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Norton Simon's unexpected art-collecting influence

January 15, 2011 |  6:00 am

Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889) Hammer Between 1955 and 1989, L.A.'s Norton Simon went from being a nonentity among private art collectors to blossoming into the world's most prodigious collector of the postwar era. He started with 19th century French paintings but quickly expanded into early Modern art, then Old Masters and finally Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian art. The works he amassed make his namesake Pasadena museum an unparalleled treasure.

Even works Simon carefully considered but declined to acquire, lost in a divorce settlement or bought and then later sold to buy other works are among the great objects now housed in museums around the world. The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings alone include Edouard Manet's poignant picture of a war veteran on a Paris street, "The Rue Mosnier with Flags" at the J. Paul Getty Museum; Paul Cezanne's chiseled "Boy in a Red Waistcoat" at Washington's National Gallery of Art; Paul Gauguin's patchwork pastoral landscape "The Swineherd" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Edgar Degas' eloquent pastel, "Dancer in Green," in Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection; and Vincent Van Gogh's roiling "Hospital at Saint-Remy," shown here, in the UCLA Hammer Museum.

The year 1972, following the tragedy of his son's suicide and the joy of his marriage to Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Jones, was especially active. Simon made his third largest number of acquisitions (more than 150) and his biggest total expenditure (nearly $18 million, which approaches $90 million in today's currency) during those 12 months.

1972 was also the year that another novice L.A. collector first jumped into the art arena -- one who made headlines in 2005 by breaking a record buying a sculpture owned for many years by, yes, Norton Simon. On Sunday I'll have an Arts & Books story on how, when he first set out to become a major art collector, Eli Broad seems to have had Simon's extraordinary achievement in mind.


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Critic's notebook: Broad museum design pointed in the right direction

 --Christopher Knight

Photo: Vincent van Gogh, "Hospital at Saint-Remy," 1889, oil on canvas. Credit: UCLA Hammer Museum