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Theodore Schempp

1904−Palm Springs, Calif., 1988

Theodore Schempp was an American art dealer active in the mid-twentieth century. Sometimes working with French dealers and often purchasing works directly from artists with whom he had personal relationships, Schempp became an important link between Paris and American collections outside traditional art centers.

In 1922 Schempp enrolled at Oberlin College, where he studied piano. After graduating he moved to Paris to pursue further training under the Swiss pianist Alfred Denis Cortot. Schempp turned away from his music career in the 1930s and began pursuing painting, expanding his circle to visual artists, including Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault, and Nicolas de Staël. During this time he also met his future wife, Odile Arnould, a French model who had posed for several artists, including Matisse. Schempp continued to paint throughout his life, but it was in his role as a dealer that his career would flourish.

Schempp established himself as an art dealer in 1937 and pursued this occupation until 1950. He made frequent trips to Paris, returning to the United States with works by European modern artists to sell to collectors across the country, often from the back of his car. He sometimes worked with other dealers, such as Paul Rosenberg. Schemmp became a trusted dealer to such private collectors as Louise and Walter Arensberg, Joseph H. Hirshhorn, Sidney Janis, and Duncan Phillips. He sold directly to several museums, including the Allen Memorial Art Museum at his alma mater, Oberlin College; the Museum of Fine Arts Boston; Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art (RISD Museum of Art); The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; and the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Indeed, many works that passed through Schempp’s hands are today in American collections, including Braque’s Still Life (1918; RISD Museum of Art, Providence) and The Billiard Table (1944–52; The Metropolitan Museum of Art); Giorgio de Chirico’s The Mysterious Departure (1930–33; Indianapolis Museum of Art); Edgar Degas’s Ballet Dancers in the Wings (1890–1900; Saint Louis Art Museum); Juan Gris’s Violin and Glass (1915; The Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass.); Vincent van Gogh’s Study of a Peasant’s Head (1885; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.); Fernand Léger’s The Bargemen (1918; The Metropolitan Museum of Art); Matisse’s Reclining Nude I (Aurora) (1906–07; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.); Amadeo Modigliani’s The Boy (1919; Indianapolis Museum of Art); Picasso’s Head of a Woman (1909; Art Institute of Chicago) and Head of a Man (1913; The Museum of Modern Art, New York); Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Landscape at Cagnes (1914; Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio); Georges Rouault’s Profile of a Clown (1940–48; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); Nicholas de Staël’s Rue Gauguet (1949; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); and Jacques Villon’s Head of a Man (1933; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.), among many others. Schempp is also credited with introducing the work of abstract painter de Staël to the United States through a private exhibition in New York in 1950. That same year, after Schempp drove to Washington, D.C. with a group of de Staël’s paintings in the back of his car, the Phillips Collection acquired North (1949; The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) from him, the first of that artist’s work to enter an American collection.

For more information, see:

Falk, Peter H., Audrey M. Lewis, Georgia Kuchen, and Veronika Roessler. Who Was Who in American Art, 1564–1975: 400 Years of Artists in America. Madison, Conn.: Sound View Press, 1999.

Schempp, Theodore. Nicolas de Stael: Paintings Selected by Theodore Schempp. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1956.

How to cite this entry:
Castro, Maria, "Theodore Schempp," The Modern Art Index Project (August 2018), Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.