Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) spent twenty years intent on exposing the work of artists whom everyone believed to be painters (they would eventually become famous as “impressionists”). And, to be honest, his obstinacy had begun much earlier: for more than ten years he defended the landscapers of the 1830 school, or Barbizon , tooth and nail until he got his works accepted in the art market.
Durand-Ruel did not feel great sympathy for the Revolution or for the Republic. He declared himself monarchist at all costs, and contrary to universal suffrage. However, first of all he was a patriot, and for the good of the country he could get along with whomever was needed. As with Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau , a republican to the core. The same happened with religion. He was a Catholic of the daily mass, who even came to be arrested for protesting laws that suppressed religious acts. But this did not stop him from dealing with all kinds of artists, regardless of their political and religious beliefs, from the republican atheist Claude Monet to the anarchist Jew Camille Pissarro , passing by the commune Gustave Courbet (to whom he kept several works so that they were not confiscated by the State after the insurrectional episode of the Paris Commune of 1871 ).
The profession of dealer learned it from his father, Jean Durand-Ruel. At the Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paul grew up surrounded by painters and paintings. While helping his father, he traveled throughout the provinces and throughout Europe to participate in auctions , and visited museums throughout the continent, in which he conscientiously trained his eyes. Like his father, he achieved recognition as an authenticator of works of art.
But his vocation as a dealer was clearly manifested at the Universal Exposition of 1855 in Paris . He fell in love with the work of the romantic painter Delacroix, who showed 35 works in it. He enthusiastically bought works by the members of the school of 1830 (by Delacroix himself, Corot, the school of Barbizon, Courbet and Daumier ), all of them despised by the critics of the moment, until he managed to get the public to accept them from the end from the 1860s.
With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 , he moved to London, where he opened a gallery (“German Gallery”, as he was inexplicably nicknamed) to exhibit works by French artists. In the British capital he fell in love with Impressionism , a passion that would last him forever. In his gallery, Durand-Ruel organized exhibitions in which he mixed conventional established artists, such as Corot, Millet, Courbet or Daubigny, with more risky ones, trying to attract a new clientele.
Upon returning to France, he met friends and colleagues of Monet and Pissarro: Degas, Puvis de Chavannes, Renoir, Sisley, Boudin, Morisot … But Durand and his admired artists sailed against the current. The academic world and the critics mocked the Impressionist works without fuss.
In 1873 he began to pass on to his group of impressionists a monthly sum, which gave them the freedom to work without having to attend to daily survival. Not only that: he also took care of the cost of materials , rent payments and even medical bills. In exchange for this gentlemen’s agreement (nothing was ever written), Durand-Ruel had exclusivity over the work of his artists (or at least the right to be the first to see his works), which would allow him to inflate prices .
But his lifelong customers did not believe his new aesthetic choice. To such an extent the business fell that, beset by debts, had to part with its private collection from the Barbizon school . He did it through intermediaries, because his name at that time was like mentioning the plague. Despite being in ruins, continued betting on Impressionism and believing in the effectiveness of exposing the works to win their acceptance based on insistence.
Durand-Ruel’s support for his artists had not only been financial, but also personal. He was intimate with many of them, and he tried to help them in everything . He often had to appease the always dissatisfied Monet, whom he even offered a room in his apartment to paint in peace. Many of them, in turn, corresponded with identical fidelity .
The United States would become the salvation of Durand-Ruel and the Impressionists. In 1885 he received an invitation to mount an exhibition, with all expenses paid, at the American Art Association in New York . There was the dealer with 300 works, and that he had to hear the gingerbread of some of his artists.
Puvis de Chavannes refused to participate in the show, and Monet was concerned that his paintings would leave the country “on the way to the land of the Yankees” … Durand had a reputation in the United States as a promoter of the Barbizon , and both the public as collectors approached his exhibition in 1886 without preconceived ideas.
The exhibition had to be extended and moved to larger facilities, and American collectors were encouraged to buy. Comforted, he coordinated another exhibition the following year, and opened a gallery in New York in 1888 . The times for borrowing had been left behind. In 1894 he buried his debts completely.
After the American success, Europeans would slowly come to accept Impressionism. In 1905, Durand-Ruel organized at the Grafton Galleries in London what remains the largest and best exhibition of impressionist painting . Only 13 works were sold, almost all to foreign collectors, but it received more than eleven thousand visitors.
In 1924, two years after his death, Monet confessed: ” All impressionists would have died of hunger without Durand-Ruel. We owe it all. ” Durand had first destroyed the state monopoly of the Académie Française on aesthetic values with its commitment to the artists of the Barbizon, and had reached the point of anticipating the taste of world criticism by encouraging the Impressionists.