The Artist's Garden (detail), Monet, 1873
Inventing Impressionism review –seeing the familiar through new eyes
National Gallery, London
Monet, Degas, Renoir et al used nature and upper-class whimsy as a muse but this show reveals their eye for fleeting moments of drama among the everyday
Sunday 1 March 2015
Impressionism was a revolution that changed art forever. When Claude Monet,Pierre-Auguste Renoir and their fellow experimenters painted the ephemeral light on dappled woods and rainy Paris streets, they destroyed the traditional idea that art must reveal nature’s deeper truth.
Only the light in the painter’s eye – a fleeting glimpse of a passing moment – mattered for the impressionists. When Monet painted a serpentine curving line of poplar trees in 1891 he caught their greenness against a violet sky. Just to emphasise the momentary and even delusory nature of this strange effect he painted them from another viewpoint as stately sentinels reflected in water. And again, looking like totem poles.
Monet’s 1891 series Poplars, brought together again from collections all over the world for this thought-provoking exhibition, is a tour de force of modern art that shows it was Monet, not Picasso, who first revealed the true complexity of perception and memory in paintings with multiple viewpoints.
Music in the Tuileries Gardens by Edouard Manet, 1862
But then, the impressionists are not who you think they were. You thought Edgar Degas just painted ballet dancers? At the second impressionist group show in 1876 he exhibited a painting of naked peasant girls cavorting in the sea, wild and uninhibited, letting it all hang out more than 30 years before Matisse painted The Dance.
Peasant Girls Bathing in the Sea by Edgar Degas, 1876
Inventing Impressionism sees the familiar through new eyes. They are the eyes of Paul Durand-Ruel, the first art dealer who believed in the impressionists. It was at his gallery in 1876 that Degas displayed that shocking primitivist seaside scene. It is often said impressionism is an art that portrays the French bourgeoisie at play. But by going back and painstakingly finding the paintings Durand-Ruel sold and tried to sell, this serious, intelligent show casts doubt on that cosy stereotype.
Untold riches: Dealer Paul Durand-Ruel's grand salon at Rue de Rome, with Renoir's 'Dance in the City' on the left
Edouard Manet’s great painting The Battle of the Kearsage and Alabama, for instance, is a violent image of history happening right here, right now. The Alabama was a Confederate ship that attacked the north’s Atlantic supply lines during the Amercian Civil War. In 1864 the Kearsage tracked it down off the Normandy coast and sank it. Manet painted this smoky scene of modern warfare after apparently watching the fight from a boat.
He finished his contemporary history painting in a month – this is painting as reportage, what the critic and poet Baudelaire advocated when he wrote about “the painting of modern life”.
Horses before the Stands by Edgar Degas, 1866 - 1868.
Berthe Morisot has eyes for another side of modern life – women’s work. Her 1875 painting Hanging the Laundry Out to Dry shows servants going about their daily routine in a middle class garden. Manet too shows a woman bored by her job in his oil sketch for his Courtauld Gallery masterpiece, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere.
Hanging the Laundry Out to Dry by Berthe Morisot, 1875
The exhibition has its longeurs. There are so many paintings by Renoir that don’t work; it is hard to get excited about another river scene by Sisley. And yet, impressionism emerges here not as some soppy sensual reboot of landscape painting but a clear-eyed report on the modern world.
Green Park, London by Monet, 1870 - 71
Who are those Victorians out for a stroll around 1870–71 in Monet’s painting Green Park, London? Reduced to daubed stick figures, holding hands or sitting on the grass, fuzzy in the city light, they might be you or me. We moderns will never really outgrow the first artists who showed us our reflection.
Inventing Impressionism is on at the National Gallery, London, from 4 March-31st May
Renoir's 1910 portrait of art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel
Paul Durand-Ruel: the 'madman' who saved Impressionism
A new exhibition at the National Gallery tells the extraordinary story of the Parisian art dealer who saved Monet, Renoir and others from oblivion
28 Feb 2015
In 1868, two years before he met Paul Durand-Ruel, Claude Monet was so broke that he tried to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Seine. He and his painter friends – Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and Manet – had been slogging away, poverty stricken and disillusioned, for many years by then; the abstractions of colour and light they produced had so far met with nothing but ridicule from the Parisian cognoscenti.
Durand-Ruel was different, though. He had been introduced to art when his father chose to supplement the income from their art supplies shop on the rue Saint-Jacques in Paris by exchanging, selling and loaning paintings. The less popular, more experimental works were hung on the young Paul’s bedroom wall – and had a profound effect on him. By the time he met Monet in London, where both men had taken refuge from the Franco-Prussian War, Durand-Ruel was ready to ignore everything he had heard about this degenerate upstart, and bought several of his works on the spot.
It was a transaction that changed both Monet’s life and his own. Within days, Monet’s friend Pissarro (also in London at that time) had turned up at Durand-Ruel’s temporary premises on New Bond Street and left one of his canvases for inspection. Durand-Ruel wrote to Pissarro immediately: “The painting you have brought me is charming and I am sorry I was not at the gallery to compliment you myself. Please tell me how much you would like for it, and please be so kind as to send me others as soon as you are able to. I must try to sell many of them for you here.”
Such was the excitement this new dealer generated that as soon as all three men were back in Paris in 1871, Monet and Pissaro took their friends to see Durand-Ruel. They were not yet identified as a group or a movement, simply a rabble of artists united in their rejection of (and by) the official salon. Nevertheless, Durand-Ruel noted a common new vitality in their work and over the next year began purchasing works by Degas, Manet (including an incredible 23 works on a single day), Sisley, Cassatt and Renoir. Each time he paid the artist’s asking price. They were flabbergasted.
'Fruit Tarts' by Monet (1882)
The relationship that developed between the Impressionists, as they would later become known, and the dealer who championed their cause is the subject of a show at the National Gallery opening next week.
The collection of works on display – all of which passed through Durand-Ruel’s hands – includes some of the best-loved pieces of the movement. It amounts to a spectacular tribute to the man who dedicated his entire life to supporting and defending the Impressionists long before their talent was recognised. “We would have died of hunger without him, all we Impressionists,” said Monet. “We owe him everything.”
Durand-Ruel didn’t intend to become an art dealer. As a young boy, he dreamt of being a missionary or a soldier, but when his father’s health failed he took over the family business. A visitor to his gallery would later describe his demeanour as “much irony; few words, no long sentences. On the other hand, there is every mark of uncommon obstinacy, of an unyielding yet nonviolent will that is imposed with a smile.”
His wife died in 1871 when she was pregnant with their sixth child. He never remarried, devoting himself to his fold of artists, to whom he increasingly acted as a father figure. As well as coordinating their careers and inflating the prices of their works by paying way beyond market value, he also paid their doctor’s fees, their tailor’s bills and even their rent, thus ensuring that they could continue to paint.
When they were downhearted, he encouraged them. In 1882, Monet wrote to him from Pourville on the Normandy coast, where he had spent the summer painting wind-whipped clifftops and beaches: “You will find I am lacking in courage… I am going mad and have taken against my canvases: a large painting of flowers I had just finished; I destroyed it, along with three or four other canvases that I punctured and scratched. It is absurd, I realise that.”
Durand-Ruel replied that same afternoon: “I am sending the 1,500 francs you asked for. I would also like to be able to send you some courage to overcome the many difficulties you are facing… The challenges you are undergoing will be useful to you. It is adversity that gives rise to the best lessons; do not believe you have learnt nothing in your struggle.”
The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne by Alfred Sisley (1872)
Of course, Durand-Ruel was speaking from experience. The battle to keep his business afloat and weather the criticism levelled at his judgment was severe. As soon as he began exhibiting the Impressionists, his name was irretrievably linked with theirs, and the whole of Paris mounted a campaign against him.
“Attacked and reviled by upholders of the academy and old doctrines, by the most established art critics, by the entire press and by most of my colleagues, [my artists] were beginning to become the laughing stock of the salons and the public,” he later recalled. “Myself, guilty of having exhibited and daring to champion such works, I was treated as a madman… Little by little, the trust I had succeeded in inspiring disappeared and my best clients began to question me. ‘How can you?’ they would say.”
He was forced to sell every painting from his stock of earlier works to stay above water, those beautiful (and by then highly fashionable) works by Delacroix, Corot, Courbet and Millet, with which he and his father had made their reputation. Things were so bad that he had to use a broker, as even having his name attached to a sale scared away buyers. When he tried to borrow money against the works he had left, those by Monet and co, the bank would only advance against the value of the frames.
But even as he was warding off bankruptcy, he was forging new and inventive ways of creating a market for his artists. His eye was good, his understanding of value unrivalled and his daring never wavered. He was the first to give his artists solo shows, the first to exhibit work in his own home and the first to request he represent his artists exclusively, although he never asked them to sign a contract.
Claude Monet (right) and others at his famous water lily pond in Giverny (1900)
Such goodwill was reciprocated. In 1884, when Durand-Ruel was in difficulties with his creditors again, Renoir wrote: “If you need me, please consider me entirely at your disposal, whatever may occur. I will always be loyal to you… If you are obliged to make a sacrifice when it comes to the paintings, regret nothing. I will paint other, better ones for you.”
Salvation finally came from thousands of miles away. In 1885 Durand-Ruel was invited to exhibit in New York by James Sutton, the director of the American Art Association. Encouraged by the growing American footfall in his Paris gallery, Durand-Ruel agreed, and packed up around 300 works to take with him across the Atlantic.
He was already something of a folk hero on American soil for his championing of the Barbizon school of realist painters a generation earlier. “People came without the least prejudice to study the works of my new friends,” he wrote in his memoir. Press coverage was so encouraging, and word of mouth so strident, that the exhibition had its run extended and was moved to larger premises. Within weeks he had sold almost every painting.
Unsurprisingly, Paris took note, and by 1894 Durand-Ruel was able to pay off all his creditors. Paintings sold 25 years earlier for a mere 50 francs, he noted, now fetched nearer 50,000, and his artists were able to live in comfort at last. “To think that, had I passed away at 60, I would have died debt-ridden and bankrupt, surrounded by a wealth of underrated treasures,” Durand-Ruel reflected, late in his life. “At last the Impressionist masters triumphed. My madness had been wisdom.”
Inventing Impressionism is at the National Gallery from March 4 until May 31.