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A private life made public

Violette de Mazia with students at the Barnes Foundation in Merion ( From the Collection of the Violette De Mazia Foundation )
Violette de Mazia with students at the Barnes Foundation in Merion ( From the Collection of the Violette De Mazia Foundation )

Apr 26, 1989

The estate of the late Violette de Mazia - lecturer, self-taught art scholar and high priestess of the philosophies and eccentricities of the Barnes Foundation in Merion - will go on the block today in the New York galleries of Christie's auction house.

More than 400 items will be up for sale in a series of auctions that will continue next month. The items offer a glimpse into the life of de Mazia as a voracious and not always discriminating collector. Her taste ranged from two canvases by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, priced from $600,000 to $800,000 each, to minor artists whose paintings have been lumped together in lots of seven and offered for $140. The estate is expected to bring a total of $5 million to $7 million.

But the auction also marks an uncharacteristically public dismantling of an extraordinarily private life.

For decades, until her death in September at the age of 89, de Mazia had shunned the public eye, declined interviews, and seemed the very embodiment of everything mysterious about the Barnes Foundation, founded by Albert C. Barnes, the multimillionaire inventor of Argyrol, a widely used antiseptic.

Barnes created his foundation in 1922, when his paintings by Cezanne, Matisse, van Gogh, Picasso and other impressionists and post-impressionists had not yet achieved their status as modern masterpieces. Throughout his lifetime, de Mazia was Barnes' loyal assistant as he quarreled, provoked and publicly insulted most of the more traditional Philadelphia art institutions, and refused admittance to anyone he chose - most notably art scholars, critics and collectors.

After his death in 1951, de Mazia continued to enforce many of his restrictive policies that kept the foundation isolated from the art world.

 Never married and with no immediate survivors, de Mazia left a will dictating that her estate be used to create the Violette de Mazia Trust, which will provide scholarships to Barnes students. In death as in life, she had dedicated her entire being to the work of Barnes and his foundation.

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Much about the origin of de Mazia remains a mystery. She arrived in Philadelphia from Europe in the 1920s, engaged to teach French at the Barnes Foundation. She enrolled in the art classes, according to the foundation, and two years later Barnes made her an instructor and began collaborations with her that yielded four books.

Even her name is in question. In hearings on a case brought by the state attorney general to force the foundation to open to the public, de Mazia's passport surfaced, giving her name as Yetta, not Violette.

For years, de Mazia represented herself as having studied art at various prestigious institutions in Europe including the Hampstead Conservatory and the Camden Art School in London. But when confronted with evidence that the schools had no record of her attendance, she admitted that she had never enrolled. She said she had audited courses.

De Mazia was not a beauty, but she was graceful, slender and had great style. Because of an eye allergy, she always wore dark glasses, adding to the mystery that seemed to surround her.

For lectures, she chose dresses to coordinate with the artwork featured that day and wore flowers in her hair; for board meetings, she dressed as if going to a cocktail party. She wore large quantities of silver and turquoise jewelry and 10 rings at a time, including a jingling thumb ring that became her signature.

De Mazia accompanied Barnes when he went on art and antique collecting expeditions in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, when many of the pieces she acquired had little value.

Those who remember the two of them recall that Barnes would buy what he wanted and allow de Mazia to choose from among the leavings.

During their collecting expeditions, Barnes and de Mazia frequented the 16th Street gallery of art dealer Robert Carlen. Carlen, now in his 80s, remembers de Mazia as totally subservient to the strong-willed and opinionated Barnes: "She was in his shadow. She couldn't say too much when he was around; I remember he would ask her a question, and she would make a comment, and then he would get absolutely furious. 'You don't know what you're talking about,' he'd say. "

Barnes was an early collector of Horace Pippin, one of the first black artists to be recognized by the established white art community. Paintings of the West Chester native were sold by Carlen at the time for a few hundred dollars. Barnes bought two Pippins and de Mazia bought the artist's Friends Meeting House, which now carries a presale estimate by Christie's of $50,000 to $70,000.

Few visitors were allowed into de Mazia's house on Derwen Road in Lower Merion, but those who were said it was like a small museum. Artwork was everywhere, covering almost every wall space, casually displayed around rooms and stored in piles on the floor.

In the late 1970s, a former gallery assistant at the foundation recalled, de Mazia brought over a small, unframed watercolor sketch by Henri Matisse that had been kept in a drawer.

"She never made a big deal about those things. That was the whole charm. To her it was just another sketch done by Matisse," said Paul Woodyard, who worked as a gallery assistant for de Mazia.

 The sketch, a study for the mural Le Danse, which was painted for the main gallery of the Barnes Foundation, is the star piece of her estate, and carried a presale price of $800,000 to $1 million.

When Barnes died in a car crash at the age of 79 in 1951, he named his wife, Laura, president of the foundation and designated de Mazia as director of education.

She dedicated her life to developing a lecture course perpetuating the Barnesian methods of art appreciation, which focused on structural elements of art and won a fierce loyalty from former students. "Barnes was a cantankerous person, and she was in a way, too," recalled the Rev. Thomas Loughrey, a former professor at St. Joseph's University who studied with de Mazia. "But I got a sense of someone very alive. Especially her hands, her mind. "

De Mazia assumed care of the art collection, and as other Barnes employees died, her control of the foundation grew. When Laura Barnes died in 1967, de Mazia, then 68, became the last person associated with the foundation who had studied with and known Barnes.

As the last link to Barnes, her interpretation of what he had wanted was persuasive with the other four trustees. "The man died so many years ago and so few people were close to him that we didn't really know what Dr. Barnes would have done," said former foundation trustee David W. Rawson.

"In the vacuum of no one else having any idea, de Mazia very successfully could say, 'I am the true apostle and I know. ' Who was going to gainsay her? "

De Mazia's refusals of admission to the foundation were far less dramatic than those by Barnes, but scholars and others still found it difficult to visit the galleries after he died.

In 1956, only 326 visitors were allowed, according to court records.

In 1960, a lawsuit forced the foundation to open the Barnes Foundation gallery to the public two days a week beginning the next year.

But even after the expansion of visitation to three days a week in 1967, de Mazia fervently enforced other restrictions set out by the Barnes trust - as well as a few of her own.

Loans and sales of any work were forbidden, and the gallery was not permitted to exhibit work not owned by the foundation. De Mazia refused to permit color reproductions or slides of the collection, nor did she allow it to be catalogued.

In the last years of her life, she continued her grueling three-days-a-week lecture schedule at the foundation, despite several hospitalizations.

Once she suffered a severe fall and broke several ribs. "She was so dedicated that she staggered to class, and only afterwards did she go to hospital," recalled one associate. Another time she had a bronchial infection, checked herself out of the hospital against doctors' orders, went to class, and then back to the hospital.

She taught until 1987, when she designated Richard Segal, an Olney High School art teacher and former Barnes student, as her replacement.

Her will, signed Nov. 18, 1987, with revisions scrawled in her distinctive hand, instructed that cherished items be distributed to friends and fellow lecturers at the foundation: a silver letter opener to a friend; a Jean Renoir pottery vase lamp to friends in Atlanta; her boxed folding easel and a goblet to foundation lecturer Barton Church. Dictaphone tapes of her lectures, her class notes and other lecture materials, were willed to the trust - but only to be used by Segal or other lecturers trained by him.

The proceeds from the de Mazia art sales, and of the sale of her Derwen Road house, valued in court documents at $300,000, will go to the Violette de Mazia Foundation, to be used to assist students at the Barnes Foundation.

The trust, expected to be formed within the next year, also will be used to continue publication of a journal of art that had been published privately by de Mazia.

On sale today will be more than 300 pieces of de Mazia's American furniture, decorative arts and folk art, and lesser-priced paintings.

Her other important impressionist and post-impressionist art, including the Matisse sketch, two Renoirs and a Giorgio de Chirico priced at $400,000 to $600,000, will be included in three larger art auctions scheduled by Christie's on May 10, 11 and 25.

When her property was first publicly unveiled last month in a Philadelphia preview at the College of Physicians on South 22d Street in Center City, the event was a gala cocktail party. Potential bidders and curiosity seekers poked through the possessions, and the preview drew more than 1,000 invited guests. In attendance were many of Philadelphia's art collectors, dealers and museum directors and curators from the very institutions Barnes had so vehemently denounced.

Lucinda Fleeson Inquirer Staff Writer
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