In April 1912, Helene and Bremmer travel to Paris, where Anton is already on a business trip. Anton has asked Bremmer to ‘find all the best Van Goghs’, and there is plenty of money to spend. Helene’s greatest wish is to acquire La Berceuse (portrait of Madame Roulin), which she finds ‘the most magnificent’. She succeeds. On the very first evening, the group wanders to the Boulevard de la Madeleine, where the Bernheim-Jeune art dealership is located. ‘And as chance would have it, we found what we could never have expected: La Berceuse.’
Helene later describes this portrait of Augustine Roulin as ‘the woman that the French sailor dreams of while sitting at the bow of his ship in the evening or at night, whom he entrusts with all his secrets. Van Gogh painted her not as a sea nymph […] but as an old woman he knows, who holds the cord to rock the cradle in her hand, who makes him think that she is rocking the ship back and forth while he confesses his inner motives to her. And she understands, has understood all those who speak to her; you can feel that from the depth of her inner life, which reveals itself to us in an exceptional calm’. It is precisely that calmness that is important to Helene because for her, the greatness of Van Gogh is in ‘the calm with which he faced the complexity of things’.
The ‘other Van Goghs’
The next day they go in search of the ‘other Van Goghs’. At the Eugène Druet Gallery they see Basket of apples, Olive grove, Portrait of a man (Joseph Michel Ginoux), The ravine(Les Peiroulets) and Loom with weaver. ‘We saw more, but Bremmer found only these paintings to be greater or equal to ours and purchased them with a bid – a third of the asking price. He was trembling like a leaf when we went outside, so delighted was he with his catch’. Helene acquires no fewer than 15 Van Goghs during this trip, including Landscape with wheat sheaves and rising moon and the drawings Peasant woman gleaning and Saying grace.
Vincent van Gogh; Loom with weaver, 1884 / Olive grove, 1889 / The ravine, 1889 / Saying grace, 1882-1883 / Landscape with wheat sheaves and rising moon, 1889 / Portrait of a man, 1888
Seurat and Signac
Helene and Bremmer also visit Paul Signac. ‘He lives with his wife, a woman with elegant snow-white hair, as only a French woman can wear it, on the fifth floor, i.e. in attic rooms under a sloping roof with all kinds of nooks, crannies and coincidences.’ While visiting Signac, Helene sees a painting by his prematurely deceased friend Georges Seurat for the first time. She purchases a harbour view by each artist.
Paul Signac, Collioure, the belltower, Opus 164, 1887 / Georges Seurat, Harbour entrance at Honfleur, 1886
She is particularly impressed by Seurat, who becomes one of her favourites and whose work she would later acquire in large numbers. ‘Seurat created pointillism in order to achieve a spiritualization of art: applying the colour to the canvas dot by dot to thereby perceive things more calmly and deeply.’
Helene enjoys Paris and Bremmer’s company: ‘you forget the commotion around you, or you see it as insignificant human fidgeting next to all the greatness that the centuries of diversity have left behind. He shows you so much, has an eye and an ear for everything and what says more, he feels so much for it and knows how to explain it’. Helene also purchases a head of Christ in an antique shop. She calls it a ‘Spinoza Christ’, as she sees both a Christ and a philosopher in it. She is very happy with the sculpture, which for her is ‘a chunk of that supreme in art and in life’.