R ichard Feigen was one of the most legendary art dealers of his generation. Born in Chicago in 1930, he acquired his first work of art at the age of 12. It was a watercolor by the Scottish artist Isaac Cruikshank that he bought from the bookseller Walter Hill, and he chose it because he believed it was undervalued. By the time he graduated from Yale University in 1952 he owned an art collection that was significant enough to warrant worries that his roommates might damage it. He went on to Harvard Business School, planning to join an insurance company owned by his family, but he instead ended up moving to New York after he got his degree in 1954. There, he was hired at Lehman Brothers and then Goldman Sachs, hoping he could work on Wall Street during the day and collect art on the side. He had the opportunity to dine with Robert Lehman in the partners’ dining room, where the famous collector’s early Italian paintings decorated the walls, but Richard’s career in finance did not last long and by 1957 he had moved back to Chicago, where he opened his first gallery.
Richard used his own collection of German Expressionist art as his opening show and in 1959 he mounted the second exhibition of Francis Bacon paintings in America (of the 14 works of art that were on offer for between $900 and $1,300, only one sold). His shows were not always commercially successful because the top collectors at the time were focused on French paintings, but his gallery was popular among Chicago artists and he went on to forge close relationships with some of them, such as Ivan Albright and George Cohen. He was also an early collector and promoter of Joseph Cornell, and counted many of the most important artists of the 20th century, like Robert Matta and Man Ray, as his friends.
By 1965 he had two galleries in New York City, one on the Upper East Side and one in Soho, which happened to be the first art gallery in the downtown neighborhood, and he later opened spaces in Los Angeles and London. In these galleries he sold works by Impressionist and German Expressionist artists and contemporary artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, and John Baldessari, whose first solo show he organized in 1970. Richard was also a political activist and a preservationist, helping to foil the infamous plans for the cross-Manhattan Expressway which would have demolished swaths of the historic neighborhoods of lower Manhattan that he loved.
Richard’s lifelong mission to champion underappreciated and undervalued art led him to Old Masters. While wealthy Americans like Henry Clay Frick and J.P. Morgan had amassed huge collections of Old Master paintings around the turn of the 20th century, Old Masters were considered staid and unfashionable by the end of World War II. By the 1970’s money was pouring into the Impressionist and Contemporary markets but Richard realized that the prices for Old Masters remained the same, even though the supply was rapidly diminishing as European countries began to ban the export of works by major artists to preserve their artistic patrimonies, and new museums across the world were forming collections of Western art.
While Old Masters proved to be a good investment, Richard also found them to be as cutting-edge as the modern and contemporary art that he had been drawn to originally. While he promoted everything from El Greco to Rembrandt, he himself particularly focused on Italian paintings and British landscape paintings from 1750 to 1850. He had a legendary eye for Old Masters, challenging the opinions of esteemed art historians and discovering lost masterpieces by Fra Angelico, Domenichino, and Nicolas Poussin. By the end of the 1980’s, about a decade after Richard entered the market, Old Master paintings were selling for record-breaking prices, and the world’s top collectors were buying them.
Many of the works of art that passed through Richard’s hands have since ended up in museums. He consigned Orazio Gentileschi’s Danae to Sotheby’s in 2016, where it sold for a record-breaking $30.5 million to the J. Paul Getty Museum. Danae is but one of over a hundred paintings that Richard sold or donated to institutions around the world, including the Louvre in Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., cementing his legacy as one of the greatest dealers of our time.