|Photo by Garry Knight via Flickr|
Richard Dorment, The Daily Telegraph, March 2, 2015
Inventing Impressionism at the National Gallery begins with a theatrical flourish – in a gallery inspired by the drawing room in the apartment of the Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. A blow-up of a black-and-white photograph taken in the 1890s shows what must have been one of the most remarkable interiors in Europe, a grand salon with high ceilings and noble proportions, furnished in the 18th-century taste and densely hung with Impressionist masterpieces.
All around us are paintings and objects we can see in the photograph. To our left hangs Pierre Auguste Renoir ’s full-length Dance in the City, in which elegant young couple in evening dress dreamily waltz in a conservatory or winter garden. Near it is the white marble group of a mother and child by Rodin that was once displayed on the mantelpiece. And rising up in front of us are the massive double doors we can see in the photo at far end of the salon. On each of the door’s six panels Claude Monet painted flowers or fruits: White Azaleas, Japanese Lilies, Chrysanthemums, Gladioli and a Basket of Apples.
The rest of the gallery is given over to Renoir, a family friend from whom Durand-Ruel commissioned affectionate portraits of his five children and a late, characteristically understated one of himself. Here too is Renoir’s famous Dancer in her white tutu and blue ribbons – an unusual subject for this artist that was shown in the First Impressionist exhibition of 1874.
The exhibition starts in Durand-Ruel’s home and not his gallery in order to emphasise the endlessly inventive ways he found to promote the artists he believed in. The family apartment in the Rue de Rome was in effect a marketing tool he used to introduce a sceptical public to Impressionist art. Anyone who asked could visit the apartment on certain days of the week. The curious came to see pictures reviled by critics and banned from the Musée du Luxembourg. It was not only that potential clients could see paintings by Renoir and Monet, Edouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, Edward Degas and Alfred Sisley – they could also see how easily these artists could be shown in a bourgeois domestic setting.
Moving from here into the second gallery is like the slow fade in a silent film when the words “40 years earlier” appear on the screen. We step back in time to the late 1860s, when the 33-year-old Durand-Ruel took charge of the successful family business selling paintings by established figures such as Corot and Delacroix alongside those by the innovative landscape painters of the Barbizon school including Charles-François Daubigny, Théodore Rousseau and François Millet.
On the outbreak of the Franco Prussian War in 1870, Durand-Ruel packed up his family and his pictures and moved to London, where for the next two years he attempted without success to sell French art to the British at a time when public opinion had turned against all things French.
And then lightning struck – not once, but twice. In a textbook example of how new art movements get off the ground, an artist whose work Durand-Ruel already had on his books, Daubigny, introduced him to the then- unknown Monet, who in turn told him about the work of Camille Pissarro.
The dealer instantly saw their potential. This exhibition explains exactly why he could understand a way of painting that so many of his contemporaries rejected. Barbizon painters worked directly from nature in the initial stages of a composition but normally finished their landscapes back in the studio. The landscapes of Monet and Pissarro, on the other hand, are painted from start to finish in front of the motif, then exhibited as finished pictures.
But the distinction can be subtle. In this show, Daubigny’s sketchily painted St Paul’s from the Surrey Side is placed so that we can look across to Monet’s The Thames Below Westminster, thereby enabling us to see what the dealer saw – that the difference between a view by a painter of the Barbizon school and one by an artist working in the new style was not so very great. Daubigny’s little picture is not quite as bold, spontaneous or as fresh in its conception as the Monet, but (as Amazon Books knows) a client who bought one might in time come round to the other.
For once, the exhibition’s title – Inventing Impressionism – isn’t an exaggeration. On his return to Paris in 1872, Durand-Ruel went on a buying spree, acquiring paintings by artists so far outside the zone of respectability that there was as yet no name for the way they painted. Not only did he support Monet and Pissarro but on a single day he bought 23 works directly from Manet’s studio including the masterpiece that utterly overturned conventional expectations of what marine painting should be: The Battle of the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama.
In these years, Durand-Ruel forged a relationship between artist and dealer that had never existed before. In return for the exclusive right to sell an artist’s pictures, he bought everything the artist produced without questioning the asking price. In addition, he gave them support in whatever form and for however long it was needed – as long as they continued to turn out paintings. If necessary, he paid their rent, took their families on holiday, and covered bills for clothing, medicine and art supplies. He even offered Monet the use of his drawing room as a studio.
Without that support, several of these artists could not have gone on. The depth of public and critical hostility to Impressionism was real and it was sustained. At the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876 (staged in Durand-Ruel’s gallery), the dealer paid the critic Edward Duranty to write a defence of the new art. Even so, critics in the popular press described Renoir’s light-dappled painting of a female nude as “a putrefying corpse” and “meat gone rank”. Unable to sell their paintings, Durand-Ruel became tainted by his association with them. He stood on the brink of bankruptcy.
How satisfactory, then, that one of the hoariest clichés in art history turns out to be true: the Americans saved the day. In 1883, Durand-Ruel took around 300 pictures to New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Cincinnati, and in three weeks he made enough money to continue in business. Over time, the firm of Durand-Ruel became a global business selling to collectors in Moscow, Germany Japan and especially USA. As well as selling Impressionism to the world, it also, it is worth remarking, sold Salon artists such as William-Adolphe Bouguereau but had little interest in the work Paul Cézanne and none at all in Post-Impressionism.
Alas for us, Paul Durand-Ruel never managed to crack the British Market – even when he mounted the single biggest and most important Impressionist exhibition ever held in this country – at the Grafton Gallery in 1905. He retired in 1913 and died in 1922. By then his sons were running the company. The New York branch didn’t close until 1950, and in Paris it carried on until 1974.
Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market is the most significant Impressionist exhibition we’ve seen in this country in two decades. If you see only one exhibition this year, make it this one. And even if you can’t get to it, I highly recommend the excellent catalogue.
At the National Gallery, London WC2, March 4-May 31. Details: nationalgallery.org.uk
This article was written by Richard Dorment from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.