Henry Pearlman | The Collector
The story of Henry Pearlman’s collection is a distinctly American one: a rags-to-riches tale of a self-made businessman who pursued his passion for modern art alongside other lifelong passions, including baseball and chess. Pearlman never set out to collect art, nor was he born into a family that collected. Nonetheless, this son of immigrants with only a high-school education built a significant collection of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art, featuring works by Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Jacques Lipchitz, Amedeo Modigliani, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Pearlman made his first forays into collecting in the early 1940s, when his company, Eastern Cold Storage Insulation Corporation, experienced substantially increased profits.
His earliest acquisitions were fairly traditional realist paintings by American, Italian, and French artists such as William Glackens and Ernest Lawson, purchased largely to beautify his house. The focus and intensity of Pearlman’s collecting changed dramatically in the middle of the decade, when he acquired Chaïm Soutine’s View of Céret, which caught his eye as he walked past the New York auction house Parke-Bernet.
In the postwar period, buyers with deeper pockets than Pearlman bought regularly from such auction houses and galleries. Pearlman, on the other hand, had to be more creative. He befriended dealers and artists in the United States and overseas, secured invitations through mutual friends to view major private collections, bartered works in his own collection for new acquisitions, and continually kept his eyes out for a good buy, striking when the proverbial iron was hot. Prominent among Pearlman’s advisors was John Rewald, the pioneering Cézanne scholar. Others included Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art; the collector and museum founder Albert Barnes; the scholar Meyer Schapiro; and the artist Leo Marchutz, an Aix-en-Provence resident who advised Pearlman on Cézanne.
Like many of his collecting peers, Pearlman undertook to learn as much about the artists in his collection as he could, devoted as he was to their art and possessed with a keen curiosity about what drove them to create. Having no specialized training in art history, Pearlman apprenticed himself to those in the know and taught himself, seeking information in books and through visits to New York’s many museums and libraries.
Bolstered by the belief that meaning resides not only in the art object but also in its history over time, Pearlman paired an interest in the lives of his artists with an equal investment in the life, so to speak, of every work in his possession: who had owned it, where it had been displayed, and the anecdotes it had inspired. Clearly it was a fascination with the experience of art that inspired his collecting and solidified his hope that others would benefit from his endeavors. This includes the thousands of students and visitors to the Princeton University Art Museum, where the collection has been on loan since 1976, as well as the many others who have seen the exhibition Cézanne and the Modern over the past two years in Oxford, Aix-en-Provence, Atlanta, and Vancouver.
Rachael Z. DeLue
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology