Vose Galleries at 170
By Tom Christopher
Vose Galleries of Boston is that rarest of survivors: now completing its 170th year in business and still under the direction of the founding family, the firm itself predates many of the paintings that it buys and sells. Yet it is hardly a relic. Under the management of a dynamic sixth generation, sisters Elizabeth (Beth) and Carey Vose, the gallery is seeking out new fields while maintaining leadership in the old.
Why shoe manufacturer Joseph Vose bought the Westminster Art Gallery in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1841 is not clear; perhaps it was the first manifestation of what Beth Vose calls "the art gene" that seems to run in the family. Despite the name, the store's business was primarily art supplies and framing since there wasn't really an American art market as such at the time.
That changed, due in some small part to the efforts of Joseph's son Seth. Just nineteen when he took over management of the gallery in 1850, Seth found that buying and selling paintings was a way to indulge his passion for collecting. His friends ridiculed his enthusiasm for that radical new French school, the Barbizon painters, and when he mounted an exhibition of their works in 1852 not a single piece sold. Seth bided his time, developing relationships with leading American painters of the day such as Albert Bierstadt, exhibiting and selling their paintings. He never stopped buying Barbizons, however, and eventually his collection was discovered by William Morris Hunt, the leading figure of the Boston art world in the second half of the nineteenth century. The cosmopolitan Hunt, who had studied with Barbizon stalwart Jean-François Millet, opened the eyes of his patrons and students to the merits of the French school, so that by the late 1870s, Vose Galleries had become a principal source for an exploding new market.
This willingness to back a passion has continued to be a key to success for the family's business. Seth's great-grandson, Bill Vose, spent twenty years giving lectures all over the United States about the American impressionists when they were largely unknown, eventually creating a market for the paintings he loved. "He really believed in them," Bill's daughter Beth explains. "Turned out he was right," she adds with a laugh.
Another benefit of Vose Galleries' longevity is the unique perspective it provides concerning the art market. The firm has kept records going back to its origins. This institutional experience can be invaluable. For example, Beth explains, her great-grandfather Robert C. Vose Sr., who opened a branch in Boston in the 1890s, recognized early on that there was an approximate cycle of thirty to forty years in the popularity of an artist's work. The Hudson River school painters, for instance, who were hugely popular in the 1860s, were dismissed by the turn of the twentieth century. Almost exactly forty years later, in 1941, Robert Sr. decided that it was time to bring them back and mounted an exhibition at the gallery that helped to spark a Hudson River school revival. At around this time his son Robert Jr. watched as a Frederic Church canvas, West Rock, New Haven, that he had acquired for $200 when the school was in the depths of disfavor, began its climb to the millions of dollars it is worth today (it is now at the New Britain Museum of Art in Connecticut).
Similarly, Maxfield Parrish, a painter and illustrator who had enjoyed tremendous esteem in the first two decades of the twentieth century, was almost completely forgotten by the time his son, Maxfield Parrish Jr., came to the Voses in 1967 to help settle his father's estate. The gallery sent a traveling exhibition of Parrish paintings to museums around the UnitedStates. By the early 1970s Parrish paintings that had been selling for $500 or $1,000 were fetching at least ten times that amount.
Following your passion may be essential but so is sticking to your strength. Vose Galleries has always focused on realist painters, but in 1962, two years after Beth and Carey's grandfather moved the galleries to NewburyStreet, they stopped handling living American artists. In 2001, however, at the instigation of Beth and Carey's mother, Marcia Vose, the firm opened a division of contemporary American realist painters. In part this was an effort to address the perennial conundrum of the successful dealer: museums often buy your best finds, taking them off the market forever. The new venture draws on the Voses' expertise in the history of American realist art and their connections with a clientele interested in it. It has given both Beth and Carey fresh insights into the older works by exposing them to the ways in which contemporary painters are reinterpreting traditional techniques.
Such studies, though satisfying, are only a small part of the business, Beth admits. Managing a gallery, even a successful one, "is not nearly as glamorous as outsiders think. There is a lot of crawling through attics and cellars to find paintings." Beth recalls finding one forgotten treasure face down in an attic. Its back was covered with soot, but on the front she found a bucolic view of West Roxbury (now a neighborhood of Boston) with figures dressed in mid-nineteenth-century fashions. After some scrutiny and consultation with others at the gallery, she identified it as a painting by Josiah Wolcott, a contemporary of the transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott. The painting ultimately sold for $35,000.
Relationships are the core of the business, Beth and Carey agree, as is a reputation for straightforward dealing. Many of the Voses' clients are children of clients, and there are collectors who have worked with two or even three generations of the Vose family. The mutual trust and friendships developed through these long-term associations benefit clients as well as the dealers. A couple of years ago, for example, when a client's mother died and the heirs found a cheaply framed painting on the wall of her room at the nursing home, they brought it to Bill Vose. He identified it as a lost work by Childe Hassam and appraised it at a value of seven figures. "Even if the client doesn't end up selling something like this," Beth says, "it's exciting to tell them what they have."
It is not surprising that Vose Galleries has earned the title of "friendliest gallery" from a local arts and entertainment magazine, The Improper Bostonian, or that the galleries have also been hailed as "a great place to take a date." This pleases Beth and Carey. Casual browsers may not make purchases, but they do contribute to the vitality of the business.
Family businesses rarely outlast the second generation, and almost none survive into the third and fourth. The secret of Vose Galleries' persistence seems to lie in the personal fascination that each generation has found in the field. Ten years after taking charge, Beth and Carey Vose still consult with their parents daily: Marcia continues to write catalogues for exhibitions and Bill is an invaluable resource when it comes to pricing. Family get-togethers can be a trial for their husbands, the two women admit. Beth says there is likely to be something from the day's work that is too juicy not to pass along: "It's not just the art, but also the people in the business, all the shenanigans. Sometimes we have to say [to the husbands] ‘Okay, close your ears, five minute break. Guess what happened today, Ma?'"
As of this writing both Beth and Carey Vose were each awaiting the arrival of their first child. "The seventh generation", as they put it.