George Gershwin was one of the greatest art collectors of the 1930s, a book says

George Gershwin (left) examines a new acquisition with his cousin, Henry Botkin

George Gershwin, the famous US composer, is one of the greatest art collectors of his time.

He is known for such 20th century masterpieces as An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue.

But his passion for collecting contemporary art can now be found in previously unpublished letters from the 1930s.

Gershwin, who died in 1937, wrote letters to his cousin, an artist, who was in Paris looking for art purchases for him.

He wrote that artists such as Modigliani and Gauguin wanted “only masterpieces”, saying “if those are not available… I would rather pay a little more money for a good master’s work than a little less for a good work of part master. second-rate”.

In another letter, he wrote: “It was very interesting for me to note the prices of the various items… For example, the little Renoir gave the Guitariste for fourteen thousand francs. It seems like a very good buy to me. Isn’t that very cheap for Renoir, or the picture is a poor example of his work?”

Although Gershwin was famous at a young age and rich when the world was suffering from the Great Depression, he noted in another letter: “Money is very scarce in these depressed times this and one has to be 10 times as careful with what one spends.”

Answers were also received from his cousin, Henry Botkin. “There is no one more anxious and interested to see you build a collection that will eventually be considered one of the best,” Botkin told Gershwin.

“I promise you with your knowledge and enthusiasm and true love of painting that this could be achieved.”

Picasso's The Absinthe Drinker , 1901, was part of the Gershwin collectionPicasso's The Absinthe Drinker , 1901, was part of the Gershwin collection

Picasso’s The Absinthe Drinker , 1901, was part of the Gershwin collection

Gershwin, whose other famous works include I Got Rhythm and Porgy and Bess, died aged 38 after failed brain surgery.

The letters will be published for the first time in a forthcoming book, George Gershwin and Modern Art: A Rhapsody in Blue , from Scala Arts Publishers. The author, Dr Olivia Mattis, found them in a US archive.

She said: “There are many books on Gershwin, some of which mention that he collected paintings. There may be an artist mentioned, but nothing else. I started to get very curious.”

During 20 years of research, she identified her entire collection, which proved to be one of the most significant of its day. There were works by Modigliani, Kandinsky and Picasso, including The Absinthe Drinker, 1901, now in a private collection.

Dr Mattis said: “This painting from Picasso’s blue period was the crown jewel of the Gershwin collection.”

In his letters, Gershwin wrote of various pictures, including Utrillo’s The Suburbs. Noting that it was painted with a “vibrant brush”, he said: “It’s a very luminous picture. It seems to throw out its own light. I’m crazy about it, and it fits perfectly in my living room.”

Dr. Mattis began to notice that Gershwin had cultivated his own image in photographs. “He was choosing to stand in front of different works of art,” she said. “It amazed me that there was always something behind it that was a painting.”

A real pose in the Chagall painting that Gershwin hung in front of his piano mirrored his own pose in a photograph of himself with the songwriter Irving Berlin.

The Chagall is an untitled painting from the 1930s of an old man with a beard, now in the Jewish Museum, New York. Botkin received it in response to the composer’s request for “one of the Rabbi paintings… from this mysterious painter”.

‘total visual exercise’

The letters show that he was very particular about what he collected. Gershwin was also an amateur painter, draftsman and photographer, Dr Mattis said, revealing “a complete visual practice that nobody knows about”.

He wrote to his cousin: “What a great advantage painting has over composition!… When I finish a canvas it is there. That’s the end. But a composition… after I write it, I have to assemble 60 musicians, and arrange the music before I hear the results of my efforts.”

Dr. Mattis co-curated the first major museum exhibition devoted to the composer’s art, which opens this month at the Baker Museum in Florida. It is part of worldwide celebrations to mark 100 years of Rhapsody in Blue, including a performance at Cadogan Hall in London.

Although most of Gershwin’s art collection was widely dispersed, many pieces remain within the family. The exhibition will include loans from international museums and private collections, including those of his descendants.

Exhibits will include Modigliani’s Portrait of Doctor Devaraigne, 1917. Paintings, drawings and photographs created by Gershwin himself and the original manuscript of Rhapsody in Blue, will be on loan from the Library of Congress.

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