pleading with him,” Dumas says.

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"After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself," 1890s, by Edgar Degas
Photo by Bruce M. White/Pearlman Foundation
“Their relationship was very stormy. Gaugin wanted van Gogh to paint more from the imagination, like he worked, and not just with direct observation. There was a tremendous bust-up during Christmas with [the ear incident]. It’s a tragic story, because it was the first of the serious mental breakdowns that van Gogh would then suffer for the rest of his short life.”

Of the School of Paris artists Pearlman admired, in addition to his early love of Soutine, he also collected works by sculptor Jacque Lipchitz and painter Amedeo Modigliani. All three were Jewish, though Dumas says that identity isn’t so obvious in their work.

“I think with Soutine, there’s a very strong emotional force and ability to feel things strongly and portray strong emotion. I hesitate to say it’s a particularly Jewish trait. But one does find it in certain number of Jewish artists and the brilliantly talented Jewish musicians of the period,” she says.

Finally—as The Houston Press always asks Dumas—if she could secretly nab one work from the exhibit to display on the walls of her living room, which would it be?

“Oh, Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cézanne,” she says without hesitation. “He’s obsessed with the formation and shape of the mountain. It’s also the one that Henry Pearlman [loved] for its composition and what Cézanne did with these floating patches of color. Just sublimely beautiful.”

Dumas, though, is not done.

“But,” she adds. “Can I also have the van Gogh for the dining room perhaps?”

Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Pearlman Collection runs May 21-September 17 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Caroline Wiess Law Building, 1001 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-639-7300 or visit . $10-$21.