Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 30, 2016
Sylvie Patry, ed. Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting Exh. cat. Philadelphia, London, and Paris: Philadelphia Museum of Art, National Gallery, London, and Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais, 2015. 304 pp.; 150 color ills. Cloth (9780876332610)
Exhibition schedule: Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, October 9, 2014–February 8, 2015; National Gallery, London, March 4–May 31, 2015; Philadelphia Museum of Art, June 24–September 13, 2015
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Discovering the Impressionists: Durand-Ruel and the New Painting. Installation View. Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by Timothy Tiebout.

Visitors to the exhibition Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art were funneled through a darkened passageway bordered by two fictive windows through which one glimpsed large archival photographs of two of Paul Durand-Ruel’s major galleries. On the left was his Paris establishment from 1869 until 1882 at 16 rue Laffitte, while on the right was his first New York branch on Fifth Avenue, opened in 1887, and a testament to the dealer’s ambitious foray into the international market. Once past this threshold, museumgoers were greeted by an 1866 portrait of a thirty-five-year-old Durand-Ruel painted a year after he took over the family business and at the beginning of what would be a forty-year career, notable for his prescient promotion of the fledging Impressionists. Subsequent rooms tracked the vicissitudes of the dealer’s support of these avant-garde artists, spotlighting strategic exhibitions and reuniting many of the paintings originally shown together, seen in a sequence of abridged facsimiles of these game-changing events. The final room conjured the grand salon of Durand-Ruel’s Paris apartment from 1889–1912 at 35 rue de Rome, replete with the decorative door panels the dealer commissioned from Claude Monet and several 1882 portraits by Auguste Renoir of his three sons and business partners and of his two daughters, as well as a 1910 portrait also by Renoir of an aging Durand-Ruel. Mural-scale photographs documented this salon-cum-gallery’s inventory of notable paintings, dominated by Renoir’s large-sized Dance in the Country (1883) and Dance in the City (1883). Always the businessman, beginning in 1898 Durand-Ruel charged the public an admission fee to see the family apartment, a mini-museum of Impressionism that did double-duty as a setting to court prospective collectors.

This trajectory makes clear the exhibition’s aims to invoke not only Durand-Ruel’s formidable presence, but also to reconstruct defining turning points in the dealer’s tactical interventions on behalf of the “New Painting.” What emerges is a composite portrait of Durand-Ruel who, while an avid advocate for the art he sold, was a shrewd strategist undaunted by risky ventures and largely uncharted practices.

The exhibition, curated by the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Joseph J. Rishel and Jennifer Thompson, and its lavishly illustrated catalogue pointedly foreground the role of the independent dealer in shaping the period’s aesthetic narrative and defining the seemingly sacrosanct icons of art history. One is left to wonder what would be known today about Édouard Manet, Monet, Edgar Degas, Renoir, or Camille Pissarro—to name the most familiar—without the dogged efforts of dealers like Durand-Ruel. One wonders also about the impact of “marketability” upon artistic production. While at pains to underscore that money was not the sole driving force and that Durand-Ruel had a genuine interest in the artists he chose to promote, the exhibition necessarily spotlights the intersection between “taste” and “market value.” The economics of modern art promotion and sale determined not only monetary value but aesthetic and cultural value as well. The different English-language titles for the exhibition and their respective catalogues in London and Philadelphia highlight this point. At the National Gallery, the exhibition was called Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market, whereas in Philadelphia Durand-Ruel was Discovering the Impressionists and the New Painting. What’s in a name? This shift is subtle, but significant. The latter suggests that these painters were already formed and ripe for the picking by an astute dealer, while the former assigned Durand-Ruel the role of “inventor,” one whose vision organized an inchoate collection of painters who would not have emerged otherwise. While not denying the impact of the artist-initiated group shows—the eight “Impressionist” exhibitions held between 1874 and 1886—the sea change in the financial fortunes of these artists cannot be explained by their own efforts to buck the academic system. Focus on Durand-Ruel’s ongoing engagement with contemporary artists and his behind-the-scene machinations to materialize a market for their provocative, unpopular art principally supports his status of “inventor,” as the catalogue essays make clear.

Though often on the brink of bankruptcy, from the start Durand-Ruel deployed speculative market strategies to sell art. His schema encompassed borrowing heavily from banks at exorbitant rates to acquire art and finance his gallery’s move to the prestigious “rue de tableaux” district of Paris; partnering with other dealers to stimulate sales and share profits; purchasing an artist’s entire studio contents to corner the market and set prices; offering regular stipends in exchange for exclusivity; organizing monographic exhibitions advertised through promotional publications and critical reviews to broadcast an artist’s public “brand”; plus buying works at auction to inflate value and set new highs. Radical work would often be intermixed with more familiar work to bolster the reputation of a “modern” artist via association with an artist of recognized pedigree. In his catalogue essay John Zarobell aligns Durand-Ruel’s entrepreneurial approaches with methods he borrowed from Second Empire financiers, and also reveals new evidence that British and Belgian dealers anticipated Durand-Ruel’s application of these business techniques to accelerate sales. While not the originator of these market strategies, Durand-Ruel’s zeal for his coterie of artists created “a new paradigm” for contemporary art and engineered its emerging market.

Simon Kelly recounts that the dealer first applied these tactics in his impassioned support of “La Belle École” of 1830, namely Barbizon painters Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet, and Théodore Rousseau, in addition to the arch-Romantic Eugène Delacroix and Realist Gustave Courbet, each represented in the exhibition by signature works. Alert to potential market trends, Durand-Ruel anticipated the vogue for the esquisse or sketch, considered an unmediated outpouring of artistic temperament, purchasing over ninety, little-known plein air sketches by Rousseau that he profitably resold. In a clever gambit, personality was commodified along with art.

Much contextual material has been stitched together in the catalogue, gleaned from close study of the extensive Durand-Ruel archives managed by his descendants. Painstakingly, the provenance for many images on display has been reconstructed in light of extant records. Often the date of a painting’s purchase and its subsequent sale could be separated by decades, a testimony to the dealer’s tenacity. As essays by Anne Distel, Thompson, Dorothee Hansen, and Anne Robbins attest, Durand-Ruel accrued an international clientele, cultivating a network of exhibition venues across Europe and particularly throughout the United States, with incursions during the 1890s into the Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Denver markets. The names of prominent collectors wooed by Durand-Ruel are a leitmotif—the Havemeyers of New York, Cassatts of Philadelphia, Palmers of Chicago—to emerge as a notable subplot that bears witness to the formation of today’s foremost museum collections.

Almost a sidebar, the exquisite quality of the works exhibited served as a tribute to Durand-Ruel’s penetrating connoisseurship as much as to his perspicacious marketing. Beginning around 1871 with his first purchases for his London gallery of the still incipient “Impressionists,” Durand-Ruel revealed an eclectic taste in a wide-range of subjects and styles, ranging from Degas’s The Dance Foyer of the Opera at rue le Peletier (1872), to Monet’s foggy Thames below Westminster (1871), to sun-drenched landscapes by Pissarro and Alfred Sisley. One wall of the exhibition was devoted to a handful of now-iconic images comprising the 1872 “Manet purchase” of over twenty oils in a single day. This stunning array was anchored by the Musée d’Orsay’s visionary Moonlight over the Port of Boulougne (1868) alongside Philadelphia’s Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama (1864) and Boy with a Sword (1861), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In her analysis of the 1883 solo exhibitions, considered one of the dealer’s most daring stratagems, Sylvie Patry reveals that precedents existed for the one-person show, notably at small galleries like Martinet’s and in newspaper offices, such as La Vie moderne, run by Renoir collector Georges Charpentier. Durand-Ruel diversified this tactic in terms of mediums and genres, including a broader time span of works to add a retrospective element. The apparent monopoly implied by this maneuver was in part a rejoinder to new competition from the formidable dealers Georges Petit and Theo van Gogh, to whom Monet and Renoir also sold works. Though declared “moral” successes by the dealer, the 1883 monographic exhibitions were financial failures; none of the sixty paintings in Monet’s show sold. Yet a decade later, the single-artist show was ubiquitous. Monet’s 1892 display of the Poplars—the first of his series shown in isolation—was a monetary, critical, and popular success. Six of the original fifteen Poplars were reunited, conveying a sense of their cumulative poetic power, arrayed within an immersive space.

In 1905 Durand-Ruel mounted 315 works at London’s Grafton Galleries that laid out the full spectrum of Impressionism in all its luminous complexity, staged as a sequence of solo displays within a monumental retrospective of Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Pissarro, and others. Only 13 paintings sold, but 11,000 visitors flocked to this blockbuster show, ushering in the modern-day exhibition as spectacle. In the end, perhaps Durand-Ruel was neither “inventor” nor “discoverer,” but rather a still-significant strand in the ongoing history of Impressionism.

Suzanne Singletary
Associate Professor, College of Architecture and the Built Environment, Philadelphia University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.