Sunday, 24 May 2015

The dealer who made the Impressionists

Paul Durand-Ruel, Renoir
If the first few months of the year nearly saw me miss Goya at the Courthauld and Dumas at the Tate Modern, I managed to get organised in time – just – to book almost a whole week in advance in order to catch Inventing Impressionism at the National Gallery, with just days to go.

It closes at the end of the month and had been one of my long-intended visits – with the intention being for the first few days. But such is life.

In the event, it was a delightful trip – and a fascinating one.

The exhibition is built around the life and work of Paul Durand-Ruel – not an artist himself, but one of the very first dealers in the way we understand that term today.

But more than a century before the Satchis got into the art market, Durand-Raul found himself representing artists who had been rejected by the Salon, the heart of France’s stifling art establishment.

Hanging the Laundry Out to Dry (18755), Morisot
We begin with a room that recreates (in part) one of the dealer’s own – complete with double doors decorated by Monet. It’s a room that is full of Renoir.

Now after last summer’s Paris art orgy, The Other Half and I felt that, if we never saw another Renoir it would be too soon.

But here were plenty more – and, in general, they did nothing to convince us that his work was anything other than garish, chocolate-box sentimental.

There’s an odd exception: a portrait of Durand-Ruel from 1910 is just such an example. But all too rare.

Poplars (1891), Monet
Since last July had finally seen a visit to the Orsay in Paris, we felt fairly well versed in Impressionism, but while we were able to reacquaint ourselves with some works – I got quite excited on approaching Monet’s Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873), which I recognised instantly and from a distance as being from the Courthauld – there was plenty of other works to see that we had not previously.

Durand-Ruel’s story is a fascinating one. But this excellently-curated exhibition leaves us with an indelible understanding of his impact on art.

For instance, he effectively invented the retrospective: one room is dedicated to this idea, bringing together a span of works by Monet – the first artist to have his career treated in such a way.

But it gets better.

This room includes six of the original 15 Poplars works of Monet’s that Durand-Ruel displayed in a single exhibition – again, the first of its kind.

Springtime (1872), Monet
Brought together from across the world, they are a joy to behold. The light captured in them is lovely.

Durand-Ruel didn’t necessarily have a great deal of success in selling the works he bough, often in bulk, from the Impressionists. But he ensured that became known, not just in France, but internationally.

If the likes of French literary icon Emile Zola was entranced by some of the ‘new painting – he described the dappling effect on the woman’s dress in Monet’s 1872 work, Springtime, as being like “sequins of light like drops of water”, the reaction of a critic from L’Echo Universel was more common, when he described the “sickness of Impressionism”.

The Child's Bath (1893), Cassatt
There is also plenty of Manet here, plus Degas (horses and ballet dancers) and some Morisot.

Pre-Impressionist context is provided early on with some Delacroix, Corot, Courbet, Millet (a massive influence on Van Gogh) and Rousseau.

The latter’s View of Mont Blanc, seen from La Faucille (1863-67) is wonderful, even though compositionally it really should not work. But that’s great art for you – and an example of how there is so much to learn from studying any work.

This wasn’t just a case of ‘renewing acquaintances’. We encountered some ‘new’artists (for us).

Eugène Boudin (who first introduced Monet to painting outdoors) was older than most of the Impressionists. His delightful The Entrance to Trouville Harbour (1888) was purchased for the National Gallery instead of a painting by Monet – that his work had not been exhibited by Durand-Reul counted in his favour with the board, apparently.

The Entrance to Touville Harbour (1888), Boudin
Coincidentally, the Monet that it would have received in 1905 – Lavacourt Under Snow (circa 1878-81) – came into the gallery’s possession as part of a bequest in 1917.

And then there's Mary Cassatt, an American artist who lived most for most of her life in France, and represented here with The Childs Bath from 1893.

She was to be valuable to Durand-Ruel in introducing him to many wealthy patrons in the US.

Indeed, the exhibition allows those of us on this side of the Atlantic to see a lot of works that usually hang in galleries in the US.

Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862), Manet
It also confirmed that I now know my Monet from my Manet (finally!).

You cannot see the likes of Manet’s Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) without marvelling at his use of black.

And you cannot see Monet without marvelling at the light.

It confirmed that a year has not changed the minds of either me or The Other Half regarding Renoir, although it did remind us how good Pissaro and Sisley were.

And it served as a further reminder that Impressionism has many faces.

It is an exhibition that is well worth catching. There’s a week left.

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