Robert Simon


art, Beauty, collaboration, Leonardo Da Vinci, Robert Simon, Salvator Mundi

Robert B. Simon is an art historian and art dealer in New York, specializing in Renaissance and Baroque paintings. He received his doctorate at Columbia University with a dissertation on the portraits of Bronzino. He has published and lectured widely on both art-historical matters and on broader concerns relating to the authenticity, valuation, conservation, and commercial trade of works of art. As a dealer he has been responsible for several discoveries, including important paintings by Guido Reni, Parmigianino, and, most recently, the Salvator Mundi of Leonardo da Vinci. Significant paintings, drawings, and sculpture from his New York gallery, Robert Simon Fine Art, are to be found in major American museums, as well as in private collections worldwide.

Zadie Loft

Zadie Loft

In Conversation with Robert Simon

Hear from Robert Simon, one of the judges on our inaugural Crayon Cover Competition, as he delves into the rich topics of art and collaboration, particularly the miraculous story of Leonardo Da Vinci’s long-lost Salvator Mundi.

ZL: When was the first time you fell in love with art?

RS: As a child, art for me was either decoration to be admired or a frustrating creative task for which I was ill equipped. In high school I traveled to Europe and by sheer chance saw an illustration in a book of a painting by Antonello da Messina, the 15th-century Italian artist whom until then I had never heard of. It was a bust-length depiction of Christ as presented to the people before the Crucifixion. Its religious content had no meaning for me, but its depiction of powerful human emotions, a profound sadness and hopelessness, had an immediate personal effect. This painting from five hundred years ago, of a subject I hardly understood, from a culture foreign to me, and one conveyed to me not directly but through a commercial reproduction was astonishing: it was the first time I had felt anything from a work of art. Somehow this discovery opened my eyes to the potential of art to affect one in ways not unlike great literature or the non-verbal art of music. It began a journey of learning that has never ceased.

ZL: Which artwork in history has inspired you the most?

RS: I have been inspired by thousands of works of art, and although I realize that they are not conscious beings, I feel it would be somehow unfair to single any out as the most personally significant. I am omnivorous but selective, and have responded powerfully to such diverse works as Amarna reliefs, Byzantine icons, Leonardo drawings, Bronzino portraits, and Wyeth temperas. But the one quality that links them all, and many more, is a connection with the human condition, expressed through the mimetic medium that is visual art. Art of course encompasses much more than that and so much of what is created today has to do with intellectual ideas and theoretical concepts. These may well be of interest to many, but not to me. It is the art that finds its inspiration in emotions and in the important issues that affect people that stimulates the most. For me that is mostly (but not exclusively) representational. What is most crucial is that the artist’s seriousness of purpose needs to be palpable.

ZL: What has been the best artistic collaboration of your life and career so far?

RS: As an art historian and art dealer, my most significant collaborations have not been with artists, but with art conservators. The most significant of these was my work with paintings conservator Dianne Modestini on Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. Over several years we worked together on the painting – she examining, and treating this incredibly rare, fragile, and important work, while I studied its history, attribution, iconography, provenance, and art-historical significance. And together we made decisions about the painting’s appearance and presentation, and came to recover this lost treasure for humanity.

ZL: What are some of the problems facing art dealers and artists today?

RS: One of the great problems that affects artists today is time. The slow process of creation is inimical to economic well-being. To produce enough art from which one can make a living, today’s artists often face the choice of modifying their techniques, limiting their creative process, and adopting shortcuts – which can compromise their vision and quality of work. Still technical facility and the ability to convey the maximum with economy is a quality to be admired!

A problem facing both artists and dealers today is the general belief that art is simply decoration. While certainly it can be, art is serious business, a mode of expression and communication as vital as any art or science.

ZL: What are your thoughts on the theme of Beauty for this year’s Crayon Cover Competition?

RS: While beauty is a subjective quality, I like to think there are absolute standards of beauty that we can all agree upon. Still beauty is almost impossible to define. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote that he could not define hard-core pornography, but “I know it when I see it.” I feel the same about beauty.

ZL: What are you looking for in the Crayon Cover Competition submissions?

RS: For the Crayon Cover Competition, I am not looking for anything in particular. I want to be surprised and astonished.