The National Gallery, London
Marketing. PR. Spin. Nothing new here for those of us living and working in 2015. But in the early 1870s, when Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and friends were struggling in vain to sell their work, their encounter with the father of modern agents, art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, was to prove critical. Because as the National Gallery’s spring exhibition reveals, Durand-Ruel was a man who understood how to plug and to push a product. And for more than 40 years, he dedicated himself to the Impressionists who without him, in Monet’s words, might not have survived.
But who was this Paul Durand-Ruel? His parents owned an artists’ supply shop in Paris, which, over time, had morphed into a gallery where his father was a successful art dealer. As a boy, Durand-Ruel’s bedroom was strewn with paintings from his parents’ stock; and yet initially he showed no interest in joining the family business. Claiming a “great aversion to commerce”, buying and selling pictures did not appeal and in the early 1850s, he considered entering a monastery. But his was to be a short-lived rebellion: by 1855 Durand-Ruel was working with his father in the gallery and on his father’s death 10 years later, he took over the business.
For a man who was once so repelled by trade, he turned out to have quite the knack. He also had an eye for art that at the time, very few others wanted to buy. Durand-Ruel came across his first two Impressionists, Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, while living in London after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. His decision to invest in these artists’ paintings was immediate, despite their rejection by the Paris Salon and the Royal Academy and their continued failure to sell their work. This was not, however, the first time that Durand-Ruel had put his faith, and his money, in the underdog. The decade before, the dealer had bought Theodore Rousseau’s whole stock of 91 sketches, unpopular and unwanted at the time, but which would ultimately prove to be one of Durand-Ruel’s earliest speculative successes. And when he returned to Paris from London later in 1871, Durand-Ruel played a similar card with the works of one Eduoard Manet, famous at the time for his recurrent rebuff by the Parisian establishment. Undeterred and willing to wager on a “succès de scandale”, Durand-Ruel immediately bought two pieces by Manet and, shortly afterwards in January 1872, cleaned out the his studio by bulk-buying 23 works in one afternoon, the artist’s entire collection.
From an artistic perspective, these were bold moves. Yet from a commercial standpoint, the dealer was acting shrewdly. Although these pictures by Monet, Manet, Degas and the like may have differed both stylistically and in terms of their subject matter from the Paris Salon standard, Durand-Ruel recognised that the market was changing. Bourgeois art-lovers would want to buy bourgeois scenes: temples and goddesses were on their way out; now was the time for cafes, tea dances and seaside scenes. It was, of course, a gamble. But a gamble backed up by tried and tested economic tactics. Convinced that these works would in time prove appealing to a new middle class market, by stockpiling paintings, Durand-Ruel ensured he would ultimately be able to control their prices.
Durand-Ruel teamed up this simple manipulation of supply and demand with a slick marketing machine. And so the amateurish, haphazard first Impressionist exhibition of 1874, which had been held in a photographer’s studio, was replaced, once Durand-Ruel took charge, with the polished show of 1876. Held in the salubrious surroundings of Durand-Ruel’s gallery, the pictures were carefully presented and accompanied by an explanatory brochure written by the critic Edmond Duranty, an essay which would prove to be Impressionism’s only manifesto. Durand-Ruel did not own all the works displayed in the 1876 exhibition, but his personal collection was substantial and bar one or two treasured pieces such as Renoir’s Girl with a Cat (1880), he was happy to maintain a fluid relationship between his own pieces and those which were on sale to the public. Renoir’s Dance in the City (1883), for example, which Durand-Ruel had bought for himself, was often farmed out to exhibitions in France and abroad, although in the end, the painting was never sold by the dealer. He was also happy to use his family’s apartment as an extension of his gallery: here potential buyers could see works in a domestic setting, and by opening up his fashionable home to the public every Tuesday – the day the Musée du Luxembourg was closed – Durand-Ruel could tempt visitors to buy into this chic, haute-bourgeois world. The Durand-Ruel apartment, as photographs show, was rooted in Louis XV style and by mixing French decorative traditions with this new art, Durand-Ruel cleverly connected the Impressionists to the elegance of the 18th century. It had been by means of a similar tactic of “endorsement by association” that Durand-Ruel had first exposed the Impressionists’ works, having slipped them into his galleries among pieces by established artists such as Delacroix, Corot and Courbet.
Durand-Ruel knew, however, that customers were likely to be wary, and to encourage sales, he introduced a buy-back guarantee, a policy he maintained throughout his career. Alfred Sisley’s View of Saint-Mammès (1881) was sold and bought back twice before it was ultimately acquired by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and, in the early 1880s, Durand-Ruel found himself repurchasing several Monets. It was not surprising that his clients sometimes got cold feet given the hostile reception Durand-Ruel’s Impressionists received from the press throughout the 1870s, 80s, 90s and into the following century. But for Durand-Ruel, bad press was better than no press, and even if the column inches were filled with overwhelmingly negative reviews – the 1876 exhibition, for example, was panned by almost every critic – Durand-Ruel had successfully publicised his new artists. Nor was Durand-Ruel afraid to spin the most out of a scandal: after the Paris Salon rejected Courbet’s Still Life with Apples (1872) because it had been painted while the artist was in prison for communist activities, Durand-Ruel prominently displayed the picture in the window of his gallery, bringing the spotlight to his business and to his artists.
Not that Durand-Ruel’s Impressionist mission was plain sailing and despite the dealer’s business acumen, his is a story of set back after set back. In London during the early 1870s when he began exhibiting Monet’s, Pissarro’s and, later, Manet’s works in his New Bond Street gallery, he failed to sell their pictures and any money he made was through sales of his bread and butter artists, including Barbizon painters Rousseau and Millet, as well as Corot and Courbet. A financial slump in 1874 forced Durand-Ruel to close his London gallery the following year, meant he could no longer afford to buy up the Impressionists’ output and compelled him to sell his stock of popular 1830s pictures. And although the 1876 Impressionist exhibition at his Paris gallery was a glossy affair, it hardly resulted in any sales, and critics were vitriolic in their response: “putrefaction in a corpse”, wrote one reviewer of Renoir’s Study: Torso, Sunlight Effect (1875-6). In 1884 another financial crash left Durand-Ruel on the verge of bankruptcy and again unable to support his protégés. Even the blockbuster 1905 London exhibition held at the Grafton Galleries – a scaled-down reconstruction of which is incorporated into the current show – which included 315 of the movements’ finest works and attracted crowds of visitors, only led to 13 sales and a steadfast refusal from the trustees of the National Gallery to buy a Monet for the nation.
We all know that ultimately the story ended happily: there are not many Impressionist paintings floating around on the market today for the equivalent of a few hundred Euros. And during Durand-Ruel’s career he did enjoy some victories. In 1886, when in dire financial straits, a triumphant New York show came to his rescue and enabled him, by 1888, to open a new gallery on Fifth Avenue. “The Americans don’t criticise, they buy,” the dealer once said. He found success in Germany during the 1890s, and it was also by this point that museums and public galleries began buying pieces by the Impressionists. Hamburg’s Kunsthalle bought its first Monet in 1896 (Pears and Grapes (1880)) and in the same year the Nationalgalerie in Berlin acquired Cézanne’s The Mill on the Couleuvre near Pontoise (1881). The French, to their shame, did not add an Impressionist work to a public collection until 1901, when Lyon’s Musée des Beaux-Arts bought Renoir’s Woman playing a Guitar (1896-7). Individual artists also began to find both fame and critical success by the end of the century: when Durand-Ruel staged a solo show for Monet’s Poplars series, it was a sell-out, and by the 1890s, even Pissarro, who was the last of the group to find financial success, had cornered the market with his popular cityscapes.
Of course we will never know how these painters would have fared had Durand-Ruel not taken up their cause. And whatever smaller victories the dealer and his artists achieved along the way, it is perhaps dangerous to claim, as Monet did, that the very survival of the movement rests solely on this extraordinary man’s shoulders. What is clear, however, is that Durand-Ruel initiated not only a new blueprint for the relationship between artist and dealer, but also a modern way to sell art, which still operates today.