Inventing Impressionism – National Gallery
The world is full of talented people whose work is doomed to languish in obscurity unless they get a lucky break. When they do make it, we glory in their talents and never give a second thought as to how they were eventually discovered. The organising idea around this wonderful exhibition is to celebrate the role of the art dealer and one in particular, Paul Durand-Ruel. It was thanks to Durand-Ruel that the likes of Manet, Monet and Pisarro were rescued from penury and given the impetus to follow their creative Muse. He was often their only customer, paid their rent and doctors’ bills. The world owes him a great debt.
During the course of his career as an art dealer it is estimated that Durand-Ruel bought some 1,500 Renoirs, more than 1,000 Monets, 800 Pissarros, more than 400 Degas’ and around 200 of Manet’s works. He would even buy back paintings that he had sold on if he thought the painting had been under-valued. Often he would march into an artist’s garrett and buy everything, lock, stock and barrel. Such largesse often brought Durand-Ruel to the brink of ruin and occasionally he had to augment his resources by collaborating with partners to scoop his prize.
The exhibition opens with a reconstruction of Durand-Ruel’s front room and what a front room. It is full of Renoir’s art including a marvellous painted screen. One of the art dealer’s marketing ploys was to invite potential buyers into his home so they could see how a piece of art would look in a domestic setting.
But the Renoirs are just a taster and as you move on in the exhibition you get an appreciation of how tame his paintings are compared with the more radical and experimental works by Monet, Manet, Degas and Pissarro. Monet’s enormous apple slices or galettes are mouth wateringly succulent and Manet’s Salmon showing the remnants of what appeared to be a tempestuous meal take art to another level. It doesn’t need to be about nobility and mythology. There is beauty, symmetry and life in even the most mundane objects.
Everywhere you looked you encountered a masterpiece, an image that has been reproduced so many times – on biscuit tins, prints, postcards. There are around 90 works spread over seven rooms and for me the highlight was the five paintings from Monet’s Poplar series. The onlooker is almost in danger of sensory overload. And it is not just those we deem to be the masters of Impressionism who are represented – we see some works by Courbet, Delacroix and Corot who all hold their own against their illustrious contemporaries.
Durand-Ruel prototyped exhibitions concentrating on the works of a single artist – such a commonplace these days – and his own and his artists’ fortunes were secured when he cracked the burgeoning American market.
The middle man is often and rightly reviled. But aficionados of art are greatly indebted to Durand-Ruel’s vision, entrepreneurial spirit and persistence. He deserves his moment in the sun and the National Gallery have done him proud.