Plus ça change

How America saved the French Impressionists

Robert Low

“Without America I would have been lost, ruined,” remembered the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in 1920, looking back in old age over his remarkable career. The wonderful exhibition, Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market, at the National Gallery in London until May 31, shows how he was the man who championed the Impressionists from the 1870s onwards while the French art establishment poured scorn and abuse on them.

Several times he nearly went bust as he supported Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas and many others, buying up their paintings in bulk, paying them regular allowances and promoting them in highly original and imaginative ways.

It was a costly and risky enterprise and Durand-Ruel’s business was in a parlous state when in 1886 he took 300 Impressionist paintings to New York, where they took the city by storm. By 1888 Durand-Ruel had opened a permanent gallery in New York where, as the exhibition booklet relates, he “became the go-to man for wealthy American collectors happy to pay increasingly significant sums for the new art”.

German collectors and museums followed suit but the French still dragged their feet, reluctant to admit that the new revolutionaries had any merit. It was not until 1901 that the museum in Lyon became the first French institution to buy an Impressionist painting from Durand-Ruel, Woman Playing a Guitar by Renoir, and even then it insisted on a knockdown price.

As then, so today. The French like nothing better than to sneer at American politics and culture, but the US is recovering much faster than France from the 2008 crash. American enterprise fosters high-tech giants from Apple (now the world’s most profitable company) and Google right down to a never-ending series of internet start-ups, while France can’t even agree a modest liberalisation of its Sunday trading laws, as its economy stagnates and its brightest young business brains flee to Britain, exasperated by the stranglehold of the state. Paul Durand-Ruel must have felt the same. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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