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Modern Romance
Scott M. Black tells the story of 19th- and
20th-century French painting and sculpture.
By Diana Mehl
  Scott Black, Isabelle Black
Scott and Isabelle Black in front of Paul Cézanne's Trees in the Jas de Bouffan (circa 1874), which they lent to the exhibition Cézanne in Provence at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

As the founder and CEO of Boston-based Delphi Management Company, one of the country's leading money management firms, Scott Black has made millions for himself and his clients through a combination of brilliant business acumen and an uncanny knack for spotting undervalued investment opportunities. These same qualities combined with a passionate love for art have also enabled him to build one of the finest private collections of Impressionist, post-Impressionist and early modern paintings and sculpture in the United States in just the last 20 years. Although Black does not have a degree in art history (he has an undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins in applied mathematics and economics as well as a MBA from Harvard), he is considered to be one of the art world's most knowledgeable collectors. George T. M. Shackelford, chair of the Art of Europe department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), and curator of the upcoming MFA exhibition The Romance of Modernism: Paintings and Sculpture From the Scott M. Black Collection, says of Black, “Time and time again, I am amazed by Scott's memory for art historical dates, the ups and downs of the art market and the key events in the evolution of modern art. It's almost as if he's got an encyclopedia in his head. I have to go to the books or the Web for information that he's got at his fingertips.”

Black is equally passionate about sharing his collection with the public. A native of Portland, ME, and now a resident of Boston, Black is a longtime supporter of both the MFA and the Portland Museum of Art, generously lending many of his masterpieces to these and other major institutions. An exhibition of 40 paintings and 10 bronzes from his collection will be on view at the MFA from December 12 through May 6.

In an interview with Panache, Scott Black describes how he built his extraordinary collection.

Clockwise from top left: Claude Monet, Monte Carlo Seen From Roquebrune, oil on canvas, 1884. Scott M. Black Collection. Theodore van Rysselberghe, The Regatta, oil on canvas, 1892. Scott M. Black Collection. René Magritte, Portrait of Mme A. Thirifays (The Heart Unveiled), oil on canvas, 1936. Scott M. Black Collection. Fernand Léger, The Bunch of Grapes, oil on canvas, 1928. Scott M. Black Collection.

How did you develop the knowledge to build such an important collection?
I didn't formally study art history in college, but I have always been knowledgeable about painting, and I think that I have a good eye. During the 1970s I lived in New York City, and visited MoMA, the Met and the Guggenheim frequently. If you see enough good paintings, you know what museum quality is. I have a rule: If it would not look good on the walls of the Met, the MFA or the Orsay, you are wasting your money.
Many of my paintings have been in major shows, not just in the United States, but in France and England also. The National Gallery in Washington held a Cézanne retrospective recently. Most of the lenders were the great museums. I had Trees in the Jas de Bouffan, which was the first painting in the first room of the exhibition. Was it the best painting there? No. But it's nice to know you're on the same level as the world's best. There was a Degas show at the Art Institute of Chicago to which I lent my Pagans and Degas's Father, a true masterpiece. Most of my paintings – Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Braque – are in the major textbooks. That's the standard I have always tried to buy.

I pride myself on being probably one of the most knowledgeable collectors. It's a passion. Since I didn't start with much money and have been fortunate in life, I enjoy knowing what I own. Since you spend so much money to acquire good paintings, you really ought to study the background of what you have. It's important.

You also travel to visit the places that artists painted.
I am a Francophile as is my wife, Isabelle, who is European and who has lived in Paris. She shares my passion and is currently studying art history. A few years ago we journeyed to Giverny, having just purchased Monet's The Seine at Lavacourt (1878) at Sotheby's. Concomitantly, we traveled along the river to Vétheuil, where Monet lived and painted until 1883, visiting the church at Vétheuil. Across the Seine is Lavacourt. We saw the identical point of reference that Monet utilized in our painting.
I bought a Boudin – Beach Scene Near Trouville – because Isabelle liked it. (It has a wonderful provenance – previously owned by William Paley.) I have visited both Trouville and Deauville. The beach has a wide expanse, with a sky much like Maine where I grew up – light blue with white, puffy clouds. The ocean water is cold, even in the summer. Unlike the Côte d'Azur, the water doesn't glisten in the sunlight. So I know exactly what Boudin painted.

Can you describe how you acquired some of your paintings?
The first painting I acquired is the only average painting in my collection: Renée Monchaty by Bonnard (1920). The second painting – still one of my best – was the Monet View at Cap Martin purchased in the spring of 1986 at Christie's. In the late 1980s, the Japanese were active collectors and were relentless. It was difficult to buy anything good in the first tier; hence, I bought the top of the next tier. The third painting I owned is spectacular, perhaps the greatest painting that Van Rysselberghe ever created, La Regate (1892). The next purchase was the 1929 Léger, The Still Life. Instead of a contrast in form, it is more of a contrast in color, one of Léger's last abstractions.

Then the art market cracked in November 1990, and I bought the Degas Double Portrait from the Henry Ford estate. I was told that I would never obtain the Degas, since it was likely that the Sainsbury Family would bid against me. In the ensuing years I multiplied the collection, probably spending too much of my net worth. In many of the sales at Christie's and Sotheby's I was buying two paintings. A Signac that had been sold to a German collector named Schnabel at a record $2.2 million returned to auction at Christie's 18 months later. I paid $600,000 for a wonderful image. At another Sotheby's sale they auctioned off Klaus Perl's Braque and Léger. I bought back his 1927 Braque and another excellent Léger, La Grappe de Raisins (1928). Both Légers were included in the MFA Art Deco exhibition. Another evening at Christie's I bid successfully on both a Degas ballerina and a Magritte. It's unusual to cross over from 19th century to surrealism, but the Magritte was a giveaway – Le Coeur Devoile, from the 1930s. The Degas was from the mid-1890s and had a wonderful provenance, having been owned by the artist's nephew René Degas. The ballerina is post-Impressionist, highly abstracted in the face.

What would you like to add to your collection?
I would love to own a Manet. One appeared the first year I collected – from the Harris Whittemore Collection – of a man playing a Shakespearean actor standing in shallow space à la Velázquez. I wasn't so knowledgeable then and didn't have as much money. I certainly would have bought it today at that price. The other two that are obvious are Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin from the 19th century. In the 20th century there are two holes: One is a Fauve Derain – they very rarely appear. The other would be a Juan Gris. Several times I bid on a Gris I've been outbid by Mr. Lauder. I bid on a beautiful painting in 1992, The Mandoline from the McCarty Cooper Collection. I underbid it. The next day I acquired the Signac (Le Nuage Rose) at Christie's, and the following night the exceptional Delvaux (Le Salut) at Sotheby's. I try to look objectively at what I like and buy the best that's affordable. My attitude is it is better to buy fewer that are better.

Last year I added two paintings: a wonderful Miró – a late one but very good quality – The First Spark of Day III. It's a big painting with explosive color. I also bought Pissarro's The Louvre: Winter Sunlight, Morning. It has beautiful, suffused winter light. Admittedly, Pissarro is one of my favorite painters. I was fortunate that the painting slipped through the cracks at auction. Obviously, it was expensive.

Clockwise from top left: Paul Signac, Antibes, the Pink Cloud, oil on Canvas, 1916. Scott M. Black Collection. Joan Miró, The First Spark of Day III, oil and acrylic on canvas, 1966. Scott M. Black Collection. Paul Delvaux, The Greeting (The Meeting), oil on canvas, 1938. Scott M. Black Collection.

How is your wife involved in your collecting?
If we both like something and it's affordable, I'll buy it. Isabelle prefers the 19th century. There were three paintings in the last few years that she particularly liked that I favored, so we bought them. The first was The Seine at Lavacourt (1878). The next selection was the Boudin (Beach Scene Near Trouville), from the 1880s. It has the fashionable figures on the beach with the parasols. Instead of being painted flat like in the 1860s, it has the Impressionist comma brushstrokes. And she loved the Pissarro cityscape with the suffused light – it reminded her of our strolls along the Seine and the beautiful light of Paris.

What are your favorite paintings in the collection?
The View at Cap Martin by Monet. I was 39 when I bought it. My net worth at the time was $1 million, and I spent $770,000 for the Monet. Most people don't spend 77% of their net worth for a painting. Since I came from a middle-class background, it represented something special for me: It is an achievement to own a really good Monet, especially one from Mrs. Potter Palmer that had been exhibited frequently. I always say that if I went broke and was forced to sell all of my paintings except one (I own 43 paintings), the one I would keep would be the Monet.

Another favorite is the Tête de Femme, the double image of Marie-Thérèse (1934) by Picasso. It's a very strong image with the intersecting faces, the moon and the sun. Isabelle studied Picasso and Cubism with Harry Cooper at Harvard. She explained to me that the yellow and red in the background was how Picasso encoded himself in the painting. Matisse would place his reflection in the mirror. Picasso put the colors of the Spanish flag into the background.

My favorite painters happen to be Monet in the 19th century and Picasso in the 20th century.

Clockwise from Left: Edgar Degas, Pagans and Degas's Father, oil on canvas, about 1895. Scott M. Black Collection. Raoul Dufy, Boats at Martigues, oil on canvas, 1907. Scott M. Black Collection. Georges Braque, Pipe and Compote, oil and sand on canvas, 1919. Scott M. Black Collection.

Paintings and Sculpture From
the Scott M. Black Collection

December 12, 2006 –
May 6, 2007
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
What are the best paintings in your collection?
The Degas Double Portrait hands down is the greatest painting I own. It's a serious painting and arguably could be the second best Degas hanging in the Orsay after The Bellelli Family. Most of the time there is a spatial disjunction in Degas portraits – the people do not interact and there is a coldness. Unlike his other portraits, this one is passionate. Degas revered his father and painted more after his father's death from a small painting that hung in his bedroom and also from memory. Degas started the painting in 1888 and completed it in the mid-1890s. Lorenzo Pagans is giving a music lesson to his father, who has stooped shoulders and is withered. There is interaction between the father and Pagans. You can see that Degas breathed humanity into the painting, which is unusual in his portraiture. You can observe also that Degas loved his father. It's a powerful painting.

The other paintings that are among the best: the Van Rysselberghe. He was aboard Signac's sailboat, the Olympia, attended a regatta and created the pointillist painting. Very much in his peak style of 1892, my Van Rysselberghe is a signature piece that has been loaned to shows at the Grand Palais. Another masterpiece of that variety is the Signac Antibes, Le Nuage Rose, which has been loaned to the Grand Palais and the Met for exhibitions. There are better opus paintings, but of the divisionist paintings it is unusual. I also have the Delvaux Le Salut and the Bernard Le Printemps. Critic Hilton Kramer wrote that he thinks The Boats of Martigues is the single greatest Dufy. This painting has the green and orange colors from Cézanne's palette. Dufy is moving towards abstraction with the boats transformed into angles. Cézanne said that everything can be reduced to the cylinder, the cone and the sphere. And you see it here. The boats are arranged circularly (the sphere), while the shape of the boats is geometric. You can definitely observe the influence of Cézanne in the painting.
Photo Credit
Image 1, © 2006 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington; Photo by Kyle Samperton; Image group 2: clockwise from top left: Benjamin Magro. Courtesy, Portland Museum of Art, Maine. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Courtesy, Portland Museum of Art, Maine.© 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; image group 3: clockwise from top left: Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Courtesy, Portland Museum of Art, Maine. © 2006 Successió Miró/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels. Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston ; image group 4: top: Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bottom left: Melville D. McLean. Courtesy, Portland Museum of Art, Maine. © 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bottom right: © 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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