It’s not often you’ll hear someone describe an original artwork by Pablo Picasso as “very cute,” but Almine Rech, the French art dealer, has a soft spot for a chalk drawing that hangs in an inconspicuous corner of her Brussels house. It’s a sketch that Picasso made in 1963 for his grandson Bernard, who is now Rech’s husband. At the time, Bernard was about 4, preparing for his first day of kindergarten, and he proudly showed Grandpapa his school supplies, including a new miniature blackboard. Picasso, taking the board in his hands, couldn’t help himself: With a few quick strokes of chalk, he drew a seagull. Then he wrote Bernard’s name at the top, signed his own at the bottom, and sprayed the board with a fixative so it could never be erased. At this, young Bernard burst into tears.
“It was a big drama,” Rech says. “He’d thought this blackboard was so fabulous, and Pablo ruined it.”
Today, at 53, Bernard Ruiz-Picasso is far more appreciative of the sketch, and of the many Picasso paintings, sculptures, and drawings he inherited after the death of his father, Paulo, Pablo’s only legitimate son. In the home Bernard, Almine, and their children share, the walls are duly adorned with a rotating assortment of masterworks. But the place is far more than a shrine to the man many consider to be the greatest artist of the 20th century. Rech is known for her astute eye for the contemporary and also for a certain kind of elegant restraint; not surprisingly, the house’s interiors, which she and Bernard put together without the help of a decorator, show the couple’s unique flair for combining the understated with the dramatic. Mixed in among the Picassos are a Russian Suprematist drawing, Martin Szekely coffee tables, a small James Turrell light piece, and a half-ton Jeff Koons sculpture of inflatable pool toys in trash cans from the “Popeye” series.
“It’s interesting to see how the contemporary works mesh with Picasso,” says Rech, who on this November day is seated in her living room wearing slim gray jeans, a Gucci top, and black Louboutin heels. Pointing to the unusual synchronicity between the Koons sculpture and Picasso’s 1932 painting Le Sauvetage, which depicts the Minotaur saving a young girl at sea, she says, “There are often surprises.”
Few things, in fact, are predictable in the world of Rech, who was born into a privileged Parisian milieu where women weren’t expected to work—unless they wanted to, which Rech always did. Her father was the designer Georges Rech, founder of one of France’s first ready-to-wear companies, and her mother was descended from a Vietnamese mandarin family who’d fled to France in the ’50s, after her own father (a Paris-trained engineer and unrepentant capitalist) was captured by Ho Chi Minh. Georges Rech was what Almine calls a “Sunday painter”—one who eventually dropped the hobby when his business took off but who nonetheless encouraged his daughter’s artistic leanings, as well as her entrepreneurial ones. As a teen, Almine began accepting commissions as a portraitist after family friends saw her minimalistic paintings of her mother. While at boarding school in Switzerland, she contemplated a career as an artist but came to the conclusion that “it was very lonely work, with such high personal requirements,” she says. “So I thought, I am not able to sacrifice everything, but I will remain in the art world.” Back in Paris, after a six-year marriage to businessman Xavier de Froment, she met Cyrille Putman, son of design legend Andrée Putman; the two would later marry but started as business partners, opening a gallery in the not yet fancy Marais district in 1990.