Sunday, July 5, 2015

Discovering Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art


Discovering Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting

Philadelphia Museum of Art 

June 24 to September 13, 2015

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In 1910, Pierre-Auguste Renoir created his last, truly great picture. Suffering terribly from  rheumatoid arthritis, Renoir drew upon a life-time of artistic skill and fortitude to paint Portrait of Paul Durand-Ruel. The subject of this tremendous painting was the visionary art dealer who had supported the Impressionists when few people believed in their work and even fewer purchased it.

Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) is the protagonist in a major international art exhibition, currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is the third and final showing of this insightful exhibit, which was shown previously at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris and at the National Gallery in London.  Discovering Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting is on view in Philadelphia, June 24 to September 13, 2015.

The first thing about Portrait of Paul Durand-Ruel that strikes one is the uncompromising way that Renoir evoked the "ravages of age." This is a portrait of an elderly man who has suffered his share of life's vicussitudes - and perhaps more than his share.

The second feature of  this remarkable work complements - and confounds - the previous impression. Look closely at the eyes. Renoir places a small dot of white on each of Durand-Ruel's dark eyes. These specks of gleaming light reveal the extraordinary life force lurking behind the shadows and creases of this weary man's face. Like lasers, Durand-Ruel's eyes fix upon us, appraising and taking our measure. There is no deceiving these eyes that have seen so much already.

Portrait of Paul Durand-Ruel is a depiction of an old campaigner who still has plenty of fight left. But for the demands of his family's business, Durand-Ruel might indeed have had an impressive career in the French Army. Instead, he used his capacity for strategic planning to lead the Impressionist artists to success on the field of artistic battle.  

Claude MonetThe Artist's Garden in Argenteuil, 1873

Discovering Impressionism has been advertised as the "untold story" of Impressionism. This certainly seems incredible when you consider the number of exhibits that have previously dealt with the "New Painting," as Impressionism was initially called. For once, this claim is no exaggeration. Durand-Ruel's role in the Impressionist saga, though examined in the specialist literature, is here documented for the first time in a major exhibition.

Durand-Ruel's entry into the art world came at the entreaty of his father. In 1851, Durand-Ruel was accepted as a cadet in the French military academy, St. Cyr. But his father's declining health forced him to resign and he devoted himself to helping manage the family's Paris-based firm. This was a company specializing in the sale of paper, with a sideline trade in selling or renting art works. These included works by the leading lights of French Romanticism such as Théodore Géricault and Eugene Delacroix, unexpected choices for a solidly bourgeois family.

In 1855, Durand-Ruel visited the Universal Exhibition, the first French "world's fair." Durand-Ruel's appreciation of art was deepened by what he saw, especially Delacroix's later works and the landscapes of the Barbazon painters. What had begun as a filial duty now became a passion.

Durand-Ruel embraced  avant-garde art before the age of Impressionism had even begun. These Barbizon artists are sometimes called  the School of 1830, a revolutionary year which saw the reactionary French monarch, Charles X, toppled from his throne. Trend-setting artists, like Camille Corot, Charles-François Daubigny, Théodore Rousseau and Gustave Courbet are highlighted in the early galleries of  Discovering Impressionism and the point is well-taken. 

Rousseau's  View of Mont Blanc, painted shortly before he died in 1867, is hyper-realistic, rather than impressionistic.  Yet, it is as revolutionary as Daubigny's landscapes which clearly point to the dawn of Impressionism.  Gustave Courbet's Woman in the Waves shows far less of the female body than Alexandre Cabanel's classical nude, The Birth of Venus, which had been the sensation of the 1863 Salon. There is absolutely nothing mythological about Courbet's naked lady. That is what made the work so shocking in the 1860's and still a bit unsettling today.

 Gustave Courbet, The Woman in the Waves, 1868

These works in the early exhibit galleries raise the question why Durand-Ruel favored avant-garde artists like the the School of 1830 - and later the Impressionists.  Everything about Durand-Ruel's personal life clashed with the kind of art he sold in his galleries. He was politically conservative, a practicing Roman Catholic, a devoted husband and family man and, after his beloved young wife died in 1871, a widower who never remarried. Perhaps the answer lies in the way that he combined a pragmatic approach in selling art with missionary zeal as the advocate of painters whom the haughty, elitist Salon routinely rejected. 

Durand-Ruel's complex character did not include risking everything for  the sake of bold, useless gestures. In 1870, France under Napoleon III lurched into a hopeless war with a well-prepared Germany led by Otto von Bismarck. Durand-Ruel took his family and business to safety in  England. He opened a London gallery at a sales facility at 168 New Bond Street, ironically known as the German Gallery. There he settled down to wait-out events. But "events" came looking for him.

Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878) also sought shelter in England and introduced another artist refugee, Claude Monet (1840-1926), to Durand-Ruel. “This artist will surpass us all,” Daubigny declared.  

Durand-Ruel was greatly impressed with Monet's work and also with that of Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), who had escaped the disasterous war as well. Sadly, Monet's devoted - and financially generous - friend and fellow artist, Frédéric Bazille, would never meet Durand-Ruel. Bazille volunteered for military service and was killed in action in one of the final, futile battles of a war that Émile Zola would later describe as La Débâcle.

Following France's humiliating defeat, Durand-Ruel returned to Paris, determined to advance the careers of Monet and Pissarro. Their paintings evoked a sense of modernity and naturalism that was a refreshing contrast with the superficial values of the fallen Second Empire.

“Please be so kind as to send me others as soon as you are able to,” Durand-Ruel wrote to Pissarro when the latter sent him a painting to inspect. 

This was a key element of Durand-Ruel's marketing strategy. Buying en bloc enabled Durand-Ruel to showcase the oeuvre of his favored artists, as opposed to individual works, and to corner the market when their fame and prices rose. 

When we look at some of the early works by Monet and Pissarro on display in the Philadelphia exhibition, it quickly becomes apparent how vital Durand-Ruel's policy was.

Camille Pissarro,The Lock at Pontoise, 1872

Claude Monet, Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, 1874

The Lock at Pontoise by Pissarro and Monet's Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil deal with similar themes and settings. But each artist, with the financial backing of Durand-Ruel, was free to explore and depict the the world in his own inimitable style.

Durand-Ruel extended his support to like-minded artists, Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Monet's boon companion from the glorious Grenouillère painting sessions, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). 

 Edgar Degas, The Dance Foyer at the Opera on the rue Le Peletier, 1872

In 1872, Durand-Ruel purchased twenty-six paintings from Édouard Manet the notorious creator of Olympia. In a single visit to Manet's studio, Durand-Ruel bought twenty-three of these works for 35,000 francs ($175,000).This heady sum, as the exhibit text declares, was forty times the average French worker’s salary. 

This was not just a daring financial move, but a direct challenge to the Salon who had earlier scorned Manet's work. Even though Manet pointedly evoked Old Masters  like Velazquez in his Boy with a Sword, he continued to be regarded as an enfant terrible by the French art establishment.

 Édouard Manet, Boy with a Sword, 1861

With his declaration of support for Manet, Durand-Ruel challenged the Salon, until now the official arbiter of French culture. With Durand-Ruel on the scene, the Salon was no longer "the only game in town."

Durand-Ruel plotted his moves with the bold tactics of a battle-tested military commander. But, unlike his counterparts in the French Army who subscribed to the headless policy of attaque à outrance, he knew when to retreat as well as to advance. In 1873, a world-wide economic crisis halted France's post-war recovery.  Durand-Ruel slowed the rate of his purchases and after disappointing sales at the first two Impressionist exhibitions in 1874 and 1875, he ceased buying new works altogether for nearly five years.

Was Durand-Ruel more of an opportunist than a crusading advocate of Impressionism? Sisley, who later broke-off with him, declared that Durand-Ruel, “acts as a modern speculator, with angelic sweetness.” 

Durand-Ruel was indeed a "modern speculator." He had very limited financial resources of his own and often borrowed heavily to fund his purchases and the exhibitions he mounted to showcase these works. In one particularly desperate situation, he negotiated a loan based on the value of the picture frames in his gallery. The price of his stock of Monets and Renoirs was so low as to be virtually worthless in the eyes of his creditors.

When the French economy started to show signs of reviving, Durand-Ruel began to purchase paintings from the financially-besieged Impressionists. In 1881, he bought forty-nine canvases from Renoir, followed by more in succeeding years. Three of these works form a breathtaking array of beauty at the heart of the Discovering Impressionism exhibit.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival, 1883

Dance at Bougival, perhaps the most beloved work in the collection of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, hangs with City Dance and Country Dance from the Musee d'Orsay to from a joy-giving triptych. Renoir's bon vivant friend, Paul Lhôte, sweeps Aline Charigot, later Renoir's wife, off her feet in Country Dance. His dance partner in the other two pictures is the redoubtable Suzanne Valadon, ex-trapeze performer and later a notable post-Impressionist painter.

Exhibition view of Discovering Impressionism  Photo: Anne Lloyd

Taken together, these three wondrous paintings are a major testament to the joys of being human, of being alive. Jaded museum goers need to forget how many times they have seen these in art books. Look at the charred matches and the bunch of crumpled violets at the feet of Suzanne Valadon and the sweetness of her smile in Dance at Bougival. Look at the unabashed happiness on the face of Aline Charigot. Life is short, but a moment of joy can last forever.

Economic upswings do not last forever. In 1882, the collapse of the Union Générale, a fraudulent investment bank, almost caused the closing of the French stock market. Durand-Ruel, who had been purchasing works based on loans, faced the most serious crisis of his career. But fortunately, his good deeds went unpunished.

Among his many virtues, Durand-Ruel was very enlightened in his support of women in the arts. The careers of Berthe Morisot (1841 -1895) and Mary Cassatt (1844 -1926) both benefited from his support. 

Mary Cassatt, The Child's Bath, 1893

Cassatt, who came from a well-to-do American family, offered loans to help Durand-Ruel ride out the storm. It was Cassatt's connections with America's Gilded Age aristocracy, however, that proved most helpful to him. Cassatt's brother, Alexander, the President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, bought pictures and so did her influential New York friends, Henry and Louisine Havemeyer. The word started to spread throughout the United States about the exciting new paintings from France.

In 1886, James Sutton and the American Art Association invited Durand-Ruel to organize an exhibition of the Impressionist painters in New York City. Like the gifted strategist he was, Durand-Ruel knew that it was time to throw in all his reserves. He traveled to New York with his son Charles and  forty-three cases of artwork.  The ensuing exhibit, along with one at the National Academy of Design, brought $40,000 in sales to Durand-Ruel and total vindication for Impressionism.

Works in Oil and Pastel by the Impressionists of Paris, Durand-Ruel's New York exhibit, is one of the key events in art history. It also represents a significant moment in American history.The 1886 Impressionist sale marked the beginning of the shift of cultural leadership from Europe to the United States that climaxed with the triumph of the New York School in 1945.

Discovering Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting is a triumph for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well. This exhibition is intelligently curated, with "special effects" kept to a  merciful minimum. The art works themselves, each of which passed through the doors of Durand-Ruel & Cie., are allowed to tell the story of Impressionism's travail and triumph.  

And like all really good stories, Discovering Impressionism leaves a tantalizing mystery or two for us to reflect upon. 

Dornac, Photograph of Paul Durand-Ruel in His Gallery, about 1910

Even after taking in this wonderful exhibit, I still wonder what  motivated Paul Durand-Ruel, a man of tradition, to risk so much for pictures of transitory light effects. What really drove Durand-Ruel, who slept with a crucifix above his bed, to tempt fate for the sake of paintings like The Artist's Garden in Argenteuil or Poplars on the Bank of the Epte River?

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Photos courtesy of the Philadelphia  Museum of Art

Introductory Image: 
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919) Portrait of Paul Durand-Ruel, Oil on Canvas,  25.6 × 21.7 inches (65 × 55 cm), 1910. Private collection. Image © Archives Durand-Ruel © Durand-Ruel & Cie

Claude Monet (French, 1840 -1926) The Artist's Garden in Argenteuil, Oil on Canvas, overall: 61 x 82.5 cm (24 x 32 1/2 in.) 1873. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.: Gift of Janice H. Levin, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819 -1877) The Woman in the WavesOil on Canvas, 25 3/4 x 21 1/4 in. (65.4 x 54 cm),  1868. Metropolitan Museum of Art, H.O Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.62)

Camille Pissarro(French, 1830 -1903) The Lock at Pontoise, Oil on Fabric, 20 13/16 x 32 5/8 inches ( 53  x 83 cm), 1872. Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna Fund, 1990.7

Claude Monet (French, 1840 -1926) Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, Oil on Canvas, Oil on Canvas, 21 3/8 x 28 7/8 inches ( 54.3  x 73.3 cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917, cat. 1050

Edgar Degas (French, 1834 -1917) The Dance Foyer at the Opera on the rue Le Peletier Oil on Canvas, 12 3/5 x 18 1/10 in. (32 x 46 cm),  1872. Musee d'Orsay, Paris: Bequest of count Isaac de Camondo, 1911

Édouard Manet  (French, 1832 -1883)Boy with a Sword, Oil on Canvas, 51 5/8 x 36 3/4 in. (131.1 x 93.4 cm), 1861. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Erwin Davis, 1889 (89.21.2)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919) Dance at Bougival, Oil on canvas,  71 5/8 x 38 5/8 in. (181.9 x 98.1 cm), 1883. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Picture Fund purchase,(37.375 )Image: © The Boston Museum of Fine Arts  

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844 -1926, The Child's Bath, Oil on Canvas, Oil on canvas,  100.3  x 66.1 cm. (39 1/2 x 26 inches), 1893. Art Institute of Chicago, Robert A. Waller Fund, 1910. 2

Exhibition view of Discovering Impressionism  Photo: Anne Lloyd

Dornac (Paul François Arnold Cardon) (French,1859-1941) Photograph of Paul Durand-Ruel in His Gallery, about 1910. Archives Durand-Ruel. Image © Archives Durand-Ruel © Durand-Ruel & Cie

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