Chasing the Spark
PROFILE Tom Veilleux – JAN/FEB 2008
By Joshua Bodwell
Photography Darren Setlow
A lifetime spent pursuing artistic excellence
Tom Veilleux enjoys the chase.
Veilleux is an art dealer who has spent 35 years chasing something elusive and ethereal. He has devoted more than half his life to answering an unanswerable question: What elevates some art to the level of great art? And then, when he believes he has discovered something great, he buys it with his own money and hopes he will be able to resell it later.
Those most likely to question Veilleux’s risk-taking subscribe to the standard business model that calls for art dealers to assess the market, take note of contemporary trends, then buy and show only art that they have calculated to sell—personal tastes and emotion do not come into play. “We don’t do that,” says Veilleux in a tone that is neither condescending nor boastful. “We try to sell people the work they should own.”
Veilleux is known to purchase the exceptional work of unknown artists and to buy the lesser-known, or “difficult,” work of famous artists. The only Jamie Wyeth in his Portland gallery, for example, was painted by the internationally renowned Maine artist when he was just 15 years old. When acquiring art, the only criterion that means anything to Veilleux is Excellence. Period. “Every painting in this gallery is here for a reason beyond simply who painted it,” he says. When Veilleux sees a piece of art for the first time, its excellence has to explode like a camera flash behind his eyes.
Veilleux’s iconoclastic approach has, in a business wrought with failure and fleeting successes, kept both the gallery and its 55-year-old owner vibrant and spry over the past three and a half decades.
It’s quite a triumph for a self-described “French kid from Waterville.”
The First Spark Arrives…via a Bentley
Tom Veilleux was born, raised, and educated in Waterville, Maine. He was an only child in the kind of working-class French–Canadian family commonly found in central Maine’s mill towns during the early 1950s.
After a childhood that exposed him to little in the way of art, Veilleux stumbled into a job at Berry’s Stationers during high school. In addition to cards, paper, and writing instruments, the store also sold a small selection of art supplies and offered picture-framing services. Veilleux’s interest in art first took hold when Hathaway Shirt Company president and amateur art dealer Ellerton Jetté would bring in piles of paintings to be framed. “He’d pull his Bentley to the backdoor,” Veilleux remembers with a smile, “and the backseat and trunk would be stuffed with hundreds of paintings.” Handling the art—which he now admits was created by many second- and third-tier Maine artists—had a profound impact on Veilleux. Soon, he was wandering up to the little art museum at Colby College and strolling through the galleries, all in the hopes of gleaning an education in the mysteries of art. Years later, while an English major at the University of Maine at Farmington, Veilleux got his first taste of art dealing.
“I recognized the name,” Veilleux remembers of the Benjamin Champney painting he stumbled upon in a Skowhegan antique shop. “It was a landscape of Mt. Washington Valley and it seemed particularly good to me.” Veilleux purchased the painting for $20, and immediately brought it to an antique dealer he knew might be interested. “I asked him to make me an offer,” says Veilleux, a smile creeping across his face as he recalls the scene. “He told me it was worth eight hunred to nine hundred dollars and he’d give me four hundred for it.” The year was 1971, and with that sale—which netted a profit of $380 dollars—the young Veilleux was hooked.
Veilleux supported himself through college selling art and antiques on the side. By his senior year he was postponing exams to attend auctions. After graduating, he opened a shop in Farmington. “It didn’t take me long to realize that even just selling sporadically between my studies,” he says, “I’d earned the equivalent of a first-year high school English teacher’s salary.”
Art and Only Art
The day Tom Veilleux realized he was meant to be an art dealer, not an antique dealer who dabbled in art, is still vivid in his mind. “It was 1979,” he says, “and I was driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike. I had two Dutch corner cupboards tied to the roof of my Suburban. They were bouncing around up there and I was thinking about getting home and having to get those cupboards off the roof and into the shop, and it just struck me: this is too much.” Veilleux realized that the only thing in his shop that he truly cared about was the art.
Within a week, he had liquidated his entire stock of antiques. Veilleux was left with 12 paintings, a bit of cash, and a belly full of passion. “After that, I think I got lucky,” he says modestly. “I fell into a few things that turned out well.” Veilleux acquired and re-sold several important paintings, and as his reputation grew so did his ability to buy more expensive pieces. “But I also learned fast that the rewards of this business are not about the money,” he says today. “You get jaded about the money pretty quickly.” Then his eyes narrow and, depending on his mood, his voice either drops an octave and slows or rises and races with excitement as he finishes his thought. “The money,” he says, “is only about what it allows you to buy next.”
To this day, Veilleux has kept his gallery focused primarily on the work of deceased artists, particularly American painters from the first half of the 20th century. He estimates that nearly 90 percent of the art he shows has some vein of connection to Maine. “Luckily for me,” says the native, “almost every important painter of that era ended up in Maine at some point in their lifetime.” A few of his favorites include Rockwell Kent, William and Marguerite Zorach, James Fitzgerald, and George Bellows.
An Eye Refined by 35 Years
Like the artists whose work he buys and sells, Veilleux seems a man from a different era. For one thing, he owns the majority of the work in his gallery, a practice that is becoming increasingly rare in today’s art scene, according to Veilleux. “If they say they like something, dealers should put their money where their mouth is,” he says matter-of-factly. Veilleux also subscribes to the optimistic belief that all paintings are destined to be purchased by ideal owners, and that it’s only a matter of time before he can facilitate that perfect union. “There are paintings in my gallery that I’ve had for sale for five or ten years,” Veilleux says, “and I think they’re just as amazing today as the day I bought them. They just haven’t found the right home—not yet, at least.”
Veilleux buys art purely on its merits, and with no particular potential client in mind, simply because it looks “worthy” to his eye. Refining that eye, Veilleux admits, has been an unending and somewhat mysterious process. And yet time and again he has trusted his eye, and time and again it has rewarded him. “A painting either makes an impact on me or doesn’t within the first few seconds I look at it,” he says. Recently, Veilleux saw a small pastel that he was certain he would purchase even before he knew how much it cost.
From a distance, the circa 1910 Thomas Wilmer Dewing pastel of a reclining female nude appears straightforward and simple. But as you get closer and examine it under the proper light, you begin to see its mastery. Executed on a chocolaty-brown paper, not a stroke of pastel is misplaced, not a single line unnecessary. After purchasing the pastel, Veilleux began to research the piece. After contacting Dr. Susan Hobbs, the premier Dewing scholar, he learned about a letter from the artist to the industrialist and patron of the arts, Charles Freer. In the letter, Dewing asked, “Next time you see Mr. Whistler, might you ask him for a few pieces of the brown paper he uses for his pastels? I should like to try my hand with it.” Veilleux’s eyes appear lit from within as he recounts the story. What a thread to the past—a pastel painted on paper gifted by James McNeill Whistler!
If there is one thing that is immediately evident about Veilleux, it is that he truly loves art—he not only cherishes it, but art seems to somehow nourish him. You can see it in the way he strokes a bronze sculpture by William Zorach, and you can hear it when he’s bemoaning the fact that one of his Rockwell Kent paintings has yet to find a home because many consider its subject matter—Eskimos observing a burial in Greenland—too “difficult.” But he doesn’t have a single regret about purchasing the Kent, for Veilleux is a rogue archeologist, an Indiana Jones of the Maine art scene who’s forever ravenous to discover the next great piece of “lost” art. Veilleux’s appetite for such discoveries is insatiable.
Since relocating his gallery from Farmington to the heart of Portland’s Old Port last year, Veilleux says more art than ever—pulled from dank basements and musty attics—is coming through the doors for his inspection. It’s a process he savors. “I’m happy to look at thousands of paintings just to find that magnificent one that I can’t live without.”