Impressionist Impresario: The Man Who Marketed The Movement – National Gallery London

Paul Durand Ruel (1831-1922) believed that, “a true picture dealer should be an enlightened patron; that he should, if necessary, sacrifice his immediate interest to his artistic convictions, and prefer to oppose, rather than support the interests of speculators”.

Based on this premise, the National Gallery, London has put together ‘Inventing Impressionism,’ a new curated exhibition which explores the Impressionist Movement as seen through the eyes of the dealer who discovered and nurtured the painters.

Through the mass acquisitions of paintings by the members of the Batignolles group, as the Impressionists were first known, Durand-Ruel began to link his career definitely with theirs. He provided moral as well as financial support.  He not only bought their works – 12,000 of them over his lifetime, he paid their doctor’s fees, their tailor’s bills and even their rent, ensuring that they could continue to paint. “We would have died of hunger without Durand-Ruel, all we Impressionists,” said Monet. “We owe him everything. He persisted, stubborn, risking bankruptcy 20 times in order to back us.”

His father had previously contributed to the final recognition of the Barbizon painters: Corot, Daubigny and Courbet through his tenacity and resolution and his son Paul was intent on doing the same for their natural successors.

It was in London in January 1871 that Durand-Ruel first met Monet through the painter Charles-Francois Daubigny.  They had all moved to escape the Franco-Prussian war.   Durand-Ruel had opened a gallery on New Bond Street and immediately struck up a working relationship that was to last decades.  He bought canvases by Monet and a few days later did the same for Pissarro who was also in London.  Back in Paris after the war, Durand-Ruel met Manet, Sisley, Renoir and Degas and continued to buy their works.  On one visit to Manet’s studio he acquired twenty-three paintings in one go.   He showed their work alongside the now successful Barbizon painters establishing their place in art history.  He held exhibitions of their work and was even the first dealer to hold one man shows despite ridicule from the critics and few sales.  He opened up his home by appointment to show the paintings in a domestic setting. Like all dealers, his personal collection was a fluid one – keeping some until they were sold and replacing them with others.

Durand-Ruel dedicated his life to the support and promotion of the work of the Impressionists.  He did everything in his power to create a market for them.  He continually exposed their work to the unwelcoming British and French publics and after decades of support and near financial ruin, it was in America that the group finally achieved the recognition they deserved through the encouragement of the painter and wealthy socialite Mary Cassatt. “The Americans do not criticize,” said Durand-Ruel, “they buy.” He is the reason why America has more impressionist works than anywhere else outside France. Interestingly it took until 1901 for a French public gallery to purchase a work by the group.

His life long passion and dedication culminated in the 1905 exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London where 315 works were amassed including 196 from his own private collection.  It presented Manet as the Father of Impressionism and went on to show chronological works by Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, Renoir, Degas and Berthe Morisot among others.


“My madness had been wisdom. To think that, had I passed away at 60, I would have died debt-ridden and bankrupt, surrounded by a wealth of underrated treasures.”

The beautifully presented and informative exhibition at the National Gallery is dedicated to this entrepreneurial art dealer.  He is not only dubbed the man that invented impressionism but also invested with the title of the founding father of the international art market.  The exhibition is organised chronologically through key moments in his life from his first years as a dealer specialising in the work of Delacroix and the Barbizon painters, through his stay in London where he met Monet and Pissarro, his continued promotion of the Impressionists back in Paris, Monet’s solo shows, success in America and finally the show at the Grafton Gallery, London.  This is all achieved with impeccable selection of works.

Highlights of the exhibition include a photographic reproduction of his apartment in Paris with some of the actual works reassembled including a series of paintings of himself and his five children by Renoir, a Rodin sculpture and a reassembled door with painted panels by Monet.  All three of Renoir’s famous Dances are seen together for the first time in this country since 1985 plus five of Monet’s poplar series paintings, which were first shown together in 1892, are reunited. An exhibition about the Impressionists could have been a predictable, bland affair but this show is a refreshing take on this well trodden path.  

 Words: Sara Faith Photos: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2015

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