Interview with Patrice Benadon, collector

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You did not grow up in an artistic environment and practiced dentistry. How did you develop this passion for art that has led you to build a collection that is both rich and varied, in which 15th and 16th century religious painting and 19th century sculpture have pride of place?

When I was a child, there was nothing at home. A table, six chairs, a sofa. No objects. I was always impressed by the furniture and works of art that adorned the apartments of my little friends when I went to their homes for lunch. It seemed to me that it was only possible to see such wonders in old French families or in museums.
When I was 14, I went to England. The family that hosted me lived next door to an antique shop. In the shop window were displayed some large silver and ivory fish dishes, which I thought were beautiful. I went in and asked the price; it was the amount I had to live on for two weeks. So, for two weeks I didn’t go out, I didn’t spend anything, and on the fifteenth day I bought this cutlery. I still keep them today. From that time on, I started to look at objects.
Also, because my parents worked so much, I spent every July in Paris. I was fascinated by religious art and as soon as I started to earn three pennies, I bought paintings, modest at first, more important as time went by. Later I turned to sculpture.

1. Collection of Patrice Benadon
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875)
Mater Dolorosa, c. 1869-1870.
Nicolas Cordonnier (?-1531)
The Preaching of Saint Vincent Ferrier
Oil on panel - 87,5 x 91 cm
Photo: bbsg
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Do you try to build up a coherent collection around a few artists or a specific period?

I buy works that appeal to me, without thinking about where they will fit in my collection. An object must first seduce, it must speak to the eyes, the heart and the guts, not to reason. Carpeaux’s Mater Dolorosa, for example, overwhelms me (ill. 1). Not only did the artist know how to translate the pain of a mother who has lost her child, but this pain seems to me to be more sensitive in the work that I possess, which is a terracotta sketch. The sculptor’s gesture, free and spontaneous, makes this sculpture more powerful than the finished version of the work. I also have a plaster cast of Ugolin surrounded by his children; the number of children varies and is not the same as in the final version on display at Orsay. Finally, I have two Venuses, one in clay and the other in bronze: they are marvels that I will never part with.

2. Collection of Patrice Benadon
Antoine-Louis Barye (1795-1875)
Charging Bull, chief model
Bronze with light patina - 18,5 x 28,4 cm
Photo: Sotheby’s
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I like my collection to mix well-known and lesser-known artists, reference pieces in the work of a sculptor or painter and more unexpected creations. For example, I have the famous Saute-mouton by Gustave Doré and some loaded portraits by Dantan, but also the bust of a woman by Triqueti, in polychrome marble, relatively rare in his English production.
I also keep works by Antoine-Louis Barye as well as by Christophe Fratin, his contemporary, also an animal sculptor, and creator of decorative objects. I have kept some of the pieces I had of him: superb candelabras with bears and a terracotta group showing a boar surrounded by hunting dogs. I have two examples of Barye’s Prancing Bull, one of which is mounted on a stone and is certainly a work made when he was associated with Emile Martin. I also have the chief model of the Charging Bull, it belonged to my friend François Fabius of whom I wanted to keep a souvenir (ill. 2). This bull was on his desk and I admired it when I came to see him. So this work also has an emotional value. Doré’s Saute-mouton is also a master model; it is a proof cast from the original model, stronger than the plaster model, which serves as a reusable matrix. It can be disassembled when the piece is not cast in a jet. The master model is the perfection of the work, the commercialized proofs must be chiseled again because they are always less perfect.
Nevertheless, I am not a monomaniacal collector, I like to look around. My walls testify to this, on which one can see a painting by Maurice Denis next to a Souverbie or a beautiful group of drawings from all periods (Doré, Pradier, Mucha, Lefebvre...) (ill. 3). The culmination of my collection would be to acquire a beautiful male torso from Greek or Roman antiquity, thus a contemporary abstract painting. If it were to be a Soulages, I wouldn’t want it to be entirely black but with blue streaks.
My collection therefore includes works from various periods and styles. It illustrates a taste, without trying to give a course in art history. It seems to me that when objects are beautiful, they go well together. Some collectors buy only the works of one artist, looking for all the sizes, all the fonts, all the colors of each sculpture. Others collect only one period, reconstructing 18th century interiors in their homes, which I believe are more in keeping with the requirements of a decorator or museum curator. In such homogeneous interiors, one would like to see a plastic stool placed in a corner, like a sign of life in a frozen universe. Because I believe that a collection has a soul when you live with it, without being afraid to disturb it.

3. Collection of Patrice Benadon
Photo : bbsg
See the image in its page

Has your taste evolved over time?

Having scoured Parisian churches when I was young, I began by buying religious paintings. A friend’s father ran a gallery, and I bought a few paintings from him. It was only later that I realized they weren’t very good! But it’s by making mistakes that you learn. And then I settled down, and looked for beautiful pieces of furniture to furnish my home. One of my friends was a professor at the Boulle school, we both went to the flea market. He taught me the subtleties of 18th century furniture and used to tap me on the fingers when I looked at 19th century objects!
I ended up taking my independence and becoming interested in 19th century sculpture in a truly bulimic way. It’s a passion that comes from my guts. One day I arrived at the home of François Fabius, and one thing led to another and we became great friends. It was with him that I really discovered sculpture, that I learned to identify quality works, to differentiate between patinas, castings and chiselling. It is difficult because there are many multiples in 19th century sculpture. Some encounters were essential, besides François Fabius, André Lemaire and Jacques Fischer each played an important role.
After having spent fifty years learning, making mistakes, and finding treasures, I feel I have come full circle. I buy less and less sculptures. I used to buy Rodins in the past, now I find it boring. Because when you buy a Rodin, you buy a name before you buy a work.
I don’t totally abandon sculpture of course, and I still let myself be tempted from time to time. For example, I was seduced by the strangeness of Emile Hébert’s The Witch, a half-naked old woman perched on her broom, of which Orsay has a terracotta. Hébert, trained by his father and by Feuchère, changed his style several times. The fantastic subject of this statue appealed to me, no doubt inspired by Goethe’s Faust, like his Mephistopheles of 1853. As for the sculpture of the 17th and 18th centuries, it does not correspond to my taste, at least most of the time...

4. Collection of Patrice Benadon
Jacques Stella (1596-1657)
The Deploration
Oil on onyx - 33.2 x 42.9 cm
Photo: bbsg
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Today I am returning to my first love: religious painting of the 15th and 16th centuries, sometimes of the 17th. Religious art is the foundation of art, both in the West and in the East, men have never stopped creating works inspired by religion, if not by faith. Recently, I found a work at Alexis Bordes’, thanks to La Tribune de l’Art, which mentioned it in an article: it is an oil painting on onyx by Jacques Stella, who uses the effects of stone to stage the Deploration on the Dead Christ in an almost lunar landscape (ill. 4). At the same time, I bought a terracotta portrait from him. You will think that I am contradicting myself, since it is a sculpture by Jean-Jacques Caffieri from the 18th century. But it was there, I was looking at it. It is a very pretty terracotta whose subject is not very exciting since it is not a naked woman, but a man in a wig: the playwright and poet Jean-Baptiste Rousseau. Nevertheless, the play of the eyes and the quality of the sculpture seduced me. We can see the work of the sculptor, the trace of the tools; the treatment of the curls and the folds of the ruffle testify to Caffieri’s talent, as does the subtle expression of the face. Perhaps it is the modello. The marble is in the Comédie-Française, another terracotta is in Versailles.

You not only studied sculptures, you opened a restoration workshop; can you explain why?

I sometimes bought works that were not in good condition and entrusted them to two brothers, bronze restorers. I liked to watch what they did, until the day they stopped their activity. Afterwards, I bought a pair of candlesticks by Barye that needed to be repatinated. I took it to the Susse foundry, the result was catastrophic! The patina was very beautiful, but had nothing to do with Barye. I asked to see the boy who had made it. His name was Pascal Le Lay. Having seen the quality of his work, I suggested that we work together and teach him which type of patina was appropriate for which work. A patina is not the same for a work by Barye, Pradier, Cumberworth, Frémiet, etc.
For a while I considered buying the Susse foundry. The project having failed, I nevertheless opened a bronze restoration workshop in 2001, intended for both collectors and dealers. Pascal Le Lay followed me and for about ten years we restored works. This is the best way to learn! Sometimes I recognize pieces in public collections that we have patinated. I stopped because it took too much time and I wanted it to remain a pleasure. Today, Pascal manages Les Ateliers d’hier et d’aujourd’hui. He is the one who took care of the works of Germaine Richier for the retrospective that has just opened at the Centre Pompidou.

5. Collection of Patrice Benadon
The Descent from the Cross of the Flemish School
Oil on panel
Photo: bbsg
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Where do you buy?

At flea markets, auctions, dealers, everywhere. More recently, Caroline Girard, with whom I work, introduced me to the Galerie La Nouvelles Athènes on the occasion of the Jean-Michel Cels exhibition. I regularly buy paintings and drawings from them. I suspect they know exactly what I like! I also regularly visit the Turquin cabinet. Sometimes I have bought paintings on the Internet, without having seen them, because the photos are of such quality that it is possible to zoom in and see every detail. This was the case with The Preaching of Saint Vincent Ferrier by Nicolas Cordonnier for example (ill. 1). I must say that Caroline knew the expert Patrice Dubois, which allowed me to buy with confidence.
But you have to know how to take risks. I would rather make a mistake than miss a beautiful work. For example, against everyone’s advice, I bought a magnificent head of an old bearded man attributed to Vincent, which can be found in other of his compositions. The canvas was laminated on isorel. A restorer managed to free it, it was not easy!
Sometimes there are small miracles. Just recently, I had spotted a Descente de croix in La Gazette de Drouot, I wanted to come and see it up close, but I forgot (ill. 5). However, a friend suggested that I go to Drouot one day, I passed a room where a sale was taking place, and I saw this painting being auctioned. I raised my finger and I got it.

Sometimes I sell to buy other works. In general I resell very badly. That’s what François Fabius used to say to me: "If you ever sell a work I sold you for a higher price, it’s because I didn’t do my job properly". 
I also like to go to fairs. Brafa or Fine Arts Paris, for example, allow you to see quality works, but without surprises, at high but still reasonable prices. Tefaf brings together extraordinary objects that are completely unaffordable; you have to go there for the pleasure of the eye.

6. Collection of Patrice Benadon
On both sides :
Jean-Baptiste, dit Auguste Clésinger (1814-1883)
Two portraits of Rachel, one in the role of The Sparrow of Lesbia
the other in the role of Phèdre in marble
In the center : Henri de Triqueti (1803-1874), Bust of woman in polychrome marble
Photo: bbsg
See the image in its page

Can we see works from your collection in museums?

I consider it my duty as a citizen to give works to museums, it is a way of thanking France, which received my foreign parents, allowed them to settle and earn a living. For example, I gave the painting of Cordonnier to the Museum of Troyes (see the news item of 2/3/22).
I also sometimes lend works. For example the two marbles of Clésinger which are two portraits of Rachel, one in the role of Phèdre, the other in that of the Sparrow of Lesbia (ill. 6), were entrusted to the Musée de la Vie romantique for the exhibition devoted to George Sand, and for the one on "Romantic heroines". They also appeared at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme in the exhibition "Rachel, une vie pour le théâtre" and they will soon go to Ajaccio for "Plon-Plon, a red and gold Bonaparte". Lending works allows for research and discovery. Thus the curator of sculptures at the Musée d’Orsay told me that this pair of portraits of Rachel had belonged to Napoleon’s natural son.
The curator of the Theodore-Deck Museum in Guebwiller seemed to be interested in the pieces in my collection. He was a ceramist who made building coverings and shaped pieces, inspired by Islamic, Chinese, Japanese ceramics, majolica... He invented several techniques, succeeded in covering his pieces with transparent enamels, then creating reliefs and obtaining metallic reflections. He was also noticed for his blue glaze, which was called the "blue Deck".

7. Collection of Patrice Benadon
Françoise Salmon (1917-2014), The Deported
or The Prisoner Dying in the Concentration Camp, c. 1965
Photo: bbsg
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Sometimes I buy works specifically for museums, with the prospect of donating them. A few years ago I raised my hand in a sale for a plaster by Françoise Salmon, The Deported, designed for a memorial at the site of the Hamburg-Neuengamme concentration camp (ill. 7). The subject is very violent, no one in the room wanted to buy such a figure, so I took it; we couldn’t let such a symbolic work go to waste. But it is sometimes difficult to give to museums that require a whole file before accepting to give anything. So I appeal: I have a work to give!
As for my collection as a whole, I would like it to be presented in all its richness. This is what the future Musée du Grand Siècle is proposing, which will devote an entire space to collectors. I am in contact with Alexandre Gady. I think it is interesting that visitors discover what the world of an amateur can be, I want them to ask themselves why these objects have been brought together, and that they understand that they are together simply because I found them beautiful. However, to make a donation today would mean that my collection no longer belongs to me and therefore I can no longer touch it. But I don’t want it to be frozen, not yet! I want to be free to sell pieces, to buy others, as I see fit. Even at my age my taste is evolving.

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