Impressionism Through A New Lens: Paul Durand-Ruel at The National Gallery

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘museum’ as “a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited.” You will note that the buying and selling of these objects is entirely absent in the definition, despite the fact that most museums do in fact purchase much of their collections.

The idea that museums are above anything commercial is widespread, especially in the art world, so seeing The National Gallery dedicate an entire exhibition to Impressionist art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, is a thrilling faux pas. And in entitling the show, ‘Inventing Impressionism,’ the London institution goes a step further, giving absolute and well deserved credit to the visionary for the success of what is now one of the most well known and beloved periods in art history.

'Race Horses,' Edgar Degas, Oil on canvas, 1866-68
‘Race Horses,’ Edgar Degas, Oil on canvas, 1866-68

Making my way to Trafalgar Square on an early (and sunny!) Friday morning, I was excited not only to see all the paintings on view — from Monet, to Manet, Renoir, Pisarro, Sisley and Degas — but also to learn more about Durand-Ruel himself — the traditions he created and the legacy he left behind.

His story, and in turn the show, are truly nothing if not inspiring. Not only does one get to escape into the exquisite magic of the Impressionist oeuvre, but also be reminded of the power each of us has to follow our own convictions and in doing so, change the world.

Things we think of as normal in the art world today, like solo shows, dealer-curated shows, and dealers having personal relationships with their artists, were in fact pioneered by Durand-Ruel, who was ridiculed at the time not only for his support of Impressionism but also for these then-non-conventional practices.

'Study for the Bar at Folies Bergère,' Édouard Manet , Oil sketch, 1881-82
‘Study for the Bar at Folies Bergère,’ Édouard Manet , Oil sketch, 1881-82

But the French son-of-an-art-dealer never faltered, sticking to his guns even when his artists didn’t sell. He took his works from Paris to America, later saying “America saved me,” because the young country was not afraid to purchase and believe in something entirely new. He sold works to American museums, and later to London museums as well, paving the way for his beloved Impressionism even when others called him crazy. Claude Monet recollected in 1924, “They [critics] used to write: ‘These people [the Impressionists] are mad, but there is someone who is even madder, than them — the dealer who buys their work!” Despite this criticism, Durand-Ruel pushed on and in doing so forced credibility to the style backed by his constant drive, creative mind and unwillingness to give up or move on.

Just as we can learn from Sisley’s reflections in the water, from Renoir’s lit up faces, and Monet’s eye-tricking brushstrokes, so too can we learn from Paul Durand-Ruel, an appreciator of art, a businessman and above all, an innovator.

– India Irving

Inventing Impressionism‘ is on view at The National Gallery until 31st May, 2015; Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN; Open Daily 10AM-6PM (9PM Fridays): Admission: Adults £16, Students £8 ( bothwithout donation), Members FREE

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