There are interesting gaps in the collection. There is, for instance, only one piece of eighteenth-century French furniture, which one might expect more of in a collection formed by two Frenchman with impeccable taste. Bergé has briskly dismissed it as boring, preferring the art deco furniture the men bought in the 1960s when it had been virtually forgotten. And there is no American art.
The twentieth-century paintings in this sale are wonderful, one of the most significant collections of modern art still in private hands. Bergé’s personal favorite is a very early Italian landscape by Edgar Degas (1834–1917), painted when he was staying in Italy in 1856. Among the other stars are four works by Fernand Léger; Henri Matisse’s Le couscous, tapis bleu et rose (Fig. 10), reputedly Saint Laurent’s favorite work; and a magnificent cubist work by Pablo Picasso (see Fig. 12) once owned by Mary Callery (1903–1977), the American artist and collector who is thought to have bought it from the artist himself.
There is also a sculpture in wood by Constantin Brancusi (Fig. 3), the first masterpiece Saint Laurent and Bergé bought after their business really took off. The sculpture has added interest in that Brancusi had given it to Léger in exchange for a painting. The ready-made La Belle Haleine by Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) and Man Ray (1890–1976) is also exceptional.
Among the shades who may be wandering through the Grand Palais at the end of the month, one is more important than the rest, as it was she who inspired this extraordinary collection. The Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles (1902–1970) and her husband Charles (1891– 1981) were leaders of avant-garde Paris society in the 1920s. They lived in an elaborate belle époque palace filled with boiseried rooms on the Place des États-Unis that had been built for Marie-Laure’s grandfather. In the 1920s she commissioned Jean-Michel Frank (1895–1941) to create a modernist environment in her large over-furnished salon. The boiseries soon disappeared under huge squares of goatskin vellum. Elaborately carved doors became sheets of patinated bronze. The chimneypiece was subsumed under layers of glittering mica. Elaborate French furniture was consigned to the attics, and Frank’s blockish chairs, simply upholstered in white cotton canvas, his huge white sofas, cubist bronze tables, and his straw-marquetry screens took over.
It was what Marie-Laure subsequently did to the apartment that so influenced Saint Laurent and Bergé. She started by hanging her collection of modern pictures by Salvador Dalí, Marc Chagall, Léger, and Picasso on gilt-bronze chains on the walls. Then she added layer upon layer of art from earlier eras including two works by Francisco de Goya and a large painting by Peter Paul Rubens. Frank’s bronze tables groaned with elaborate pieces of silver, eighteenth-century etuis and card cases, little gold boxes, and jeweled miniatures.