Inventing Impressionism @ The National Gallery

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This is the biggest exhibition of Impressionist art in London for 20 years. It was packed. There was a long queue well before it opened at 10am and by 11am it was difficult to see the paintings without people in the way.

The commentary, booklet, audioguide and wall panels all emphasised how revolutionary Impressionism was and what a complete break it represented with official French Salon art (all true enough – there was some dull pre-Impressionist art here to compare it with). But nothing really addressed the more obvious point: why is Impressionist art so incredibly popular today? Why are paintings, once ridiculed as the inept daubs of idiots and incompetents, now sold for tens of millions and plastered over countless chocolate box lids, calendars, posters etc?

Is it because: Impressionist art is colourful and naive, it doesn’t require a knowledge of classical myth or history, it doesn’t depict the intimidatingly rich and powerful, and it is mostly set in a generalised rural idyll – sunshine on fields of poppies and ponds full of lilies? Because it is an escape from anything solid, defined, intellectual or demanding?

Pierre-Auguste Renoir Two Sisters (On the Terrace), 1881 Oil on canvas 100.4 x 80.9 cm The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection 1933.455 © The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Two Sisters (On the Terrace) (1881) Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection, 1933.455 © The Art Institute of Chicago

Paul Durand-Ruel

The show isn’t actually about Impressionism the art movement: it is about one man – the Paris art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. A pretty convincing case is made for him being the inventor or gofather of Impressionism, the man who bought up the early works of all the major Impressionists, as well as organising one-man shows for the artists, opening galleries in Paris and later, America, to showcase their works, paying the poorer ones salaries to allow them to work, whose efforts pretty much single-handedly enabled many of the painters to survive and flourish, who helped to create the narrative that Impressionism is the founding movement of Modern Art and who, along the way, invented many of the methods which underpin the modern art market. A really impressive achievement.

Thus the first room features large wall-size photos of Durand-Ruel’s living room in Paris, liberally hung with the great paintings he owned, and the curators have tried to reunite as many of them as possible to recreate the scene. Similarly, the last room contains photos of the key 1905 Grafton exhibition in London and, again, the curators have tried to hang a lot of paintings from that exhibition in the same space.

This exhibition is not a history of the theory or practice of Impressionism. It is about how one man more than any other spotted it, identified it, funded and sustained it, marketed and promoted it, defined and made it what we think it is today.

Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market

To quote the guide, when Durand-Ruel took over his father’s art dealership in 1865 he immediately began applying the techniques of high finance: he found backers and partners for his purchases, sought exclusivity deals, worked to push up prices at auction and brought his product before the public at carefully staged group and one-man shows.

For example, when he was introduced to Manet in his studio, he bought all the available paintings on the spot – 23 paintings in one day – for 35,000 francs (nearly 40 times the pay of the average French worker). By cornering the market (in admittedly unpopular artists) he realised he could leak them onto the market at inflated prices.

I didn’t like any of the Manets on display here – Moonlight at the Port of Bolougne or The Battle of the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama. The audio commentary itself pointed out there is something wrong with the perspective and details of the still life The SalmonMusic in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) looks, to me, cramped and badly composed, excessively black and, when you look closely, really badly painted.

Edouard Manet, Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) The National Gallery, London, Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917 © The National Gallery, London

Edouard Manet, Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) The National Gallery, London, Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917 © The National Gallery, London

The one-man show

In 1883 Durand-Ruel pioneered the idea of the one-man art show, staging a series of month-long, solo exhibitions by Boudin, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley. He ensured they were retrospectives ie showed the progression or evolution in the artist’s style, and accompanied the shows with advertising campaigns, provided images for the Press to print and publicise, and hosted lavish private views to encourage wealthy buyers.

Selling the ‘series’

This led naturally to collaboration with Monet on his ‘series’ paintings ie when Monet set about painting series of versions of the same subject. One of the first was the Poplar Series, 24 canvases of a set of poplar trees on the bend in the Epte river. In February 1892 Durand-Ruel displayed 15 of them in his gallery, facilitating their critical reception and their sale. Five of Monet’s poplar paintings are brought together here, in one of those recreations beloved of curators.

30 years ago I hitch-hiked to Rouen just to see the facade of the cathedral which Monet had painted in a series of paintings which I worshipped as a schoolboy. The paintings magically capture the imposing architecture in the differing light of different times of day. But now, all the poplar tree paintings in this exhibition left me cold. Either I’ve changed or this poplar series is just not as good. The reproduction below makes the source painting seem much smoother and more finished than it is in real life. In the flesh all the poplar paintings seemed to me lumpy and bumpy and unconvincing.

Claude Monet, Poplars in the Sun (1891) The National Museum of Western Art, Matsukata Collection, Tokyo P.1959-0152 © National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Claude Monet, Poplars in the Sun (1891) The National Museum of Western Art, Matsukata Collection, Tokyo © National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Apart from all the other factors – could the enduring popularity of the Impressionists have something to do with the fact that the reproductions – in posters, calendars, chocolate boxes, biscuit tin lids etc – render small and smooth and seamless images which, when seen in the flesh, and much much larger, are surprisingly pock-marked and blodgy?

Bad paintings

In fact, the show contains an unusually large number of bad paintings. I certainly learned a lot about Durand-Ruel and the birth of art marketing, but an unintended outcome of the show was to make me feel quite a lot of sympathy for the early critics of Impressionism. Quotes from these poor benighted souls are printed large on the walls and included in the wall panels for our derision: what philistines! How could they not recognise the shimmering wonders of Monet’s water lilies?

Well, because a lot of the recognised masterpieces of Impressionism weren’t created for another 10, 20 or 30 years. All the critics could do was react to the paintings put in front of them in 1872, 1874, 1876 – and as this exhibition conclusively proves, a lot of these were genuinely poor, in terms of composition and technique.

Even the audioguide admitted that at first glance Green Park, London by Claude Monet looks so bad it might have been painted by a child. Hanging Out The Laundry To Dry (1875) by Berthe Morisot: is this not an amaterush ‘daub’? I thought I was an unquestioning fan of Dégas – the show features the fabulous Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando and a number of so-so ballet studies – but this show revealed how many bad and awkward paintings he made, as well: Horses before the stands may be famous but I find it gawky and unappealing; and surely Peasant Girls Bathing In The Sea At Dusk is just really bad.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Peasant Girls bathing in the Sea at Dusk (1869-75) Private Collection, Ireland © Photo courtesy of the owner

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Peasant Girls bathing in the Sea at Dusk (1869-75) Private Collection, Ireland © Photo courtesy of the owner

The final room is dominated by a full length portrait of Eva Gonzalès, herself an artist, by Manet (1870). I’ve been spoilt by recently visiting exhibitions of portraits by John Singer Sargent and beautiful late-Victorian female portraiture at the Leighton House Museum – in comparison with those artists, I thought this was a poor painting – look at the face, the heart of any portrait, look at those bug eyes.

Nonetheless, Eva Gonzalès starred in a ground-breaking exhibition Durand-Ruel organised at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1905. It was curated with his usual entrepreneurial flair, arranged to tell the story of how the movement evolved from tentative early steps, then burst into maturity with masterpieces by Dégas, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir et al.

The 1905 show had far-reaching influence in this country, helping to popularise the loose sunlit approach to subject matter and style, and establishing Impressionism as the forebear of all Modern Art. I know people who not only loathe Impressionism but hate the way its continuing dominance overshadows far more interesting developments which took place in other European countries, specifically Germany and Scandinavia.

Good paintings

I found a lot of the Impressionist works on display here surprisingly poor. Many of them really did look like the unfinished daubs contemporary critics castigated. But with around 80 paintings on show, there were, of course, plenty of others which are a joy to see.

I think Renoir emerged as the most consistent artist here: he crystallised his vision early on and thereafter poured forth an apparently limitless number of chocolate box people in sunny settings. His Parisians socialising in the open air, his portraits of smiling women and children, his dancing couples, all have an indisputably lovely life and colour to them.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1883) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Picture Fund © 2014 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1883) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Picture Fund © 2014 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Impressionism was about taking the train out of Paris to the still-unspoilt suburbs with newly-available tubes of ready-mixed oil paints, and painting in the open air, and so there are a lot of depictions of Paris’s suburbs, maybe touched with slight signs of industrialism, with railway bridges or distant factory chimneys. Not too much, though.

This work by Sisley. Daub or not? Does the light airy sunlit feel compensate for the lack of finish and draughtsmanship? Does the blue sky compensate for the bridge looking wonky? I like clear lines and solid draughtsmanship so, for me, No. For other people, who respond to the overall feel and warm impression an image evokes in them, well, Yes.

Sisley, Alfred, The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne (1872) Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson Jr., 1964 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Alfred Sisley, The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne (1872) Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson Jr., 1964 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

And there were plenty of blurry landscapes by Pissarro or Monet, including several old favourites which are part of the National Gallery’s regular collection, a number depicting London during the artists’ exiles here to escape the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Easy-going nostalgic reminders of what London looked like in the halcyon fantasy-land these artists created and which so many of us harken back to.

Camille Pissarro, The Avenue, Sydenham (1871) The National Gallery, London, Bought, 1984 © The National Gallery, London

Camille Pissarro, The Avenue, Sydenham (1871) The National Gallery, London, Bought, 1984 © The National Gallery, London

What I liked

Ezra Pound said that, at the end of the day, all a critic can do is point at something and say ‘I like that’ and then attempt to explain why. I was surprised how many of the paintings on display here I actively disliked. It was a genuine revelation how poor some of the paintings by all these famous names turn out to be.

More or less the only work I really liked – that I could imagine having in my house and seeing every day – was St Paul’s from the Surrey Side by Charles-François Daubigny (1817-78), a predecessor of the Impressionists. Not a blue-skied escapist landscape but the big bad city under no illusions. Below is a dark and rather misleading reproduction of it; in the flesh it felt deeper and more evocative. It looks forward to Whistler‘s later impressions of London.

Though blurry, though painted en plein air, it still has an underlying accuracy of draughtsmanship and confidence of line which is what I enjoy in art and found missing in so many of the other paintings on show here.

Charles-François Daubigny St Paul's from the Surrey Side (1871-3) Oil on canvasThe National Gallery, London Presented by friends of Mr. J.C.J. Drucker, 1912 © The National Gallery, London

Charles-François Daubigny St Paul’s from the Surrey Side (1871-3) The National Gallery, London Presented by friends of Mr. J.C.J. Drucker, 1912 © The National Gallery, London

Could the success of the Impressionists not only be down to the fact that their paintings reproduce very well across the range of products and channels the twentieth century invented – but that their rivals and predecessors, the official Salon artists’ works, reproduce very badly, often looking as dark and dingy as the misleading reproduction above?

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