When asked who shaped Impressionism, I’m sure you’ll rattle off the names of artists like Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, maybe even some of their precursors like Eugène Boudin or Johan Jongkind. Hardly anyone names Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922), the art dealer who bought and sold more Impressionist paintings than everyone else combined. Yet, as I’ll show in this article, it was Durand-Ruel who more than anyone else made Impressionism what it became.
It has been estimated that, during his lifetime, Durand-Ruel bought a total of 1,500 paintings by Renoir, over 1,000 Monets, 800 Pissarros, over 400 by Degas, and almost 400 from each of Sisley and Mary Cassatt. Nearly a quarter of the Impressionist paintings in the Musée d’Orsay were bought, sold or exhibited by Durand-Ruel. For one art dealer, that’s close to a monopoly.
Paul Durand-Ruel’s father Jean ran the family stationery shop in Paris, also selling artists’ materials. Customers were keen to pay for those supplied in kind, with their paintings, and as trade in pictures grew, so Jean’s interest in dealing in paintings developed. This blossomed into the Durand-Ruel Gallery, specialising in contemporary painting by Bonington, Daumier, and members of the Barbizon School. In 1845, the gallery published a collection of reproductions of works, including four by Eugène Delacroix. It also rented out paintings for social occasions, or by the month, which proved more lucrative than sales.
The young Paul entered the École Militaire de Saint-Cyr in 1851, but resigned to help his exhausted father in the gallery. When he was twenty-four, he visited the Universal Exhibition of 1855, where he was overwhelmed by the thirty-five major works by Delacroix on display there. He later went on to purchase more than sixty of that artist’s paintings during his career as a dealer. Durand-Ruel learned how to authenticate and value works, and in 1863 acted as expert advisor to an auctioneer for the first time.
Shortly after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Durand-Ruel fled to London, where he rented a gallery to exhibit French paintings. He met Charles-François Daubigny, the landscape painter, Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, who had similarly escaped from Paris. He bought and exhibited paintings by Monet and Pissarro immediately, opening his dealings with Impressionists. On his return to Paris, Durand-Ruel additionally started buying paintings from Degas, Sisley, Renoir, Boudin, Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet.
Impressionist paintings didn’t sell at first. Durand-Ruel got into financial trouble, and had to sell off his stock of paintings from Barbizon artists, and to stop buying from Impressionists, putting those artists into financial difficulty. His gallery hosted the Second Impressionist Exhibition in 1876, but sales remained meagre. Business improved between 1880-82, then came a financial crash and Durand-Ruel stopped purchasing again. His breakthrough occurred in 1886, when Americans flocked to his exhibition in New York, and he won over rich American collectors like the Havemeyers.
Durand-Ruel much preferred exclusive relationships with his artists, and fought hard to retain them against the threat posed by his main competitor, Georges Petit. His letters of ‘advice’ to Impressionists make fascinating reading: with the promise of sales, to pay the artist’s bills and put bread on their family’s table, he effectively directed their art.
For example, in 1884, Durand-Ruel told Pissarro: “do me handsome landscapes like the one you sold to Heymann so cheaply. It is very fine and I wish I had it. Seek out pretty subjects, which are a key element of success. Leave figures aside for the moment, or add them merely as props – I feel that landscapes are much more likely to sell.” (Hook, 2017.)
A month later, Durand-Ruel told Monet how to finish his paintings to make them more sellable. That upset the artist, and an exchange of letters followed.
His negotiations over exclusivity were even more manipulative. In 1892, Pissarro rejected an exclusive contract, to which Durand-Ruel explained: “What I am asking is very straightforward and fair. I am entirely disposed to take all your paintings, which will not be awkward for either you or myself, as you fear. It is the only way to avoid competition, the competition which has prevented me from boosting your prices for so long. Only with the monopoly that I am requesting from you can I successfully campaign”. (Hook, 2017.) Within a month, Pissarro surrendered.
Durand-Ruel’s greatest contribution to Impressionism was the dealer’s dream: the series paintings made by Monet, Pissarro and Sisley.
By about 1882, Monet started, perhaps unintentionally, producing series paintings, and in 1889 painted his first series based on near-identical views of a relatively simple motif and composition. He then set out to build series during the winter of 1890-91, in the main Grainstacks series, which were the first to be shown together as a series. These were arranged for a solo exhibition at the Durand-Ruel Gallery, an event which was carefully co-ordinated by the dealer.
After various delays during which Monet apparently made further adjustments to the paintings in the series, the first fifteen canvases were shown at the exhibition which opened on 4 May 1891. They all sold, for sums of up to 1,000 francs, and provided Monet with an excellent return for the winter’s work, and Durand-Ruel with a newly-opened gold mine.
The remaining ten paintings in the series were sold to Durand-Ruel and other dealers by the end of 1891, and all have now been dispersed into art galleries and private collections around the world. The following year Monet started his still more famous series of Rouen Cathedral, which he completed in 1894.
From 1890 to 1897 most of Monet’s paintings consisted of series; after that period he painted very few canvases which were not part of a series. Although there were exceptions, most of his series paintings were of simple compositions and motifs, without people, and were explorations of the effects of light and other immediate influences. They were very successful commercially.
Several of Pissarro’s road views from Louveciennes, painted between 1869-72, might amount to short and loose series, but were scattered, and there is no evidence that he intended them to form a series. Given the large number of road paintings from that period, this may well be chance.
Pissarro changed to painting mostly in series during the final years of his career, most probably as the result of Monet’s success with the Grainstack series.
Alfred Sisley showed similar early tendencies, although he more usually adjusted the view and composition slightly between related paintings. These assembled into some quite extensive, but loose and probably unintended, series during the 1880s. It probably wasn’t until the early 1890s that he set out to paint series, most notably of the Church at Moret-sur-Loing in 1893-4.
Durand-Ruel knew what he could sell, and repeatedly nudged his Impressionists to conform to what he considered sellable. On occasion, this prevented Impressionists from developing their art in the direction which they had intended. He also avoided dealing any more than occasionally in the works of three major artists: Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh, each of whom only attained true recognition after 1900.
Renoir wanted his Large Bathers (1884-87) to be the first of a new style, which he derived from his studies of Old Masters, including Raphael, Rubens and Titian, and Ingres. Despite three years of work on this canvas, this painting was savaged by the critics and Renoir was put under pressure from Durand-Ruel to abandon this change. He did, and flourished as a result.
As Renoir said: “I only painted in bright colours because you had to paint in bright colours! This wasn’t the result of any theory. There was a call for it in the air, and everyone felt it unconsciously, it wasn’t just me.” That “air” was above all Paul Durand-Ruel, the architect of Impressionism.
Sylvie Patrie (ed) (2015) Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market, National Gallery / Yale UP. ISBN 978 1 85709 5845.
Philip Hook (2017) Rogues’ Gallery, A History of Art and its Dealers, Profile Books. ISBN 978 1 17812 5570 4.