February 5


Portrait of Paul Durand-Ruel by Renoir
Defining "Art" has long been an issue - and quite probably a wild goose chase (I think it was Borges who said that the gods made everything for a purpose, even wild geese; so let's carry on with the pursuit).

To those of us who try to make it, art is unquestionably a verb. To those of us who enjoy looking at it, and are unable to resist passing untutored value judgments as we do so, art is unquestionably an adjective. To those of us who write essays on the subject, from Giorgio Vasari to Robert Hughes by way of Ernst Gombrich, Art is unquestionably a Noun. No wonder we argue about definitions!

There is another way of approaching this. In the days of church predominance, when the walls and windows of their holy shrines were Piagetian classrooms to teach the illiterate their catechism, art was unquestionably an Ideological Tool. At the same time, in the castles and manor houses of the aristocracy, as in the villas and apartments of the bourgeoisie later on, art was just as unquestionably an Ornamentation. In both cases, the artist was a mere artisan, an out-source worker, a supplier, at best a craftsman. Nor has that changed since the proletarian revolution of the 20th century that has removed the church, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie from power, and placed it instead in the hands of the spivs, barrow-boys and flea-marketeers who now control the Means of Distribution (far more important in the technological age than controlling or owning the Means of Production). In our world, art is Merchandise, Real Estate, Capital, and the "value" of a Work of Art is not its technical skill so much as its investment potential, its "box office", the celebrity brand signature in its bottom corner, its capacity as a "design template" to replicate itself in other marketable formats.
When it was church and aristocracy, artists serviced directly, themselves and sometimes their workshops under contract to a Pope, a King, a Count, a Bishop, though both sides liked to use more high-falutin' terms, like sponsor, or patron. But the bourgeoisie were neither rich nor powerful enough to have personal artists, and anyway it was a virtue of being bourgeois to have tastes that were eclectic, and so your walls needed the works of multiple artists, and someone of technical expertise, whatever that might be, to tell you which artists were fashionable this year. That expertise was mostly controlled by the Academies, who used their Salons to promote the artists they considered worthy, and to ostracise those of whom they disapproved. 

But the disapproved needed to earn a living too, and so the great transition to the flea-market began, when the Impressionist painters looked beyond the church, the court, the academy, the salon, seeking out private dealers like Vincent Van Gogh's brother Theo who would market them, and provide them with purchasers. Peggy Guggenheim and Charles Saatchi come to mind in the 20th century, but the key name, largely unknown beyond the world of the art historian, was also the first and greatest: Paul Durand-Ruel.

He was born into the business, on October 31st 1831, in Paris. His parents, Jean Durand and Marie Ruel, owned a papeterie with an unusual sideline - they exhibited the works of several artists, including Géricault and Delacroix, but for the purpose of renting out the pictures, not selling them. And why not, if you are Mme Verdurin and want to show off your vogueness without having to spend your savings on what will soon enough be replaced by a newer voguerie? The idea caught on, which brought dozens of other artists to the store, hoping to get exhibited. Before long the papeterie became the world's first high street art gallery, and moved to a rather more salubriously bourgeois neighbourhood, at 103 rue des Petits Champs, right next to the Place Vendôme.

His 17th year was that of the Revolution which created the second French Republic. Three years later he was admitted to the Military Academy of Saint Cyr; but he wasn't cut out for the macho life, preferring to explore his more feminine side through the paintings that he lacked the skill to make himself. Joining the family business, he spent the next several years travelling through Europe, simply going from studio to studio and exhibition to exhibition, looking for the X-Factor, and finding it, right where we had started, in Paris, on the Champs-Élysée, at the 1855 Universal Exhibition.

By 1862 he was married, to Eva Lafon, with whom he would have five children. And then it was 1863, the catalytic year for European Art, the year in which the power of the Academies was undermined, so far as to be beyond recovery, and not by the artists or the dealers, but by the restored Emperor-President himself, Napoleon III, who may well not have had the slightest inclination of what he was doing when he agreed that there should be a Salon des Refusés, an exhibition at which the artists who had been rejected for the Salon could show their work anyway, in a democratic forum where the public not the "experts" could form their own opinion. Or at the very least call on a different sort of expert to tell them what they should and should not like. An expert like Paul Durand-Ruel.

When his father died in 1865, Paul inherited the business, growing it with innovations that today's art galleries would take for granted as fundamentals and necessities: personalised exhibitions to promote individual artists; careful placement of publicity in the press to establish each artist as a name; close association of the art world with the world of finance; a network of international galleries (London 1870, Brussels 1871); free access to those galleries, but also to his apartment which was effectively another gallery and a lovely place to meet the actual artist and be able to tell your friends about him (and even,occasionally, though rarely, her).

The list of those who owe their fame and posterity to Durand-Ruel is quite remarkable. Delacroix he inherited, but grew. In the 1870s he added, every one of them unknown, or virtually, until he found them: Boudin, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas, Renoir, Manet, Puvis de Chavannes, Morisot and Cassatt, putting all of their works on display in a collective exhibition in 1874, in the studio of the photographer Nadar. The name given to that exhibition, prompted by Monet's painting "Impression: Sunrise" (and probably intended ironically by the exhibitor), would enter history as a movement: "The Impressionists". So totally unsuccessful was that exhibition, Durand-Ruel found himself in serious financial difficulties.

But things got worse. So convinced was he that this was the future of Art, he sponsored a second exhibition of "The Impressionists" in 1876, only to find it derogated as an "insane asylum" by the establishment critics (Turner, the original "Impressionist", had had much the same reaction to his experiments with the depiction of the movements of light and time, two decades earlier). And not surprising really - the Salon des Acceptables fighting back against the Salon des 
Refusés. The 1848 political revolution re-staged on the canvas of the canvas: the old Establishment versus the new Democracy. So Durand-Ruel too took up the sword, and named it Barbizon - the group of artists who, back in the 1830s, had established an artist colony at Barbizon near Fontainebleau, and whose work had repeatedly been rejected by the Salon: Corot, Daubigny, Diaz de la Pena, Jules Dupré, Millet, Théodore Rousseau, Daumier, Courbet. When it happened again in 1878, D-R stepped in to help them. More money down the proverbial.

For the next several years, when literally nobody was buying anything painted by an Impressionist or an artist of the Barbizon school, D-R went on supporting them, building a personal collection of their works that makes the Guggenheims and Saatchis of the world look like beginners. Exhibitions too, in Berlin, London, Boston, Rotterdam. Mostly collective, but including one-man shows in Paris for Boudin, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley.

By 1886 he was as good as bankrupt. But just at that moment he received an invitation from the American Art Association, encouraged by American Innocents Abroad who had visited the rue des Petits Champs as part of the grand Tour, to organize an exhibition in New York. The response was electric. Suddenly "Impressionism" was an acknowledged artistic movement, and American artists were rushing to imitate it. Suddenly Renoir and Pissarro - not yet any of the others, but it wasn't far away for several - were being acknowledged as painters of major international significance. Sales at the Paris gallery were newsworthy; and all that extra publicity added Monet's name soon afterwards.

Between 1890 and 1914, when Europe finally got bored with the civilised pursuits of art and literature and music and philosophy and decided to ape the macho epoch of serious barbarism instead, D-R organized exhibitions literally worldwide, including a 1905 exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London, with nearly three hundred Impressionist paintings on display - the largest ever, before or since.

The painting at the top of this page was Renoir's personal tribute to his friend and "patron", made in 1910. The other paintings on this page, besides my own little piece of flea-market appreciation which includes two Gauguins, a Monet and a Toulouse-Lautrec, are a detail from Renoir's "Dance at Bougival" and Monet's "Impression: Sunrise", the one that bestowed the movement's name. Jigsaw puzzle versions of all three can be found online (caveat: they come with cookies and unsolicited but personally-targeted advertising), and T-shirts displaying them are available from... you can surf that one for yourself.

D-R died today in 1922. Two years earlier he had been awarded the Légion d'Honneur, and - quite rightly - not for his contribution to Fine Arts, but as a recognition of the scale of foreign earnings that were attributable to him. He had, in the meantime, acquired twelve thousand paintings, more than a thousand Monets, about fifteen hundred Renoirs, four hundred each by Degas, Sisley and Boudin, some eight hundred by Pissarro, a mere two hundred Manets and nearly four hundred by one of the few women on his list, Mary Cassatts. The value of those paintings on the Art Market today is equivalent to about six 
Légions d'Honneur, per week, for every year he lived. Most of them, but this is surely irrelevant, are also rather good paintings.

Posters of this blog-page are available on demand from scammer.com, or from my hawker stall in the car park behind the Champs-Élysée. Buy one, get one free.

The photograph of the wild geese (adjacent) is by someone who claims to be called Alfred Sisley, though I'm fairly sure it wasn't that Alfred Sisley. It was rejected by the Salon International des Photographes on six occasions, and is now ...

And if only I had time and energy before I go back to my next imitation-Dada ready-made, performance-exhibition, one-legged on-a-plynth, video-montage of the "Cubist Mona Lisa", I would love to write a piece about that other scarely known but equally extraordinary... and female this time... the philosophical letter-writer Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Madame de, or really the Marquise de Sévigné, born today in 1626. In amber for now, and I promise to return to it.

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