Art historian John Richardson.
Art historian John Richardson.
Image: Getty Images / Bloomberg

What does it mean to be cultivated? Money helps, certainly, but it cannot buy taste, or finesse, or the intellect and sensibility required to become a true connoisseur. One can learn good manners and etiquette, but not discernment.

John Richardson was one of the most cultivated men in the last century, an art historian and writer who inhabited — and helped to shape — the postwar art scene. He is best known for his close friendship with Pablo Picasso, and he completed three of four definitive volumes of the artist’s biography that were hailed as masterpieces of historical narrative and art criticism, as well as for their insight into the difficult artist himself.

In his captivating memoir, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Picasso, Provence and Douglas Cooper, Richardson chronicles his 12-year relationship with the British art critic and collector Douglas Cooper. When they met, Cooper was 38: a flamboyant, corpulent man; vainglorious and spiteful. Richardson was just 25 and Hollywood handsome, though he had been raised in a wealthy British family and had studied art at the prestigious Slade School.

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To escape drab, postwar England, they moved to Provence, where they bought and restored a centuries-old colonnaded folly called the Chateau de Castille. The rich Cooper was something of a Toad of Toad Hall, careening around in a brightly coloured Rolls-Royce, but also an expert in Cubism. The couple filled the walls with modern works by Picasso, Braque, Klee, and Léger, and filled the rooms and terraces with painters, poets, and the idle rich. Picasso lived in the hills nearby and would visit often with his muse-du-jour. He and Richardson became close and the reader sees through his eyes the prolific, capricious genius of the artist, but also his ego and misogyny.

Richardson soaked up Cooper’s vast knowledge and began to outshine his mentor. The relationship, which was always combustible, finally blew up in 1960 when Richardson questioned the authenticity of two paintings. “There was a terrible silence,” he writes, “during which Douglas’ pink face turned the colour of a summer pudding. ‘What a little expert we’ve become.’ And then came a shriek like calico ripping — comical but also alarming. ‘How dare you pontificate to me about Léger!’ he yelled. ‘Those paintings are absolutely authentic. Get out, get out!’”

Richardson got out — but he was proved right about the authenticity. He moved to New York, where he organised major exhibitions of Picasso and Braque, opened the Manhattan branch of the art auction house Christie’s, and began to write for such publications as the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. He was charismatic and gregarious and, over his lifetime, Richardson befriended a wide range of other artists, including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Jean Cocteau, Benjamin Britten, and WH Auden.


Some of these friendships (and enemies) are described in his lethally gossipy collection titled Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters — Beaton, Capote, Dalí, Picasso, Freud, Warhol, and More. He demolishes the eccentric Sitwell siblings — Osbert, Edith, and Sacheverell — as narcissistic and self-mythologising, striving for literary fame. He lauds the work of Lucian Freud: “He does not diagnose or analyse; he scrutinises and specifies. In this respect he resembles his famous grandfather.” Here is Andy Warhol, who, he says, was medically shy. “In full view of everybody he, as it were, hid. He hid his blotchy looks behind a smokescreen of windswept wigs, unevenly dyed eyebrows, heavy layers of calamine, and Harpo Marx mutism.”

And here, most memorably, are the ghastly Dalís, Salvador and his wife, the “praying mantis” Gala. “To know her was to loathe her,” he writes. Their greed was unbounded, and their sexual proclivities, too.

WATCH | Picasso: Magic, Sex and Death, written and narrated by John Richardson (part one of three):

Over the years, as he worked as a curator, collector, and dealer, Richardson’s glorious homes were documented in décor magazines. Stuffed with art treasures, redolent with heady flowers and stacked with piles of books, they were the habitat of a curious and playful bon vivant. John Richardson: At Home has just been published, showcasing these beautiful houses and apartments.

Richardson was awarded France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2011 and was knighted in 2012. He died in New York in March, age 95. He had almost completed the last volume of A Life of Picasso, which will be published posthumously.

The prominent dealer Larry Gargosian told Art News: “In every conversation with John, he taught you something new — he could reveal things about a painting and its history that no one else could know. It was magical. The depth of his knowledge was astounding. It’s not just the passing of a friend, but the passing of an era. We won’t see another like him.”

From the June edition of Wanted 2019.

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