Prescient Paul Durand-Ruel: Impressive Parisian Art Dealer

Cue the light, the color, the flowing brush strokes. Images and painters immediately surface: Monet’s light rippling on the Seine, Renoir’s rosy-cheeked femmes in bonnets and flouncy dresses, Cassatt’s dreamy pastels of mothers and children, Degas’s feather-weight dancers.

Today, Impressionism is certainly one of the most identifiable art movements, and generally most beloved. But back in the 1870s? Scorn at the audacity of the artists who dared to exhibit such levity, such surface work. Blockbuster shows notwithstanding, Impressionist painters are so well known and popular now, it’s difficult to comprehend just how distasteful this brush-stoked break with tradition was during the latter part of the 19th century. An early critic, who saw nothing more than slap-dash dribbles of paint on canvas, coined the movement accidentally, dismissing their paintings as nothing more than “impressions.”

It took the vision and courage of art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel to encourage the artists and educate the public. Opening June 24, at the Philadelphia Art Museum, the exhibit, “Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting,” is organized as though through Durand-Ruel’s eye chronologically as he collected, covering the period of 1865 through 1905.

In the early 1870s, when most of the public derided these New Painters, Durant-Ruel was the visionary who invested in them, almost to financial ruin. But invest he did, buying in multiples artwork from the likes of then relatively unknown painters: Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, Mary Cassatt, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, and others.

With a passion for both the artists and their adventurous new way of seeing the world outside, he was their tireless champion, organizing gallery shows, helping them financially, building their reputations. Having inherited responsibility for running the family’s art, framing, and art supply gallery, he began in earnest to buy and sell artwork from Eugene Delacroix, Gustave Courbet, and Jean-Francois Millet in 1865.

When Durant-Ruel fled Paris for London during the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870, he met and nurtured Monet and Pissaro, then opened a London gallery. Back in Paris, in 1872, within days of meeting Manet—a known but struggling artist because of his scandalous showing of brazen nudes at one of the Paris Salons—Durant-Ruel acquired 26 paintings from Manet.

Gambling on his instinctive
impressions, Durant-Ruel eventually amassed about 12,000 Impressionist paintings with Renoir and Monet the leaders of the pack acquiring 1500 and 1000, respectively, and hundreds more by Pissaro (800), and Cassatt, Sisley, and Degas (tied at 400 each). He gave some of the artists, such as Monet, solo exhibits—an innovative concept and an unprecedented risk at a time when group shows were de rigueur.

To emulate how Durant-Ruel might have hung a solo show, Gallery 5 displays only a series of Monet’s poplar trees painted as mediation on the different effects that seasons, the time of day, and the weather had on the same subject.

The curators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art organized the exhibit in collaboration with the National Gallery in London and the Reunion des musées nationaux/Grand Palais in conjunction with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Historically appropriate, Philadelphia is the only U.S. venue—Cassatt introduced him to many of his best client in Philadelphia.

Rooms are thoughtfully arranged from the moment you walk through the narrow entrance hall with enlarged photo reproductions of the streets where Durant-Ruel had galleries in Paris and New York to the exhibit exit with images of how the art looked in his own home, which, after he retired, he turned into gallery space and invited the public—another bold move at the time.

I saw this same exhibit in Paris a few months ago, but the impressive space and layout of the exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art are more suitable to lingering. I tend to linger with Manet and his haunting “Moonlight at the Port of Boulogne,” 1868.


The show as its title reveals is less about the specific study of Impressionism than it is about its “discovery.” And in a way about Durant-Ruel’s art marketing genius.


Philadelphia Museum of Art

General Hours:
Tuesday through Sunday: 10AM-5 PM
Wednesday and Friday: 10 AM-8:45 PM

“Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting”
Special events are organized around the exhibit, such as a Garden Soiree and a Parisian Cabaret. And, of course, the museum store is filled with catalogs, repros, adaptations, and related goodies.

For more information on specific exhibit hours and events:

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