The Collector Onic Zambaccian

If his consuming passion for art gained Krikor Zambaccian a familiar fame amongst the collectors in Bucharest, particularly by dint of his acquisitions in the field or foreign art, few know that his younger brother, Onic (1891-1975), yet another aficionado of beauty, was a knowledgeable art collector and owner of a large number of illustrative paintings by renowned artists. Unlike his elder brother, who insisted on publicizing each of his valuable additions, on presenting them in as many exhibitions as possible and in issuing articles and reviews on art and the artists, he would, as was the case with many collectors of his time, indulge in enjoying his tiny artistic hoard in privacy. Like Krikor, he assiduously frequented the exhibition shows, but was not eager to attach his card on the selected works. He would make his purchase only after a mature consideration and after several visits to the salon; he entertained relationships with the artists, some of them good friends, like Steriadi, Dărăscu and Han – who would make him frequent calls1 – but he rejected familiarities and avoided engaging into heavy disputes (Han, for instance, was a highly cantankerous man.) He had conceived a passion for art even since his early student years, while attending the School for High Studies in Trade and Textiles of Vatwille (Switzerland2), and had unsuccessfully aspired at that time to acquire a work by the famous Hodler. As he temporarily did not dispose of the necessary amount, he contented himself eventually with two landscapes depicting Lake Leman, one by the Italian-born Swiss painter Boccioni, the other by an unknown local artist. These paintings would grace the walls of his drawing room in his Sinaia villa entire years. Onic's wish to collect was not spurred by the fiery passion of his elder brother; it sprung from a personal attraction and affection towards artistic beauty. Their inclination did not always and entirely coincide as regards the preferences towards certain artists or towards the degree of congeniality for certain genres or predominantly addressed subjects. They would constantly hold debates over art, whereas they would tend to their acquisitions independently, without prior mutual consultation. Whenever Onic insisted on having an informed opinion with regard to classical painters (Grigorescu, Andreescu, Luchian) he would most often turn to Steriadi or Han. He did not appeal to his brother for he would have insisted to have the work conceded to him. Although siblings, they were opposed in nature and countenance. The elder one was passionate, proud and ardent in his actions; the younger – only two years apart from the former – level-headed, calm, inward-looking and not too sociable. Where their preferences met was in the admiration bordering on awe, towards G. Petraşcu's painting, from the fourth decade on. Nevertheless, Onic contented himself with buying only eight canvases, one per annum, for, as opposed to his brother, his relationship with the artist was rather stand-offish. He would not comply with the tactics of the artist who, taking advantage of the arduousness of his admirers, as was Krikor's case, would ask for soaring prices, visibly higher than he would have asked from other collectors less passionate about his art, in whose collections he wished to insinuate himself by encouraging and attracting them. Hrandt was entirely pleased with the artistic value of the master's oeuvre, particularly by a Marine (1934), which he considered a masterpiece of the artist and a gem in the collection. The work would later come into the possession of Lucian Blaga and from his family, into the patrimony of the Museum of Arts in Constantza. A further work – Seascape, featuring his wife in the forefront, had become over time such an obsessive passion of Krikor Zambaccian's, that, for several months, Onic would receive countless house calls, at various odd hours, for sessions of avid contemplation. In order to end his brother's misery, Onic finally conceded to his proposition of a trade-in-kind: in exchange for Petraşcu's canvas he would receive a small painting – Cart with Oxen – by Grigorescu and a sum of money. The other works were: a Self-Portrait, rendering the artist at the age of forty, two still lifes with dishes and books, two interiors depicting facets of the painter's Bucharest dwelling, a Winter Landscape and a Marine which later would come into the hands of painter and collector Hrandt Avakian. A further artist superlatively valued by both siblings was Pallady, nevertheless, to Onic's mind, not superior to the former. As far as he was concerned, he bought five canvases from Pallady (three still lifes and two landscapes), over a relatively short period (of three years), which was not the case with the Petraşcu purchases. Thereto, painter Pallady had a major contribution. Unlike his colleague Petraşcu, he insisted on cultivating and strengthening the sympathy of admirers who collected his works more assiduously, in prioritizing them in sales where they had a more relaxed competition. Moreover, in order to gain their consistent fidelity, he would sell at high, but not exaggerated prices, altogether more conveniently than to the first in line, and, should they have had any difficulties in the overall payment, he would facilitate numerous and long-term installments. On the advice of sculptor Han, who would in time become a good friend of his, Onic Zambaccian closely monitored the celebrated manifestations of "The Group of the Four" and from its first exhibitions ever, he directed his attention towards the temperate painting of Ştefan Dimitrescu, the works of whom he would collect on several occasions: Peasant's Head, Flowers, Still Life. But this passion suddenly faded along with the premature death of the artist in an unhappy and absurd accident which occurred in 1933. At a later date, he did not prove eager to buy paintings of the artist through the agency of third parties; further, the ones he owned, on inspecting them carefully over time, lost their initial fascination with him; accordingly, he would dispatch them to his villa in Sinaia. Between 1933-1935, the siblings contended for the claim over Şirato's finest works at the exhibitions of "The Group of the Four"; the artist was beginning to firmly assert himself within the top hierarchy of Romanian painting. Whereas Krikor Zambaccian acquired eight canvases: Flowers, Disguise (in 1933), A View to the Sea, Female Silhouette, Plants and Apples (in 1934), Light-Flooded Hill, The Pink House and Girl in Bloomers (in 1935), Onic, in his turn, purchased no less than six (Girl in Green on Lounge Chair in 1934, The White Dress and The Old Store in 1934, Scattered Cottages, Turkish House and Still Life with Oranges in 1935), according to Şirato's record of sales, presently owned by his grandchild, G. Stratan. Regarding Onic Zambaccian's resolve in 1935 to acquire a number of canvases from the Exhibition of "The Group of the Four" by Tonitza, whose work he had started to grow keen on in his brother's home, it was dispelled at the latter's insistent and touching scenes. At that time, the conflict Tonitza vs. Zambaccian had broken out in the press, which had driven the collector on the verge of despondency and neurasthenia. In a biting and malicious review, the painter had run down his foreign art collection exhibited at Dalles hall on the occasion of "The Modern French Paintings Exhibition." So strongly did this article affect Krikor Zambaccian that, after its perusal, he took his paintings off the wall and wanted to sell them, according to O. Han.3 Fortunately, his anger did not last very long and, on the insistence of friends to keep the works, for they were valuable and one should not mistake the man for his art, he came to his senses. In order not to vex his brother, Onic not only ceased purchasing works from Tonitza, but also to his deepest regret abandoned the prospect of seeing his offspring portrayed by the artist, according to the accounts of his son – the affected party – in an article dedicated to collector Krikor Zambaccian, issued in the magazine Romania literara [Literary Romania]."4 The artist most present in the collection was his friend Dărăscu. Onic deemed him, after Petraşcu and Pallady, as the most valuable artist in Romanian contemporary painting. A wall in his living room was reserved for the ten canvases which exemplified the painter's attachment to landscape, his preeminent theme subject: Landscape in Vâlcov, Terrace in Balcic, Tartar Coffee Shop in Balcic, Landscape in Brăila, Still Life with Flowers, Still Life with Fruits, and other four aspects of Balcic. Another equally appreciated artist, after Dărăscu, was Iser, from which the collector purchased over great intervals five differently themed works: The Great Market in Bucharest, The Bird Seller, Tartar Women, Landscape in Argeş, and Landscape in Balcic. From Steriadi, the friend whose artistic advice he did not overlook, the collector had, with all due regret, one single piece, a masterpiece: Shaded Alley. Steriadi worked little and whatever was produced especially during summer holidays on the Black Sea coast, was already spoken for by several admirers of the genial painter. Some of them would wait for about two or three years for their turn and accepted any theme subject. Onic's wish was first to see the canvas, then to like it, then to buy it, as he wanted to enjoy the beauty of the painting, not take pride in the name of the author. Among the other painters included in the collection, mention must be made of: C. Ressu, E. Stoenescu, N. Vermont, A. G. Verona, Ipolit Strâmbulescu, L. Grigorescu, and Padina. The extremely well-crafted portrait of Hagop Zambaccian, his father, by Ressu, on his brother's commission in 1926, prompted Onic to ask the artist to produce a version thereof, to which the latter consented. Extremely happy with the outcome, the collector asked him to portray his mother, who was still living at the time, on condition that it should be done without the model posing, as the old lady did not sport the patience and was aggravated by imposed sittings. Lucian Grigorescu, regarded as a great hope of the young artistic generation, enjoyed much appreciation on the part of the collector who valued the finesse of his meridional spirit. If in the villa at Sinaia he would keep a landscape he liked less, in his Bucharest home he presented three works: a landscape, probably Curtea de Argeş, and two still lifes, one with game, the other with vegetables. From Ipolit Strâmbulescu he acquired a Bucharest Landscape, from A. Verona – Flowers, from E. Stoenescu – a Still Life, from N. Vermont – Nude in the Forest, from Padina, his brother's protégé – Landscape at Curtea de Argeş and Flowers. Among the sculptors, only one entered the collection: yet another friend, O. Han, considered after Paciurea to be the only representative "chisel" in our country. To him he imparted his wish to be portrayed and the artist succeeded, with great mastery, a very good rendering – one of the pinnacles of his creation. The collector also possessed three of his statuettes and a large-sized sculpture in bronze, Elegy, presently in the patrimony of the Arts Section of the Museum in Râmnicu Vâlcea. Nevertheless, the collection was highly rated by those who visited it primordially for the valuable works of the three classics: Grigorescu, Andreescu and Luchian. From the Master of Câmpina – though Onic insisted on having as many canvases as possible, as he was a fervent admirer of his lyrical vision – he could only acquire six paintings. He obtained them with great difficulty and at exorbitant prices. After 1930, as Grigorescu's works were considered the epitome of Romanian art and the point of reference for any prestigious art collection, all art amateurs, particularly the snobbish collectors, wished to possess such artistic gems. Accordingly, they would offer extremely high prices. Moreover, on account of the forgeries which glutted the artistic market, of which some were very masterly crafted, those whose paternity was well-established enjoyed tenfold appreciation and attention on the part of beauty aficionados, a fact which would lead to prohibitive prices. Nonetheless, Onic Zambaccian persevered. A somewhat more special acquisition was a Woman's Portrait (the artist's wife), obtained as a result of countless negotiations, from the artist's son, Gheorghe Grigorescu. Later, as a result of a relentless contention with other collectors, he acquired from antiquarian Papazian a small painting rendering Grigorescu's Paris Studio, a version of the Dr. I. N. Dona collectable. Further additions were made: Flowers, Self-Portrait (Profile), Cart with Oxen, Shepherd Boy. In Luchian's case, whereas the amateurs of his painting were more reduced in number than Grigorescu's, in return, the competition for the most representative canvases was fierce, due to the ardent passion of several collectors in the know. However, with a little bit of luck and a great deal of persuasion amongst art dealers, Onic managed to purchase four paintings representing potted flowers, a landscape, a woman's portrait, a version of the swing from the Dona collection, and a drawing in charcoal of a grove. The hardest to collect were Andreescu's paintings, few in number and extremely valued by the more subtle collectors. The pieces would rarely crop up for sale; usually, in his case, purchase would be made on devious ways, with the object changing hands of go-betweens who would secretly deliver the merchandise at home; thus, due to this practice, it was not seldom that collectors would be deceived. In spite of all that, four such paintings could be seen in his home: A Lad, later to be exhibited at the Arts Section of the County Museum Braşov, Forest Track5 and Country Houses, both currently at the National Museum of Art and Rocks in the Forest, to be found with his son Jaques6. Amongst the long-departed, but valued by collectors in the know – like Andreescu – was Abcar Baltazar. Onic managed to acquire two landscapes of his, combining aspects of the cattle fair and the evocative illustration of the Bucharest suburbs: The Way to Madame Popescu, a subject painting later included in the collection of Mitu Dumitrescu, Member of the Academy. This was the configuration of the collection in 1943, the year of the last addition. The hard war times prevented the collector from tending to the enrichment of his collection, so much so that the endorsement of the textile company which he owned had become increasingly demanding, and the revenue – insecure. At that stage, Onic Zambaccian's collection demonstrated the owner's firm taste, his admiration for the most distinguished personalities of Romanian art; his collection may be seen as one of the most valuable and well-balanced ones both from the point of view of artist selection and their representativeness. The collection could be viewed until 1950, when it gradually started to disintegrate by the alienation of paintings; later the highly reduced collection would be, during Onic's lifetime, placed into the hands of his two sons, Jaques and Marcel.7
1 Further, he would receive constant visits from art historian Al Busuioceanu, painter I. Ţuculescu, the latter, most often in the company of collector O. Moşescu;2 Two years later he resumed his studies at the École superieure de commerce et tissage in Lyon;3 O. Han – Chisels and Brushes, Bucharest, Dacia Publishing House, 1970, pp.464-465;4 Jaques Zambaccian – 80 Years to the birth of K.H. Zambaccian. The aftermath of a friendship, in: Romania literara, February 6th 1969. The excerpt in question reads as follows: "Enchanted by Tonitza's craft in color interpretation and in the psychological reading of the infant physiognomy and attracted by the magic of the Renoir-like chromatic, it occurred to Zambaccian to bring me a couple of meters of emerald-green fabric and white piqué from Paris, with the design to have Tony thus make my portrait.";5 It was entered in the exhibition "France as Seen by Romanian Painters" in 1945 at the Toma Stelian Museum;6 For the history of the painting, see Radu Bogdan, Andreescu, Meridiane Publishing House, vol. I, p.342, Bucharest, 1978;7 We thereby thank the collector's elder son, Jaques O. Zambaccian, for the valuable pieces of information on the collection.

by Petre Oprea