The extraordinary destiny of Paul Durand-Ruel – The Impressionists’ merchant – Talk by Flavie Durand-Ruel
“Paul Durand-Ruel was a pioneer, innovative not only for his artistic choices but also for the principles that he instilled in the title of contemporary art dealer.” – Flavie Durand-Ruel
I traveled to London to attend the compelling lecture given by Flavie Durand-Ruel on the life of her famous great great grandfather. Invited by Spirit Now!, a group of collectors formed in London by Marie-Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and Anne-Pierre d’Albis, she retraces the exceptional life of a man who made his love of art into something of a religion. Welcomed into the very chic South Kensington Club, we follow step by step his fascinating story nourished by Flavie’s extensive knowledge in the History of Art .
If there’s an obvious word to describe Paul Durand-Ruel, explain his prodigious success as well as his decisive contribution to Art, it’s most likely “Faith”. A fervent faith in his own artistic choices when, alone against all, he kept fighting to support the Impressionists’ work and reveal their talent to the world.
So then, who is Paul Durand-Ruel? A great bourgeois Parisian, devout Catholic, a royalist both serious and reliable…all would seem quite traditional if a frenzied passion for painting hadn’t transformed him into an obsessive and persevering pioneer of Art. Time after time, he revealed himself as the artists’ benefactor “for “l’Ecole de Barbizon”and then the Impressionists, a magazines editor, a visionary redefining the rules of the professional art-dealer, a conqueror of new markets from Europe to North America, a hard player at the brink of bankruptcy, and at the end a glory-crowned Victor!
His visit to the Universal Exhibition of Paris in 1855 is the crucial moment for his artistic vocation. Paul Durand Ruel is mesmerized by a room entirely dedicated to Delacroix. He acquires “La mort de Sardanapale,” a work that was intensely criticized during its first presentation at the Salon of 1828. “The worst painting in the exhibition,” according to the Gazette de France, and which is today greatly admired at the Louvre!
Delacroix was the first artist represented by Paul Durand-Ruel, followed by a long list of painters hated by critics, shunned by collectors but defended tooth and nail by him. In 1862, he actively supports l’Ecole de Barbizon: Théodore Rousseau, Corot, Daubigny, Diaz, and Millet from who he bought the famous “Angelus”.
The “Salons des Refusés” of 1863 and 1868, created by Napoléon III to enable painters rejected by the official jury to be put on display, reveal to Paul Durand-Ruel the talent of the Impressionists.
In 1865, with the death of his father, he retakes the reins of the family business at age 34. From then on, he devotes himself to establishing brand new principles for the professional art-dealer that make up the foundation of galleries today. First of all, Durand-Ruel introduces the rule of Exclusivity. For this, he purchases the entire Studio from the artists he loves. This is the case for Delacroix, to whom he offers a monthly payment in order to buy all of his upcoming works, or Manet, from whom he acquires in 1872… 23 paintings all at once! Never will Durand-Ruel negotiate the prices demanded by his dear painters, and always will he fight to keep prices high with the intuition that the perceived value of a work is related to its price level.
He also revolutionizes the Art of hanging , replacing overcrowded gallery walls with a single line of pictures at eye level. He invents individual exhibitions for Boudin, Renoir, Pissaro, and Sisley. From his early travels, Paul Durand-Ruel opens up to the world, which leads him to create an international network of galleries (London, Brussels, Berlin, and then New York). To speed up the recognition and visibility of his “protégés”, he offers free access to his galleries as well as to his house, which becomes an outstanding show room for his collection. In his private living room below, we can admire the “Danse à la ville” (1883) by Renoir on the left, as well as the doors painted by Monet.
As an unbridled buyer of paintings heavily criticized by all, he is in need of capital. For this, he is the first to initiate a tight collaboration between Art and financial institutions. Significantly, the loans are secured on the value of the frames and not on the paintings themselves, as the latter ‘s value is too low! The main partnership is with l’Union Générale which, from1882 on, lends him considerable resources to support his artists, before sinking two years later into bankruptcy, forcing the merchant to return the invested funds. Finally, we have the Press as a means of establishing his credibility and promoting his artists. Durand-Ruel becomes the editor of two journals, “La Revue Internationale de l’Art et de la curiosité” (1869) and then in 1891 “L’Art des deux mondes,” bridging the gap between Europe and the United States, where the great wordsmiths of the era distinguish themselves, including Zola, Octave Mirbeau, and André Mellerio.
And the most important rule…Art before it all! His artistic instincts lead him to the Impressionists in1871. This year, troubled by the violence in France, Paul Durand-Ruel leaves for London, where he opens a gallery on New Bond Street. It’s in London that the merchant meets Monet, introduced by Daubigny, and Pissaro. Back in France, he starts his collaboration with Sisley, Degas, Manet, and later Berthe Morisot and Renoir. With them all, he maintains close relations to the point that his own son, Georges, is the godfather of Jean Renoir, the son of the painter.
“Paul Durand-Ruel was not only an eye for the artists that he discovered, supported, and defended, he was also a loyal friend for his “protégés”: the artists that he wanted to make known during their lifetimes,” says Flavie DR.
In 1874, he organizes a collective exhibition of the Impressionists in the photographer Nadar’s studio. The show gets very bad reviews “A group of people who create the worst of art…It will be necessary to tell Pissaro that skies are not purple etc…”. Another fiasco occurs with respect to the following exhibition of the Impressionists that hangs in his gallery in 1876. However, Durand-Ruel continues to financially support his ruined protégés, offering them everything they need to live and to produce their works. He also continues his abundant purchases of paintings. And how does he find the necessary funding for this outrageous spending? The failure of l’Union Générale in 1884 pushes him towards personal ruin with nearly one million francs of debt.
His only solution is to dive into the great American adventure! A woman painter will help him in his conquest of the United States: Mary Cassatt. She will be his introduction and his intermediary with all the important, rich, industrial American families. It all begins with her own brother, Alexander Cassatt, and the Havemeyers, later followed by the Fullers, Canons, Palmers, Fricks, etc.The opportunity presents itself in 1886, when James F. Sutton invites Paul Durand-Ruel to participate in the “American Art Association” exhibition on the works of the French Impressionists. Durand-Ruel and his son leave for America, bringing 300 paintings along with them. It’s a success! The exhibition earns the enthusiasm & recognition of the public and the press. The Havemeyers buys Manet’s “Salmon” from him, which initiates the beginning of hundreds of purchases to come. In total, over the course of his life, Durand-Ruel will sell them 203 paintings out of 525 in their collection!
As early as 1888, Paul Durand-Ruel opens his first gallery in New York. Counting on his customers in all the major families of collectors, his fortune is assured, and he begins paying off his debts. Better yet, the resounding success across the Atlantic triggers a new interest in Europe for its once-cursed artists. This was all evidenced by the huge success of the Impressionist exhibition of 1905 in its London gallery, where as many as 300 paintings are presented.
In France as well, a burst of enthusiasm for the Impressionists appears in 1890 with the recognition of Renoir, Pissaro, and Monet. From that time on, Durand-Ruel will organize close to 200 exhibitions in Paris. From 1890 until his death in 1922, Paul Durand-Ruel buys close to 12,000 paintings, including 1,000 Monet, 1,500 Renoir, 400 Degas as well as 400 Sisley and Boudin, around 800 Pissaro, about 200 Manet, and almost 400 Cassatt!
A fantastic revenge for the one who was once viewed as a fool by all, persevering for years in unwavering support, a generous patron for his protégés (at the request of Monet, Durand-Ruel will finance his purchase of Giverny, he will pay Renoir’s rents, etc.), but who at last attained success and worldwide recognition!
“At last the Impressionist masters triumphed just as the generation of 1830 had, 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…” – Paul Durand-Ruel
Translated by Erica DeMichel, Wesleyan University, Vassar Wesleyan Program in Paris Fall 2015
Learn more about :
Flavie Durand-Ruel has studied in the USA, and has worked 12 years at Christie’s in New York and in Paris. Since 2006, she dedicates her time to the Durand-Ruel Archives in Paris where she studies the incredible career of her great-great-grand-father Paul Durand-Ruel . She concentrates on finding the provenance of the pictures which passed through the gallery and has published, with her uncle Paul-Louis Durand-Ruel, their ancestor’s Memoirs (Flammarion, 2014). She contributes to many exhibitions (among which one finds the superb exhibition “Paul Durand-Ruel, Le Pari de l’Impressionisme” presented at the Musée du Luxembourg from October 2014 to Februrary 2015), gives lectures worldwide, and works on the Catalogue Critique of the pictures of the postimpressionist artist Albert André, with the Curators of the Musée du Gard (France) Alain Girard and Béatrice Roche.
Spirit now!: Marie Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and Anne Pierre d’Albis founded Spirit now! in London, to offer an agenda of conferences and private visits to a group of friends intrigued by art. Major figures from the international art scene (i.e. Museum directors, renown curators, artists, philosophers, writers, etc.) are invited to give unformal lectures. For information about Spirit now!, please contact email@example.com ou firstname.lastname@example.org.
South Kensinghton Club in London: “An innovative private members’ club, inspired by a spirit of adventure and a multicultural perspective. The Club draws on ancient rituals from around the world to promote fitness, health and the spirit of discovery. It is simultaneously a place to learn and be inspired, to connect with like-minded individuals, or to retreat and unwind in total privacy.” Luca del Bono – SKC – http://www.southkensingtonclub.com