Douglas Cooper


1911-1984




Squadron Leader, Royal Air Force Intelligence, British Element, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA)

Douglas Cooper, a preeminent collector and critic of cubist art, was born to an extremely wealthy family in London in 1911. He was educated at Cambridge, Marburg and the Sorbonne, and at the age of twenty-one came into an inheritance of £100,000. After a brief effort at becoming an art dealer as co-owner (with Fred Mayor) of the Mayor Gallery in London in 1933, Cooper began to pursue a career as an art historian and collector, and invested one third of his inheritance in his art collection. 1 By the time Europe was engaged in World War II, he had amassed a collection of 137 cubist works primarily focused on the works of four avant-garde artists: Juan Gris, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso.2

Due to a previous eye injury, Cooper was not eligible for service in the British Army at the outbreak of World War II. He instead opted to join an ambulance unit in Paris and earned the Médaille Militaire for his work moving the wounded through treacherous territory to safety in Bordeaux. He and his co-driver, C. Denis Freeman, detailed their experiences in the book entitled The Road to Bordeaux. Following his return to England, Cooper was sent to Liverpool, where he was detained for two days; his captors thought him to be a spy due to his French uniform and lack of papers. 3 Upon his release, he joined Royal Air Force Intelligence and was sent to Cairo to interview prisoners of war. He greatly enjoyed his work there and even spent time visiting ancient monuments in the area. Cooper’s natural temperament proved to be fitting for this position as his “‘evil queen’ ferocity, penetrating intelligence, and refusal to take no for an answer, as well as his ability to storm, rant, and browbeat in Hochdeutsch, dialect, or argot, were just the qualifications that his new job required.”4 By November 1944, Cooper arranged a transfer to the MFAA, and was interrogating POWs in London in pursuit of looted works of art.5 He was assigned to the Control Commission for Germany, where he served as Acting Director of the British MFAA in May 1945.6 His strong investigative skills combined with his intimate knowledge of European dealers and collections made him an agent who was “as assiduous as Vautrin in his pursuit of Nazi looters.”7

Among Cooper’s more important discoveries was the “Schenker Papers,” which were records from the Paris office of the primary German art shipper containing details of the illegal art transactions between French dealers and German buyers. 8 From these documents Cooper was able to trace most, if not all, of the illegally acquired French art which had been sent to Germany. The papers also revealed the high level of involvement of German museums in the premeditated looting of Jewish collections.

Equally amazing to MFAA investigators was Cooper’s detailed investigation into the Swiss art trade during the war which revealed that many dealers and collectors were implicated in the trade of Nazi looted artworks. Cooper spent the month of February 1945 in Switzerland as a representative of the MFAA and the French Recuperation Commission, interrogating various dealers and collectors who worked with the Nazis, including Theodore Fischer of the Fischer Gallery, who conducted the infamous sale of “degenerate” artworks in 1939. 9 According to John Richardson, Cooper also ordered the arrest of the Swiss dealer Charles Montag, who had been involved in the liquidation of the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, however, he was mysteriously released by higher authority.10 Undeterred, Cooper arrested him again, only to have his authority usurped once more by Winston Churchill, who came to the aid of Montag, his old friend and drawing instructor.11

Following World War II, Cooper returned to England for a short time, however, he soon relocated to southern France largely due to his distaste for his native country. He moved into the Château de Castille near Avignon in the summer of 1950 and quickly installed his impressive collection, which continued to expand with works by modern masters such as Klee and Miró. During the following decades art historians, collectors, dealers, and artists flocked to Cooper’s home which had become somewhat of an epicenter of cubism, an accomplishment in which he no doubt took a great deal of pride. Léger and Picasso were regular guests, the latter becoming an integral part of Cooper’s life. 12 He thought of Picasso as the “only genius of the twentieth century,” and became a primary patron of the artist.13

Cooper was a frequent contributor to The Burlington Magazine, and also wrote numerous monographs and catalogues on 19th century artists such as Degas, van Gogh and Renoir, as well as the cubist masters. He was one of the first art critics to write about modern art with the same erudition that was typically given to Old Master painters. Upon the publication of his catalogue The Courtauld Collection in 1954, it was written, “it is not easy to think of another critic who has so consistently applied to modern painting the scholarship normally used in the study of the works of the more distant past.” 14 Perhaps Cooper’s most important literary contribution is his catalogue raisonné on Juan Gris completed in 1978 after forty years of work. Cooper also taught for a brief time from 1957 to 1958 at Oxford as a Slade Professor, in 1961 as a visiting professor at Bryn Mawr, and at the Courtauld Institute.15

While Cooper is certainly regarded as an important figure in 20th century art scholarship, he was also a figure surrounded by controversy resulting from his fiery personality and strong desire to remain in the spotlight. He was accused not only of plagiarism and inaccuracy in his writings, but of having “flexible ethics” and of “cultivating quarrels as much as friends.” In addition to writing for The Burlington Magazine, Cooper served on its board of directors and also held a block of shares, yet nevertheless continuously attempted to force the editor, Benedict Nicholson, to resign. Similarly, in the 1950s he attacked Tate Gallery director John Rothenstein for his lack of support for modern art and attempted to have him ousted. 16 His eccentric temper was not even withheld from Picasso, who “tired of Cooper’s hissy fits, eventually expelled him from his presence.”17 Curiously, in 1961 he was found on a roadside outside Nîmes having been stabbed three times in the stomach.18

In 1974, a break-in at the Château de Castille resulted in the theft of about 20 smaller paintings by Picasso, Braque and Gris. Prompted by safety concerns, Cooper moved to Monte Carlo where he led a rather reclusive life. While he attempted to make amends with the Tate Gallery near the end of his life (he organized the Essential Cubism exhibit there in 1983), it seems his distaste for England never completely evaporated.19 In a letter to the editor at The Times in 1980, Cooper states, “I can see nothing in the work of any British artist of the twentieth century which obliges me – judging of course, by international and eternal standards of achievement – to recognize a major creative talent. To my eyes, the work of all of them seems mediocre, uninspired and not particularly competent.”20 Perhaps fittingly, Cooper died on April Fools’ Day 1984, just as he had predicted.21 He left his art collection to his adopted son, William McCarty Cooper, who died in 1991, and also an incomplete catalogue raisonné on Paul Gauguin.22 While his life was certainly tumultuous, his legacy as a vital contributor to the cubist movement endures. The Douglas Cooper Papers are located at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, CA.


1. John Richardson, “Douglas Cooper (1911-1984),” The Burlington Magazine 127, no. 985 (April 1985): 228.

2. John Richardson, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Picasso, Provence, and Douglas Cooper (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), 23-25.

3. Ibid, 33.

4. Ibid., 33-34.

5. United Kingdom, National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey. Records of the Foreign Office. FO 1050/1398, “Documents and Interrogation of Prisoners of War,” Nov. 6, 1944. Control Commission for Germany, Internal Affairs and Communications Division, HQ Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Branch, 1944-1945.

6. United Kingdom, National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey. Records of the Foreign Office. FO 1046/146, “Letter from Newton to Brig. James Greenshields” May 16, 1945. Control Commission for Germany, Finance Division: Records, HQs Property Control Branch: German Treatment of Works of Art in Occupied Territory, 1944-1946.

7. Richardson, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 35.

8. Hector Feliciano, The Lost Museum (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 128-129.

9. Lynn Nicholas, The Rape of Europa (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 416.

10. Richardson, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 35.

11. Richardson, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 35-36.

12. Richardson, “Douglas Cooper: 1911-1984,” 230.

13. “Painter and Critic in lunchtime appraisal,” The Times (London, United Kingdom), December 14, 1966.

14. “Benefactor of Art: Courtauld and His Collection.” Review of The Courtauld Collection, by Douglas Cooper. The Times (London, United Kingdom), January 23, 1954.

15. Richardson, “Douglas Cooper: 1911-1984,” 230.

16. Dictionary of Art Historians, s.v. “Cooper, Douglas,” http://www.dictionaryofarthistorians.org/cooperd.... (accessed June 12, 2006).

17. Frank Whitford, “Fawning for Britain,” The Sunday Times (London, United Kingdom), April 23, 2006, http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/Print.... (accessed March 1, 2007).

18. “Art Collector Found in Road Stabbed,” The Times (London, United Kingdom), October 26, 1961.

19. Richardson, “Douglas Cooper: 1911-1984,” 230.

20. Douglas Cooper, letter to the editor, The Times (London, United Kingdom), February 28, 1980.

21. Richardson, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 301.

22. Richardson, “Douglas Cooper: 1911-1984,” 230.