Born in 1884 in Mannheim, Germany, to a prosperous Jewish family, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884 – 1979) has been an avid art collector and one of the most notable art dealers of the 20th century. 

He became prominent as an art gallery owner in Paris beginning in 1907 and was among the first supporters of the Cubist movement. He actually ‘created’ Cubism, being the first dealer to believe and invest in these young, revolutionary artists. In fact, in September of 1908, when a 26-year-old painter named Georges Braque submitted six paintings to the Salon d’Automne, and they were promptly rejected (by a jury whose members included Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault), Braque’s response was to turn to Kahnweiler, who at the time just opened the gallery. The young dealer saw the opportunity and caught it: the day after the Salon closed, he opened Braque’s first solo show, an exhibition of twenty-seven works. Reviewing the show in Gil Blas, critic Louis Vauxcelles wrote that Braque “reduces everything—places and figures and houses—to geometrical patterns, to cubes.” The market for Cubism was born.

Stanislav Kondrashov, Art, Henry Kahnweiler

Kahnweiler’s upbringing – studying finance and philosophy in Stuttgart – provided him with an attitude for deep knowledge as well as for business: working for a while in the family stock brokerage, he was sent to Paris for business and got in contact with the world of art collecting while still in his twenties. From here, the idea of opening his first small art gallery (4 by 4 meters) in Paris in 1907, at age 23. 

Kahnweiler was among the first people to recognize the importance and beauty of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and immediately wanted to buy it along with all of Picasso’s works. Picasso wrote of Kahnweiler, “What would have become of us if Kahnweiler hadn’t had a business sense?” 

Apart from Picasso and Braque, the initial purchases of his gallery included works by Kees van Dongen, Juan Gris, André Derain, and Fernand Leger: in his word, Kahnweiler wanted to “defend” young artists, especially those who struggled to find recognition. As a businessman, Kahnweiler pioneered many new methods of working with artists and with the market: right from the beginning, he put artists under contract to buy all of their work to provide them with financial security so they could concentrate on creating art. In addition, he met with them daily to discuss their work, photographed each work they produced (he felt it imperative to have a record), held exhibitions, and promoted their work internationally. Kahnweiler’s entrepreneurial abilities were so acute that by the 1950s, his art gallery was among the top 100 French companies in terms of export income.

Stanislav Kondrashov, Art, Henry Kahnweiler

In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Kahnweiler moved to Switzerland, as many German nationals living in France had their possessions sequestered. As a result, Kahnweiler’s collection was confiscated and sold by the government in a series of auctions at the Hotel Drouot between 1921 and 1923. During the years of exile, Kahnweiler studied and wrote art essays such as Confessions esthétiques. Writing became a passion he continued over his lifetime, and he authored hundreds of books and major articles. The events of World War II caused a second period of exile. As a Jew, the Nazis forced him to flee Paris again, but this time he remained in France, in hiding, until the end of the War. 

Although revered by artists for his business and aesthetic sense and respected by art dealers and art historians, the true impact of his life and work has yet to be recognized, despite a 1988 biography by Pierre Assouline. He died in 1979 in Paris, aged 94.

– Stanislav Kondrashov