From selling paintings to the Rockefellers to working with the French resistance during World War II, Jewish art dealer René Gimpel lived an extraordinary life before it was cut short in a concentration camp. Now, an upcoming documentary seeks to tell his story.
The film, titled “Bombers and Masterpieces: Recovering the Life, Art, and Diary of René Gimpel,” was co-directed by Greg Faller and Lillian Bowers. It will be screened at Stolen Art and Stories of Survival, an outdoor event at the Stevenson Village Shopping Center on Oct. 14. Sol Davis, director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, will give an introduction at the screening.
“The film is a mosaic of René Gimpel’s life and times as an art dealer, from about 1920 to 1939,” said Faller, professor and associate dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications at Towson University. “And it examines his work as a famous art dealer, both in the United States and in Europe; his work in the French resistance during WWII; and … the legal battles [his heirs have] been going through to have his art works that were stolen by the Nazis returned to them.”
Much of the information gleaned on Gimpel’s life was taken from his personal diary, said Faller, a resident of Towson. Faller began working on the film in the last few years, he said, after he was persuaded to join the project by his co-director, Bowers. Bowers had read Gimpel’s diary and was excited by the prospect of a documentary on him and contacted Faller, with whom she had previously collaborated on two other films.
Gimpel got involved in the world of art dealing through his father, who was active in the art worlds of both Europe and the United States, explained Faller. Through his business, Gimpel connected contemporary French impressionists with American art buyers. He sold works to families such as the Rockefellers, and for 15 years he was also the art dealer for Baltimore philanthropist Mary Frick Jacobs Garrett, the founder of the Baltimore Museum of Art and wife of Baltimore and Ohio Railroad President Robert Garrett.
Typically, Gimpel would either buy a work himself and sell it to Mary Garrett, or represent her during a negotiation over a painting. Perhaps the most well-known painting he obtained for her was “The Game of Knucklebones” by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, which she purchased from Gimpel in the 1920s.
After the fall of France in WWII, Gimpel supported the French resistance by creating, with partial funding from the British government, a Marseille transport firm, Azur Transports, that moved people and documents secretly across France by truck, said Faller. During this time, Gimpel worked alongside others like English author and MI6 agent Graham Greene.
Gimpel was eventually captured and sent to the Neuengamme concentration camp in 1944, where he died, said Faller. Many of the artworks he owned were stolen by the Nazis. Years later, his grandson and granddaughter would work through the French courts in an effort to have his confiscated works returned to them. This included a Monet painting that sold for $14.5 million, which ended in a settlement, and a trio of André Derain paintings that found their way into French museums, at least one of which has been returned to the family.
The Oct. 14 screening is part of the Creative Alliance’s annual fall Art to Dine For series. Ticket sales will help support the organization’s free educational programs. Ticket sales are being capped at around 40 or so. In accordance with Creative Alliance’s protocols, attendees will need proof of vaccination.
A question and answer session with Faller and Bowers will follow the film’s screening, Faller said.
In an email, Davis noted how the film “touches on many of my interests both in my academic life and in museum practice,” including “diaries and letters of the Nazi era, intergenerational inheritance considered in expansive terms (beyond: the material inheritance, to include the emotional, relational, and traumatic inheritances), family mythologies, resistance, and the act of witnessing.”
Those unable to attend the screening should have the opportunity to see the film in 2022, when Faller hopes to start showing the documentary at different film festivals, he said. He also hopes to see the documentary available on television, by DVD or screenings by computer, though these plans are not yet settled.
Asked what he hopes the audience takes away from the film, Faller cited the final comments in the documentary of Gimpel’s granddaughter.
“What she wants to do, and what we hope the film will do, is to restore René Gimpel to a prominent position, so that people know his story and how significant of an art dealer he was in the first half of the 20th century,” Faller said.