Paul Guillaume in his first gallery, in 1914
© RMN-Grand Palais / Fonds Alain Bouret - Musée de l'Orangerie
Nothing predestined Paul Guillaume to become one of the greatest art dealers of his time. He was from a modest background, and took an interest in African statuettes, and this was what attracted the attention of the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), who was also fascinated by this subject. Apollinaire introduced him to the artistic avant-garde in Paris and became his mentor. In 1914, Paul Guillaume opened his first gallery near the Elysée Palace, where he exhibited Larionov, Gontcharova, Derain, Van Dongen, Matisse and Picasso. There were also paintings by Modigliani and de Chirico to be found there. In 1918, he founded a review called Les Arts à Paris in which he promoted his artists.
He moved to bigger premises in 1921 setting up his gallery in Rue La Boétie, where he put on exhibitions of paintings and African art, either alternating them or putting them on together. He then became advisor and agent for Paul Barnes, a wealthy American doctor from the East Coast, a move that brought him recognition and made his fortune. In 1930 he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, and, along with his beautiful wife Domenica (1898-1977) became a well-known figure in the Parisian smart set. He amassed one of the most exceptional collections of paintings in 1930s Europe, displaying them in the couple’s successive Parisian apartments. He was developing a project to give his collection to the French State to create the "first French museum of contemporary art" when he died suddenly at the age of 42.
Juliette Lacaze, born in 1898, met Paul Guillaume and married him in 1920. He nicknamed her Domenica. She assisted him in his activities as an art dealer and climbed the ladder of success with him. When Paul Guillaume died in 1934, she inherited his fortune and his extraordinary collection, with an option to change it but an obligation to give it to the Musée du Louvre one day.
Domenica’s taste in art was much less bold than Paul’s, and she modified the collection significantly. She got rid of over two hundred works, mainly portraits by Modigliani, all of de Chirico’s paintings, some splendid Matisses and all of Picasso’s Cubist works. She also sold all the African art.
In 1938 she married the architect Jean Walter (1883 – 1957), a former aide de camp to Clémenceau, who made his fortune developing mines in North Africa. It is difficult to determine whether he had any influence over the purchases for the collection. Domenica moved to an apartment next to the Elysée Palace where she hung paintings by Renoir and Cézanne, her favourite artists, some of whose works she herself had bought for the collection, as well as works by Gauguin, Monet and Sisley.
The Paul Guillaume Collection, typified by visionary choices and great modernity, had now moved towards the more classical works of Matisse and Picasso and towards the traditional themes of Impressionism: light-filled subjects, stable compositions and a fresh palette.
Domenica Walter did not forget about Paul Guillaume’s great project, in which she would certainly have been involved: to share their fabulous collection by transforming it into a public museum. This would have given France the works of modern art from the 1920s that it lacked, and would have enabled everyone to admire their collection.
Thirty years later, in the late 1950s, although Domenica had made big changes to the collection, and although the State had already acquired a number of works in this domain, negotiations to buy it began. A public subscription was organised by the Société des Amis du Louvre to enable the Réunion des Musées Nationaux to buy “the most important” works in the collection, and to raise one hundred and thirty five million old French francs. Perhaps Domenica did not want to hand everything over initially, as the acquisition took place in two phases: forty-seven paintings in 1959 and ninety-nine paintings in 1963.
Domenica asked that the names of her two husbands be associated with it. The State planned to install the collection in the heart of Paris at the Musée de l’Orangerie, then attached to the Musée du Louvre. However there were concerns about the cost of the building work: Domenica wanted to reproduce the interiors of her magnificent apartment in the museum. On 31 January 1966, alongside André Malraux, then Minister of Culture, she triumphantly opened an initial temporary display of the collection. The French State acquired the collection in 1977 but it only went on permanent display in 1984.