John Richardson, the larger-than-life art historian whose multifarious career both shaped the postwar art scene as it developed and helped define it historically, has died at the age of 95. The news was first reported by the Art Newspaper.
Richardson’s grandest and most acclaimed project was his multivolume biography of Pablo Picasso, the first part of which was published in 1991. (Two more volumes have been put out since; a fourth is expected to follow, though a publication date has not yet been set.) In 2008, Richardson was asked what made his biography different from books on the painter. He told Artinfo, “The fact that I knew him well and he opened up to me.”
Richardson first encountered the artist around 1950, after having started up a relationship with the collector and art historian Douglas Cooper. In 1952, after moving with Cooper to Provence, France, Richardson and Picasso became close; their friendship would endure into the ’60s.
In 1962 Richardson approached the artist with a plan to do a book on his portraits. “He was very cooperative and gave me a mass of information,” Richardson told ARTnews in 2012. What began as a catalogue intended to cover one part of the artist’s oeuvre became a larger undertaking—a full-dress biography spanning the whole of Picasso’s career.
Each part of Richardson’s biography, A Life of Picasso, ends with a milestone. The first covers the years 1881 to 1906, and culminates in Picasso painting one of his first masterpieces, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907); the second spans 1907 to 1916 and finishes with the artist abandoning Cubism; and the third moves from 1917 to 1932, concluding with his first retrospective. (The fourth, written with Michael Cary, is expected to cover the remainder of Picasso’s career, though details have not yet been released.)
After the first volume was published, critics immediately saw Richardson’s project as a triumph. “A remarkable achievement on more than one count, it has the steady, unhurrying pace and the superabundance of detail that were the mark of biography in High Victorian days,” the art critic John Russell wrote in the New York Times. “It is warmed throughout by unforced private affection and by a veritable tumult of reminiscence.” The general public was taken with the book’s style, too, eschewing the academic prose of so many art-historical texts for a lively and inviting tone.
Accolades quickly followed. The first volume won Richardson a Whitbread Award (now called a Costa Book Award), an esteemed prize given to books penned by English writers. He was awarded France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2011 and was knighted by the British Crown in 2012.
“In every conversation with John, he taught you something new—he could reveal things about a painting and its history that no one else could know,” dealer Larry Gagosian, for whom Richardson went on to work as a special adviser, told ARTnews in a statement. “It was magical. The depth of his knowledge was astounding. It’s not just the passing of a friend, but the passing of an era. We won’t see another like him.”
John Richardson was born in London in 1924. The son of Sir Wodehouse Richardson, one of the founders of the Army and Navy Stores, Richardson had a wealthy upbringing, though, as he told art critic Jed Perl recently, he was “self-educated, essentially”—he never had a true education in art history. When he was 15, he left public school with the intention of becoming an artist, and went on to attend the Slade School of Fine Art.
After graduating from art school, Richardson wrote for the New Statesman, and was introduced by its theatre editor to Cooper. (Following the collector’s death in 1984, Richardson penned a memoir about his 12-year romance with him called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Picasso, Provence, and Douglas Cooper, which was published in 1999.) Through Cooper, with whom he lived in a Provence chateau for about a decade, Richardson was brought into the orbit of Picasso, Georges Braque, Jean Cocteau, Fernand Léger, Nicolas de Staël, and many other artistic notables.
From there, Richardson began achieving claim in the international art world. In 1962, he curated a retrospective of Picasso’s work that spanned nine galleries in New York, to which he had moved a few years earlier. Two years later, he presented a Braque retrospective in 1964. He also published widely, taking bylines over the years in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and the New York Review of Books.
Richardson’s career was unique in many ways, one being his ability to excel in both art writing and the art market. The year he curated his Braque show, he opened a branch of Christie’s in New York, and served as head of that location for nine years. In 1973, he became vice president at the storied gallery M. Knoedler & Co., where he oversaw its 19th- and 20th-century presentations, before moving on to become managing director of Artemis, an art-investment firm.
“John Richardson was an invaluable part of the development of Christie’s in the United States,” Christopher Burge, an honorary chairman of Christie’s New York, said in a statement. “In addition to his contributions as Picasso’s biographer, which provided a unique perspective as a personal friend of the artist, he was admired for his sense of humor, wit, and special knowledge.”
In 1980 Richardson said he was committing himself to writing, and writing only, leaving behind his years of deal making. For a while, this was indeed the case. In 1993, he joined the British Academy; two years later, he became an art professor at the University of Oxford in England. But toward the end of his career he returned once again to the market, this time for one of the top galleries in the world.
Starting in 2008, Richardson began acting as a special adviser to the newly minted uptown New York branch of Gagosian gallery. The news raised some eyebrows—a celebrated art historian working at Gagosian?—but Richardson did not see himself as a part of the New York commercial world. “I keep abreast of the market, but I’m not part of it,” Richardson said in an Artinfo interview from that year. “By nature, I’m the reverse of a businessman. I have no interest in business: I’m rather horrified by it. When I ran Christie’s, it was as a lover of art. I left the business side to other people.”
Richardson went on to organize five Picasso exhibitions for Gagosian, including 2009’s “Mosqueteros,” which focused on the artist’s late-career paintings and prints. Writing in the New York Times, critic Roberta Smith called it “one of the best exhibitions to be seen in New York since the turn of the century.” His most recent exhibition for Gagosian was “Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors,” which appeared at one of the gallery’s London locations in 2017.
In the last few years, Richardson let a number of journalists into his luxe estate in rural Connecticut. Adorned with works from the historian’s holdings, including Piranesi prints and, naturally, works by Picasso, the estate often acted as a place where Richardson could hold forth about his career and his many achievements. Describing his surroundings in a 2014 interview with T: The New York Times Style Magazine, he said, “My little paradise, that I’ve created.”