“We would have died of hunger without Durand-Ruel, all we Impressionists.”
Today artists like Monet, Degas, Renoir, Manet, and Pissarro are celebrated for their colorful landscapes, beautiful portraits, and joyful depictions of modern French life. But in the late nineteenth century, their innovative works were sometimes misunderstood. These artists are household names due in large part to the vision and tenacity of Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who steadfastly believed in their creative genius. Many works that were once part of his impressive gallery stock are among the finest masterpieces of Impressionist painting. Here are selected highlights from key artists featured in the exhibition.
In the spring of 1891, Monet began a series of paintings of poplars along the banks of the River Epte near his home at Giverny. After learning that the trees were to be cleared for lumber, he arranged to have the logging postponed so he could continue to paint them through the summer and fall. During that time, Monet completed more than twenty canvases from his shallow rowboat, capturing the trees from different vantage points and at various times of day. Sometimes he had only a few minutes to work on a picture before the light shifted. Six paintings from the celebrated series are featured in the exhibition.
Paul Durand-Ruel showed the Poplar
series at his gallery in 1892. It was the first time that the artist exhibited a series in isolation and the only time in which the group was seen in its entirety. The exhibition was an important moment for Monet: critics applauded his use of color, light, and composition, which magnified the trees to the point of abstraction, as well as their presentation in the gallery, which showcased the artist’s ambitious exploration of a changing motif.
The Ballet Class
Known as “the painter of dancers,” Degas devoted more than half his artwork to ballet themes. He spent much time backstage at the Paris Opéra observing the young dancers’ demanding routines. In this painting, three girls practice in a rehearsal room before an instructor while a chaperone sits reading; a view of Paris can be seen in the mirror in the background. In 1881 Degas’s friend and fellow artist Mary Cassatt bought the painting for her brother Alexander Cassatt, first vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Degas made changes to the canvas, repainting the right side and adding the seated figure over a ballerina adjusting her shoe, before sending it to Philadelphia.
Durand-Ruel negotiated the sale of this painting to Alexander Cassatt, who would later make repeated visits with his wife to the dealer’s gallery. Within a few years, their collection contained more than thirty Impressionist works. In Philadelphia, where the Cassatts entertained lavishly, the paintings attracted admirers who were inspired to purchase Impressionist works from the dealer. Today the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection contains more than one hundred artworks that were once part of the Durand-Ruel Gallery’s inventory, a testament to the dealer’s formidable role in helping to shape American collections.
Renoir enjoyed depicting the pleasures of life, such as festive outings with friends and lovers. In early 1883 he completed these three life-size compositions of young couples dancing, each one in a unique social setting. In Dance in the Country
(left), Renoir’s future wife Aline Charigot dances with his friend Paul Lhote at an informal event in the country. A bright bonnet frames her smiling face, her eyes fixed on the viewer, maybe Renoir himself. Dance in the City
(center) depicts Lhote with model and artist Suzanne Valadon at a more sedate affair, an elegant party in a marble salon. Valadon appears again in Dance at Bougival
(right), whirling with a new partner at a lively open-air gathering along the Seine.
In 1886 Paul Durand-Ruel exhibited these three paintings at the National Academy of Design in New York. This exhibition, which included more than three hundred paintings, was one of the first times that the work of the Impressionists was seen in the United States. According to the dealer, it drew “crowds of the curious.” The response of the public and the press was so favorable that Durand-Ruel opened a gallery in New York the following year.
The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama”
In this startling scene, Manet depicts a contemporary subject, a Civil War naval battle that took place off the coast of France, near Cherbourg, in June 1864. Smoke billows from the sinking Confederate marauder, the Alabama
, which has been attacked by a Union warship, the Kearsarge
, in choppy seas. Three-quarters water, the painting uses a high horizon line and lurching perspective to suggest the chaotic aftermath of the battle. Manet did not witness the event but read about it in the newspapers; he exhibited this rendering in the window of a Paris art gallery a month after the incident.
Despite the painting’s subject and fame, Manet struggled to sell it. The work went unsold for nearly a decade until Durand-Ruel visited the artist’s studio in 1872 and bought nearly all of its contents, including this painting. This audacious move was crucial for Manet, whose work had not yet proven consistently marketable. Later, in the spring of 1886, the dealer sent the dramatic painting to New York, where one critic remarked that it was “so grand in its treatment of the water that it makes us forget the ships.”
Pont Boieldieu, Rouen, Rainy Weather
The restless energy of the modern city was an appealing subject for Pissarro. He painted this magisterial painting as part of a series of views of Rouen, a port on the Seine in the north of France. Encouraged by the financial assistance and moral support of Durand-Ruel, Pissarro completed fifteen views of the city in preparation for a solo exhibition organized by the dealer that year. Having purchased the painting upon its completion, Durand-Ruel exhibited it widely, sending it to Pittsburgh, New York, Berlin, and London, where it was highly praised.
Over the course of their thirty-year relationship, Durand-Ruel played a crucial role in advancing Pissarro’s career. Of the artist’s twelve solo shows organized during his lifetime, nine took place at Durand-Ruel’s gallery. They were instrumental in shaping the painter’s reputation. Durand-Ruel also assisted Pissarro in personal financial matters, advancing him money toward the purchase of a home at Eragny. In addition to financial support, he advised Pissarro to undertake particular projects, including his Rouen series. The dealer paid the artist’s expenses for travel and materials, bought nearly all of the paintings he produced, and exhibited them internationally.