An astonishing collection of work that passed through the hands of the 19th century French art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel is currently being exhibited at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. Entitled “Paul Durand-Ruel, Le Pari de L’impressionnisme” (The Gamble of Impressionism), it traces the journey of this visionary man from a right bank shopkeeper to the world-renowned art collector and the inventor of the profession of modern art dealer.
Born to a Parisian Catholic family, Durand-Ruel was a staunch monarchist throughout his life. Due perhaps to his zealous character his career of choice would have been as an officer in the French army. However, for health reasons this did not come to pass and instead he assumed the helm of his father’s papeterie, a stationary store that also carried art supplies. Various artists would frequent the shop and around 1850 he began to carry some of their paintings.
It was while he was in exile in London, escaping the Franco-Prussian war, that everything clicked and his true calling, his métier, came into view. Many French compatriots were similarly in England at this time and Durand-Ruel began to circulate in a crowd of artists known both as the Barbizon school and the Belle Ecole de 1830. Among this group was the daring painter Eugène Delacroix. Durand-Ruel would later write:
Les tableaux de Delacroix «m’ouvrirent définitivement les yeux et me fortifièrent dans la pensée que je pourrais, peut-être, rendre quelques services aux vrais artistes en m’employant à les faire mieux comprendre et aimer.»
The paintings of Delacroix “forever opened my eyes and strengthened my belief that I might, perhaps, be of service to these true artists by devoting myself to making them understood and appreciated.”
He borrowed money to purchase the paintings of Delacroix, Charles Daubigny and others. It was Daubigny who in London fatefully introduced Durand-Ruel to the already controversial Claude Monet and, in turn, another budding bad boy of paint named Eduoard Manet.
Monet - La Liseuse
During this period in Paris artists became successful through a singular and stifling route. They would submit their paintings for consideration by the jury of the Salon des Beaux-Arts. Made up of members of L’Académie des Beaux-Arts, the juries for the Salons were famously conservative and did not wish to degrade their inbred criteria by allowing newcomers. Paintings were supposed to elevate and inspire not reflect the daily life of ordinary people. The jury favored subjects such as mythology, scenes from the Bible and historical depictions. The juries were especially appalled by the style of artists whose work contained images of common people in rural villages and was often painted outdoors. Adding further insult to the jury, the emerging style, soon to be known as Impressionism, revealed the painters’ brushstrokes and took particular liberties in depicting water and the sky in highly dramatic fashion. According to L’Académie, this sort of drama was to be reserved only for religion and the contemplation of nature was strictly divorced from Catholicism.
Napoléon III played an interesting role in shaking up the scene. Tiring of the incestuous ways of L’Académie, and wishing to cause a stir by democratizing the exhibition process, Napoléon created the Salon des Refusés. He ordered that all of the paintings rejected by the jury be displayed in an adjacent building. The Salon des Refusés became a must-see event where the public received a liberal education in contemporary painting. Advertised as an exhibit filled with “spice, inspiration and amazement,” it did not disappoint.
Manet-L'Enfant à l'épée
Manet - Déjeuner sur L’Herbe
Edouard Manet, a man of private means and a painter with a vengeance against conventionalism, caused the greatest sensation by exhibiting his Déjeuner sur L’Herbe in the Salon des Refusés. Like the controversy that would 130 years later make Robert Mapplethorpe an international sensation (1), everyone in Paris was either talking about Manet’s painting or waiting in the long lines to see it. This daring painting featured men dressed comme il faut enjoying a picnic with a perfectly nude prostitute. Durand-Ruel bought every painting Manet had in his atelier at the asking price and sent Manet to the homes and studios of his friends to collect all of the paintings that he had loaned to them or left in their possession.
Durand-Ruel found all of this thrilling and used whatever means he had or could obtain to buy, buy, buy. He had already begun to collect the work of artists including Boudin, Courbet and Corot; artists who are seen as the direct precursors and influences upon the generation to come. Eugène Boudin is widely believed to have taken a young and rather unfocussed Claude Monet under his tutelage when they were both living on the northern coast of their native Normandy. Boudin, who along with Courbet, is credited with redefining the way the sky is depicted by painting the magnificently ebullient and wildly dramatic clouds famous on the Continent. He invited Monet to paint with him on the coast, in the villages, in the meadows and on the monumental cliffs of Normandy. If Durand-Ruel had not met Monet through Daubigny in London he probably would have met him through Boudin.
Sisley - LePont à Villeneuve-la-Garenne
It would be decades, however, before the work of Claude Monet, Berthe Morrisot, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Dégas and Pierre-Auguste Renior would begin to exhibit widely and fetch prices that would allow the artists to thrive. It was Durand-Ruel who supported them with monthly stipends as well as through before his practice of buying their paintings, selling them, rebuying them and reselling them at a higher price.
Degas - La Classe de Ballet
In 1886, Although Durand-Ruel was already in desperate financial straits he ventured the biggest risk of his career. He shipped 300 paintings, many of them by the Impressionists, to an exhibit sponsored by the American Art Association in New York City. The American art collectors who saw these paintings and this style for the first time at this exhibit were not concerned with the strict conventions that still influenced most European collectors and the work began to sell. Durand-Ruel had succeeded in building a buzz of excitement for this new style. By the turn of the century, any ambitious American collector had to have a work by one or more of the Impressionists.
Near the end of his wonderfully successful life as a painter, Claude Monet gave an interview in which he said:
«Sans Durand, nous serions morts de faim, nous tous, les Impressionnistes. Nous lui devons tout. Il s’est entêté, acharné, il a risqué vingt fois la faillite pour nous soutenir. La critique nous trainait dans la boue ; mais lui, c’est bien pis ! On écrivait : Ces gens sont fous, mais il y a plus fous qu’eux, c’est un marchand qui les achète ! »
“Without Durand, we would have died of starvation, all of us, the Impressionists. We owe him everything. In his fierce stubbornness, he risked bankruptcy twenty times to support us. The critics dragged us through the mud but, toward him, they were even worse! They would write: These people are crazy but there is someone even crazier than they are—a dealer who buys their work!”
Renoir - Paul Durand-Ruel
Paul Durand-Ruel, Le Pari de L’impressionnisme can be seen at the Musée du Luxembourg in the Jardin du Luxembourg through February 8, 2015.
Musée du Luxembourg
 Pairings In Paris, Scene4 Magazine August 2014
Femme à la vague, Gustauve Courbet, ©Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC/Malcolm Varon
Danse à la campagne, 1883, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image : Wikimedia Commons
La Liseuse, Claude Monet, ©Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD
L’Enfant à l’épée, 1861, Edouard Manet, The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image : Wikimedia Commons.
Déjeuner sur L’Herbe, Edouard Manet, Wikimedia Commons
Le Pont à Villeneuve-la-Garenne, Alfred Sisley, © Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC/Malcolm Varon
La Classe de Ballet, Edgar Dégas, © Philadelphia Museum of Art
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Durand-Ruel, 1910, Archives Durand-Ruel © Durand-Ruel & Cie.
Musée du Luxembourg, © Nicolas Krief