LONDON — Impressionism is easily one of, if not the most, accessible and universally enjoyed art movements. Monet’s water lilies and Degas’s dancers are among many examples of the genre which have become world recognized to the point of cliché. With Paul Gauguin’s “Nafea Faa Ipoipo” (“When Will You Marry”) recently selling for a record $300m, Impressionism continues to dominate the art market. Yet what most of us do not know is that the movement’s fame was nearly never to be if it were not for one dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, who recognized the struggling Impressionists’ visual, and potentially monetary, value. This is the narrative drive of the National Gallery’s survey, Inventing Impressionism: each painting present was bought by, or at least passed through, Durand-Ruel’s hands. It turns out to be a checklist of all the major players in Impressionism: Renoir, Monet, Rodin, Sisley, Degas, Pissarro. Even a couple of Courbets, and the inclusion of Manet, indicate a real scope in Durand-Ruel’s visual sensibility. The sheer density of the quality and significance of the works is nothing short of staggering, a real treat for ticket holders, and illustrates the pivotal role this lesser-known figure played in facilitating it all to happen.
Curatorially, with a genre of works which easily fit into their own sub-genres, and all contained within a definitive list of Durand-Ruel’s collection, the National can in reality do whatever it likes: its essential point is already made. A rare misstep, however, happens early on: in demonstrating how Durand-Ruel extended intimate friendship with the struggling artists, inviting them almost into his family and filling his home with their works, the first room is made over to look like the interior of his apartment on the Rue de Rome in Paris, featuring portraits of his daughters by Renoir. It’s a nice idea, though executed in the gloomy basement of the National’s Sainsbury Wing the effect of hanging a couple of curtains and settees against dark gray wall space falls way short of its intention. The works however, like everything here, speak for themselves with the freshness and vibrancy as if they were painted this morning.
Otherwise, any potential difficulty, such as obtaining the works from this list, was clearly not an issue — though a quick glance at each piece’s current permanent location suggests some hard negotiation, and not just plundering the Musée d’Orsay’s vast coffers. A significant number of works come from private collections, indicating some heavy persuasion. A more successful reconstruction is of the paintings made by Monet to decorate the French doors in Durand-Ruel’s Grand Salon. The six panels, featuring Japanese lilies, Gladioli, and other flowers, have all been obtained for the show from private collections and will most likely not be seen in such format again.
If this weren’t enough for a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of works, there are also five of Monet’s Poplars series from 1891 — signifying, in 1892, Durand-Ruel’s innovation in not only pioneering the single artist exhibition, but an artist’s single series — with two traveling from Philadelphia and Paris, one from London’s Tate, and two from Tokyo. Usually seen in isolation, viewed together the panels hammer home with revelatory force what Durand-Ruel must have recognized: that the Impressionist vision and painterly method allowed enormous variation in tone and mood simply through ingenious color manipulation.
The relentlessly bright, inventive works are an absolute pleasure, and it is unsurprising that the show is packed with visitors so that stopping to contemplate is akin to clinging to a rock among the rapids. This is to be expected: the sheer popularity and appeal of these works is universal, and the gift shop is probably making a mint.
Yet the methodology of this show — constrained to works immediately traded or commissioned by Durand-Ruel — excludes the possibility of any form of visual context. A look at how the market previously operated and how exhibitions were done would really emphasize the visionary work the single trader did. Yes, he saved the struggling painters from ruin after they had been rejected from the Paris Salon, the high art establishment that decided what was tasteful and popular, and thus marketable. But a comparison with what art already populated the market — solid, “worthy” historical pieces, pastoral or genre pieces, rendered in “realistic,” earthy hues — would reveal with enormous force just how much the Impressionists’ way of seeing would eventually change and influence our very visual reception to art. Everybody viewing this exhibition today is already receptive to this type of painting as it is long ingrained in our cultural and visual sensibility. To many it will simply be a pleasure of seeing works we are pre-conditioned to accept and love. It is difficult, then, to imagine from this show just how radical, unrefined, and “alien” the non-realistic method of painting must have seemed to contemporary viewers in 1880s Paris. The National Gallery is in this sense missing a trick in pointing out just how game-changing this one man’s influence has been on the subsequent history of painting.
Inventing Impressionism continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DN) through May 31.