Jacques Gelman (1909–1986) was Russian by birth. After first working as a still photographer in the European film studios, he became a distributor for French films, travelling to Mexico just prior to the Second World War, where he took refuge. His fortune came as a producer of Mexican films, working with Mario Morene, better known as 'Cantinflas' – the Charlie Chaplin of Latin America.
Natasha Gelman (1911–1998) was also an émigrée from Eastern Europe. They met in Mexico City in 1939 and were married in 1941. As they were Jewish it was not safe for them to return to war-torn Europe and they later became Mexican citizens. Natasha was very beautiful, and Jacques commissioned many artists to paint her.
Collecting was Jacques and Natasha Gelman' s passion, beginning around 1943. Like their friends Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera they had been unable to bear children – so their collection was their surrogate family. Mexico had adopted the Gelmans and given them refuge. It became their aim to support contemporary Mexican artists.
They bequeathed their collection of international art, particularly European works, to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In this gift were major works by artists such as Léger, Miró, Matisse and Picasso. However they wanted their collection of Mexican art to stay in Mexico – for the Mexican people – and to be publicly accessible, to promote Mexican culture. They wished it to be kept intact, to be experienced as a personal collection.
The Gelman Collection now numbers over 300 works and is regarded as the world's most significant private holding of 20th century Mexican art. It is owned and managed by the Vergel Foundation, based both in Mexico City and New York, and founded in 1998, on the death of Natasha, to care for and administer the collection. By touring the collection and making it accessible to a wider audience the foundation acquires funds to add works to the collection and support Mexican artists, as had been the Gelmans' wishes.