Scott Winfield Sublett
In Paris of the 1910s, when hungry artists would take almost any pittance for their work, an old man of extremely limited means scooped up Picassos, Modiglianis, Utrillos, Matisses and Cezannes, each painting bought for the price of a couple of good restaurant meals. The prescient old man’s collection would, today, be worth hundreds of millions, if not billions, and one might say the old man had a superlative eye, were he not blind.
In his strange, fascinating new book, A Blind Man Crazy for Color, writer-painter Rob Couteau assembles and unearths what little can be known about the mysterious collector Léon Angély, a bald, fat, retired solicitor’s clerk who gambled what small money he had on the dream of assembling a collection that could someday finance a luxurious retirement in Nice.
When Père Angély started collecting, he was already myopic but could still see. Over a period of about 20 years, though, his vision disappeared. “I have only one fan, and he’s blind,” Modigliani is quoted as saying. (In the book’s footnotes there’s another lovely Modigliani quotation: “I do at least three paintings a day in my head. What’s the use of spoiling canvas when nobody will buy?”)
Rather than let blindness end his Sunday afternoon visits to studios, Angély continued collecting with the help of a poor, unschooled young girl, on whose shoulder his hand rested as they made their way through Montmartre. Little Joséphine would describe the paintings, and on the basis of her simple descriptions, he would choose.
Figures as distinctive as Léon and Joséphine were certainly noticed. Couteau quotes John Richardson’s A Life of Picasso as asserting that the painter was fascinated by the old, blind collector, and Richardson goes on to speculate, quite plausibly, “Picasso may have drawn on his memory of the sightless art lover and his child guide when in 1934 he depicted a blind Minotaur being led around by a little girl.”
It’s likely Léon and Joséphine were beloved Montmartre characters, despite the old man’s tightness with a franc.
Adding another layer of resonance to Couteau’s slim volume are the charming illustrations by Lydia Corbett, also known as Sylvette David, the pony-tailed model and muse who inspired Picasso’s Sylvette Period (and whose hairstyle was copied by Bridgette Bardot). Now 87 and living in Devon, Sylvette had a show seven years ago at London’s Francis Kyle Gallery.
It may seem tragic that Angély died in 1921, before the artists he discovered skyrocketed in value. To keep body and soul together in inflation-racked post-World War I Paris, he disposed of his collection for little more than he had paid. Still, for decades he had the aesthetic thrill of some of art history’s greatest accomplishments covering his shabby garret walls, and for some of that time, he could see them.