It is the last week of the much-acclaimed exhibition ‘Inventing Impressionism’ at the National Gallery in London which is both a stunning exhibition of French Impressionist art and also a fascinating history of the courage and perseverance of the Paris art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who discovered, supported and promoted emerging and risky new young artists such as Monet, Degas, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley who were shunned by the traditional French art establishment. He mixed his private life with his commercial one and built up a personal collection which he displayed at his home, a representation of his drawing room being the first room of the current exhibition, alongside many of the paintings and a Rodin sculpture which he loved and displayed there. Durand-Ruel established a gallery in 1870 for the Impressionist artists in Bond Street, London and then later in New York and was instrumental in creating the modern international art market and also establishing the one-man show as a norm for international exhibitions, then a new innovation. Not only was it difficult to promote and sell these new young artists, but Durand-Ruel survived two banking crises in 1874 and 1882 which nearly bankrupted him and finally in 1894 when he was over 60 years old, thanks to sales in the United States, he cleared his debts.
‘Inventing Impressionism’ features 85 of the best masterpieces from these artists, all but one having been sold through his dealership, including three of Renoir’s famous ‘Dances’ and five from Monet’s ‘Poplars’ series.
One of the highlights of his career was the 1905 exhibition showing an astonishing 315 works at the Grafton Galleries in London, including 195 from his own private collection (double the current National Gallery exhibition).
It was not until 1896 that he sold a work by an Impressionist artist to a major public gallery and, as expected, not to a French Gallery but to the Nationalgalerie in Berlin. You can see what Durand-Ruel was up against – in Gallery 30 in the National Gallery there is a small special exhibition of EL Greco’s work. The National Gallery was buying El Greco in the 1880’s and 1900’s – French Impressionists were just a little too modern and too risky.
“This is the most significant Impressionist show we’ve seen in this country in 20 years” (Richard Dorment in the Telegraph).
For such a major exhibition, the special exhibition galleries – a major extension when they were built – are now constrained for space. The Gallery has introduced a successful innovation – giving each visitor a handbook with details of the paintings, which eliminates the irritating fight to see the dimly-lit labels next to paintings which is a common feature of most exhibitions. While it adds to the cost, and therefore has to be covered by the ticket price, it certainly makes visiting a popular and busy exhibition more enjoyable and an informative prelude before then going upstairs and visiting the Gallery’s own Impressionist galleries.