Casual observers might suppose that mega-galleries like Larry Gagosian’s and David Zwirner’s are a distinctively 21st-century phenomenon. But the gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel, the Paris dealer who put Impressionism on the international map, preceded them by more than a century and a half. His fascinating and instructive story is the subject of “Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting,” a gorgeous exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art here.
This show presents more than 90 paintings, including many Impressionist works that haven’t been seen in the United States in decades or ever, all of which passed through Durand-Ruel’s hands at some point. The paintings alone make the show a popular draw. But it’s the tale of Durand-Ruel’s career, richly detailed in essays by scholars in the exhibition catalog, that makes this more than just another crowd-pleaser.
Born in 1831, Durand-Ruel inherited his gallery from his parents. Quietly affable, he seems to have been a fundamentally good man. He had five children before his wife died at 30, after which he raised them on his own. He never remarried, attended Mass every day and evidently steered clear of any scandal. He provided his living artists with stipends and other financial assistance during hard times.
He was also a shrewd, daring and innovative businessman. In a catalog essay, the art historian Simon Kelly lists Durand-Ruel’s methods: “The monopolization of the artists in his stable to raise their prices; the consistent setting of sales records for their works at auction; the spectacular one-person or group retrospective; the use of the artist biography to raise collector interest and further legitimize his work; and the promotion of work not only in France but also on an international stage through an exhibition circuit across Europe and America.” (Durand-Ruel set auction records by bidding extravagantly on works by his own artists.)
The exhibition at hand — a production by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery in London and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris — is laid out in generally chronological order according to some of the most significant shows produced by Durand-Ruel. It begins with a selection of works from the so-called School of the 1830s, which included Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Charles-François Daubigny and Theodore Rousseau. Durand-Ruel championed those artists in the 1860s, when they still were considered unworthy by the academic establishment.
It wasn’t until 1871, when he moved to London to escape the turmoil of the Franco-Prussian War, that Durand-Ruel discovered the Impressionists. There he met two other refugees — Monet and Pissarro — whereupon he began to buy paintings by them as well as by Alfred Sisley and Degas at a time when there was barely any market for their works.
Back in Paris in January 1872, Durand-Ruel visited Manet’s studio and bought 23 of his paintings on the spot. A high point of the exhibition (organized by Joseph J. Rishel of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with Jennifer A. Thompson) is a selection of four of those paintings, all now well known: “Moonlight at the Port of Boulogne” (1868), “The Battle of the U.S.S. Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama” (1864) and “The Salmon” (1869), a Velázquez-like still life. Along with these is one Durand-Ruel acquired a few days later, “Boy With a Sword” (1861), now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Having come together for their first collective exhibition in 1874, the Impressionists staged their second at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris in 1876. Of the 252 paintings in that show, eight are on view here, including a voluptuous, sun-dappled female nude by Renoir, about which one critic advised, “Go ahead and try to explain to Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with the purplish-green splotches that denote the final stage of putrefaction in a corpse.”
Undeterred by such scathing criticism, Durand-Ruel mounted an exhibition in 1883 of nearly 60 paintings by Monet, seven of which are displayed here. Nothing from that show sold, but nine years later Durand-Ruel’s presentation of 15 of Monet’s now-famous paintings of poplar trees from 1891 sold out. Six of these radically abstracted landscapes are shown here.
Why was the more recent show such a success? A tipping point had been reached, and it happened not in Paris but in the United States. In 1886, Durand-Ruel produced an exhibition of 289 Impressionist paintings at the American Art Galleries in New York. For the first time, an Impressionist show met with generally sympathetic public and critical response. It was so popular that after it closed the organizers remounted it in a slightly larger version at the National Academy of Design in Manhattan.
Until then, Durand-Ruel’s commitment to the Impressionists had him continually flirting with bankruptcy. With the success of his American venture, European collectors came on board, and he finally achieved financial security for himself and his artists. By the mid-1890s, he had paid off his debts, and he enjoyed a contented prosperity until his death at 90 in 1922.
A large question remains about Durand-Ruel’s career and business practices, one that this show’s curators and catalog essayists stop short of answering: How does the modern system of distribution and sales developed by Durand-Ruel affect how the public sees and understands art? Traditional art history has tended to treat art separately from business. But for Durand-Ruel to have been so successful, surely the artists he sponsored would have had to adapt to his system by supplying him with lots of portable, consistently stylized, brandable works.
And the numbers are remarkable. Over four decades, Durand-Ruel bought about 1,000 Monets, 1,500 Renoirs, 800 Pissarros, 200 Manets and 400 each of works by Degas, Sisley and Cassatt. That’s not to mention the thousands of pieces by old masters and contemporary academics that he bought and sold to keep his business going.
You don’t have to be a doctrinaire Marxist to see in this a certain, perhaps irresolvable, contradiction. The Impressionists have usually been viewed as avatars of romantic individualism, with their sensually personal brushwork and images of pastoral and domestic bliss. Yet in their industrious productivity, they aligned themselves with a form of commerce that prevailed throughout the business world. It’s a conflict that most professional artists continue to struggle with, successfully or not, under the reign of capitalism, and it’s as acute today as it ever was.
by Ken Johnson
Source: The New York Times