Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market

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.

Paul Durand-Ruel, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1910, Private Collection, © Archives Durand-Ruel © Durand-Ruel & Cie

Paul Durand-Ruel, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1910, Private Collection, © Archives Durand-Ruel © Durand-Ruel & Cie

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.

The Thames below Westminster, Claude Mone, about 1871, The National Gallery, London, Bequeathed by Lord Astor of Hever, 1971, © The National Gallery, London

The Thames below Westminster, Claude Monet, about 1871, The National Gallery, London, Bequeathed by Lord Astor of Hever, 1971, © The National Gallery, London

Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, Camille Pissarro, 1870, The National Gallery, London, Presented by Viscount and Viscountess Radcliffe, 1964, © The National Gallery, London

Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, Camille Pissarro, 1870, The National Gallery, London, Presented by Viscount and Viscountess Radcliffe, 1964, © The National Gallery, London

For a man who was once so repelled by trade, he turned out to have quite the knack.   Continue reading

John Singer Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

“No more paughtraits… I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another, especially of the Upper Classes.”  So wrote John Singer Sargent in 1907.  Controversial words from an artist whose reputation was based almost entirely upon painting people.  But true to his word, after this year he turned his paintbrush to landscape: “Ask me to paint your gates, your fences, your barns which I should gladly do, but not the human face.”  Not that he gave up portraiture altogether during the final two decades of his life.  He painted both President Woodrow Wilson and John D Rockefeller in 1917, and continued each year to carry out a handful of commissions, including, in 1913, a painting of his old friend Henry James.  The picture was requested by a group of the writer’s admirers to mark his seventieth birthday, and despite having quite “lost his nerve” when it came to painting portraits – as Sargent confided to James himself – the work, on display as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, seemed to please the sitter, “Sargent at his very best and poor old HJ not at his worst”, James wrote.

NPG 1767; Henry James by John Singer Sargent

Henry James, John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas, 1913 © National Portrait Gallery, London

It is not surprising that Sargent was sick of portraits.  By 1909 he had produced nearly 500 and the constraints of the medium and pressures of his patrons had become too much.  But it is for his portraits that he is remembered and even when the dukes, duchesses and politicians are set aside, as the National Portrait Gallery does for its current show, there are writers, actors, artists, children, aesthetes and musicians aplenty.

Over the past twenty years, Sargent’s reputation has been salvaged.   Continue reading

Rubens Revised

Rubens and His Legacy: From Van Dyck to Cézanne, Royal Academy of Arts

Three, two, one, brace yourself… Rubens is here, at the Royal Academy, in all his gigantic, pulsating, Technicolor glory.  But hang on.  What’s this?  A rural idyll?  Some toiling labourers?  An atmospheric rainbow?  You could be forgiven upon entering the first room of Rubens and His Legacy, for thinking you had got the wrong venue, or had somehow stepped back in time to the V&A’s autumn Constable show.  Because the start of this display may come as a surprise: there are no tigers or bare ladies, and the canvases are, well, modestly sized.  It is not what the exhibition poster, featuring Rubens’ famously violent hunting scene, suggested we might find; nor does it seem very “Rubensy” in here at all.  A glance at the captions, however, confirms that Rubens did apparently do landscapes.  He did them very well, in fact; as well as Constable and Gainsborough.  Except that it would be more accurate to say that Constable and Gainsborough did them as well as Rubens, for Rubens was painting his craggy rocks and billowing trees some 200 years earlier.

050rt_1

Peter Paul Rubens, Evening Landscape with Timber Wagon, 1630-40. Oil on panel. 49.5 x 54.7 cm. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. Photo: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam/Photographer: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam

The decision to kick the exhibition off with this lesser known genre of the painter, was a conscious one on the part of the curators.  We know all about the fleshy nudes and enormous canvases filled with myriad men and gods that dominate his reputation, but are in danger of forgetting the other areas of his art.  And so if this is an exhibition which aims to explore how Rubens touched the generations of artists which followed him, it is also a show which seeks to rehabilitate the painter by highlighting his quieter, informal and more intimate side.

Landscape-with-Stone-Carriers

Peter Paul Rubens, The Carters, 1629. Oil on canvas. 86 x 126.5 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

2010EG9859_jpg_l

John Constable, Full-Scale Study for The Hay Wain, c. 1821. Oil on canvas. 137 x 188 cm. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

If you saw the V&A exhibition last year, the various old master influences on Constable’s work will be familiar, and seeing Rubens’ The Carters (c.1620) alongside a full-scale sketch for The Hay Wain (c.1821), makes it clear that the English artist looked further afield than just Gainsborough and Claude.  “In no other branch of art is Rubens greater than in landscape,” he said in 1833.  But what else is to be expected from Constable?  He was hardly going to wax lyrical about Rubens’ rippling torsos or shimmering flesh, and while the meteorological elements of the Flemish artist’s Landscape with a Rainbow (c.1630) may have captivated and inspired Constable, we do not find many lounging couples and exposed shoulders in his own works. Continue reading

Warts and All: Giovanni Battista Moroni

Royal Academy of Arts

Not long before the Montagues and the Capulets were battling it out in Verona, the Brembati and the Albani were having their own problems 70 miles away in Bergamo.  The Brembati-Albani clash involved fewer star-crossed lovers and vials of poison, however, and instead turned on its protagonists’ opposing loyalties to Spanish or Venetian rule.  But if the Bergamo feud was less romantic than its Veronese equivalent, its end was no less bloody, and, in 1563, one of the Albani family’s servants killed Count Achille Brembati as he prayed in the city’s Church of Santa Maria Maggiore.  After the murder, the Albani were forced to leave Bergamo forever; but today the two families have been reunited on the walls of the Royal Academy, where they again come face to face as part of Giovanni Battista Moroni.   Moroni was Bergamo’s leading painter at the height of the Brembati-Albani dispute, and by the mid-1550s had cornered the portrait market of the city’s high and mighty.  But mindful of his next commission, he was not one for taking sides: in 1553 he painted Isotta Brembati, two years later he was painting Lucia Albani and her husband, Faustino Avogadro, then in 1560 he took on Gian Gerolamo Grumelli, who soon after married Isotta.

key 8 new

Isotta Brembati (c.1555), oil on canvas, © Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo/ Marco Mazzoleni

Portrait of Lucia Albani Avogadro (“The Lady in Red”) (c.1550-60), oil on canvas, © The National Gallery, London

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isotta and Lucia hang opposite one another.  Resplendent in their Sunday best outfits, they drip with jewels, holding their fancy fans.  The aim is clear: to look as important and as rich as possible, and Moroni has risen to the challenge.  Who can miss the pink and white Ostrich feathers of Isotta’s fan, the golden-faced ermine around her neck, or the splendour of Lucia’s gold-shot silk?  The portraits of the husbands are no less flamboyant: Faustino is in his military gear, an enormous feather poking from his hat and an even more enormous plumage rising from the shiny helmet by his side, which must have seen as many battles as Lucia’s golden fan.  Not to be outdone, Gian Gerolamo is head-to-toe in pink, and holds a sword so long it cannot fit in the picture. Continue reading

Radical Rembrandt

Rembrandt: The Late Works, The National Gallery

Rembrandt did not invent the selfie: according to the OED, the image must be a photograph.  But if the self portrait is an early version of this twenty-first century trend, Rembrandt may well be one of its forefathers.  Although artists have been painting themselves for hundreds of years, not many did so as often as Rembrandt, who produced 80-odd self portraits; and these are just the ones that survive.  Unlike today’s self-snappers, Rembrandt did not tend to share his selfies, and the finished portraits were seldom bought by patrons.  Luckily for us, however, the National Gallery is doing the sharing for him, and on display as part of Rembrandt: The Late Works, are six self portraits from the last few years of the artist’s life.

Two of these pictures are from Rembrandt’s final months in 1669, and the artist does not look his best.  He may not have been – if you will excuse the pun – an oil-painting to begin with, but in these last works, in which his swollen, aged face seems to belong more to an 80-year-old than a 63-year-old, it is clear that his health is failing.  But not his painting, which is as robust as it ever was.  The artist was fascinated with his ageing appearance, and his self portrait habit peaked in the last two decades of his life.  On loan from Kenwood House, is the intriguing Self Portrait with Two Circles (about 1665-9), in which he paints himself against a backdrop of two perfect circles, the significance of which has baffled art historians for almost as long as there has been art history.  Is he emulating Giotto who could reportedly draw a perfect circle with a free hand, or are they there to counter-balance the massive triangular bulk of his body?   Whatever the answer, here is Rembrandt as Rembrandt.  He wears his work-a-day painter’s garb and has even eschewed the snazzy berets which feature in the 1669 Mauritshuis Self Portrait and the National Gallery’s 1669 version, donning instead a white artist’s cap and holding the tools of his trade.

Self Portrait with two circles (about 1665-69), Kenwood House, London © English Heritage

Self Portrait with two circles (about 1665-69), Kenwood House, London © English Heritage

Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669), The National Gallery © The National Gallery, London

Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669), The National Gallery © The National Gallery, London

Continue reading

All-weather Constable

Constable: The Making of a Master, Victoria and Albert Museum

Let’s hope John Constable had some decent waterproofs.  The Duke of Wellington’s boots did not catch on until the 1830s, and Mr Macintosh did not start mass-producing his coats until shortly before Constable’s death in 1836.  Umbrellas had been around for a while, but they were both expensive and difficult to fold until 1852 when someone thought to use steel ribs.   And so how did Constable and his materials stay dry in the rain?  Because there must have been rain: this was England and, as the Victoria and Albert’s current exhibition shows, Constable spent a lot of time outdoors.  The museum has picked for its poster backdrop, a scene of white clouds against clement blue sky; inside, however, there is drizzle, rain and storm aplenty.  But no snow.  Even Constable had his limits.

Down the road, Tate Britain has devoted its autumn show to the end of Turner’s career.  And although it would have been poetic if that exhibition had been countered by a V&A display dedicated to early Constable – and the name of the V&A show is open to (mis)interpretation – Constable: The Making of a Master, is not about the painter’s formative years.  Rather, this is full-on Constable, a display which includes examples of all types of his work, from all phases of his career.  The running theme? How Constable made his art; and if we are being picky, the show’s title might more accurately read, Constable: The Making of a Master’s Art.  But that does not have quite the same ring.

Study of Cirrus Clouds (1822), John Constable &copy V&A

Study of Cirrus Clouds (c.1822), John Constable, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Continue reading

Real-Time Turner

Late Turner – Painting Set Free, Tate Britain

Turner did not take much of a retirement.  In 1851, the year he died, he missed the annual exhibitions; but the previous year, aged seventy-five, there he was at the Royal Academy, with four large oils to display.  During the final fifteen years of the artist’s life, he continued to work at much the same rate as he always had.  There may have been a slow down after 1845, but as Tate Britain’s current exhibition shows, these were not the twilight years.  Late Turner – Painting Set Free, which runs until January next year, is a hefty exhibition and the first of its kind.  There has been a constant flow of Turner shows in recent years – Turner and Venice, Turner and the Sea, Turner Whistler Monet, Turner Monet Twombly – but there has never been a Turner the OAP.  Victorian biographers and critics might have been surprised at today’s theme (one nineteenth century artist even described Turner’s later work as “repulsive”), but for the twenty-first century visitor, the current display includes some of the painter’s most well-known and well-loved works.

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas exhibited 1850 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas (exhibited 1850), J M W Turner, © Tate

This is not, however, an exhibition designed only to showcase the artist’s post-1835 knock-outs and eulogise one of our so-called ‘Great Britons’.  Rather it is an academic display, devised to make the visitor think, learn and reassess.  Turner the Impressionist, Turner the proto-abstract painter, these twentieth century interpretations of the artist have no place in this show.  And stripped of such reductive labels, it is a real-time Turner who emerges, a Turner whose pieces can be viewed as both modern and traditional, while remaining untainted by references to the future.

It all started in the 1890s when art historians began to look at Turner’s later output, much of which was incomplete, in a new light.  Continue reading