February 12, 2010
Within days of her arrival in Paris in 1907, Russian-born MARIE VASSILIEFF (1884-1957) was wooed by a little old man with bad breath. He turned out to be the painter Henri Rousseau, and his poor oral hygiene caused Vassilieff to turn down his offer of marriage. Rousseau’s loss was Montparnasse’s gain: a talented painter and sculptor in her own right, Vassilieff is best remembered as the proprietress of a canteen/soup kitchen she opened to feed expat artists during World War I. The canteen became a clubhouse and salon, where genius, temperament, and ego combined in a volatile mix. Consider the infamous dinner held there in honor of Georges Braque’s army discharge in January 1917. The guests, including Matisse and Picasso, were preparing to dine on roast turkey when an uninvited Modigliani burst into the room. His ex-girlfriend’s jealous new lover pulled a gun — so the petite Vassilieff saved Modigliani’s life by pushing him out the door. No wonder Tsuguharu Foujita, a Japanese artist on the scene, proclaimed that “The name of Marie Vassilieff will remain in the history of Montparnasse.”
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