Review: Inventing Impressionism at the National Gallery

Overflowing with some of the world’s most famous paintings, this exhibition has struck gold

Monet Church at Varengeville Morning

Monet Church at Varengeville, Morning, 1882

In 1905, the influential art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel staged the largest exhibition of Impressionist paintings the world has ever known.  Over 300 canvases were displayed in London at the Grafton Galleries in an exhibition that saw the canvases arranged almost floor to ceiling.

This was the culmination of Durand-Ruel’s career, and was an integral aspect in cementing the Impressionist artists’ success in Europe.

110 years later, the Impressionists are among the most popular group of artists the world has ever known. The very fact that many of them were struggling for commercial success is truly laughable given the astronomical sums which canvases by their leading proponents fetch at auction today.

But the story of that success is by no means a straightforward one.

The National Gallery’s exhibition, Inventing Impressionism, which opens on March 4, explores the central role Durand-Ruel took in discovering and promoting the Impressionists, and how he changed the way in which dealers, artists and even the public, interacted with art and the art market.  

He was the first dealer to buy stock in bulk, to offer his artists salaries, and help them out financially. He also pioneered the concept of the one-man art show, something which had never been done for living artists before.

Given the fickle nature of the art market and art critics, some of Durand-Ruel’s gambles required a very cool head. The exhibition highlights the risk he took in buying-up over 20 pieces by Manet, who had been panned by critics and seen little commercial success. Durand-Ruel helped make him a star.

After the eventual acceptance of the Impressionists, and at the age of 89, the dealer said: “At last the Impressionist masters had triumphed… My madness had been wisdom. To think that had I passed away at 60, I would have died debt-ridden and bankrupt, surrounded by a wealth of underrated treasures.”

They are certainly not underrated now.

Crowd pleaser

The current exhibition contains over 80 canvases showcasing some of the Impressionists’ finest work. Six large rooms in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing (to the left of the main building in Trafalgar Square) have been given over to this glorious exhibition that is a certain crowd-pleaser.

The first room contains nine Renoirs, then you enter a room with 11 Monets. There are paintings by Corot, Courbet and Delacroix, an abundance of pictures by Pissarro, and Manet, while Sisely, Millet, Theodore Rousseau and Cezanne are all represented too.

All had passed through Durand-Ruel’s hands.

Pissarro Pont Boieldieu in Rouen Rainy Weather

Pissarro Pont Boieldieu in Rouen, Rainy Weather, 1896

The National Gallery has secured loans from across the world to bring this astonishing selection together.

Highlights include five of Monet’s famous series of poplars on the Epte. They are stunning. Monet painted these from a floating studio he had installed on a boat, and such was his obsession that he even bought the line of trees to save them from being cut down until he’d finished working on his paintings of them. He later sold them to a timber merchant.

Elsewhere, the exhibition charts the influence which London had on the Impressionists and the success of the movement.

After France declared war on Prussia in 1870, Durand-Ruel sent a large part of his collection of paintings to London to keep them safe. He followed, and soon set up a gallery in New Bond Street. It was only here that he met Monet and Pissarro, and immediately began to buy and exhibit their paintings.

There are several paintings of London from the period in the exhibition, including some fascinating rural scenes of Norwood and Sydenham by Pissarro, the sites of which would now feature busy A-roads.

This is 2015’s first real blockbuster exhibition, and it’s hard to see how it could fail to be a huge success.

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