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The impressionists may be the biggest names in art but for years they were derided and unsellable. This blockbuster celebrates their champion, Paul Durand-Ruel
Museums generally shy away from the grubby subject of buying and selling art, even though we’re all fascinated by who bagged what and how much they coughed up (especially if scandal’s involved). So what’s the National Gallery doing recreating the vulgar front room-cum-salesroom of Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel and, in so doing, reminding us that the stuff on the walls came not, unsullied, from the hands of geniuses but from a glorified shop? Re-imagining that sure-bet crowd-puller, the impressionism exhibition, that’s what.
On one level, pursuing a mercantile line of enquiry about this most bankable band of artists makes perfect sense. Yet, the tale of how Durand-Ruel – right wing, royalist, Catholic, not naturally prone to bouts of crazy punt-taking – wound up as the saviour of a band of paintbrush-wielding anarchists, atheists and republicans like Manet, Monet, Renoir and Degas is, for the most part, one so spectacularly devoid of money and success that it tricks you into thinking about the impressionists as true radicals.
It does so while serving up some of the sweetest impressionist works ever made. You’ll see Renoirs so cloying they’ll make your fillings ache, such as ‘Study: Torso, Sunlight Effect’ (1875-’76), yet the handout reminds us how a critic at the time described it as being like a ‘putrefying corpse’.
Durand-Ruel didn’t invent impressionism, of course; the artists themselves did that. But he saw its potential when everyone else was laughing it off the walls. Perhaps it was another form of blind faith from the devout Catholic. Or maybe he just didn’t let a thing like religious belief get in the way of business. He bought artists in bulk (including everything on Manet’s studio walls), controlling the market for their work, even paying over the odds for some and buying back others – a practice you’ll see in auction houses around the world today. He courted the press, commissioned essays, published catalogues. And he opened up his home, to show how, say, a door with panels decorated by Monet could look just the thing with your ‘Louis-Louis’ bling.
None of this would make for a particularly scintillating show were it not for the quality of the work on display. But the National has winkled out some impressionist classics from collections around the world, including things the French hardly ever allow out of their sight – such as Manet’s mesmerising ‘Moonlight at the Port of Boulogne’ (1868). It reaches a crescendo with five of Monet’s fiery ‘Poplars’ paintings. Their inclusion illustrates the point that Durand-Ruel invented the one-person show and how that, in turn, encouraged Monet to make his famous paintings of trees and haystacks at different times of the day, anticipating the abstraction of the twentieth century. But they happen to make for one of the best walls of paintings you’ll see anywhere all year.