“Bernie’s ‘love affair’ with the art of Rodin, as his wife, Iris, called it, began while he was still in his 20’s. ‘I am not a frustrated artist. I never even cared for the visual arts when I was at school, although I was always good at math,’ he said. When he was a young broker on Wall Street, he visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was most struck by a marble of Rodin’s Hand of God. He felt drawn to it. Two years later, he spotted a small bronze Hand of God in a Madison Avenue gallery and bought it. It was the start of his collection. Bernie had just started his business, and the cast cost the equivalent of two months’ rent for his apartment. In the mid-1950’s he bought Rodin’s The Kiss, and that’s when his serious collecting began. ‘It brought back to me the feeling I had before,’ he said. He described that feeling as a ‘source of strength, power, and sensuality.’ When I asked him to elaborate, he said: ‘Truthfully, I can’t tell you more. Something hit me.’ The feeling became what he later called his ‘magnificent obsession.'” – Milton Esterow, editor and publisher of ArtNews, in a tribute to B. Gerald Cantor entitled Bernie’s “Magnificent Obsession”
In 1969, the B.G. Cantor Art Foundation began acquiring its own Rodins and Rodin-related objects. The Foundation’s successor, the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, has continued. These acquisitions have come through purchase and gift. In all, 104 objects have been purchased by the Foundation, the first in 1969 and the most recent in 1996, the year Mr. Cantor died. The years 1990-1995 were the most active, accounting for 58 of the 104 purchases. In addition, the Cantors themselves donated six important artworks to the Foundation.
Rachael Blackburn provided a concise overview of the breadth and depth of the Cantor Foundation’s passion for Rodin in her Foreword to the 2001 book, Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession. She wrote:
“For over 30 years, the Rodin collection of the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation has been seen by countless individuals in hundreds of venues around the world in the form of individual loans, small focus shows, and blockbuster exhibitions. Except for the necessary shipping containers, darkened storage areas were never a part of Mr. Cantor’s plan.”
In 1978, when the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation became the successor to the B.G. Cantor Art Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Cantor provided the Foundation with its own endowment and its own collection. The concept is unique. A philanthropic foundation that is also an active collector and lender of works of art is rare – especially if it is not created from an artist’s estate to nourish that artist’s legacy.
Using these purchases and donations, the Foundation has organized its own exhibitions and continues to lend them to museums all over the world. Starting in 1978, more than ten million people have visited Foundation-organized shows in the United States, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Venezuela, and other nations. The exhibitions include materials to help the public understand the sculptor’s achievements: family guides, teachers’ guides, docent training materials, brochures about the artist and his work, and Iris Cantor’s award-winning documentary The Gates of Hell, which many venues showed continuously during the exhibitions.
Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Court at the North Carolina Museum of Art
In 2009, the Foundation Board of Directors presented gifts of bronzes, prints, and Rodin-related objects to fifteen American museums. The most important of these gifts was a group of thirty Rodins and one Claudel that went to the North Carolina Museum of Art. This transformative gift celebrated the Museum’s new building and established a Rodin study center in the American Southeast. The new center is comparable to those established by Mr. and Mrs. Cantor’s earlier donations of multiple works of art to the Brooklyn Museum of Art and to Stanford University.
Honoring Mr. Cantor’s legacy, the Cantor Foundation continues to fund research on Rodin and related topics by scholars, young as well as advanced. This research has added to our appreciation for the artist’s achievements in such areas as his illustrations for Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, the collectors of Rodin during his lifetime, and the relationship of Rodin’s The Gates of Hell toDante’s Inferno.