Double Book Review: “Inventing Impressionism” and “Paul Durand-Ruel”; Saint or Sinner?

“Inventing Impressionism. Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market”
Edited by Sylvie Patrie; contributions by Anne Robbins, Christopher Riopelle, Joseph J Rishel, Jennifer A Thompson, and others.
National Gallery Company and Yale UP, March 2015
Hardback, 23.6 x 29 cm (9.3 x 11.4 in), 304 pp., £35.00, US$65
ISBN 978 1 85709 5845
Not available for Kindle, nor in the iTunes Store; the latter has “Paul Durand-Ruel, le pari de l’impressionnisme” (Grand Palais – RMN) from the Musée du Luxembourg exhibition available for £2.99, although it is only 48 pages in length.

“Paul Durand-Ruel. Memoirs of the First Impressionist Art Dealer (1831-1922)”
Paul Durand-Ruel; translated by Deke Dusinberre; revised, corrected and annotated by Paul-Louis Durand-Ruel and Flavie Durand-Ruel
Flammarion, October 2014 (original in French published 1939)
Hardback, 15.8 x 24.2 cm (6.25 x 9.5 in), 331 pp., £32.00, US$55
ISBN 978 2 08 020171 3
Not available for Kindle, nor in the iTunes Store.

(For the sake of brevity, and to economise on bandwidth, I will refer to “Durand-Ruel” below as “D-R”.)

One of the most difficult problems in trying to get to grips with the paintings of the Impressionists is working through the many myths which have been propagated about them – despite over a century of intense analysis, exhibitions, and writing.

This has not always been helped by exhibitions, books, or movies. Being able to rely on exhibitions of Impressionist paintings as blockbusters and money-spinners, even the most stolid of galleries has weakened and taken easy profits from them. However troubled fine art publishing might become, books on and about Impressionism always seem to sell. And sugar-snap sanitised group biopics like the BBC’s 2006 series or the Marlow/Grabsky series muster healthy viewing figures and DVD after-sales.

These two books tackle an area not previously exhausted: the contribution made by art dealers to the overall success of Impressionism. It is a thorny area, because received opinion, certainly among many artists, is that dealers are a species as trustworthy as sharks, and as generous as the taxman.

The Impressionists actually sold paintings to and through a number of dealers, among them Paul Durand-Ruel, Ambroise Vollard, Georges Petit, Goupil & Cie, and others. If these books are to be believed, only the first of these really cared for them, and cared for the future of the movement as a whole, to the extent that D-R was key to the eventual success of Impressionism: a mixture of altruism, patronage, and even a little influence over its direction; qualities that are not normally associated with an art dealer.

Another problem which is apparent at the outset is the involvement of D-R’s family and heirs, each now part of Durand-Ruel & Cie which operates the Archives Durand-Ruel.

As they declare (in Inventing Impressionism), the seven tenets (“entirely new principles”) of D-R’s dealings, “in stark contrast to those of his competitors” (p 41), were:

  • to protect art above all, regardless of the religious belief or political persuasion of the artist
  • maintaining exclusivity of production by means of paying artists a monthly stipend
  • promotion by means of publications, although his monthly review journals were both short-lived
  • the association of art with finance,
  • individual as well as group exhibitions,
  • international galleries, in Paris, London (1870-5), Brussels (1871-5), and New York (1888-1949),
  • free admission to those galleries and to his apartment.

These are also repeated and discussed in the foreward to D-R’s autobiography (below).

Although it is probably accurate to claim that none of his contemporary competitors offered all seven together, they did each feature some of them, and most had previously been used successfully by other art dealers such as Edme-François Gersaint (1694-1750) who was Watteau’s main dealer, those of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, and those in the UK earlier in the nineteenth century.

I can see that I will need to be watchful for overstatement.

The invention of Impressionism

Inventing Impressionism is an extraordinarily bold title, which does not appear justified by the established histories such as Rewald’s or that of the late John House, and I do not feel is justified by the essays in this large format and wonderfully illustrated book.

Its essays include a portrait of D-R, a survey of D-R’s involvement with the Barbizon School (‘La Belle École of 1830′), an account of the early years of Impressionist dealing between 1870 and 1873, the solo exhibitions of 1883, D-R’s involvements with French collectors, his activities in America, in Germany, and in London, and his critical fortunes. This is completed with a chronology spanning only the years 1869 to 1905, following which are 40 pages which catalogue and illustrate the works exhibited.

Unusually for books which accompany exhibitions, the catalogue contains more text coverage than the illustrations, although all are shown in large format in the course of the essays. This enhances the essays at the cost of the catalogue, and is made even clumsier by the fact that the catalogue refers the reader to the figure number rather than the page on which it is to be found. That is an annoyance, as here the catalogue contains a lot of valuable information about the provenance and history of each painting. Sometimes this even extends to revealing the price paid to the painter, and that achieved by D-R when it was sold on.

The essays are of high quality and well worth reading, although sadly they do not give a complete overview of D-R’s career and dealing. For example, despite the earlier assertion that D-R paid his painters a monthly stipend (p 41), John Zarobell’s essay evaluates the evidence for this more critically, writing:
“A careful look at the account books reveals exactly how Durand-Ruel supported these artists. There are numerous letters from artists requesting money from him, and such inquiries make it seem as if Durand-Ruel was paying them stipends so they could continue to paint, but it is clear that the dealer held them to account.”
He then gives an outline of Monet’s and Pissarro’s accounts for 1872, observing that Pissarro’s exchanges involved less money than those of Monet.

In any case, when D-R underwent financial difficulty, payments to artists suddenly ran dry. Financial collapse in Europe resulted in D-R ceasing the purchase of almost all Impressionist paintings from 1875 to 1880, and the cessation of all stipends and other payments to artists until funding improved.

Joseph J Rishel’s essay examines those from whom D-R stepped back: Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, and the Neo-Impressionists. D-R expressed his candid opinion of the first three in a letter to Renoir in 1908, stating that Cézanne’s reputation had been overstated, and that the promotion of the three “is a shame and is most detrimental to our dealings.”

D-R supported Gauguin up to his solo exhibition of 1893, but would neither deal in his work nor extend him any further support by the end of 1894. No further explanation is given for stepping back so abruptly. D-R made it clear that he did not like the Divisionist approach, and his dealings in Neo-Impressionist paintings were restrained accordingly.

D-R’s role in the final month’s of Theo van Gogh’s life is more complex still. Theo was in despair after Vincent’s death in July 1890. Although a partner in the major dealer Goupil & Cie, who had persuaded that dealer to buy some Impressionist paintings, Theo had been unable to obtain the recognition which he felt his brother had deserved. Theo contacted D-R soon after Vincent’s death, and D-R had apparently delayed making any decision. However D-R did not get back to Theo, who died just four months later.

At the end of this book, I do want to see the exhibition, because I too love some fine Impressionist paintings. Although it has been interesting to consider the effects that D-R had on the movement, I am afraid that I do not feel that it is appropriate to claim that D-R was an essential actor in the invention of Impressionism.

The glorious range of paintings from Daubigny to Cézanne (and one Rodin sculpture) are, though, a fitting commemoration of the life and accomplishments of a conscientious art dealer who did a lot to aid the Impressionists. It would have been more appropriate to have used the title ‘Marketing Impressionism.’

Durand-Ruel’s autobiography

Timed to coincide with the exhibition, this book is not simply an English translation of the 1939 original. The latter half of the book contains an afterword summarising the period between 1887 (when D-R’s autobiography ends) and his death, a range of selected letters from the D-R Archive, a couple of short contemporary opinions, a chronology, family tree, a list of exhibitions, bibliography, notes (with extensive reference to the archives), and three indexes.

The greatest shock in this account is that the autobiography stops in 1887 “the year that Impressionism finally triumphed”, as it asserts. In fact it grinds to a halt even before that, in the early 1880s, with that final seven years covered in just 10 pages.

Given that D-R was without doubt an entrepreneur, that it was only in the 1890s and early twentieth century that his business finally succeeded, and that he wrote this account in 1912 and continued to revise it until his death in 1922, this is extraordinary. It is a bit like a biography of Steve Jobs which ended when Apple returned to profit in 1998, or a biography of Monet ending in 1890.

Furthermore, despite the opportunity to complete D-R’s account of his art dealing, the editors provide just 5 additional pages (and 3 pages in the Chronology, although the chronology in the first book has 11 pages for the same period), which race through 36 years. Yet we know that this was the busiest period in D-R’s life, when he made frequent trips to the USA and travelled extensively throughout Europe.

It would be easy to suggest that this void also coincides with the time during which D-R’s earlier risks, investments, and speculations came to fruition, when paintings which he could ill-afford at the low prices when he bought them started to return handsomely, possibly to the extent that those returns might now appear a little embarrassing, perhaps.

The upshot is that we are only allowed a very limited view of D-R’s dealing, the years of risk and hardship. We are discouraged from seeing him as a successful art dealer, and led only to conclude how generous he was in his support of the Barbizon School and then the Impressionists.

I am afraid that what you will read in D-R’s account is frequently self-pitying, and invariably paints a picture of perpetual suffering for the art. For example in 1876, as he once again was forced to sell stock to meet his debts:
“I was very busy with these auctions, and they made me feel very sad when I saw first-rate works knocked down for prices far below their value. When they belonged to me, I was unfortunately obliged to let them go below their cost price, but I had to sell at any event in order to raise funds. This torture lasted for over ten years.”
“Often when I lacked basic necessities myself, I borrowed at steep interest rates in order to rescue an artist from poverty, to prevent him from starving to death or seeing his studio and furniture sold by the bailiffs. That was the case with Degas, Monet, and Sisley, among others.”

However, business recovered, and (according to a fascinating note in Inventing Impressionism, p 8) by 1880 D-R’s monthly salary was 1,500 francs, on top of which he received fees for expert assessments; his employees had to be content with between 200 and 300 francs per month. Monet’s paintings earned him an average of 300 francs each, and a primary school teacher was paid a monthly salary of only 75 francs.

This book is an important source for art and general historians, and considerable work has gone into enhancing it for publication now. Sadly I think most other readers will find it too imbalanced and tortured.

Durand-Ruel’s achievement

I asked the question in the title, whether D-R was a saint or a sinner. I am disappointed to report that neither of these books is particularly illuminating in this respect, so I turn to other authorities for aid.

John Rewald’s old but still incomparable account of the history of Impressionism does not conceal D-R’s importance, but as an art dealer with vision, no more. He does raise some interesting questions about his actions, such as the fact that only Manet, Renoir, Morisot, and possibly Cézanne submitted for the 1872 Salon, suggesting that D-R’s stipends and ‘care’ of the others had convinced them to abandon such submissions, rather than continue to fight the system.

Rewald also reports that D-R’s massive three volume catalogue was never actually sold, although both the books reviewed imply that it was a major publication in its day.

Perhaps it is the late John House who summarises D-R’s effect most succinctly, writing that he sought “to convert the former elite, minority taste into a real commercial merchandise – to commodify the artistic.” More worryingly, though, D-R’s effect may have subtly changed artistic preferences, as House continues that in the 1870s and early 1880s D-R “does not seem to have bought their most informal and experimental paintings” instead preferring those which were most ‘finished’ (p 197).

Assessments by modern art dealers are less respectful. Hook, for example, wrote:
“The first exploiter of an emerging market was the ubiquitous Parisian dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, when he took French Impressionist paintings to New York for the first time in 1886.” (p 293.)
“Art dealing as we know it in the modern age was invented in Paris by Paul Durand-Ruel. He was the man who launched the Impressionists.”
“The change in the role of the dealer in the second half of the nineteenth century had something to do with the changing perception of the role of the artist. The Romantic Movement emphasised individual genius. Gradually a role opened up for the dealer in contemporary art as the provider of access to that genius.” “Durand-Ruel stepped in as the promoter of individual painters of the movement, as interpreter of the ‘difficult’ new art. He pioneered the single-artist exhibition…”
“He invented the self-serving image of the dealer as idealistic pioneer, altruistic hero, almost as artist himself in the discovery, appreciation and promotion of new talent.”…”No one blames a dealer for making an honest profit. But Durand-Ruel cleverly deployed his high-mindedness as a marketing tool.”
“Durand-Ruel’s achievement is that he established the template of the modern art dealer who educates his clientele, the high priest who interprets the mysteries of contemporary art for them.” (pp 284-5.)

So I think that it would be most fair to describe D-R as neither a saint nor a sinner, just an innovative and visionary art dealer who did play a significant and important role in the success of Impressionism.

However he was only an art dealer, and very good at trying to convince us otherwise. Unlike the dealers, critics, and auction houses of the twentieth century, he was not able to define or create ‘art’.

The exhibition which the first book accompanies, Inventing Impressionism, is currently at the National Gallery, London, until 31 May 2015. It opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on 24 June 2015, and closes there on 13 September 2015. If you like early nineteenth century French and Impressionist paintings, you will not want to miss it.

Additional references
Hook P (2013) Breakfast at Sotheby’s. An A-Z of the Art World, Penguin. ISBN 978 0 718 19245 7. (A rather glib and in parts tongue-in-cheek summary of the key lessons in a long and glorious career of dealing in art. A wonderful read and extremely perceptive points. Everyone interested in art should have a copy.)
House J (2004) Impressionism, Paint and Politics, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 10240 2. (An excellent, deep, and very thoughtful account of many aspects of Impressionism which does much to dispel myth.)
Rewald J (1973) The History of Impressionism, 4th edn, Museum of Modern Art, New York. ISBN 0 87070 360 6. (Still the standard and most complete.)