You Can Thank This Man for Popularizing French Impressionism: Parts 1 and 2

Aug 23, 2015

Chances are that you're familiar with the names of some of the most popular French Impressionists - Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas - and some of their most iconic paintings. And chances are that you've never heard of the man who devoted his career to generating a market and public acceptance of their works.  WRTI's Meridee Duddleston has the story.

French art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel is considered a visionary who spent the majority of his career selling the Impressionists' work.  Starting in 1872, and for the next 40 years, he bought roughly 12,000 pictures, including 1,000 by Monet, 1,500 by Renoir, 400 each by Degas and Albert Sisley, 800 by Pissarro and 200 by Manet, 400 by Mary Cassatt.

Durand-Ruel’s love for the Impressionists started in 1871 in London, when he met Monet. Already an admirer of artists who painted outdoors, Durand-Ruel was introduced to Monet by another artist, who made the prophetic declaration, “He’s going to be the greatest of us all.”  Soon, Durand-Ruel was the exclusive dealer of the work of Monet and Pissarro. 

Paul Durand-Ruel in his gallery, c. 1910
Credit Dornac / Archives Durand-Ruel

Durand-Ruel’s approach to selling was so innovative that today it could be the subject of a business school case study. He bought paintings at prices the artists set. He provided a monthly stipend to artists including Monet, Renoir, Manet and others to give them breathing room to concentrate on their work. He held solo shows, displayed their paintings at eye-level and opened galleries outside of Paris to extend their reach. 

Flavie Durand-Ruel is the great-great-granddaughter of Durand-Ruel and manages his archive in Paris along with his great-grandson Paul-Louis Durand-Ruel. She says Durand-Ruel believed in the Impressionists and stuck with them against the odds. He’s thought of as a dealer, but was also a steadfastly positive man who wrote to his artists regularly to encourage them. 

In his mind, it was only a matter of time before the public would accept the beautiful, bold brush strokes and bright colors of this new way of panting.

The dealer developed personal relationships with artists and spent time at the homes of Cassett, Renoir and Monet. Degas was a witness at a family wedding for his child. Cassatt, who was American but painting and living outside of Paris, paved the way for wealthy collectors in the U.S. to buy Impressionist works, and the tide turned. Cassatt’s brother Alexander, who was president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, became a collector. Flavie Durand-Ruel says that decades later more than half of Renoir’s works in the Barnes Collection were purchased though Durand-Ruel’s gallery, including a portrait of the art dealer’s young daughter, Jeanne.

Dance at Bougival, 1883. Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Museum of Fine Arts Boston

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is the final and only U.S. venue for Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting, an exhibition of over 90 works brought together from museums and private collections around the world. It was seven years in the making, spurred in no small part by Philadelphia connections and relationships from the past and present.

Earlier this year, at Paris's Musee du Luxembourg, the exhibition was called Paul Durand-Ruel: The Gamble of the Impressionists.  At London’s National Gallery, it was Inventing Impressionism: How Paul Durand-Ruel Created the Modern Art Market.

Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting, is now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until September 13, 2015.