British art critic and collector, Douglas Cooper was born into a wealthy family in London in 1911. He was educated at Cambridge, Marburg and the Sorbonne before coming into a large inheritance at the age of twenty-one. While he began his career as an art dealer and co-owner of the Mayor Gallery in London, he later decided to become an art historian and collector. By the time World War II had engulfed Europe, he had amassed a collection of over 100 Cubist works. His grand collection included works by Juan Gris, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso.
Ineligible for active service in the British Army due to an eye injury, Cooper joined an ambulance unit in Paris. Tasked with moving the wounded through treacherous territory to safety in Bordeaux, he and his co-driver, C. Denis Freeman, detailed their experiences in a book entitled The Road to Bordeaux (1940). He later joined Royal Air Force Intelligence and was sent to Cairo to interrogate prisoners of war. By November 1944 he had arranged a transfer to the MFAA in London, where he interrogated prisoners of war as part of his pursuit of looted works of art. He was then assigned to the Control Commission for Germany, where he served as Acting Director of the British MFAA in May 1945. His strong investigative skills, combined with his intimate knowledge of European dealers and collections, made him a valuable recruit for MFAA service.
Among Cooper’s more important discoveries was the “Schenker Papers,” records from the Paris office of the primary German art shipper Heinrich Schenker, which contained details of illicit art transactions between French dealers and German buyers. From these documents, Cooper was able to trace much 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. He 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 1939 sale of artworks which the Nazis had deemed “degenerate.”
After a brief return home to England, Cooper moved to Avignon, France, where he installed his impressive art collection in a massive chateau. During the following decades, art historians, collectors, dealers, and artists flocked to Cooper’s home. Léger and Picasso were regular guests, the latter becoming an integral part of Cooper’s life. Cooper regarded Picasso as “the only genius of the twentieth century.” In time he became Picasso’s primary patron.
In addition to his frequent contributions to The Burlington Magazine, Cooper wrote numerous monographs and catalogues on nineteenth-century artists including 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 typically reserved for Old Master paintings. 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 one year at Oxford as a Slade Professor, in 1961 as a visiting professor at Bryn Mawr, and at the Courtauld Institute in London.
Cooper was well-known for his strong personality and eccentric temper, which led many prominent institutions to distance themselves. Even the temperamental Picasso, who reportedly tired of Cooper’s hissy fits, eventually expelled him from his presence. In 1974, a break-in at his chateau resulted in the theft of twenty paintings by Picasso, Braque and Gris. Prompted by safety concerns, he moved to Monte Carlo, where he lived as a recluse.
Cooper died on April 1, 1984. 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 in Los Angeles.