Douglas Cooper

(1911—1984) art historian and collector

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British art historian and collector. He lived in France for much of his life and was severely critical of the British for what he regarded as their failure to appreciate or patronize modern art. Born in London, the son of wealthy parents, he read modern languages at Trinity College, Cambridge, then briefly attended the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Freiburg, studying art history. His main interest was Cubism, and in 1932 he decided to devote part of his inheritance to forming a collection of Picasso, Braque, Gris, and Léger, whom he regarded as its four leading protagonists, in its greatest period, 1907–14. It is some measure of his combination of foresight and persuasiveness that these four figures are now generally taken as dominant. (In the inter-war years La Fresnaye was sometimes referred to as one of the leading exponents.) Cooper later added works by other artists to his collection, but the Cubists remained the core. In the Second World War he worked in intelligence and helped to identify, protect, and repatriate works of art. In 1949 he discovered the dilapidated Château de Castille in Argilliers, near Avignon, in southern France, and this became his main home. Picasso was a neighbour and visitor, but their friendship turned to hostility. Cooper, indeed, had a notoriously difficult temperament and enjoyed controversy; in the 1950s he became particularly well known for his attacks on the Tate Gallery and its director Sir John Rothenstein. These culminated in a notorious incident at the French embassy when, after some goading from Cooper, Rothenstein punched him to the floor. Cooper's writings include books on Gris and Léger. He also organized exhibitions, among them two major Cubist shows: ‘The Cubist Epoch’ at Los Angeles County Museum and the Metropolitan Museum, New York, in 1970, and ‘The Essential Cubism’ at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1983. By the time the latter was held his approach to Cubism, with its emphasis on a few major figures, was rejected by many younger scholars. After the death of Cooper's companion and adopted son, the interior designer William A. McCarty Cooper, his collection was sold at Christie's in New York in 1992 for a total of $21 million, a healthy sum in the context of a period in which the art market was depressed. The works sold included Braque's Studio VIII (1955), which was described by John Richardson at the time as ‘one of the greatest 20th century works left in private hands’.

Subjects: Art.

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