The Inventing Impressionism Exhibition at The National Gallery, London
4th March – 31st May
For a man who was initially reluctant to adopt his father’s art dealing business, Paul Durand Ruel transformed Modern Art, liberating it. What makes this exhibition so intriguing is that we consider a movement from the perspective of an art dealer, which gives us a rare look into the formation of the modern art market.This exhibition brings to light the talents of the “man who sold a thousand Monet’s” as he built the framework within which the Impressionists blossomed. Imagine an art world without Impressionism? That’s a world without sun-dappled gardens, lingering brushstrokes or the pastel palettes, which warm up our winters. One can easily take for granted the fact that we can wander into the Sainsbury wing and indulge in 85 masterpieces, forgetting that the Impressionists were once the avant-garde. We only have to reflect upon the 1870s to remember a time when they were rejected by the art establishment, snubbed by critics. However, the curious eye of Paul Durand Ruel was to be their saviour, because this entrepreneurial Parisian was set to illuminate the glorious works of Degas, Monet, Manet and more.
“You were the first to support us and the first to fight for us” Camille Pissarro.
Naturally, the muted violet shade of the wallpaper had a calming effect on the audience as we immersed ourselves in Durand-Ruel’s infatuations. Claude Monet’s floral doorway was a strong beginning with panels like Japanese Lilies, 1883 and Chrysanthemums, 1883, because it gave the exhibition that rare multi-dimensional feel. Having just visited the Barbican’s Magnificent Obsessions: Artist as Collector exhibition, it was lovely glimpsing an intimate piece of Durand Ruel’s rue de Rome apartment. The flowers were gentle impressions of a botanical experience, which reflected Monet’s love of both Japanese prints and French decorative art. This was followed by Renoir’s Cup of Chocolate, 1878, which was a scene of private indulgence modelled by Margeuerite LeGrand, adorned with opulent rings. She is surrounded by decorative patterns and textures, which illustrate Auguste Renoir’s previous skill as a porcelain painter.
“At last Impressionist Masters triumphed…my madness had been wisdom.” Durand Ruel
Naturally, Durand Ruel’s collection was punctuated by well known pieces like Renoir’s Dancer, 1894 from the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. However, I particularly taken with his more controversial taste in painters, as illustrated by the inclusion of Gustav Courbet’s erotic Woman in the Waves, 1868. Unlike Renoir's dancer in her aristocratic pose, Courbet’s Venus is engaged in a moment of perceived ecstasy as she lets her swollen breasts be caressed by the water’s force. It’s all in the detail and her underarm hair illuminates Courbet’s subversive response to conventional beauty as her wild Pre Raphaelite coils pull our eye from the scarlet horizon, giving a sense of some distant memory.
In the next room were the botanical works, which popularised Impressionism. The roses of Artist’s Garden in Argenteuil, 1873 led beautifully into Monet’s Poplar Series, which I had last seem in Paris’s Orangerie museum. However, I was particularly entranced by his portraiture, like Springtime, 1872, which depicts a solitary young woman amongst a bed of wildflowers. Her diaphanous white dress and tender cheeks are illuminated by a pink glow, which seduced the writer Emile Zola, seeing them as, ‘sequins of light.’
Edouard Manet began as a figure of rebellion, following his rejection from the Parisian salons. As one of the first artists to venture outside with his paintbox, Durand-Rel saw magic in his work and saved him from ruin with the purchase of nearly 25 paintings. His portrait of Eva Gonzalez, 1869 was a breath of fresh air in an exhibition dominated by passive women, mere objects of desire. The palette of deep violet, chestnut and cobalt blue beautifully illuminated her diaphanous white dress, which simultaneously raised the question of practicality. As with the debate surround the Disney film Frozen whereby the protagonist runs through the snow in high heels and slinky dresses, this is visibly the subject of the male gaze. With only minimal contributions from Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot with the seductive Women in her Toilette, 1873, there is no doubt that Impressionism was a male dominated movement.
Durand-Ruel globalised the solo exhibition as he brought Impressionism to London, New York and a diverse array of destinations. Fearless in the face of bankruptcy he persisted through storms and eventually succeeded to embed Impressionism in the forefront of every art lover’s mind. Beautifully curated with delicate, dove grey booklets of information, which prevented crowding around the blurbs. To observe the Impressionists from the perspective of an impassioned art dealer is a rare insight into the trials and tribulations of the ever-changing art market towards the turn of the century. The exhibition also draws attention to the broad spectrum of stylistic endeavour as some have dense, visible brushstrokes and others are naturalistic. Some are overwhelmed with sunlight, but others are delicately illuminated. Even the eyes are different in each piece, from intensely vivid representations of the window to the soul to Renoir’s blurry, shadowy eyes.
Especially if you’ve caught the late showing on a Thursday, then I would recommend that you venture down through the perils of Charing Cross to the candlelit caves of Gordon’s Wine Bar afterwards for a Merlot that you won’t forget. The unsuspecting exterior gives no indication of what’s to come as you climb down into a series of candlelit caves, where the atmosphere is friendly with sharing tables and low ceilings. You can barely stand up, so the intimacy is infectious.
Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com