Review: Inventing Impressionism

Paul Durand-Ruel, one of the most forward-thinking art dealers of all time, played a crucial role in the rise of French Impressionism.

Richard Dorment recently reviewed a National Gallery exhibition in the London Daily Telegraph and concluded, “If you see only one exhibition this year make it this one”. He was referring to the memorably magnificent Inventing Impressionism. Dorment added consolingly: “And even if you can’t get to it, I highly recommend the excellent catalogue.” Catalogue? ‘Catalogue’ is inadequate for such a treasure house as this companion volume. There are more than 130 superb reproductions (half-page, full-page, double-page) of works by Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Manet, Degas, Alfred Sisley, Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot and Eugene Boudin and several paintings from the Barbizon School. The final chapter entitled ‘Catalogue of Exhibited Works’ provides small reproductions of every work in the exhibition, with essays about them. The preceding chapters in this remarkable compilation (its subtitle is Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market) show how the career of art dealer Durand-Ruel influenced French art and those who bought it in Europe and America during the last third of the 19th century. His remarkable career inspired the exhibition and is the book’s principal subject. Durand-Ruel was a man of contradictions. An ultra-conservative devout Catholic monarchist he happily bought hundreds of paintings from left-wing Republican painters – even Camille Pissarro, a Jewish anarchist. A formidable and innovative businessman, he became a reckless investor in the ‘futures market’ of paintings that French critics regarded as childish daubs by charlatans and lunatics. Astonishingly, he tried to buy all the work of these lunatics. A gentle, amiable man who cared deeply for his painters, he made their existence possible by keeping them fed, housed and supplied with art materials and by relentlessly buying and exhibiting their work. His career had one prime object: to make contemporary art as important as the art of the past by promoting contemporary artists. Before 1870 he had fought for the Barbizon School and knew nothing of the Impressionists until he took refuge in London during the 1870-1 war. There he met fellow-refugees Monet and Pissarro, whose work in London inspired him to buy hundreds of paintings from them during the next 20 years. Back in Paris, his new clients introduced him to other contemporary painters, including Renoir, Degas and Manet. (He promptly bought the contents of Manet’s studio for 35,000 francs when Manet was virtually unsalable). The following two-decade buying spree almost destroyed him. Nevertheless, he finally won his seemingly hopeless and ruinously expensive campaign against the art establishment. In 1885, he took 300 paintings to America, sold many, lured to Paris many wealthy American collectors who bought more, and his financial difficulties melted away. He not only made many painters affluent and restored his fortune, he turned desperate, despised artists into one of the most loved movements in the history of art. He named them ‘the Impressionists’.

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