November 16, 2014

"Paul Durand-Ruel: The Impressionist Gamble"

While museum goers on both sides of the Atlantic are quite familiar with the work of Renoir, Monet, Pissarro and Manet, very few are aware of the man who put them on the map - the person who encouraged them, supported them, promoted them and believed in them - the gallerist Paul Durand-Ruel.

Monsieur Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) was a Victorian conundrum.  Conservative in matters of family and religion - he was a father of five, a devout Catholic and a Monarchist - Durand-Ruel was at the same time a fierce promoter of radical new art movement called Impressionism.  He came by his art dealing honestly as his father had established a very successful gallery devoted to landscape painters of the Barbizon School (including Millet, Rousseau and Daubigny) which Paul took over in the mid 1860s.  His first move was to relocate to rue Lafitte, then the heart of the art dealing district, and he continued to transform the gallery with newfangled business ideas and avant garde artists.

Tame as Impressionism seems today, to the 19th century collector it was extreme.  No longer were faces, landscapes and objects painted in a realistic and identifiable manner, now viewers were expected to use their powers of interpretation to discern an "impression" of a smile, a flower or a sunrise.  Liberated by paint available in tubes, artists were able to expand their work places beyond the studio and into the out of doors where light and motion became elements to be incorporated into the scene.  Practitioners of this new way of painting were revolutionary in the eyes of traditionalists and met with much resistance from both critics and their peers.

Paul Durand-Ruel embraced this new view of the world.  In fact he did much more, he supported it with every resource at his disposal and can be credited without hesitation as the single most important contributor to the overwhelming and lasting success of Impressionism.  Ironically, despite his global presence and singular importance, he remains very much in the shadows but a new exhibition in Paris at the Musée du Luxembourg should bring him the recognition he deserves.

"Paul Durand-Ruel:  The Impressionist Gamble - Manet, Monet, Renoir..." takes a look at the man and the gallery that bears his name and the profound impact they had on the art world as we know it today.  Paul Durand-Ruel was introduced to Monet and Pissarro during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune in London and was immediately entranced by their aesthetic.  He later met and took an interest in Sisley, Degas, Morisot, Renoir and Manet, putting his money where his mouth was in each instance.  Durand-Ruel was the first art dealer to actively purchase and promote the work of "his" artists developing the business strategies of exclusivity, stock building and one-man shows.  In addition to the Paris headquarters, he opened branch galleries in London and New York, and organized traveling exhibitions that toured around the world.

Claude Monet "Haystacks", 1891

The installation at the Musée du Luxembourg seeks to recreate Durand-Ruel's personal art mecca, his apartment at 35 rue du Rome in Paris, and offers some examples of iconic works he owned or dealt to private collections and museums.  The exhibition presents a greatest hits of Impressionist art with masterpieces by some of the movement's most famous contributors.

Of course, art cannot be created without artists, but Impressionism owes a huge debt of gratitude to the tireless support of this unsung hero, a man ahead of his time, and a fairy godfather to some of the most recognizable artists we worship today.

I leave you with a photo I took early one morning as I was crossing the Pont Royal.  The weather was mild but the clouds were dramatic, almost ominous, as the lonely barge made its way west along the Seine.  Soon the sun would be fully up and the daily hustle and bustle would begin, but this quiet moment was a nice start to the day.

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