Here’s an instructive and uplifting business story for Easter. It’s not a factory or office. It’s on show in London in a dazzling National Gallery exhibition, ‘Inventing Impressionism’, that runs to the end of May.
The 85 paintings – Monets, Manets, Renoirs, Pissarros, Sisleys, Morisots and those of other usual suspects – are of course spectacular, particularly wonderful for me being less familiar ones such as revelatory views of London by Sisley and Pissarro as well as the more famous Monets. Also extraordinary are two dispersed and thus rarely seen series of paintings by Monet and Renoir that have been reunited again for the exhibition.
Just as extraordinary, however, is the story behind them. What almost all the paintings have in common is that they passed through the hands of a man who has more claim than the individual artists themselves for inventing ‘Impressionism’, in the sense of a category that along with cubism is perhaps the best known, most easily recognisable and not least highly valued art movements in the world: the Paris dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. Without Durand-Ruel, ‘Impressionism’ qua movement wouldn’t have happened.
As everyone knows, ‘Impressionist’ was first used as a derogatory term by a derisive critic who borrowed it from the title of a Monet painting, ‘Impression, sunrise’. This is actually not one of the canvasses on show. But as with around 1,000 other paintings by Monet, not to mention 1,500 Renoirs, 800 Pissarros, 400 Sisleys, Boudins and Degas,and 200 Manets, it was handled by Durand-Ruel, who made it his life’s work to have their artistic and financial worth recognised at a time when most critics were ridiculing the artists as lunatics and their paintings as daubs that no one would conceivably want to hang on their walls.
Duran-Ruel was initially a reluctant art dealer, joining the family firm (which still exists) after having his mind forcibly changed by an exhilarating exhibition by Delacroix. He turned out to be a brilliant entrepreneur (as he needed to be to prove the doubters wrong), who eventually did well extremely out of the group – but not before he had twice flirted with bankruptcy when he had little to fall back on except faith in those he had backed.
He had begun buying the ‘new painting’ after a chance meeting with Monet and Pissarro in London (which has a gratifying cameo role in the story), where artists and dealer had removed themselves in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian hostilities. He was blown away by the freshness and vigour of their portrayals of the city. His large-scale buying, which for some painters had kept body and soul together in their early struggles, came to a stop with a banking crisis (so what’s new?) in 1874. But instead of selling up and moving on to something easier, he did what entrepreneurs are supposed to do: he innovated. He lent paintings for the famous First Impressionist Exhibition and put his gallery at the disposal of the second. With confidence returning, he used techniques borrowed from finance to drum up backing for revolutionary business strategies such as one-man shows, exclusive deals, advertising to build awareness, and stock building to manage demand.
In the second crisis (another banking crash) a decade later, Durand-Ruel again took the bolder option – this time expanding into foreign markets, with eventually galleries in New York and Brussels alongside those in Paris and London. The turning point for the fortunes of both the Impressionist artists and their untiring champion was a 300-canvass show in New York in 1886 which for the first time reaped commercial and critical acclaim. Then as now, where rich Americans led, others followed, first in Germany (where he sold the first Cézanne to a public gallery), then in London, where a monster show at the Grafton Galleries in 1905 remains the largest and by general consent most impressive exhibition of Impressionist art ever seen. Of the 315 works shown, no less than 196 came from the dealer’s private collection. Although commercial sales only came later, the London exhibition ‘fixed’ the impressionist identity for ever as the starting point for the history of modern art. Almost single-handedly, Durand-Ruel had defined the contours of the modern art market.
Art histories don’t often concern themselves with vulgar matters like finance; this exhibition offers an exhilarating corrective. Business is an essential part of the story. From that perspective, several things stand out. The first is that the art came first. Durand-Ruel lived it, breathed it, collected it and hung it in his own home to show (and sometimes sell) to visitors. To keep the work coming he supported his artists by buying in bulk, paying them monthly salaries against future work, and settling bills. He backed his judgment with sizeable investment: visiting the then controversial and scandalous Manet, he block-bought the entire contents of his studio, 23 paintings, on the spot, with no guarantee of a ready market. His artists mostly repaid him (as you would) with loyalty and gratitude. ‘Without him,’ said Monet, ‘we wouldn’t have survived.’
Today Durand-Ruel might well look askance at the art market his efforts spawned, where prices often seem only determined by fashion. Be that as it may, it remains true that artistic creativity without backing stands on one leg. It’s hard to credit it, but without the dealer's commercial inventiveness to complement that of the artists, Impressionism might be just a footnote in art history and our sensibilities to both painting and the world that surrounds us different and just that bit narrower.