What's in a name?

Alexis Gregory, who sees quality and buys "a beautiful picture," shares his remarkable collection of old French master paintings with the Israel Museum.

The month of June: An Italianate Landscape with Roman Ruins and Sheepshearers, 1699, oil on canvas by painter Pierre-Antoine Patel. (photo credit: PR)
The month of June: An Italianate Landscape with Roman Ruins and Sheepshearers, 1699, oil on canvas by painter Pierre-Antoine Patel.
(photo credit: PR)
Over the past 20 years, art collector Alexis Gregory has assembled one of the world’s most impressive private collections of French old master paintings. Consisting of works from the 17th to 19th centuries – with an emphasis on Baroque and Rococo styles from the monarchic periods of Louis the XIV and Louis the XV – the collection covers some of the period’s most prominent painters and typical genres.
On Monday, the Israel Museum opened an exhibit of 24 paintings from Gregory’s collection – a body of work that the collector has gifted to the museum.
But the 79-year-old Gregory – who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in art history and founded Vendome Press, which specializes in art and illustrated books – is less interested in the prestige or value of these paintings, and more in their artistic quality – something that has always guided his collecting.
“You become a discerning collector,” he explains. “You know what you’re doing, like a museum person. With modern paintings, it’s easier. With old masters, you have to study, use your brain, have a good eye.”
Gregory has been developing his collector’s eye since college, when he began acquiring what is now a formidable collection of Renaissance bronzes – including masterpieces by Riccio, Aspetti, Roccatagliata, Sansovino, Algardi and Della Porta that will go to the Harvard Art Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. During and after college, he also collected modern paintings. But 25 years ago, when he moved into his current New York apartment, he realized modernism wouldn’t fit.
The reason was that he’d decorated his home with the antique French furniture that his father had shipped to the United States from Europe when the family left Paris in 1939 – narrowly missing the outbreak of World War II.
Gregory was born in 1936 to a Jewish family that had previously left Russia and lived in Germany and Switzerland before moving to France. Arriving in the United States at the age of three, he was raised in a cultural atmosphere.
After the war, he and his family traveled throughout Europe, his parents wanting their children to be not only Americans, but also Europeans.
This is evident in his New York home, which feels like a classic 19th-century Parisian apartment. It’s a kind of homage to his family’s cultural heritage and maintains his ties to the European background in which he was raised. The presence of his father’s furniture collection, brought over in its entirety from Europe, is more than the presentation of quality artifacts; it’s the preservation of a historical inheritance.
And so, picking out the right paintings to go with the furniture was equally important.
“Mixing impressionism with this furniture was good,” he says, referring to his parents’ collection of impressionist paintings, which was divided among him and his two brothers. “But not modern pictures. You needed something decorative.”
So he decided to start collecting French paintings. At the time, he recalls, works by old masters were out of fashion and therefore were not as expensive as modern or impressionist paintings. It gave him a chance to collect museum-quality works – but doing so meant having a particular interest in studying this period in art history.
He admits he was fortunate to have the resources to buy such works – and to be involved in the arts so he could seek advice from museum curators and knowledgeable friends. He was also in no rush.
“Today, in the United States, people hire a curator to build their collection,” he reflects. “For me there was no point in hiring someone. I wanted to do it myself.”
THAT MEANT acquiring one painting at a time. One of his earliest acquisitions was Pierre-Antoine Patel’s The Month of June: An Italianate Landscape with Roman Ruins and Sheep-Shearers (1699), part of a series of works for each month of the year. Another piece that came from a series was Seascape in a Storm (1748) by Claude-Joseph Vernet, who often painted the same locations in contrasting meteorological conditions, expressing the sublime and capturing the attention of French philosopher Denis Diderot.
As his collection grew, Gregory learned more about the field.
“You constantly make discoveries after you buy something,” he explains. “That’s why I collect this stuff. It’s a challenge.”
'A Roman Capriccio with Washerwomen by the Statue of Marcus Aurelius' ca. 1780-85, by painter Hubert Robert.
Unlike with modern paintings, which are all closely documented, there is no absolute way of knowing which works were painted by which artists. Specialists working with art dealers and auction houses do their best to attribute paintings to particular painters. But they’re not always necessarily right.
When he bought Roman Charity (ca. 1760), it was attributed to Joseph-Marie Vien, who was the premier peintre du roi (first painter to the king) from 1789 to 1791. But Gregory says he never presumes from an auction that the attribution is correct.
“I didn’t buy the painting for the name,” he recalls. “I saw quality and I bought it as a beautiful picture.”
With time, friends and colleagues saw the painting at Gregory’s home. Eventually Olivier Aaron, who was working on a catalogue raisonné of Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre, suggested that the painting was in fact a Pierre – who had been the premier peintre du roi for 19 years just before Vien.
“Pierre is not more important than Vien,” says Gregory. “But it’s important to nail these things down.”
Because these paintings are hundreds of years old, they often live multiple lives and travel between dealers, auction houses, collectors, and museums. Gregory first saw Joseph Ducreux’s Self-Portrait (ca. 1793) at a Paris auction house. He remembers it was remarkable but completely black and covered in dirt. He would usually have brought a restorer with him, but did not have anyone to contact at that moment in Paris. So he decided not to buy the painting and take a risk.
He later saw the same painting in the New York gallery of Colnaghi & Co., one of the world’s oldest commercial galleries. They’d bought the painting and cleaned it up.
Gregory found it so astonishing that he bought it and hung it in his front hall.
He says that painters sometimes make several copies of their best works and that collectors often want to have the first or best copy. He learned that there was a copy of Ducreux’s Self-Portrait in the reserves at the Louvre, and spoke to Pierre Rosenberg, who was then the famed museum’s director, about comparing the two paintings.
Rosenberg said he wasn’t in a position to give his opinion, but invited Gregory to go down and see the work itself – which the collector says was not as good. Gregory later wrote a letter to Rosenberg thanking him for the chance to see the painting, but informing him that his own was the first version.
A similar situation occurred with François Lemoyne’s Assumption of the Virgin (ca. 1730–32), a large painting of a sky with figures, that had been made as a sketch for the ceiling of Paris’s Church of Saint-Sulpice in the Luxembourg Quarter. Lemoyne also did two works at Versailles – a fresco in the Salon de La Paix (1729) and the ceiling of the Salon d’Hercule in (1736). During a 2001 exhibit of his works at Versaille, the Louvre’s copy of Lemoyne’s Assumption was hung across from Gregory’s. Again, his version was deemed the first.
“I don’t buy a painting because it’s the first or second version,” he insists. “My eye tells me what’s good. And it’s very good.”
But coming to own such unique works isn’t always easy and takes both business savvy and luck. Before Gregory owned it, Assumption had been bought by a painting investment group for $1 million – much higher than he was willing to pay. When he saw that it was up for auction, he went anyway and stood in the back of the room. He knew that sometimes auction houses set global reserves for entire collections – meaning that once the collection reaches a certain sum, there is no longer a reserve price on individual paintings. The Assumption came up for sale toward the end of the auction, when the other dealers and public had either spent their money or were distracted, and Gregory managed to get the painting for less than half of what the investment group had originally paid.
EACH WORK in his collection has its own acquisition story – and over two decades, these stories add up to a major group of French Baroque and Rococo paintings. His decision to bequeath these works to the Israel Museum will considerably improve its European collections.
“The museum’s collection of European art is eclectic,” explains Shlomit Steinberg, the museum’s senior curator of European art. “It’s difficult to acquire – both expensive and rare – and most of the gifts we’ve received were of Dutch and Flemish masters.”
Steinberg also points out that many artworks from this period were destroyed during the French Revolution in 1789, when peasants sacked palaces and churches that held such master works.
“Putting these paintings up on the wall was like opening a time capsule,” she says. “It was a magical moment of finding myself transported to a different time altogether, with its own furniture, dress, style.”
This is not the first time Gregory has lent paintings or artifacts to the Israel Museum. In 1995, he lent a desk belonging to King Farouk for the “Princely Tastes” exhibit, and in 2010, after the museum’s renewal, a stag pelvis on which the School of Fontainebleau had painted scenes from Greek mythology. But gifting this collection of French paintings represents his most generous gesture of support to date.
“When I arrived nearly 20 years ago, I realized how comprehensive the museum’s holdings were,” says James Snyder, the museum’s director. “European art was a weak link in the chain, and Alex became committed from that point on to strengthening our representation in old masters.”
Snyder notes that Gregory helped the museum redesign and reappoint galleries, as well as focus on filling gaps in the collection. Yet French art remained a gap that this gift of 24 paintings has filled in one fell swoop. In this sense, it is a transformative gift, which both the museum and Gregory hope will attract other serious gifts in the future.
“Given the longevity of Alex’s commitment to help us build our presentation in European art,” says Snyder, “a gift like this could not be a better seal of approval for what the museum has been able to accomplish.”
Alexis Gregory (far right) with Senior European Art Curator Shlomi Steinberg, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco Director Colin B. Bailey and Israel Museum Director James S. Snyder
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For Gregory, the current exhibition, which will show the paintings on a temporary basis, is a test for how the museum will handle the paintings once they are permanently bequeathed.
“It was originally conceived of as a sort of trial run,” he says, “and the museum passed with flying colors with a wonderful installation, sumptuous color brochure, and great cooperation.”
Steinberg notes that in addition to exposing the Israeli public to these works, the exhibition may cultivate interest from local art history scholars in this period, allowing them to see beyond the genres of portrait, landscape or religious painting, to the material sensibilities of these artists.
WHAT DISTINGUISHES Gregory’s collection is its personal nature. These are not works that are stored in some warehouse as future investments – they cover the walls of his apartment. And while there’s satisfaction in showing them publicly, he is also looking forward to having them back at the end of this temporary exhibition.
“I didn’t really like seeing the paintings come down,” he admits, “and leaving all these holes on the walls.”
But it’s likely that the holes will be filled in sooner than later. During our conversation, he reports a drawing he bought in Paris just the day before by Louis-Léopold Boilly, a master painter and draftsman who lived during the 18th and 19th centuries. And it is clear that what drives Gregory is not attention, but his love for art.
“I see something,” he says, “and I flip.”
He likes the exploration that comes with collecting French old masters. He doesn’t look for recognized masterpieces, which cost millions of dollars and don’t involve the fun of learning something new. And ambiguity doesn’t worry him, because he knows that everyone disagrees on attribution anyway.
“You make your picture more important after you’ve bought it by making new discoveries,” he explains. “But the main thing is to follow your eye.”