When national art magazines do their roundups of top collectors, Marion and Henry Bloch regularly appear on their lists. Beginning in the 1970s, the couple carefully put together a choice group of works by some of the best known names in art history: Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro.
Their collection has never been seen in public. Until now, or June 9, that is, when the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art opens to the public.
The exhibit, “Manet to Matisse: Impressionist Masters From the Marion and Henry Bloch Collection,” features 30 intimate paintings of flowers, bobbing boats on shimmering waters, graceful trees and lone individuals enjoying quiet, personal moments.
In all, it’s quite a cache.
But as Henry Bloch candidly admits, his venture into collecting did not get off to an auspicious start.
“I grew up at 58th and Wornall. My parents never had a painting in their house,” Bloch said during an April tour of the collection at his Mission Hills home.
“We bought their one and only painting at the Plaza Art Fair. I wasn’t exposed but all of a sudden decided we ought to have some art.”
His first purchase was a painting by the Dutch artist Isaak van Ostade.
“I had it sent to the Nelson, and when I went to pick it up, the conservator said it probably was by Ostade, but it had been completely repainted. It really had no value.
“That was a good lesson,” he said. “We decided to switch to French painting, because that was Ted’s area of expertise.”
“Ted” was Ralph T. Coe, who was director of the Nelson-Atkins from 1977 to 1982, after 11 years as the museum’s curator of painting and sculpture.
Coe advised the Blochs on every purchase. He helped ferret out singular works, telling them which ones to buy and which ones to pass on.
Their first Impressionist acquisition was a tiny — 5 1/2 by 9 inches — painting by Renoir of a woman leaning on her elbows. Another early purchase was a winter view of La Rue de la Princesse by Alfred Sisley.
“We bought for enjoyment,” Bloch said. “I’ve turned down so many. I didn’t want the house to look like a museum.”
Van Gogh’s “Restaurant Rispal at Asnières” (1887), a pride of the collection, hangs above the mantel in the Blochs’ comfortable pine-paneled sitting room off the living room. Upstairs, Berthe Morisot’s “Under the Orange Tree,” a portrait of the artist’s daughter, hangs above the couple’s bed.
“They’re like part of the family,” Bloch said. “There aren’t any we don’t like.”
Although husband and wife have different favorites — she loves Bonnard’s “The White Cupboard”; he’s partial to Sisley’s “The Lock of Saint-Mammès” — both had to agree on all the works they purchased.
But there was another powerful personage who had to approve what came into the house. That was the couple’s interior designer, Ted Graber, who’s best known for directing the remodeling of the family rooms of the Reagan White House.
“We had a large Monet of Parliament and the River Thames,” Bloch said. “Graber said, ‘Get rid of that picture.’ ”
Bloch obeyed and now rues the day.
“It’s a terrible thing he did,” Bloch reflected. “A similar painting recently sold for $20 million.”
That’s the businessman talking — the Henry Bloch who co-founded the tax service giant H Block Inc.
But all along, it seems, the art lover kept the upper hand in decisions about the collection.
“I didn’t do it for investment,” Bloch said. “I never planned to sell any of them.”
Bloch did sell the couple’s Degas of three dancing girls when a better one came along.
“This was so much finer,” he said, indicating the work that replaced it, a pastel and gouache of a single ballerina titled “Dancer Making Points” (1879-80).
And he turned down a painting by Monet of the artist’s son Jean riding a tricycle. “I didn’t like the child’s expression,” Bloch explains.
A favorite painting of his is Cezanne’s “The Card Players,” in the collection of the Barnes Foundation. He was thrilled when he had the opportunity to acquire Cezanne’s “Man With a Pipe,” an oil study of the standing man in the large painting.
“That’s as close as I could get,” he said.
Over the years the Blochs rarely have loaned their artworks, save to a few important shows. The “Cezanne in Provence” exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., included their Cezanne landscape “Quarry at Bibémus.” In 1996, the couple lent one of their Pissarros, “Banks of the Seine at Port Marly,” to an Impressionist exhibit at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
Locally Nelson curator George McKenna (now curator emeritus of prints and drawings) managed to wangle the loan of the Blochs’ “Jane Avril” by Toulouse-Lautrec in 1984, after proving to Bloch that the work had been shown at the Nelson before — in the 1935 show “100 Years of French Painting.”
Although the artworks don’t get out much, many experts have seen the collection in the Blochs’ home, and the couple enjoy hearing what they think.
The director of the Getty pronounced Cezanne’s “Quarry at Bibémus” the “best picture,” Bloch said. A group that came through from the Art Institute of Chicago conferred the same honor on Redon’s “The Green Vase.”
Simon Kelly, associate curator of European painting and sculpture at the Nelson, likes Sisley’s “Rue de la Princesse, Winter.”
“It’s a sensitive and subtle picture,” said Kelly, who is curating the Bloch Impressionist exhibit.
The painting received a full-page reproduction in John Rewald’s bookThe History of Impressionism
, a definitive work on the movement.
That kind of exposure is priceless.
“I thought I paid too much for everything I bought,” Bloch said. “I couldn’t afford any of these pictures today.”
The exhibit will be accompanied by a color catalog, Manet to Matisse: Impressionist Masters From the Marion and Henry Bloch Collection, by Richard R. Brettell and Joachim Pissarro. The book is being published by the museum and the University of Washington Press ($34.95 hard cover, $26.95 soft cover).
For the opening festivities of the building that bears their name, the Blochs will loan one painting that is not from their Impressionist collection.
Far from it. It’s a 1975 portrait, by Andy Warhol, of Marion Bloch.
The artist painted four, Bloch said, each with a different colored background: black, turquoise, blue and emerald.
The Blochs kept the black painting and gave the turquoise one to the Nelson.
The other two are part of the collection of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, which recently agreed to loan them for the Bloch Building opening.
On June 9 the four portraits will be shown together for the first time.