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Book Review : Inventing Impressionism – Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market ( National Gallery )



Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market, edited by Sylvie Patry, with contributions by Anne Robbins, Christopher Riopelle, Joseph. J. Rishel and Jennifer A.Thompson, is published by and copyright of National Gallery Company Limited, 2015.

This book and the upcoming exhibition at the National Gallery explores how art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel encouraged and exhibited the French Impressionists and played a crucial role in promoting the ‘new painting’ long before it achieved wide acceptance.The relationship of  Durand – Ruel  with the Impressionists has always been the subject of considerable debate, the contributors to the book state very clearly that the main aim of the exhibition and the book “is to enrich and renew our understanding of a figure who occupies a key position in the history of Art.” Much of the evidence in the book came from  gaining access and  investigating the Durand – Ruel gallery archives that recorded  purchases, sales, deposits and clients. It was hoped that within these transactions there would some insights into the image of Durand Ruel as a heroic backer of Impressionism when the movement was being attacked from all sides.

A friend of Durand Ruel described him as ” unrepentant risk- taker ” and the chapter that offers a portrait of Durand Ruel look into his origins to offer some psychological insights into his character. Paul Durand-Ruel  became a committed monarchist and practising Catholic throughout his life, however he did not believe in sectarianism and championed artists regardless of their political views or  beliefs.

Durand- Ruel’s father owned a gallery and it was within this environment that the young Paul learnt the art dealer’s trade. The Universal Exhibition of 1855  and especially the work of Delacroix had a great effect on the young man  and years later wrote ” It was the triumph of modern art over academic art…. and it reinforced the idea that I might perhaps, in some humble way, be of some service to true artists by helping them to be better understood and appreciated.”  It was the artists of the 1830 school (including Delacroix, Corot, the Barbizon School, Courbet and Daumier) who became the focus of Durand- Ruel’s  project to buy as many paintings as possible and create enough interest to sell at a reasonable profit. Although the project produced mixed results it was part of a learning strategy that would instruct Durand Ruel in his promotion of the Impressionists. At the outbreak of the Franco Prussian War, Durand – Ruel moved to London where he opened premises to exhibit works by French artists. In 1871, he was introduced to the artists Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro and began to show an interest in their work. However the return to Paris in late 1871 was marred by tragedy with the death of his young wife, this left him a widower with five young children.

However ,this predicament did not stop  his interest in  Impressionism, Monet  and Pissarro introduced him to other artists including Degas, Renoir, Sisley, Boudin, Morisot and Manet.  It was in 1872 that Durand- Ruel began to buy a considerable amount of paintings from the Impressionists, he was determined to follow the same pattern as when he supported the artists of the 1830 school. However he severely underestimated the amount of hostility aimed at Impressionists who were generally ridiculed by the French Art establishment.

By 1874, Durand Ruel was heavily in debt and was forced to sell  off  his extensive stock of Barbizon paintings and just avoided bankruptcy by negotiating with his creditors. Due to his circumstances he virtually  stopped buying from his Impressionist friends. He did manage to get some credit from a bank to buy paintings in 1880, but when the bank collapsed in 1882, he was forced to repay the loans. It was in this period that the myth of Durand- Ruel who risked everything for Impressionism gained some credence, however the contributors to the book suggest the real story was much more complex.

There was plenty of evidence that Durand – Ruel held a large stock of Impressionist paintings but he was also dealing in other paintings especially from his 1830 school. He also was not in isolation,  there was already an embryonic  market for Impressionist painting in which a number of dealers and collectors were involved. Perhaps more importantly was that for all Durand – Ruel’s personal relationships with the artists, he was also somewhat of a speculator who believed that if a market could be found for the paintings his fortune and reputation would be made. Whether it was design or desperation, Durand Ruel began to devise strategies to create a market for Impressionist paintings. He began to experiment with Solo rather than Group exhibitions, used art reviews to create interest and created a network of international galleries with unlimited access to potential buyers.

Although many of the exhibitions in Europe began to create some interest, the sales were generally disappointing, however Durand- Ruel’s trip to the United  States in 1885 proved to be a turning point in  his and the Impressionists  fortunes. The exhibition in New York was the first time  an Impressionist exhibition had been received favourably by the public and the press, collectors began to buy the paintings and gradually prices began to rise. In 1888, Durand Ruel opened a gallery in New York  and by 1894 was able pay off his debts. The interest in America eventually led to European galleries and museums showing greater interest and some recognition of the talent of the artists.

This book is fascinating on many levels and offers many insights into the beginnings of the Modern Art world, although Durand Ruel’s support of the Impressionists was not purely altruistic, he did provide both financial and moral support to artists who often lived in precarious situations. In 1885, Renoir wrote to him to show support, ‘ Do what they may, they (the public, press and art dealers) will never destroy your true quality: your love of art and your defence of living artists. In the future it will be your claim to fame.’   The fact that an exhibition and this book about Durand Ruel has been produced would perhaps validate Renoir’s prophesy.

This lavishly produced book with over 150 stunning colour illustrations addresses  some of major influences into the development of Impressionism and  the often mysterious relationship  of art and commerce. It is this relationship that is at the heart of the Durand Ruel story and the evidence in the book suggests he was a more complex character than previously thought. He was without a doubt a key figure in the recognition of Impressionism, but his motives are less clear cut,  although many in the art world would applaud his stance in support of artists, others in the commercial world would applaud his ability to build a fortune as an “unrepentant risk- taker. ”

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would like more information about the exhibition or to buy a copy of the book, visit the National Gallery website here

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