Jacques and Natasha Gelman

St. Petersburg, Russia, 1909–Houston, 1986, and Czechoslovakia, 1912–Cuernavaca, Mexico, 1998

Beginning in the 1940s, Jacques and Natasha Gelman assembled three important and distinct collections. The first, focused on European modern art, was composed of eighty-one paintings, drawings, and sculptures, and was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998; the second was composed of ninety-five works of Mexican modern art, including paintings by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Rufino Tamayo; and the third included primarily pre-Columbian sculpture.

Jacques Gelman was born to Jewish parents in St. Petersburg. He left the Soviet Union in the 1920s, following the events of the Bolshevik Revolution, to study photography in Berlin. There, he began his career as a film technician for the film equipment and production company Pathé. After moving to Paris, he worked as a producer and distributor of French films. In 1938, just before the outbreak of World War II, Jacques immigrated to Mexico, where he met Natasha Zahalka, another European emigré. Originally from Prostejov, in what was then Austria-Hungary, she was raised in a Catholic convent and had attended schools in Vienna and Switzerland. Natasha had traveled extensively before landing in Mexico City.

The Gelmans were married in 1941 in Mexico City. Jacques achieved professional success in Mexico producing a series of films featuring the popular character “Cantinflas,” played by improvisational comedian Mario Moreno. As their wealth grew, the Gelmans were able to pursue their shared interest in modern art. In 1943 they established a close friendship with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and began collecting their works. That same year, they also commissioned Kahlo and Rivera to paint a portrait each of Natasha, both of which are now in The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art in Mexico City. The Gelmans obtained Mexican citizenship in 1942, after which they resided in both Mexico and New York.

Beginning in the early 1940s until the late 1990s, the Gelmans also collected works by European modern artists. Their collection encompassed a broad time range, from a turn-of-the-century sculpture by Edgar Degas (Woman Putting on a Stocking, 1895–1910; The Metropolitan Museum of Art) to a tryptich self-portrait by Francis Bacon (Three Studies for a Self-Portrait, 1979–80; The Metropolitan Museum of Art). However, they were particularly interested in collecting works from the first half of the twentieth century by artists working in Paris. Rather than working with one gallery, they acquired works from different dealers in both Paris and New York. For instance, they purchased a number of works by Cubist artists from the New York dealer Eugene V. Thaw, among which are Georges Braque’s Still Life with Banderillas (1911), Fernand Léger’s Mechanical Elements (1920), and Picasso’s Head of a Woman (1908), Still Life with a Bottle of Rum (1911), and Still Life with Mandolin and Galette (1924). Also in New York, they purchased a number of works from the Marlborough Gallery, the Pierre Matisse Gallery, and the Sidney Janis Gallery. In Paris, the Gelmans worked with such dealers as Jacques Dubourg, Heinz Berggruen, and the Galerie Maeght, from which they respectively purchased, among others, Juan Gris’s Juan Legua (1911), Léger’s The Bargeman (1918), Braque’s The Billiard Table (1944–52). All of these paintings are now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Gelman displayed their collection of modern European art, which was amassed over a period of forty years, in their New York apartment. Among their most prized possessions were twenty-four works by Braque, Gris, Léger, and Picasso as well as major works by Pierre Bonnard, Salvador Dalí, Jean Dubuffet, Paul Klee, Matisse, and Joan Miró, among others. Upon Natasha’s death in 1998, the collection was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art along with an endowment with which to maintain it. At that point in the institution’s history, the Gelman’s gift of modern art represented the largest the museum had ever received.

For more information, see:

Prignitz-Poda, Helga. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection & 20th Century Mexican Art from the Stanley and Pearl Goodman Collection. Fort Lauderdale: NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, 2015.

Rewald, Sabine, and William S. Lieberman. Twentieth-Century Modern Masters: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990.

Schneider, Pierre, and Sylvia Navarrete. Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Twentieth-Century Mexican Art: the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection. San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2000.

How to cite this entry:
Castro, Maria, "Jacques and Natasha Gelman", The Modern Art Index Project (July 2017), Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://doi.org/10.57011/VRMH6722