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Inventing Impressionism l Paul Durand-Ruel at The National Gallery
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Inventing Impressionism l Paul Durand-Ruel at The National Gallery

Picture of Jillian Levick
Updated: 10 April 2017
Paul Durand-Ruel saw the value in the controversial style that is today so admired, while others were wishing that artists like Monet would “cure” themselves of the “sickness of Impressionism”. It was deeply unpopular, with critics disliking the way that conventions were overturned. Female nudes, for example, traditionally expounded as the paradigm of classical beauty and therefore the most idealised figures, were inverted by the Impressionists, like Gustave Courbet, who depicted the goddess Venus with underarm hair in Woman in the Waves, or Pierre-August Renoir, whose Study: Torso, Sunlight Effect featured dappled light on female flesh, which one critic likened to ‘putrefaction in a corpse’. In addition to these subversive subjects, styles were considered problematic as well, with one critic announcing that ‘Pissarro has spots before his eyes’.

Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel is credited with bringing Impressionism to the forefront of the art world when few others saw or believed in its potential. Now, and until May 31, 2015, The National Gallery has put on a beautiful and informative exhibit, examining the influence and passion of the man and his artists.

Berthe Morisot Woman at Her Toilette, 1875-80 © The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
Berthe Morisot Woman at Her Toilette, 1875-80 | © The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
Gustave Courbet The Woman in the Waves, 1868 Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of  Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.62) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Gustave Courbet The Woman in the Waves, 1868 Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.62) | © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In this style, however, Durand-Ruel saw a new and beautiful way of portraying life and the people in it. Like life, these works are unclear up-close, but come together beautifully with a bit of distance and perspective. They mimic aspects that are typically associated with what photography captures, such as texture, movement, and scope, portraying truth and reality of the surrounding world through subtle techniques. Renoir’s The Dancer is a particularly powerful painting, as the fluidity of the movement of dance is reflected in the fluidity of his brushstrokes, whereby the paint moves together in a parallel of the swish of the dancer’s tutu. Monet’s Springtime depicts light so beautifully, that Emile Zola commented that the woman’s dress was ‘dotted with sequins of light like drops of water’.

Durand-Ruel used his PR and marketing skills to attract international attention and support for these artists and their work. In addition to bringing Impressionism to the European and international markets, his methods of doing so essentially made him the first modern art dealer as well. He found backers, investors, and partners, he sought exclusivity deals, and he exhibited art in ways never done before. Durand-Ruel mastered the art of publicity, and in the early 1880s he began staging a series of solo exhibitions, which at the time were typically held only to pay homage to artists already deceased. They came complete with narratives, reproductions for the press, and exclusive and extravagant private views; all key aspects of successful PR that we take for granted today but which were visionary then.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir Two Sisters (On the Terrace), 1881 The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection 1933.455 © The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
Pierre-Auguste Renoir Two Sisters (On the Terrace), 1881 The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection 1933.455 | © The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

Genuinely believing in his artists, Durand-Ruel supported them in any and every way imaginable. Unusually, politics did not trump passion, and though he had very different political beliefs than many of his artists, being a conservative and a monarchist, his support was unwavering. When he was in the black he bought in bulk, buying and commissioning pieces to allow them to continue working when they were being either ignored or condemned by the established French art scene. When he was in the red, which happened as well due to the precarious nature of art trends and multiple financial crashes, he lent spaces for them to exhibit their work in.

He expanded into American markets by launching a massive showing titled Works in Oil and Pastel by the Impressionists of Paris. The emphasis on Paris was key, as it attracted rich Americans who were eager to see and buy the latest coming from Europe, despite the fact that Europeans themselves had little interest, aside from a largely negative one. This American success story begs many questions about the nature of popularity and trends, and the measure of what is “good” and what is popular.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir Paul Durand-Ruel, 1910 Private collection Archives Durand-Ruel © Durand-Ruel & Cie.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir Paul Durand-Ruel, 1910 Private collection Archives Durand-Ruel | © Durand-Ruel & Cie.

France was the harshest critic of some of its most beloved and revered national exports. The first work purchased by a French public collection was Renoir’s Woman Playing a Guitar, which needed an excellent deal and the persuasion of Lyon’s mayor to be bought. Eventually, however, due to growing popularity elsewhere, the private and public French doors opened, and the Impressionists went from being scoffed at to being sold.

Durand-Ruel’s integrity, however, never waned, even in the wake of his growing success. Ultimately, he loved and believed in Impressionism, and wanted the world to be able to appreciate it, not just to buy it. He so loved Renoir’s Dance at Bougival, for example, that he only agreed to sell it to a French collector on the condition that it eventually enter a museum. In 1905 London was subsequently conquered as well, with a massive showing at London’s Grafton Galleries. The exhibit drew huge crowds of visitors and press, and this became known as the birth of modern art as it is today.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir Dance at Bougival, 1883 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Picture Fund 37.375 © 2014 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Pierre-Auguste Renoir Dance at Bougival, 1883 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Picture Fund 37.375 | © 2014 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In addition to the extremely interesting examination of the man who brought the art to the world, the art itself is indeed enough of a reason to visit. The informative exhibit is supplemented with personal pamphlets for every visitor, complete with detailed descriptions of each piece, allowing everyone to gain insight into the gorgeous and meaningful artwork in their own space and at their own pace. It is a beautiful, comprehensive, and thought-provoking exhibit, in its portrayals of Durand-Ruel, and of the art he so fiercely championed.

Inventing Impressionism is on at The National Gallery until May 31, 2015.

The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN