The coverage of the closing of Knoedler and Co., the legendary art gallery that claimed to be the oldest in America, has been as extensive as it has been shocking. The Bare Square’s November article on art fraud and forgery proved eerily prescient, with the November 30 announcement of the closing of Knoedler coming on the heels of allegations of forgery and questionable provenance of artwork sold though the venerable gallery.
Knoedler’s nurtured artists long before the founding of the Museum of Modern Art (1929), the Frick Collection (1913), and even the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870). By way of perspective, Knoedler’s was as old as the Smithsonian Institution (founded in 1846), and older the State of California (officially annexed in 1848). At Knoedler’s founding, New York City’s entire population was around 300,000.
Knoedler’s founder, Michael Knoedler, began working for French lithographers and art dealers, Goupil & Cie, in 1844 in Paris. Goupil opened its New York City branch in 1846 (some report the year as 1848), and asked Knoedler to take over the New York branch in 1852, which he did. By 1857, Knoedler bought Goupil’s New York location and continued to operate under the Goupil name. Michael Knoedler died of tuberculosis in 1878, (Goupil retired in 1884), but the gallery that carried Knoedler’s name made art history.
Though the relationship between Goupil and Knoedler’s flourished for quite a while, court records (coincidentally reported by “Wallace, J.”!) show that Goupil opened a rival location in New York City in 1887, a move that sparked litigation. Though Knoedler’s lost the case, the name became ingrained in New York art annals.
Knoedler’s held a special 150-year retrospective in 1996, including signature works like John Singleton Copley’s ”Watson and the Shark,” Thomas Eakins’s ”Music” and Edouard Manet’s moody portrait called ‘The Plum”. The exhibit earned kudos from the New York Times as “perhaps the first time in history [that] a commercial establishment has persuaded 15 institutions, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum and the National Gallery, to lend artworks for a show on its premises.”
The list of living artists Knoedler’s represented before the artists’ deaths reads like an art history book: Frederick Church, Helen Frankenthaler, Mary Cassatt, George Inness, Richard Diebenkorn, Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, William de Kooning, Salvador Dali, Barnett Newman, and many others–a list is too long and impressive to comprehend.
Some mark the decline of the gallery as beginning in 1971 with the sale of the gallery to business tycoon Armand Hammer. Some point to 1976 as the pivotal year, marking the departure of the last member of the Knoedler family from management (Roland Balay, Michael Knoedler’s grandson).
We may never know when the seeds of Knoedler’s demise took root, but the fruit may leave a sour taste.
So reflect on the closing of this important landmark, then find the recipe to cleanse your palette at The Bare Square Store.
Help start the next 150 years of New York art now. Support this generation of emerging artists, and start your collection today.
- James Wallace