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Pierre-Auguste Renoir Dance at Bougival, 1883
Oil on canvas 181.9 x 98.1 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Impressionism and the irresistible rise of the global art market

A 19th century salon, complete with gilded Louis XIV armchairs, painted wall panels, mirrors and objets d’art, including a Rodin sculpture, is the opening space at Inventing Impressionism. How come?

Review by Corinna Lotz

Paul Durand-Ruel’s Grand Salon, which he opened up to the paying public for a few hours each day, was where many Impressionist painters got their first break. Yet the dealer was, at first sight, an unlikely person to help a movement that would shake the world of art.

A devout and doctrinaire Catholic, reactionary in his politics, he was an “anti-dreyfusard”. That is, he supported the French state against Emile Zola’s campaign to expose the frame-up and jailing of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, which became a huge cause celèbre in France in 1898.

Yet Durand-Ruel had no hesitation in helping out artists whose work he bought and sold on a huge scale over many decades. They ranged from the Communard Gustave Courbet to Jewish anarchist Camille Pissarro.

As his grand-daughter Flavie has noted: Durand-Ruel “was extremely conservative in his ideas and extremely revolutionary in his artistic choices. But totally convinced in each case”.

Freely painted flower and fruit still lifes by Claude Monet adorn Rococo-style doors and full-length dancing couples by Auguste Renoir grace the walls of the salon at the National Gallery. Sun-dappled portraits of the art dealer’s progeny complete the picture. It’s a strong contrast – the work of a group of painters who revolutionised art and our perception of the world – carefully inserted into a bourgeois home.  The salon gives an insight into Durand-Ruel’s relationship with the Impressionist painters – intimate and always with an eye to the market.

Co-curator Christopher Riopelle points out that the dealer found a way of introducing the daring art of  Edouard Manet and the Impressionists to the public of his day by associating their work with styles and interior decor derived from France’s pre-revolutionary history – a clever sales strategy. Durand-Ruel’s family background (his father was also an art dealer) made him naturally knowledgeable and enthusiastic about contemporary painting.

He was born in 1830, the same year as Pissarro.  Like the Impressionists he was a great admirer of the Romantic colourist Eugène Delacroix. Two darkly-dramatic scenes by Delacroix, which went through the dealer’s stock, are displayed near Courbet’s erotic Woman in the Waves and the softly bruised Still Life with Apples, inscribed with the name of the prison where the revolutionary artist was held after the 1871 Paris Commune.

Given the movement’s huge popularity and the sky-high prices that Impressionist paintings command today, the venomous attitude of the Establishment can still shock, as quotes from contemporary critics remind us. There can be no doubt that Durand-Ruel’s commitment was crucial in helping the Impressionist painters to survive. He was indeed a model art dealer who genuinely sought to nurture and help his artists.

France’s 1870 declaration of war on Prussia prompted Durand-Ruel to transfer a huge amount of stock to London, an advantageous move which allowed him to participate in the expanding art trade centred in Mayfair. He was not alone in his flight to the peace of England – Pissarro and Monet also sought refuge there. And it was in London they met a mutual friend, the landscape painter Charles-Francois Daubigny. He introduced Durand-Ruel to Pissarro and Monet. It was an historic moment.

Pissarro Fox Hill, Upper Norwood
Camille Pissarro Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, 1870
Oil on canvas 35.3 x 45.7 cm The National Gallery, London

It’s great to see the National Gallery’s Daubigny, a view of St Paul’s from the Surrey Side, hanging near Pissarro’s Fox Hill, Upper Norwood and Monet’s light-touch view of Green Park, all made that winter and spring.  Even in the deepest winter, the sun floods in. That feeling of sudden light ebbs to and fro as you walk through the seven spaces set between 1870 and 1905.  Five out of the 15 famous Poplars on the Epte River series by Monet have been brought together from France, the US and Tokyo to join the Tate gallery’s own, making a sinuous, wind-swept display just over half-way through the show.

Monet Poplars in the Sun
Claude Monet Poplars in the Sun, 1891
Oil on canvas 93 × 73.5 cm The National Museum of Western Art, Matsukata Collection, Tokyo

Berthe Morisot, the only woman in the group until the American Mary Cassatt joined in 1877, is represented by two outstanding works: Hanging the Laundry Out to Dry and the ravishing Woman at her Toilette.  Both reveal how Morisot, a close friend of Manet, was in many ways the most daring of them all. The movement of her brush on the canvas has a lightness of touch and transparency unequalled by any of her contemporaries. No wonder that it was considered to be “the finest picture here”, when it was shown in New York in 1886.

Berthe Morisot Woman at Her Toilette
Berthe Morisot Woman at Her Toilette, 1875-80
Oil on canvas 60.3 x 80.4 cm The Art Institute of Chicago

The curators detail Durand-Ruel’s risk-taking strategies. Rather than “signing” his artists through exclusive contracts, he would buy up large stocks of their paintings, thereby gaining a monopoly over marketing and price.  The five Manets in this show, for example were part of a job-lot of 23 purchased by the dealer in 1872 for 35,000 francs, a huge sum at that time.

Painted during the 1860s – just as Impressionists began to make their breakthrough – these pictures show how Manet was inspired by Spanish and Dutch still life masters and took contemporary events as his themes. Two “pre-impressionist” works, Moonlight at the Port of Boulogne and a recreation of a sea battle waged during the American civil war display the artist’s virtuosity in capturing light effects on water and his daring sense of composition.

Manet Moonlight at the Port of Boulogne
Edouard Manet Moonlight at the Port of Boulogne, 1868
Oil on canvas 81.5 x 101 cm Musée d'Orsay

In the long-term, bulk buying proved a highly profitable strategy, but there were moments when the dealer nearly went bankrupt. Essays in the exhibition catalogue, edited by the Musée d’Orsay’s chief curator Sylvie Patry, detail the complex investment strategies he pursued, ranging from the United States to Germany, Belgium, England and Russia as the international art market developed in the 1880s to the early 20th century.

The final space gives an indication of Durand-Ruel’s greatest effort to stage the first “history of impressionism” in London in 1906 a time by which the group had largely dissolved. The show attracted 11,000 visitors – but the few sales were virtually all to non-English buyers. The National Gallery’s trustees refused to accept Monet’s beautiful Lavacourt under Snow, purchased by public subscription.  In this abject story of how Impressionism, (and modern movements to come) was rejected by those in charge of England’s leading galleries, it was only thanks to the bequest of Irish dealer Hugh Lane that the National Gallery can today boast so many outstanding Impressionist paintings.

The suggestion that Durand-Ruel “invented” Impressionism as a movement doesn’t really hold water. (The show was called Gambling on Impressionism in France and will be called Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting when it moves to Philadelphia). Manet in particular had braved hostile media and the Paris Academy for a whole decade before Durand-Ruel started to buy his work.

Manet and his comrades in arms had already been championed by the poet-critic Charles Baudelaire, writer Émile Zola and the critic Zachary Astruc. These three, plus Auguste Renoir and others, feature in Henri Fantin-Latour’s iconic A Studio at Les Batignolles, gathered around Manet, “the painter so disparaged by the public has grown up a common front of painters and writers who claim him as a master", as Zola wrote.

Whilst indebted to him for his support, the Impressionists in Durand-Ruel’s stable also sought their independence. Monet and Pissarro, for example, were anxious to maintain good relations with other dealers. And it could be a cruel situation for younger, unrecognised artists like Vincent Van Gogh.  The dealer rebuffed Vincent’s brother Theo (also an art dealer) just a month after Vincent’s death. Durand-Ruel saw Theo as a competitor, describing him to Pissarro as “this unfortunate Van Gogh, who is coming to a miserable end”.  This incident seems to foreshadow the darker side of art dealing.

The story of Durand-Ruel is in many ways about the rise of the global art market. He is the precursor of present day dealers like Larry Gagosian (worth $925 million) or Charles Saatchi (a lot less but still a lot). Inventing Impressionism is being staged as prices on the global art market continue to reach astronomical levels. Last November, a sale of Impressionist and modern work at Sotheby’s brought in some £280 million – a result seen as “sleepy” by art market observers.  This February an auction at Sotheby’s raised an overall total of £186.44m, including one of Monet’s Poplars for £10.8 million. Paul Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo, or When Will You Marry? sold for an incredible £200m also in February.

In the 21st century, the global art market has reached dizzying levels. This profoundly affects who can buy works of art, what is available to the public and at what price,  and also the way in which artists work and survive.

Today only an oligarch or an oil-rich state like Qatar can afford an Impressionist work. Despite free access to public collections in the UK, special exhibitions are priced beyond the reach of ordinary punters as state subsidies shrink and institutions struggle to keep afloat. By probing the mechanics of the art market, the story of Durand-Ruel obliquely poses the questions, who actually benefits and do we really need to stick to this system?

As Antony Vidokle, artist and founder of the e-flux platform has argued, art and artists have long existed both with and without a market. He believes that it is damaging for artists to be  “content providers for an art system whose values and welfare are wholly defined by its own logic of supply and demand”, and that “art can clearly exist without a market, but artists fundamentally rely upon a certain economy in order to live and make art in the first place”.  

A World to Win’s Manifesto of Revolutionary Solutions suggests that it is time to free the art trade from the grip of the global auction houses and corporate dealers and place it in the hands of existing not-for-profit national and local arts bodies. Great masterpieces, it proposes, should no longer be bought and sold for vast sums but transferred to public collections. That would be a really good start.

10 March 2015

Inventing Impressionism is at the National Gallery until 31 May. Open daily 10-6pm. Late Fridays. It’s accompanied by free lunchtime talks, lectures, workshops and discussions.

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