Anyone who picks over the art section of an Oxfam bookshop is quickly reminded of the popularity of the Impressionists. A comprehensive survey of Impressionism would be a massive undertaking, probably beyond the scope of even the Met in New York (their Centenary exhibition in 1975 had only 42 works) or the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. So the curator of a show with the word Impressionism in its title needs a focus to constrain the scope of their offering and in this case, the Impressionists whose works have been selected are those who were taken up by the Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922; below top right, Renoir’s portrait of 1910) in the 1870s and after, including Monet, Degas, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley*. The National Gallery (London) exhibition, Inventing Impressionism: The Man Who Sold a Thousand Monets, is certain to be very popular and I can't imagine many visitors will leave disappointed. There are 85 major works on display, all of the highest quality and a pleasure to see.
The show starts with some of the pictures from Durand-Ruel’s Paris apartment (above lower) like Renoir’s Dance in the City (1883, above top left). One of the doors from the grand salon is on display with six panels painted in 1883 by Monet: Japanese Lilies, Chrysanthemums, Pot of White Azaleas, Gladioli, Branches of White and Pink Azaleas and Basket of Apples (for an image, see here). Renoir was a friend of Durand-Ruel’s for nearly 50 years and The Dancer (1874, below, left) and The Cup of Chocolate (c1877/78, below right) are among the others shown here. (Renoir’s Girl with a Cat (1880), one of Durand-Ruel’s favourites apparently, was at the Royal Academy’s From Paris:A Taste for Impressionism Paintings from the Clark in 2012 under the title, Sleeping Girl).
From then on the show follows the path of Durand-Ruel’s career and the next section introduces the painters whose art, not much favoured by the official Salon, was being sold by the family business at the time that Paul took over from his father: Corot, Courbet – Still Life with Apples (1872, below top), the Barbizon school – Millet’s The Sheepfold, Moonlight (1856-8, below lower):
Paul’s sponsorship of the Impressionists was a consequence of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. He moved his stock to London and opened a gallery in New Bond Street. Among the artists in exile were Monet – The Thames below Westminster (c1871, below top) and Pissarro – The Avenue, Sydenham (1871, below lower) producing the sort of avant garde works which appealed to his taste.
But it was on his return to Paris in 1872 that Durand-Ruel acquired at considerable cost a large number of works by Manet, for example, The Salmon (1869, below top) and The Battle of the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama (1864, below lower). The latter is an imaginative reconstruction by Manet who painted the Kearsarge at Boulogne after the incident.
Acquisitions of works by Sisley – The Ferry of the Ile de la Loge: Flood (1872, below top left) and Degas – Horses before the Stands (c1866-8, below top right) and Monet - Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil (1873, below lower) were made in the same year, Durand-Ruel not only buying in quantity from his favoured artists but also paying for their work in advance.
At the time of the 1874 First Impressionist Exhibition, Durand-Ruel was in temporary financial difficulty but was able to lend it some of his pictures. By 1876 he was able to take an active part in the Second Impressionist Exhibition and the National Gallery has brought together eight of the 250 works shown then, including Monet’s Springtime (c187, below top) and Degas’ Peasant Girls bathing in the Sea at Dusk (c 1869-75, below lower), both causing controversy at the time.
By the 1880s Durand-Ruel was in a position to put on solo exhibitions for his artists, the case study for this show being Monet with six canvases from 1883, including The Train in the Snow (1875, below top) and The Galettes (1882, below lower).
In 1892 Durand-Ruel displayed in his gallery Monet’s Poplars series, five of the original 15 being brought together again at the National Gallery. By then he had established himself in the New York with the 1886 (Works in Oil and Pastel by the) Impressionists of Paris exhibition and was selling to wealthy American collectors works like Monet’s Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873, below top) and Degas’ The Ballet Class (c1880, below lower).
The exhibition ends with a selection of the works Durand-Ruel showed at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1905 – apparently the largest Impressionist exhibition ever held. These include one of the National’s own Degas, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (1879, below left), Monet’s The Coal Carriers (c1875, below right top) and Morisot’s dazzling Woman at her Toilette (c1875-80, below right lower).
Wonderful though this show is, I do have a minor reservation about its title: “Inventing Impressionism” – if anyone invented Impressionism surely it was Monet in 1872 with Impression, soleil levant later shown at the 1874 exhibition? Although I can understand why “Marketing Impressionism” or, worse still, “Branding Impressionism” wouldn’t do. However, when it was at the Musée du Luxembourg earlier the show was called Paul Durand-Ruel Le pari de l’impressionnisme (poster below left**), literally ‘the bet on impressionism’ and, if that was acceptable in Paris, I can’t help wondering whether “PD-R the man who gambled on Impressionism” or even “Gambling on Impressionism” might have been both acceptable and more accurate here.
After David Hockney attended the Monet retrospective in Chicago in 1996 he commented:
A great artist, a very great artist. Very finely painted, superb condition now. What? A hundred years old? He knew exactly which paint to use and his work remains in marvellous condition. (Hockney on Art, page 204)In contrast with the state of some of van Gogh’s works, as touched on in a recent post here. Van Gogh, of course, did not have the benefit of financial support from a Durand-Ruel to assist in the purchase of quality materials. Something which the exhibition hardly touches on is that Durand-Ruel was not exclusively focussed on the Impressionists. Although the term Post-Impressionism would not be invented until 1910, Cézanne featured in the Grafton Galleries exhibition and Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, to be seen upstairs in the National Gallery, had appeared in the 1886 New York exhibition.
The last time I saw so many Impressionist works in one place was in London in 1973. Unbelievable as it may seem now, the UK was celebrating its entry to the European Economic Community (as the EU was called at the time). The Arts Council’s contribution to this jamboree (Fanfare for Europe) was The Impressionists in London at the Hayward Gallery, with 58 works (though including six by Derain). Looking at the catalogue I noticed the detailed Chronology by Anthea Callen and reproduce it below as it seems so helpful, particularly in the UK.
Inventing Impressionism: The Man Who Sold a Thousand Monets continues until 31 May.
*(Not so) Young French Artists
Monet 1840-1926, so 36 in 1876, the year of the Second Impressionist Exhibition
Manet 1832-1883, 44
Renoir 1841-1919, 35
Pissarro 1830-1903, 46
Sisley 1839-1899, 37
** with Renoir’s Dance at Bougival (centre) and Dance in the Country (right), both 1883. The latter also hang in Durand-Ruel’s grand salon.