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Paul Durand-Ruel: First Impressions

A new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art shows how a farsighted dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, made careers, markets, and art history.

Claude Monet, Railroad Bridge

Claude Monet, Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, 1874.

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It is estimated that Paul Durand-Ruel bought some 10,000 paintings in his lifetime. Among them, 1,500 were by Renoir and 1,000 by Monet. Eight hundred Pissarros passed through his hands, as well as 400 works each by Sisley, Degas, and Cassatt, and 200 by Manet. Durand-Ruel, a French art dealer who has been credited with starting the modern art market, was the early hero-dealer of the Impressionists, offering many painters monthly stipends in exchange for the exclusive rights to sell their work, hosting a range of exhibitions, and tirelessly shopping paintings around to ambitious international collectors. The new exhibition, “Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting” (June 24–September 13), which comes to the Philadelphia Museum of Art after a run at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris and a stop at the National Gallery in London, gives a rare look at the business acumen of a pioneering gallerist.

The show, which is organized according to key moments in the evolution of the Impressionist movement, tells the story of two types of innovation—in painting and salesmanship. Though the majority of the paintings in the exhibition are now considered unmistakable masterpieces—sanctified by the art-historical canon and auction sales—many were first considered to be at best worthless and at worst the work of madmen, or at least those deserving to be locked up as such. Now, after the passage of nearly a century and a half, “Discovering the Impressionists” illustrates how the emerging style among a group of artists can turn into an acquired taste among a group of collectors, and what role a dealer can play in this process.

Durand-Ruel’s connection with the Impressionists began in London in 1871. While taking refuge from the Franco-Prussian War, in late 1870, the dealer rented space at 168 Bond Street in order to exhibit French artists. The gallery was called the “German Gallery.” In January 1871, the painter Charles-François Daubigny made the introduction between Durand-Ruel and Monet, saying, “This artist will surpass us all.” Paintings were painted and exhibited nearly on the spot. Pissarro, not long afterward, visited the gallery, canvas in hand, while the dealer was out. Durand-Ruel wrote the artist promptly, “The painting you brought to me is charming and I am sorry I was not in the gallery to compliment you myself. Please tell me how much you would like for it, and please be so kind as to send me others as soon as you are able to. I must try to sell many of them for you here.” These interactions would lay the groundwork for Durand-Ruel’s direct and personal style of dealing with the group.

Upon his return to the continent in 1872, he purchased 36 paintings by Pissarro, 29 each by Monet and Sisley, 10 by Degas, and 2 by Renoir. Among these early purchases, Degas’ Dance Foyer at the Opera on the rue Le Peletier (1872)—a painting now so ubiquitous that most young ballerinas (the writer speaks from experience) grew familiar with reproductions of its dancers on various forms of gear long before they could acquire a taste for fine art—and Sisley’s The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne (1872), a cheerful and quaint riverside landscape, will be on view. Another early buying spree of Durand-Ruel’s included 25 paintings by Manet—a purchase made directly from the artist after the dealer saw two paintings on loan to Belgian artist Alfred Stevens. The initial two—The Salmon (1869) and Moonlight at the Port of Boulogne Harbour (1869)—that Durand-Ruel saw and bought on the spot, as well as the naval scene The Battle of the U.S.S ‘Kearsarge’ and the C.S.S. ‘Alabama’ (1864) and four others will unite at the “Discovering the Impressionists” exhibition.

Prior to the chance meetings during his sojourn in London, the dealer got his start selling the works of a group of artists dubbed the “School of 1830.” When he inherited his family’s stationery store-cum-artists’ supply shop in 1865, he spent the late 1860s and early 1870s, promoting the plein air landscapes of Delacroix, Corot, Courbet, and Millet—works that are the immediate ancestors of those by the Impressionists (a selection of these paintings will be on view at the exhibition in Philadelphia). It was Delacroix who initially captured his eye. At the Universal Exhibition of 1855, there was a room dedicated almost entirely to Delacroix, with 35 high-profile works by the artist on view. In his memoirs, the dealer, who was 24 at the time of this viewing, recalled the breakthrough moment he had in that space, writing, “It was the triumph of modern art over academic art.” Delacroix’s work reinforced the idea that he might “be of some service to true artists by helping to make them better understood and appreciated.”

His relationship with the artist’s work did in fact shape many of the practices he used throughout his career. Between 1868 and 1883, he acquired 60 paintings by Delacroix. He purchased The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) at public sale for 96,000 francs to “audience applause”—a move that heralded his habit of pushing up the prices of artists he supported at public auction. Durand-Ruel also took the painting on tour—another stratagem of his—showing it in Vienna and London in 1873, Paris in 1878, and New York in 1887. Despite these tactics, which would be proven to work later in his career, there were no bites on the painting until 1879, when Scottish industrialist James Duncan purchased it for a loss at 50,000 francs. However, despite this failure, and the scathing reviews of critics, the School of 1830, with Durand-Ruel as its main purveyor and champion, was embraced by the public by the late 1860s.

When the dealer held the Second Impressionism exhibition in the three rooms of his gallery at 11 rue le Peletier in 1876, critic Albert Wolff described it as a disaster akin to the Opera House burning down. In truth, the show, which featured such works as Renoir’s Study. Torso, Effect of Sunlight (1875–76), Morisot’s Effect of Sunlight (1875), and Sisley’s The Watering Place at Marly-le-Roi (circa 1875), was skewered by the conservative press. During the period and in the years that followed, Durand-Ruel struggled with money. However, despite critical or public opinion, the dealer continued to promote and exhibit Impressionist painters. In the 1880s, he began mounting monographic shows, exhibiting the work of a sole artist, while also showing off his vast holdings. The dealer convinced a hesitant Monet to help select works for a one-man show in March 1883. The retrospective exhibition served as a crucial point in the artist’s career. The exhibition in Philadelphia brings together a number of works from show, including La Pointe de la Hève, Sainte-Adresse (1864), Train in the Snow (1875), and Les Galettes (1882). Also reunited at the exhibition will six of Monet’s 15 paintings of poplar trees along the banks of the River Epte near Giverny. The artist, who had moved towards series production in the late 1880s, staged a landmark exhibition of just this one series with Durand-Ruel.

Impressionism arrived in America in 1885, when the dealer was brought to New York on an all-expenses paid trip by James Sutton, the director of the American Art Association. Durand-Ruel brought with him 300 paintings, a healthy dose of skepticism from his critics and some of his artists in France, and an endorsement from Mary Cassatt to her wealthy childhood friend Louisine Havemeyer. The Havemeyers, who developed a long relationship with the dealer, not only purchased works by Manet and the Impressionists, but also procured paintings by El Greco (View from Toledo, now in the Met) and Goya from Durand-Ruel. The first Impressionist exhibition in New York in 1886 was the first successful public showing of the group’s work, selling some 50 paintings. The following year, Durand-Ruel returned to mount a second exhibition and open a gallery on 23rd Street that was run by his sons. The Durand-Ruel family staged exhibitions of Impressionist paintings in a number of American cities, including Chicago, Denver, and Pittsburgh, and placed important works in the collections of Erwin Davis, A.W. Kingman, Bertha and Potter Palmer, and the family and friends of Cassatt. By 1905, when Durand-Ruel organized an exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London featuring 315 canvases, Impressionism was considered a mature and respected movement, and Durand-Ruel its decorated champion.

Author: Sarah E. Fensom | Publish Date: May 2015

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