Inventing Impressionism, now at the National Gallery (previously at the Musée du Luxembourgas Paul Durand-Ruel, le pari de l’Impressionnisme) is not only an exhibition on what Durand-Ruel owned and sold but importantly on his pivotal role in creating a taste for Impressionism amongst collectors.
I first came across the exhibition on Paul Durand-Ruel, the Impressionist merchant par excellence, at the View Festival in February 2014. Sylvie Patry, Chief Curator at Musée d’Orsay and co-curator of the international exhibition on Paul Durand-Ruel, gave a talk on collecting Impressionism during the festival. She highlighted Durand-Ruel’s close relationship with artists, his pioneering program of exhibitions, and his success in finding clients abroad.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Durand-Ruel, 1910 Private collection Archives Durand-Ruel © Durand-Ruel
Paul Durand-Ruel is said to have used “methods borrowed from the world of finance”, and his approach is still used by the likes of Pinault today, in my view. Durand-Ruel used backers and partners for his art purchases, asked his artists for exclusivity, and bid up their prices at auction. He once bought back Barbizon paintings from a collector to maintain their prices. He dared to present his artists in solo exhibitions, whereas at the time solo shows were normally reserved for dead artists.
As important was his personal belief in Impressionism. He liked artists who were willing to challenge the ideals of the Academy. He had previously been attracted to the Barbizon school and New Painting artists, who also challenged the Academy aesthetics. Later on, he owned Renoir’s Dance in the Country and Dance in the City for many years, now in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay.
I thought I had seen them all, or at least most of the Impressionist paintings. After all I’d already visited the Musée d’Orsay, Musée Marmottan and Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, the Musée des Beaux-Arts André Malraux in Le Havre, the National Gallery and Courtauld Institute in London, the Met in New York, the Phillips Collection and National Gallery of Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Pushkin Museum and Hermitage in Russia. But I saw plenty of “new” works at this exhibition, mostly from US museums, such as Sleeping Girl with a Cat from Renoir (from the Clark Art Institute).
Sleeping Girl 1880 Acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark, 1926
Durand-Ruel found less resistance amongst US collectors, who were keen for new and progressive European art. Sylvie Patry had mentioned during her talk how a donation of 130 impressionist works by US sugar manufacturer and major collector H.O. Havemeyer shifted the geography of Impressionism, making the Met’s impressionist collection the second largest after the Musée d’Orsay. French museums were more reluctant, as shown by the Caillebotte bequest episode: Caillebotte, a friend and patron of the Impressionists, bequeathed his collection of over 60 paintings to the state, but only 38 made it into the Musée du Luxembourg. The rest were refused.
So don’t make the same mistake of refusing Inventing Impressionism at the National Gallery, with its superb Manets, Monet Springtime and Galettes and many other enchanting impressionist works. Until 31 May 2015.