Selling Impressionism

On a cool, damp spring morning in London, it is a great pleasure to walk into the National Gallery to bask in the sunny landscapes of Monet, Pissarro and their friends. Smokey Robinson is not the only one who has sunshine on a cloudy day. This excellent exhibition, in London through the end of May, is a joy to visit. But visitors should be aware that its packaging is at best deceptive.

All images courtesy of the National Gallery, London, UK.

Titled, "Inventing Impressionism," the exhibition is a tribute to Paul Durand-Ruel, who was an important and innovative art dealer. Curiously, however, the title appears to give him credit for an innovation in which he played no role. Indeed, he was not even present at the creation. Durand-Ruel first met Monet and Pissarro in 1871. Monet had invented Impressionism with Renoir two years earlier, and Pissarro was already firmly committed to the cause. So this exhibition has nothing to do with inventing Impressionism. The exhibition was presented in Paris last fall as "Le Pari de l'Impressionisme," and will be displayed in Philadelphia this summer as "Discovering the Impressionists." Either of these other titles would be more accurate than that chosen by the National Gallery. More accurate that any of these would be the title that heads this article. But of course art world aesthetes are too sensitive to refer to commerce in the title of an exhibition, even if they are charging admission to a show that is about a businessman. Hypocrisy is not the exclusive domain of politicians.

Claude Monet, Poplars on the Epte (1891).

Durand-Ruel was the first dealer to recognize the importance of the Impressionists. Yet his role has often been misrepresented -- and exaggerated -- by scholars. Contrary to the claim of a celebrated study by Harrison and Cynthia White, Durand-Ruel did not perform "the role of patron -- in the Renaissance sense of the word," for he did not provide steady or continuous support for the Impressionists in their difficult early decades. Nor was he a unique or effective early promoter of the Impressionists. Most of their early collectors in Paris were acquaintances of the artists, who bought directly from their studios. Scholars have often credited Durand-Ruel with creating an American market for the Impressionists. But at best he shared this distinction with Mary Cassatt, who found key American collectors -- notably the Havemeyers of New York and the Palmers of Chicago - before Durand-Ruel ever began to sell in New York.

Camille Pissarro, The Avenue, Sydenham (1871).

Paul Durand-Ruel was a shrewd businessman, and a perceptive judge of innovative art. He was not a benevolent or altruistic patron of artists. His interest in art was firmly rooted in economics, as he bought large numbers of canvases at low prices in the expectation that they would rise in value, and he would gain great wealth. They did, and he did. Durand-Ruel was consequently a successful entrepreneur. The National Gallery should have the integrity to give this exhibition an honest title, in recognition of the true nature of Durand-Ruel's accomplishment.