Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market
National Gallery
4 March–31 May 2015

Photograph of Paul Durand-Ruel in his gallery, taken by Dornac, about 1910
Archives Durand-Ruel

One may as well begin with the anguished cry of the establishment, heard in Le Figaro on 3 April 1876, deploring the opening of the second Impressionist exhibition at the Durand-Ruel gallery in rue Le Peletier:

Following upon the burning of the Opera-House [1873], a new disaster has fallen upon the quarter. There has just been opened at Mr Durand-Ruel’s an exhibition of what is said to be painting … Five or six lunatics, of whom one is a woman, have chosen to exhibit their works. There are people who burst into laughter in front of these objects. Personally I am saddened by them. These so-called artists style themselves Intransigents, Impressionists.

Though the hilarity and distress seem to confirm the popular assumption that a revolution was under way, the opposition between the academy and the avant-garde was not so absolute. Writing in 1885, the critic Théodore Duret explained:

The fugitive impressions which a landscape painter used to capture when sketching out of doors, but which disappeared when he turned his sketch into a picture at the studio, are now attainable by the artist who, working at his canvas in the open air, can capture the most fleeting and delicate effect at the very moment of its occurrence.

As Linda Nochlin once remarked, nineteenth-century French academic taxonomy had almost as many words for the ‘sketch’ as Eskimo languages have for snow: the croquis (a thumbnail sketch), the esquisse (the ‘first thought’), the ébauche (the painted lay-in), the étude (a preliminary study of individual details), the esquisse peinte. These and many more terms are laid out in Albert Boime’s groundbreaking study, The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century (1971), where Boime distinguishes between the ‘generative’ phase of academic painting, comprising the ‘sketch process’, and the ‘executive’ phase, in which the ‘spontaneity and freedom of the generative phrase were gradually refined out as the work assumed a finished appearance’ (p.87). Painting out of doors, en plein air, and retaining the qualities of the ‘sketch’ in the completed work, which eschews academic ‘finish’: simply put, these are the defining characteristics of the new movement.

Academic finish, however, implied modelling by gradation of tone –correcting initial sketchiness by referring back to underlying concrete shapes. For the Impressionists solid forms dissolved into perceptions Duret’s ‘fugitive impressions’; the work of art, as Zola famously defined it in 1866, became ‘a corner of creation seen through a temperament’. Chiaroscuro (tonal modelling) was superseded by the depiction of form through juxtaposed colours, characteristically applied as taches or dabs of paint, with the scene before the painter’s eyes. But too much emphasis should not be placed on the idea of spontaneous creativity. Impressionist practice was built on recent developments in colour theory: additive and subtractive mixing (light vs pigment) and the effects of the simultaneous contrast of colours (especially complementary colours), formulated in colour wheels and contrastive scales. Such understandings were brought to bear on the close study of nature. Monet would work on several canvases at once, returning to each for a few minutes at the same time of day in order to capture fleeting effects of light. ‘I have finally discovered the true colour of the atmosphere’, he eventually declared. ‘It’s violet. Fresh air is violet’.

The new painting was also underpinned by developments in technology: the squeezable tin paint tube, patented in 1841 by the American portraitist John Goffe Rand, along with up-to-date lightweight equipment facilitated plein air painting; bright synthetic pigments came on to the market (cobalt blue, French ultramarine, mauve, viridian, chrome yellow and many more); in brush manufacture the use of crimped metal sleeves or ferrules to hold the bristles made it possible to produce the flat brushes that the Impressionists used to apply paint in broad, linear taches.


Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Durand-Ruel, 1910. Oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm. Private collection, Archives Durand-Ruel © Durand-Ruel & Cie.

Considering the historical context, the idea advanced in the title of this exhibition that the renowned art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831–1922) ‘invented’ Impressionism is gimmicky to say the least. If the organisers were intent on alliteration, then ‘selling sketches’ would have been much more to the point (or how about ‘marketing Manet’?). The strapline on the posters is nearer to the mark: ‘The man who sold a thousand Monets’. For the problem Durand-Ruel faced in the rapidly changing art world of the 1870s was how to establish a commercial value for Impressionist innovation. As Boime remarks, the ‘conservatives accused the esquissateurs of taking the path of least effort to glory and success’; compared with the studied finish of academic painting, the unexacting informality of their facture (which, of course, tends to conceal the scrupulousness of Impressionist practice) did little to inspire confidence in the art-buying public.

It was a problem Durand-Ruel had solved previously, when he applied his commercial acumen to selling works by painters from the Barbizon school (c.1830–70), who gathered in and around the village of Barbizon, near the Forest of Fontainebleau, 50 or so kilometres south of Paris. Using money borrowed from the financier Charles Edwards, in 1866 Durand-Ruel paid the Barbizon painter Théodore Rousseau (1812–67) the significant sum of 140,000 francs for the contents of his studio. Two years later the dealer provided expertise for the works that were auctioned after Rousseau’s death and acquired more pictures in the sale. From 1869 to 1871 he published the Revue internationale de l’art et de la curiosité, dedicated to promoting the artists sold in his gallery that included regular contributions from Alfred Sensier (1815–77), Rousseau’s biographer. In 1870 when pictures owned by Charles Edwards came up for auction at the Hôtel Drouet, one Jean Ravenal, writing in the Revue internationale, praised Edwards as a true connoisseur and made special, detailed mention of six Rousseaus. The ex-uberant Ravenal was none other than Sensier, writing under his pen-name. One of the Rousseau paintings sold for 13,500 francs. Three years later the same painting sold for 33,500 francs. In 1881, at a third important sale of modern art, including works from the collection of the anonymous Monsieur E (no prizes for guessing who he was!), pieces by Rousseau, including some auctioned previously, were sold for up to 49,000 francs.

Certainly, as Nicholas Green points out in a seminal article published in 1987, the dealer made use of speculative strategies associated with the stock exchange. As Green also argues, however, the case should not be overstated. Durand-Ruel’s investment in the artists he represented was very much for the long term. The timescale in the case of Rousseau was at least fifteen years (1866–81). In 1872 the dealer famously bought twenty-one paintings from Manet for 35,000 francs – almost all the work the artist had in his studio. Despite Manet’s notoriety at the time, however, almost nobody was interested in collecting his work. As John Zarobell notes in the catalogue for Inventing Impressionism, it is almost as if Durand-Ruel was ‘investing in history’ (p.85). Similarly, Durand-Ruel began buying Impressionist pictures after he encountered Pissarro and Monet in London at the end of 1870 or the beginning of 1871, but it was not until 1886, with his first show in New York, that, in Zarobell’s words, he began ‘to reap the rewards of his undying commitment to this generation of artists’ (p.78). These decisions were undoubtedly not taken for the sake of quick profits. The relationships Durand-Ruel cultivated with the artists whose work he brought to the market were long-lasting and supportive.


Claude Monet Poplars in the Sun, 1891 Oil on canvas, 93 × 73.5 cm The National Museum of Western Art, Matsukata Collection, Tokyo © National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Adopting an approach to his business that was ‘neither patronage nor commercialism exclusively’, Zarobell says, Durand-Ruel effectively ‘succeeded in ending the monopoly the academy held on aesthetic value’ (p.80). This may be so, but as is noted elsewhere in the catalogue, Durand-Ruel demonstrated ‘an eclectic blend of personal taste and pragmatism’ (p.19), enthusiastically buying what he himself called ‘academic’ pictures from William Bouguereau (1825–1905), a winner of the academy’s prestigious Prix de Rome. This perhaps suggests the difficulty of trying to understand the rationale of a man who dealt in progressive art without having any axes to grind. The catalogue for Inventing Impressionism, edited by Sylvie Patry, with contributions by Anne Robbins and Christopher Riopelle, Joseph Rishel, Jennifer Thompson, Flavie Durand-Ruel and Paul-Louis Durand-Ruel, provides a commendably full portrait of Durand-Ruel. And yet, at the end of it, my sense is that the man himself remains slightly enigmatic.

Finally, the first room of the exhibition contained a reconstruction of the salon of Durand-Ruel’s Paris apartment, including double doors decorated by Monet. Visiting at 11.30 on a Thursday morning in March, it seemed a remarkably small space in which to show pictures that were certainly going to attract very large numbers of visitors. The whole place was frankly so crowded it was extremely difficult to get close to the pictures and impossible to spend any time looking in detail. Provisional attendance was 175,617, as communicated on 22 June. By my reckoning that comes to just under 2,000 visitors a day, looking at eighty-five pieces displayed in six rooms. If that seems busy, however, compare it with the comprehensive Impressionist show Durand-Ruel staged at the Grafton Galleries in Mayfair, which opened in January 1905. A total of 315 pictures were shown (including 35 by Degas, 19 Manets, 55 Monets, 13 Morisots, 47 Pissarros, 59 Renoirs, 37 Sisleys, 10 Cézannes and 38 Boudins), and on one Saturday the exhibition was visited by 2,927 people, making their way through galleries intended to hold 500. Durand-Ruel may not have invented Impressionism, but he unquestionably succeeded in making it popular.


The New Potato Eaters: Van Gogh in Nuenen 1883–1885, edited by Paul Williamson, a beautifully designed and illustrated book of essays and miscellaneous surprises about Van Gogh’s Nuenen period, with contributions from a host of leading academics and curators, is available from Thomas Heneage Art Books (

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