‘Inventing Impressionism’: How Dealer Paul Durand-Ruel Created One of the Most Enduring Trends in the Art Market

When you’re an artist who’s desperately trying to make it, no matter in which discipline, there is something more important than having good press coverage, your own space to create, the budget to set up your first show, or even the money to pay the bills. All of these are key success factors for sure, but they come as a second step. Because that ‘something’ that has to be there when you start, is actually ‘someone’. Someone who sees potential in you that maybe not even you see at the beginning of your career.

These people have a unique gift, which is a talent in itself: they can foresee how the qualities of an artist can be translated into a concrete business. Even more importantly, they can project this potential into the future and build a business around it, and they’re ready to invest and commit themselves to this enterprise. If we think about the film industry, these individuals are called producers and financers. If we look instead at the art market, they’re of course the art dealers.

Paul Durand-Ruel in his gallery in Paris, c1910.

Looking at trends in the art market is very interesting, but usually the perspective from which we consider them is focused on the artists, and less on who’s operating behind the scenes. Yet, behind each and every artist there is a merchant that allowed him or her to express their talent and meet their first client or commissioner. Too often these players have been denied their proper recognition. This is why an exhibition like Inventing Impressionism, which I recently saw at The National Gallery, is so enlightening.

As exhibition co-curator Christopher Riopelle points out in this video, Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel might not be widely known to the general public, but his role in launching the Impressionists on the market was nevertheless crucial. And I would dare say that there would have been no Impressionism without Durand-Ruel (or at least not in the form it successfully came to be known).

Poster for the exhibition 'Inventing Impressionism', on display at The National Gallery until 31 May.

This is a story about passion, obsession and, of course, business. Shunned by the art establishment at the beginning of their careers, painters such as Renoir, Courbet and Monet found a friend, a collector, an ambassador and a merchant in Durand-Ruel, whose effort to establish the new movement on the market was paired by his innovative approach to the profession of the art dealer. He adopted a mix of instinct and methods borrowed from the world of finance: networks of galleries, lectures, solo exhibitions, smart PR campaigns and illustrated art reviews were just a few of the techniques he exploited and that, later on, became a standard in the field.

Inventing Impressionism is on display for a few more weeks. If you want to know how Durand-Ruel reluctantly joined his family’s business, got to the verge of the bankruptcy and finally managed to build an empire while pushing the boundaries of the art market, you have until 31 May. Don’t miss the chance to discover his history and the legendary birth of the most sought-after masterpieces of painting.