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Art & artists

Van Gogh's 'twin': Alexander Reid's passion for art

— July 2011

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

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Alex Reid far left in France around 1890 with from left to right Arthur Heseltine, Roderic O’Conor, James Guthrie, Mme Heseltine and John Lavery, c.1890

Van Gogh’s Twin: The Scottish Art Dealer Alexander Reid 1854–1928

Frances Fowle

Alexander Reid was one of the most important art dealers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The story of his life is made all the more interesting through his personal acquaintance with Van Gogh, Whistler, Rodin, the Glasgow Boys, the Scottish Colourists and with collectors of the stature of William Burrell, founder of Glasgow’s Burrell Collection.

Few art historical studies have been devoted to individual dealers. Yet their role was central in determining taste in the flourishing art market of the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, sometimes affecting the development of painting. On both counts this was true of Reid, a Scottish dealer whose importance was first revealed by Ronald Pickvance in his biographical sketch in the exhibition catalogue  A Man of Influence: Alex Reid 1854–1928  (Glasgow 1967). Reid has long deserved a full biography and Frances Fowle’s study is therefore an account that will be both valuable to the academic and enjoyable and informative for the general reader.

Fowle covers the period from the 1850s to the late 1920s, achieving a balance between assessing Reid’s importance as a dealer and eliciting the salient features of his personality and individual story. From a young age, Reid was confident and opportunistic. Growing up when Glasgow was a major economic centre, he entered his father’s carving and gilding firm aged only 15, later taking responsibility for the display and sale of Scottish paintings. Aware of a growing market for continental art among Glasgow collectors in the late 1870s, he was drawn to Paris, where he bought contemporary Dutch, French and Italian pictures. In Paris in the late 1880s Reid worked alongside Vincent van Gogh’s brother, Theo van Gogh, in the firm of Boussod, Valadon & Cie, one of the most important art dealers in the capital. Here we learn of his handling of pictures by Manet, his great admiration of and probable acquaintance with Degas, and his dealing in Aldolphe Monticelli’s pictures, which would prove to be one of his most successful formative ventures, selling the artist’s paintings at considerable profit and finding a particularly receptive market in Scotland.

It was during this period that Reid’s difficult personality was first exposed. Earning the mistrust of his superiors through exaggerated claims about his importance in the firm, he was dismissed. But such behaviour was also an indication that he had the self-belief to enter the market as an independent dealer.

Through Theo van Gogh, Reid made the acquaintance of Vincent, with whom he briefly lodged in Paris, a result of which was Van Gogh’s arresting portrait of him. Although Reid will always be best known by this picture, it is ironic that he never fully appreciated the artist’s technique and vision. Moreover, however fascinating this episode was in Reid’s career, from the 1890s onwards he formed equally remarkable and even more important relationships as he developed into a major international dealer.

In 1889, his experience in Paris behind him, Reid established his own business in Glasgow, heralding the most dynamic phase of his career. In 1892 he became the first Scottish dealer to sell Impressionist art in Scotland, made the acquaintance of both Whistler and Rodin (for whose works he found important buyers) and vigorously supported the disparate group of artists who promoted themselves as the Glasgow Boys. Fowle highlights Reid’s importance in promoting the group in Munich and in Boston, and the series of one-man shows he held for three of them James Guthrie, William Hornel and Joseph Crawhall, that proved crucial to their future careers.

In 1900 Reid successfully promoted Eugène Boudin and William McTaggart and exploited the close ties between Scotland and Canada by finding wealthy clients in Montreal. Reid also developed a passion for the Scottish Colourists and showed them as a discrete group in Paris in 1923, opening the way for their international recognition. In 1920 he held one of his last major exhibitions in Glasgow. This numbered an impressive 171 pieces, including many superb Impressionist canvases, some of which were bought by a new generation of Scottish industrialists. Many of these pictures are today on show in the National Gallery of Scotland, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and in other galleries worldwide. Three years after the 1920 exhibition, no less a connoisseur than Samuel Courtauld bought pictures from Reid’s London gallery. A number of these are now among the highlights of London University’s Courtauld galleries.

This book pays fitting tribute to Reid’s achievements and vision. It is admirably designed, with high-quality illustrations throughout, including previously unpublished images of Reid and his family, contemporary dealers and collectors. All paintings are reproduced in colour. It should be noted, however, that it was Daubigny’s The Banks of the Oise, 1863,  now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York that belonged to the Scottish industrialist James Duncan and not the Daubigny illustrated on p.19. Fowle’s introductory paragraph at the beginning of Chapter 2 would have benefited from further discussion of Reid’s date of arrival in Paris, especially as the year 1886 is disputed. These cavils aside, the book is well documented, stimulating and informative. Fowle has done justice to Reid’s remarkable career, convincingly presenting him as the foremost and most influential Scottish dealer of his era.

Van Gogh’s Twin: The Scottish Art Dealer Alexander Reid 1854–1928  by Frances Fowle is published by National Galleries of Scotland 2011. 180 pp. 46 colour/48 mono illus. ISBN 978 1 906270 29 2


Andrew M. Watson
Independent scholar
Andrew M. Watson is author of James Duncan: An Enlightened Victorian (published by Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2010)

Media credit: Private collection

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