Durand-Ruel: The Art Dealer Who Liked Impressionists Before They Were Cool Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel acquired some 5,000 impressionist works long before others were buying them. Claude Monet said he and his artist friends "would have died of hunger" without him.

Durand-Ruel: The Art Dealer Who Liked Impressionists Before They Were Cool

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Next we'll hear about a man who was behind many famous painters. He made the market for them. We instinctively get this link between art and commerce. You might never see your favorite movie star without some studio executive. Music fans talk not just of the music, but of musicians' careers and brands. Nineteenth-century painters needed somebody to help build their brands, and the Paris art dealer who did it is the subject of an exhibition in Philadelphia. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says he shaped the art market of his day and ours.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: What do these paintings have in common? Renoir's "Luncheon Of The Boating Party," Monet's "Stacks Of Wheat," Manet's "Bar At The Folies-Bergere," Cassatt's "Child's Bath" and more than 100 paintings in Dr. Albert Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

THOMAS COLLINS: We collected 16 works by Cezanne, nine Degas, two by Mary Cassatt, two by Picasso, one by Bonnard, one by Monet.

STAMBERG: And, adds Barnes director Thomas Collins, 79 Renoirs. What these paintings have in common is an art dealer named Paul Durand-Ruel. He was some shopper.

JENNIFER THOMPSON: He bought over a thousand Monets, 1,500 Renoirs, 800 Pissarros, 400 Sisleys, 400 Degas, 400 Cassatts and about 200 Manets. So over 5,000 Impressionist pictures all told.

STAMBERG: And Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Jennifer Thompson says Durand-Ruel was the first to spot their talents and decide to sell them. Here's how it happened. In 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, Durand-Ruel packs up all his stock, leaves Paris and goes to London. There, an artist friend gives him advice.

JOE RISHEL: He says, there's these two guys you should go and see who are just like you and like me - emigres. And one's called Monet, and the one's called Pissarro.

STAMBERG: That's Philadelphia's Joe Rishel. His co-curator, Jennifer Thompson, has a slightly different version.

THOMPSON: One of his artists came in one day with a young French painter introducing him and saying, this artist will surpass us all. And that artist was Claude Monet.

STAMBERG: Durand-Ruel snaps up Monet's paintings. Pissarro hears about all the Monets Durand-Ruel bought and brings his work over. The dealer is out, but Pissarro leaves his canvases at the gallery.

THOMPSON: Durand-Ruel immediately writes him a letter saying, I'm so sorry I missed you. I'm delighted with the paintings you left. Could you name your price for them and please bring the others? So that of course was the start of what would be one of the greatest, you know, pivotal moments of Durand-Ruel's career which is the meeting of the Impressionists.

STAMBERG: Eventually the dealer goes back to Paris, meets Degas, Sisley, Renoir and others and starts buying out their studios.

THOMPSON: Exactly, and began buying quite substantial numbers of pictures too. So he buys 29 Pissarros, 29 Sisleys, 10 Degas, two Renoirs - all within a first year of meeting these artists.

STAMBERG: How usual was that, for a dealer to go and buy in batches that way?

THOMPSON: It was quite unusual. It's one of Durand-Ruel's sort of innovations. Other dealers might buy, you know, five to 10 works, wait for them to sell and then go back to buy more from an artist. But it enabled him to corner the market. And it also was a tremendous show of support for the artist.

STAMBERG: It was risky business.

THOMPSON: It was quite a big gamble to invest so much money and so much of his, you know, resources into artists. In the case of the Impressionists, he was investing in artists who were not widely recognized at the time.

STAMBERG: Or liked.

THOMPSON: Or liked. Exactly. It was, I mean, the rare collector in the 1870s who would buy Impressionist painting.

STAMBERG: It often took 10 to 20 years for Durand-Ruel to sell some of the paintings. Monet's brushy picture of a misty morning in London's Green Park, Manet's image of a battle between two ships carrying supplies during the American Civil War, Degas' pale ballerinas - no ready audience for those works. In 1876, when he filled three rooms of his gallery with art for the second Impressionist show, French critics were vicious.

THOMPSON: In particular there was a Renoir nude outside in a sun-dappled setting which the critics commented, you know, try to explain to Renoir that a woman's flesh doesn't look like decomposing flesh. It's not composed of purple and green splotches.

STAMBERG: But Durand-Ruel remained loyal to his artists. He gave them one-man shows, another innovation and all kinds of support - his friendship, monthly stipends, loans.

THOMPSON: When Monet goes to buy his property at Giverny he does so with an advance against pictures that he's going to be presenting in Durand-Ruel's gallery.

STAMBERG: There were dark days when the dealer went broke and dark days when his artists lost faith in their own work.

THOMPSON: There are a great series of of letters between Durand-Ruel and Monet in which Monet is really frustrated one summer and painting on the Norman coast. And he is sort of threatening to slash or destroy his canvases. And Durand-Ruel says, please don't do that to, you know, I'll send you money. Just send me the canvases in return. And so he's also sort of offering guidance and saying, you know, don't despair if you're feeling like you're in a kind of rut artistically. I believe in you and continue to paint and we'll find a market.

STAMBERG: In addition to friendship and financial and moral support, the dealer gave the painters his trust.

THOMPSON: Durand-Ruel never had formal contracts with his artists, but he did pride himself and really prized his relationship with artists and got very nervous when they started talking to other dealers. He wanted to be the sort of the exclusive dealer for Impressionists, and that made sense because he had the largest stock of anyone in Paris. And...

STAMBERG: But was he a visionary, an art lover or a canny businessman?

THOMPSON: Oh, all of the above, I think. (Laughter) You know, he talks constantly in his memoirs about his love of art and support of artists. But he's an extraordinary businessman and entrepreneur. And when you look at his business practices, he was extraordinarily clever.

STAMBERG: Here's how clever he was. It was obvious that Europe didn't like the Impressionists. So in 1886, the dealer packed up 300 works in 43 crates and took them by boat to America. He spent three months here putting on an exhibition, traveling to Washington, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, visiting collectors. He sold 49 pictures for about $40,000 - nice money for art in those days. A year later he opened a gallery in New York. It operated until 1950. Many of the works he sold became the centerpieces of Impressionist collections in major American museums. So America saved Durand-Ruel and his painters, and his painters were saved by Durand-Ruel.

THOMPSON: Quite near the end of his life, Monet says, without Durand-Ruel all the Impressionists would've died of hunger.

STAMBERG: "Discovering The Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel And The New Painting" is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art - the only U.S. venue - through September 13. It's a show about a principled, devoted dealer and the artists he supported in so many unprecedented ways. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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