Martin Gayford

Inventing Impressionism at the National Gallery reviewed: a mixed bag of sometimes magnificent paintings

The art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel didn’t invent Monet or Degas; they did that for themselves

When it was suggested that a huge exhibition of Impressionist paintings should be held in London, Claude Monet had his doubts. Staging such an exhibition, he wrote to his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, would be ‘unwise’ and only likely to baffle a London public that ‘knows very little about us’. That was in 1904. What, one wonders, would Monet make of Inventing Impressionism, which has just opened at the National Gallery 111 years later?

It can hardly be said now that the British know little of the Impressionists. On the contrary, you could argue we’ve seen quite enough of them in recent decades. The challenge for a gallery planning to put on such an exhibition is how to make it different. That is, how to make it more than just a lot more assorted Monets, Renoirs and whatnot?

Does Inventing Impressionism clear that bar? It certainly has a novel point of departure. The subtitle explains the subject: ‘Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market’. This, then, is not so much about Monet and co., as about his dealer, the man to whom that slightly querulous letter was sent (and who subsequently ignored its advice).

The late critic David Sylvester used to claim that, to get the art game started, five players were required: the artist, the collector, the museum curator, the writer and the dealer. Exhibitions can — and have —been built around the activities of all five, although those concerned with the prime producers — artists — are naturally by far the most common.

Paradoxically — since Durand-Ruel (1831–1922) was a staunchly conservative Catholic monarchist and anti-Dreyfusard — he was revolutionary when it came to art and art dealing. He began with a family business — a stationery shop in Paris that also dealt in pictures — and transformed it into an international operation that promoted, publicised and marketed his artists.

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