So familiar are the impressionists that it can be difficult to gain a sense of how revolutionary they were from our vantage point in the 21st century. The National Gallery, in its small but perfectly balanced new exhibition Inventing Impressionism, has come up with an ingenious way of evoking their iconoclasm – by showing them through the eyes of Paul Durand-Ruel, the collector whose heroic enthusiasm safeguarded their passage as they made the first, crucial leap into modernity.
Impressionists favoured the fleeting moment over the unchanging truths of nature. This meant blurs and speckles, swirls and smudges – and perplexity from the critical establishment. In one of the rooms, a quote from the critic Albert Wolff is written in bold: “There are people who burst into laughter in front of these objects. Personally, I am saddened by them. These so-called artists style themselves Intransigents, Impressionists.”
Such po-faced disapproval seems bizarre next to paintings so joyous. Walking into the first room filled with luscious Renoir portraits of Durand-Ruel’s family, it’s hard to believe these rapturous, intimate depictions of aristocratic families were so reviled. The term “Impressionism” was coined in a derisory review of a Monet exhibition in which the critic and humourist Louis Leroy mockingly referred to them as sketches, and not finished works. But what most saw as slapdash, Durend-Ruel recognised as a revolutionary departure from the staid practices of old.
A photograph from the 1890s shows paintings displayed frame to frame, floor-to-ceiling in Durand-Ruel’s Parisian living room. The picture is testament to both the collector’s passion and the world’s indifference. With few galleries willing to display the paintings (the Musee Du Luxembourg went as far as banning some impressionist artists) he had to do so in his own space, inviting prospective buyers into his house where they could glimpse works by Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Sisley et al.
Beginning in the collector’s Renoir-filled living room, the exhibition guides us on a journey that traces the collector as he travelled hither and thither around Europe, trying to find a market for his proteges. The most familiar impressionist paintings tend to be of nature, but it is the urban scenes – particularly the ones of London – that stand out here. It’s exciting to see places like Norwood and Green Park through the impressionists’ eyes.
Between 1891 and 1922, the collector bought around 12,000 works, including more than 1,000 Monets, 1,500 Renoirs, 400 Degas’ and 200 Manets. If there’s something distasteful about the role collectors and markets play in today’s art world, Durand-Ruel is an exemplary case of enlightened, commercially savvy collecting, a perfect union of commercial and artistic endeavour in which everyone – in the end – won.