A patron, connoisseur, and scholar of Cubism, Douglas Cooper was also the first to write a history of major Cubist collectors. The chapter, titled “Early Purchasers of True Cubist Art,” was published in the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition The Essential Cubism 1907–1920 (1983) at the Tate Gallery. Cooper acquired many of his own Cubist works directly from the collectors mentioned in the catalogue or from their estate sales.
Born in London to a wealthy family that had made a fortune in Australia through real estate and shipping businesses, Cooper studied art history at the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Marburg/Marburg-in-Hessen. In London, the Post-Impressionist holdings of Samuel Courtauld provided Cooper with a model for collecting: concentrate on a few key artists, choose the most important movement of an era, and disregard naysaying arbiters of taste. Well aware of the historical importance of Cubism, he also knew that it was undervalued and underappreciated, especially in Britain. Influenced by the example of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, in 1932 Cooper began acquiring the work of “true” or “essential” Cubist artists, including Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso, with a focus on the years 1906 to 1914.
In the 1930s Cooper began his career as a dealer with Fred Mayor of the Mayor Gallery in London, in which Cooper was also financially invested. There, he developed a network of artists, collectors, and dealers. When he left Mayor, he took his share of the gallery’s stock, including works by Paul Klee and Joan Miró. While he collected the work of those artists in earnest, he also readily sold it to refine his own Cubist holdings. In general, he was not averse to selling pieces from his collection when better examples emerged or to raise funds.
Cooper acquired the bulk of his Cubist collection, some 137 works, in the 1930s. That decade saw a long slump in the market, after a wave of American collectors had pushed prices higher in the late 1920s. A number of key collections were dispersed during that time, notably that of composer Jacques Zoubaloff in 1935. Cooper obtained his prized series of Léger’s Contrast of Forms from Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg. A large portion of his collection, and his most important Picassos, came from the financially distressed German industrialist G.F. Reber. Cooper also bought, or received as gifts, work directly from Braque, Léger, and Picasso. Gris had died young in 1927; Cooper became the foremost twentieth-century scholar of the artist’s work, including authoring Gris’s catalogue raisonné and a volume of his letters. Cooper’s dual role as collector and scholar ensured his legacy; his articles and books increased the status of Cubism and works from his collection were publicized in the various museum exhibitions that he organized.
Several factors contributed to Cooper’s ability to amass what was the largest post–World War I Cubist collection, after that of Reber. Notably, Cooper was an art historian with a generous trust fund and fluency in French and German. But he had also been an art dealer, and through his work for the Monuments and Fine Art Commission in Germany, he was an indefatigable pursuer of art that had been looted by the Nazis. Cooper was a serious scholar with an intuitive understanding of the art market and an insider’s knowledge of where to find the pictures he wanted.
In 1949 Cooper moved to France and housed his collection in the Chateau de Castille in Argilliers, Gard. As he grew older, he downsized, moving in 1977 to smaller quarters in Monte Carlo. Cooper legally adopted his long-time companion, Billy McCarty-Cooper, who inherited the collection upon Cooper’s death. McCarty-Cooper ensured that a core of the holdings remained together in a sale to Leonard A. Lauder in 1986. The rest were sold at auction in the early 1990s.
For more information, see
Cooper, Douglas, and Margaret Potter. Juan Gris: Catalogue raisonné de l'œuvre peint. Paris: Berggruen, 1977.
Cooper, Douglas, and Gary Tinterow. The Essential Cubism. London: the Tate Gallery, 1983.
Kosinski, Dorothy. Douglas Cooper and the Masters of Cubism. Basel and London: Kunstmuseum and the Tate Gallery, 1987.
Richardson, John. The Sorcerer's Apprentice: A Decade of Picasso, Provence, and Douglas Cooper. New York: Knopf, 1999.
Cooper’s papers are stored at The Getty Research Institute. A finding guide, which includes an inventory of the contents, can be accessed by clicking here.