How He Ruled Art

Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market

Catalog of a recent exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, the National Gallery, London, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art
edited by Sylvie Patry, with contributions by Anne Robbins, Christopher Riopelle, Joseph J. Rishel, Jennifer A. Thompson, Anne Distel, Flavie Durand-Ruel, Paul-Louis Durand-Ruel, Dorothee Hansen, Simon Kelly, and John Zarobell
London: National Gallery, 303 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
Durand-Ruell & CIE
Paul Durand-Ruel in his gallery, Paris, circa 1910

We needed a reactionary to defend our painting, which Salon-goers said was revolutionary. Here was one person, at least, who was unlikely to be shot as a Communard!

Renoir’s remark—as well as his affectionate portrait, painted in 1910—introduces Paul Durand-Ruel as the least likely champion of avant-garde French painting in the second half of the nineteenth century. “Seeing him in his eternal frock coat,” observed Le Guide de l’amateur d’oeuvres d’art in 1892, “you would take him for a provincial notary or a lawyer from the suburbs: punctual, methodical, and formal.” In 1943, John Rewald, a leading scholar of Impressionism, wrote, “No name of a non-artist is more closely bound up with the history of Impressionism.” While Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Pissarro are indeed household names today, Durand-Ruel remains familiar only to specialists.1

“Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market”—a splendid exhibition in Paris, London, and Philadelphia this year—rehabilitated the Parisian dealer who mounted the first show of the group’s work in New York in April 1886, where he soon opened his first gallery. He organized London’s first blockbuster exhibition of 315 Impressionist paintings in the Grafton Galleries in January 1905. The recent exhibition and catalog are accompanied by a new edition of Durand-Ruel’s Memoirs, written in 1911, and translated into English for the first time. Both the catalog and Memoirs draw extensively on the vast, miraculously intact Durand-Ruel archive, still held by descendants of his family.

Paul-Marie-Joseph Durand-Ruel (1831–1922) was a devout Catholic who attended mass every day and an ardent monarchist who advertised his support for the Bourbon pretender to the throne in October 1873. His sons were educated at the new Jesuit school of Saint-Ignace on the rue de Madrid; his daughters at the Couvent de Roule on the Avenue Hoche, founded in 1820. Bitterly opposed to the Third Republic’s secular education policy, Durand-Ruel was arrested in 1880 for protesting the government’s suppression of the male religious orders. (“It was important that all my children received not just a good education but also a Christian upbringing that concurred with the way I and my entire family felt.”)

Edmond de Goncourt, who visited his vast apartment on the rue de Rome in June 1892, was struck by the crucifix affixed to the head of his bed. It is also likely that Durand-Ruel shared the virulent anti-Dreyfusard sentiments of Degas and Renoir, although his ultra-conservative opinions did not prevent him from establishing close (and enduring) professional relations with the ardent republican Monet or the anarchist sympathizer Pissarro.

The only son of a clerk in an art supplies store, he married the proprietor’s daughter and gradually transformed her family’s business into an elegant gallery on the rue de la Paix that specialized in modern art. (His father became the principal dealer in the work of…

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