Renowned art critic Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker called the Lauder gift of 81 Cubist works of art to the Metropolitan Museum in New York an “institutional organ transplant.”  [1]  This sterling act of generous philanthropy by the 81 year-old cosmetic titan, Leonard Lauder, does transform the presence of art of the 20th century at the Metropolitan Museum. The details of this unrestricted gift were apparently worked out with former director, Philippe de Montebello, as the Met is landlocked now by the city and forbidden to expand its footprint.  While his brother Ronald chaired the Museum of Modern Art and also donated the Neue Galerie to the New York art scene, Leonard has made his own mark with a focused collection from four masters who wrestled with the intellectual dimensions of cubism. Its basic idea was to render three dimensional objects in two dimensional picture planes.   With 34 pictures from Pablo Picasso, 17 from Georges Braque, 15 from Juan Gris and another 15 from Fernand Léger, you have what Roberta Smith called, “the four horsemen of the Cubist apocalypse.” [2]


Violin, 1912, Georges Braque

Leonard Lauder grew up as one of the two sons of Joseph and Estée Lauder and was educated at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  Married for 54 years to his beloved Evelyn who passed away from cancer in 2011, Leonard and his two sons helped build and supervise the Lauder cosmetics empire which was started by his ambitious mother Estée. Bored working in her father’s hardware store, she became an apprentice to her uncle who had a chemistry firm which mixed many products including beauty creams.  She soon launched a few ideas of her own, and the corporation grew to its size today of more than $10 billion in annual sales as a publicly traded company.

Leonard says that he began collecting post cards at the age of six and donated that collection of 120,000 items to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2012.   He also served as chairman of the board of trustees of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York beginning in 1994.  When the board of directors decided to move the Whitney Museum to a new location in lower Manhattan, Leonard and Philipe de Montebello once again worked out a coup d’état for the Metropolitan Museum which will lease  the Madison Avenue location beginning in 2015 for exhibitions of its modern art holdings.

Cubism is a style in the modernist pantheon of art history that takes both intellectual reading and visual stamina to master.  Detailed observation skills are required to find the pieces of the puzzles that these four masters attempted to wrestle with in Europe during the years of 1906 to 1924.  Fixated on the colorist renderings of landscape by Cezanne, Picasso and Braque first called themselves, Wilbur and Orville as they thought of themselves as machine age innovators taking their new asymmetrical ideas into flight on the canvas.  Using collage and a mixture of textures, they often painted side by side. We can see this in the Lauder collection as Leonard’s persistent collecting carried him on the chase to find their often matching works.


Still Life with Checked Tablecloth, 1915, Juan Gris

Lauder began this collection in 1981 and then was offered his pick from the estate of Douglas Cooper in 1984, an English historian who loved cubism.  Lauder took out a $22 million dollar loan, and he was off to the races.  “It’s not the possession of the picture, it is the search and the hunt,” said Lauder about his journey with the collection. [3] One of the most spectacular works in this show at the Metropolitan is Picasso’s Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair of 1913-14 that Lauder bought at auction in 1997 from the Ganz collection. Art historians call this style, synthetic cubism, as the artist mixed form, color and details in a two dimensional mixture of shapes that make the viewer step forward to decipher the language like a jigsaw puzzle.


Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair, 1913, Pablo Picasso

One of my favorites in the collection is the Léger work from 1918-19 that measures 98 x 72 inches entitled, The Typographer. Painted between the world wars in Paris, Leger said he was paying tribute to the newspaper people who set type by hand in those days. You can sense the industrialization of urban life as machines began to invade the post World War I environment of rebuilding western Europe. Each Lauder painting has been analyzed and documented by two scholars, Rebecca Rabinow and Emily Braun, who have completed a catalog of the entire collection with immaculate precision.


The Typographer, 1918-19, Fernand Léger

The Lauder collection is a monumental effort by all involved in the process of assembling more than a billion dollars of value in a lifetime. It will rest in the open galleries of the Metropolitan Museum for generations to enjoy and ponder.  As one critic noted, you can see the savagery and the merriment, the violence and the mind games that these four geniuses of modernism conveyed. [4]  The puckish whimsy and whit of personalities like Picasso, Braque, Gris and Leger are present in this art that tickles your intellect and challenges your viewing experience with a splurge of complexity.


Leonard Lauder

The Collector, The Contribution and The Cubism: Analysis and Accolades for the Lauder Gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

October 20, 2014 – February 16, 2015


[1] Peter Schjeldahl, In With The New: Cubism at the Metropolitan Museum. The New Yorker, October 27, 2014.

[2] Roberta Smith, It Was Hip to be Square.  New York Times, October 17, 2014.

[3] Carol Vogel, A Collector’s Personal Perspective, New York Times, October 12, 2014.

[4] Ariella Budick, Playing all the Angles. Financial Times, October 25, 2014.