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

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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.

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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.

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

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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

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