Renoir’s color-saturated dance scenes, Monet’s visions of the Thames and poplar trees, and Pissarro’s luminous cityscapes — the presence of these paintings guarantee blockbuster crowds at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where “Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting” is on view through Sunday, September 13.
It seems everyone today loves the paintings produced by the above artists — along with those of Cassatt, Degas, and Sisley (also featured in the exhibition). Of course, the Impressionists are celebrated for the luminous colors and bold brushstrokes they used to create inventive scenes of a changing, modern world. And given the popularity of the artists and their work it is no surprise the PMA’s gift shop is stocked with framed reproductions of Monet’s gardens at Giverny, as well as a cookbook from his kitchen, and cake plates, table linens, and straw hats with flowers that appear in the impressionist’s canvases — these souvenirs of impressionism are known revenue generators.
But when the Impressionists first started to paint this way, applying daubs of brushstroke to suggest a scene, the word “impressionist” was used as a mark of mockery and contempt. In the 1870s, critics derided them for rejecting traditional subjects and painting methods, and collectors shied away from their work. While it may seem that these artists were basking in the light of the countryside, their world was dark as they struggled to express themselves in a new way.
The story this exhibition tells is that of the Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who, upon inheriting his family’s art gallery, invested in the work of such innovative painters as Eugene Delacroix, Gustave Courbet, and Jean-Francois Millet, becoming their champion. An astute businessman, his technique was to buy up an artist’s oeuvre, supporting artists he believed in, and create a monopoly so he could control the prices. He would borrow money from banks and partner with other dealers.
PMA Director Timothy Rub calls Durand-Ruel “an enterprising art dealer who made an early and daring investment in these young artists and essentially created the modern art market in the face of bankruptcy and public ridicule. Many great Impressionist collections today were formed with works that passed through his hands.”
When in 1872 Durand-Ruel bought up 26 of Edouard Manet’s sea paintings at the prices that the revolutionary artist — often called the “father of impressionism” — asked, it was a turning point in the artist’s career — and the history of art.
Over a period of 40 years, Durand-Ruel bought 12,000 works of art, including about 1,000 Monets, 1,500 Renoirs, 800 Pissarros, 400 each by Degas and Sisley, 200 by Manet, and 400 by Cassatt, making impressionism a household name.
“Without Durand, we would have died of hunger, all of us impressionist. We owe him everything,” declared Claude Monet in 1924, two years after the art dealer’s death.
The genius of Durand-Ruel was being able to both promote artists’ work and offer them monthly stipends. His other groundbreaking business practices included publishing art reviews and embracing solo exhibitions, then uncommon.
Durand-Ruel saw the solo show as a way to showcase an artist’s individual approach. Though not at first a financial success, it was a turning point in the public reception as they came to understand and accept these artists and their paintings of the suburbs around Paris, its pastoral land, bodies of water, bridges, people boating in their Sunday best, hanging laundry to dry in the beautiful countryside.
From his 1883 solo exhibition, we see Monet’s “Train in the Snow,” with its misty winter light and dirty snow, bare trees and stark buildings. Steam bellows from the train’s engine, an all-too-familiar scene for commuters on a winter evening. The two golden lights on the face of the train, like two beaming eyes, seem to signal that all is OK, the train is here, it will take us home, we’ll be fed and warm by the fire and safe for the night.
On the opposite wall, making its U.S. debut, is Monet’s “Apple Galete,” that French pastry that combines a rustic crust with carefully sliced, neatly layered fruit, a specialty of a Normandy Hotel where Durand-Ruel and Monet met. The hotel chef owned the painting until Durand-Ruel bought it for his son’s dining room.
Poplars, those tall, skinny fast-growing trees that dot the landscape of Europe, are a perfect vehicle through which to show luminous light shimmering through the quaking leaves that take on the full color spectrum. Monet painted them in the hazy sunlight on a winding riverbank near his house at Giverny, and then painted them over and over. The trees were slated to be cut, but Monet paid for them to be kept, wanting to explore the fleeting effect of the landscape on a single object. When exhibited, they were a huge success and in the end he “didn’t have a scrap of a poplar left to sell,” he said.
I can no longer look at Renoir’s “Dance at Bougival” and not think of J. Seward Johnson Jr.’s larger-than-life sculptural rendition of these dancers — she in a pink dress with flounce and a flowing red bonnet and he in a dark blue suit and straw hat, whirling to the music as leaves blur behind them. Durand-Ruel purchased the painting from Renoir in 1886 — it was pledged to Madame Hiltbrunner as security against a financial loan, then exhibited in New York, hoping to convert the American public to impressionism.
Beginning in 1883, Durand-Ruel took his artists’ work to the U.S., opening a gallery in New York in 1887 and, ultimately, helping achieve international renown for their artistic genius.
Berthe Morisot was the only woman in the second Impressionist exhibition. Critics bemoaned her lack of finish and lamented that “her feminine grace lives amid the excesses of a frenzied mind.” Critics saw her confident fluid brushstrokes as messy. Mary Cassat soon joined the pantheon, her subjects beautiful women and children reading and bathing, recalling Japanese prints. The Impressionists were fond of Japonism.
It is interesting to see Durand-Ruel’s personal collection in the final gallery. Including family portraits by Renoir, a marble sculpture by Auguste Rodin, and a salon door painted with floral panels by Monet — and originally housed in the dealer’s Paris apartment.
At 88, Durand-Ruel said, “At last the Impressionist masters triumphed. My madness had been wisdom. To think that, had I passed away at 60, I would have died debt-ridden and bankrupt, surrounded by a wealth of underrated treasures.”
“Discover the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting,” Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. Through Sunday, September 13. $12 to $25, 215-235-7469 or www.philamuseum.org.