By Agnès Penot
Last year, while reading “The Art of Power,” an article on Larry Gagosian published in the WSJ Magazine, I was astonished at how much a 21st century gallerist’s profile echoes that of another superstar art dealer of the 19th century: Adolphe Goupil. A closer look at Goupil’s story reveals that his marketing strategies laid some of the foundation for today’s mega dealers’ business models. It also shows how much power dealers have exercised over the art world since the 19th century.
Starting in the 1830s, Goupil & Cie, the influential Paris-based print and art dealer, has epitomized the surge of a new generation of art dealers embracing recent developments in the international art market. Goupil is known for building an extensive international network of galleries throughout the 19th century, as well as for its role in advancing the diffusion of art. It also successfully fashioned a house school of paintings, which included French Academic art, the Barbizon school, and the Hague school.
In 1848, Goupil opened an offshoot on 289 Broadway, the heart of a busy commercial hub at the corner of Reade Street. This was one of Goupil’s major endeavors as the dealer created a market for European art at a time when the American art market was virtually non-existent. In 1857, the branch was sold to Michael Knoedler, and until 2011—when the Knoedler Gallery closed its doors—was one of the oldest and most prestigious art galleries in the United States.
Goupil only had a physical presence in America for nine years, but its attention to local sensibilities led the gallery to become a powerful figure in the art scene. Timing was perfect—the establishment of the gallery coincided with the early years of the Gilded Age, which saw a growing demand for European art; collectors amassed art for their own enjoyment as well as for public patronage. In turn, American recognition secured the dealer’s immediate success and long-term legacy.
More concretely, looking at the history of some of the paintings in museums reveals Goupil’s influence on the constitution of many 19th century private and public collections. In fact, many American museums owned—and still own—at least one piece of artwork with a Goupil provenance. This includes some of the Met’s most emblematic paintings, such as William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Breton Brother and Sister. It was also through Goupil that the painting by Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, achieved its fame through the prints widely distributed across the country, along with an exhibition of the original painting in 1851. Washington Crossing the Delaware now stands as one of the museum’s most praised paintings.
Why did Goupil have so much power? The gallery was fashionable, respected, and trusted. By taking full advantage of the modern art market, it influenced both aesthetic and commercial values, two key elements that ensured the legitimacy of its stable of artists, while securing its own legacy.
Agnès Penot is an independent scholar and specialist in 19th century French art, the art market, and provenance. This article is an abstract of the upcoming book by Penot titled La Maison Goupil, galerie d’art internationale.