One wintry wartime day in 1945, businessman Henry Pearlman was walking down New York’s Park Avenue when a painting by Chaim Soutine hanging in the window at Parke-Bernet auction house caught his eye. He bid $825 and took home “View of Céret”.

Not that the title mattered. The Pyrenean village is barely recognisable in the dark, overlapping colours and heaving planes, built up in layers of slathering oil: nature flattened into an all-over drama of compression and claustrophobia that, in the canvases of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, would soon resonate intensely with the newest American painting.

Pearlman, then 50, knew nothing of Soutine, or contemporary art. But his first foray into Parisian modernism revealed an acute eye, an instinct for the historical moment and a deeply felt connection to an artist who opened up a new world for him.

As shown in the small but marvellous Pearlman Collection, visiting Europe for the first time and just opened at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Henry and his wife Rose quickly became among Soutine’s most serious collectors. Several whirling, chaotic, precariously balanced “Céret” landscapes here, alongside a bloody “Hanging Turkey” so vibrant that it seems to be still shrieking and flapping, plus remote, inscrutable portraits – a fragile “Choir Boy”, “Portrait of a Woman”, probably a disenchanted waitress with attitude – encompass the range of Soutine’s obsessively recurring motifs.

Pearlman was a positive, energetic American entrepreneur who had never visited Europe; Soutine was a neurotic, alienated émigré who died in 1943 on the run in Nazi-occupied France. But collector and artist had common roots: they were born, two years apart, to poor Russian Jewish parents, and America made both their fortunes – Pearlman founded the Eastern Cold Storage Insulation Corporation in 1919, Soutine was starving and unknown when Philadelphia millionaire Albert Barnes became his patron in 1922.

Something, perhaps, of the exalted gravity and metaphysical longing of the Jewish members of the Ecole de Paris appealed to Pearlman. At any rate, he went on to study Soutine’s friend Modigliani – an elongated, satirical portrait of Jean Cocteau as an exquisite dandy; a cruder yet classicised close-up of sculptor Leon Indenbaum; a rare limestone hieratic “Head” – and to make contact with Jacques Lipchitz, who had emigrated to New York and sculpted Pearlman’s own portrait.

Ignoring Picasso, who failed to excite him, Pearlman then looked further back for Soutine’s influences. Van Gogh’s turbulent expressiveness was an obvious link, and Pearlman discovered a headline-catching trophy. From an obscure Argentine dealer, he acquired “Tarascon Stage Coach”, which Van Gogh experts knew existed but had been unable to trace – the artist discusses it in his letters, mentioning Alphonse Daudet’s 1872 novel Tartarin de Tarascon, where the stage coach recites a monologue lamenting its glorious, pre-railway past.

Even by Van Gogh’s standards, this painting is exceptional for its thickly applied impasto: jabbing staccato marks suggest the irregular surface of a sandy yard and roughly plastered inn wall; smoother brushwork imitates the heavily lacquered coach, long, smeared strokes evoke the tarpaulin. The portrait of the vehicle languishing unused in the afternoon sun outside a hostelry is full of pathos, but defiant too, announcing Van Gogh’s individuality as he awaited Gauguin’s arrival in Arles. It is a typical Pearlman picture: assertive, pushing a characteristic manner to an extreme that is slightly unusual in the artist’s oeuvre.

From most impressionists and post-impressionists, Pearlman sought just one significant piece. Failing to find a Gauguin painting that he liked, he instead bought the polychrome wood relief of primitivist figures and heads, “Te Fare Amu (The House for Eating)”, which Gauguin carved for his Tahiti dining room.

Degas is represented by “After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself”, the most deliberately awkward, psychologically opaque of the late, fragmentary “Bathers” series of bizarrely contorted nudes. This one, depicted in mottled patches of paint against unsettling background hues of hot red versus icy turquoise, kneels over a chaise longue, her back forming a diagonal thrust across the canvas, her head almost completely effaced.

The single Pissarro is the beautifully textured, geometric “Still Life: Apples and Pears in a Round Basket”, one of only a handful of still lifes that the artist painted, during the period when he worked at Cézanne’s side.

Pearlman liked connections and contexts, but as they arose within the framework of his vividly personal taste, rather than as a history lesson. Nevertheless, he quickly grasped the map of modernism – that all roads lead back to Cézanne – and was ahead of his time in paying special attention to Cézanne’s spare, spontaneous watercolours. In his quest, he was known to cold-call museums: he purchased “Forest Path”, a complex pattern of thinly applied strokes forming a terrific richness of impression, from the Minneapolis Institute, telling its director, “I’d like you to know that I am not encouraging you to sell it, as I don’t encourage collectors to sell things, but if you had it in mind I thought I’d let you know I was interested.”

He would also seek distinguished provenances. The elegantly sensuous “Three Pears”, the curves of the fruit echoed and transformed by lively arabesques on the patterned tablecloth, for instance, was fought over by Degas and Renoir at Cézanne’s first sale. (Degas won.)

The result of Pearlman’s zeal and care – he used to drive behind any truck carrying his art works on loan, to be sure they were safe – is the finest, best preserved collection of Cézanne watercolours in the world. Pearlman complemented it by drawings and a few unusual oils, notably the radical, unfinished-looking “Route to Le Tholent”, which calls to mind handling in watercolour, and the only known vertical “Mont St Victoire”.

Sparklingly fresh, the watercolours afford direct, immediate insight into Cézanne’s concerns: the balance of rigid geometry and sinuous nature in “House in Provence”; reduced figuration in the mere patches of colour and daring use of blank paper in “Path, Tree and Walls”; the study of the process of painting itself, of perception and reality, in “Still Life with Carafe, Bottle and Fruit”, completed in the artist’s final months.

Each object here has a different ratio of watercolour to pencil: the bottle has a lot of both, the glass little, the carafe more line than colour, as silvery pencil marks show through the watercolour, complementing the delicate-hued washes to dizzying, translucent effect.

All Pearlman’s pictures are worth a trip to Oxford – or to Aix-en-Provence, the show’s summer venue – but watercolours of this quality, seldom displayed even at the collection’s home in Princeton, are unmissable.

‘Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection’, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, to June 22

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