Paul Durand-Ruel launched his career as a dealer in the
mid-1850s, when he was in his mid-twenties. In 1857, he opened a gallery on the
fashionable Rue de la Paix, moving to larger premises
on the Rue Lafitte in 1869, on the eve of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War.
During the war, he took refuge in London,
where he staged a number of exhibitions. He also met Claude Monet and Camille
Pissarro, two founders of the Impressionist movement, who had also taken
shelter in Britain.
The war itself was followed by the Commune, which ruled Paris from March 18 to May 28, 1871, and was
bloodily suppressed. In June 1871, Durand-Ruel paid a
brief visit to Paris.
By the end of September he was once again based there. Later, he expanded
internationally, basing himself on his experiences in London.
It is worth
spelling out this sequence of events because one of the things that emerges
strongly from the exhibition at the NG is how determinedly apolitical the
Impressionist movement was. So much so that it looks like a deliberate choice.
The first half of the 19th century in France is replete with major
political paintings, from Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps
(1801-5) to Gustave Courbet's The Studio
(1854-55). Subtitled “A Real Allegory," this painting
confronts an image of the painter himself as protagonist with the figure of a
hunter who resembles Napoleon III. Peripheral figures spell out the
artist's criticisms of the corrupt society of the Second
Empire. To all this, Impressionism deliberately turned its back.
Durand-Ruel was a political conservative—a Catholic
who attended mass every day. He wished for the restoration of the French
monarchy. Pissarro was Jewish, and sympathetic to anarchism. Monet, largely
apolitical, was a supporter of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain unjustly
convicted on charges of treason. Durand-Ruel was
anti-Dreyfusard. Yet they all came together under the
This is not to say
that the Impressionist painters were insensitive to the social nuances of their
time. Monet painted views of the Seine with
factories in the distance. No attempt there to deny increasing
industrialization. But what the Impressionists were most concerned with was
creating a new way of looking. Their paintings are politically and morally neutral.
They had no apparent wish to change the world, only to represent it in what
seemed to them a more accurate, more contemporary way. Their political
statement, after seventy-or-so years of it, was to renounce political rhetoric
in art and go back to the thing seen. Maybe the shock of the Franco-Prussian
War had something to do with this.
In a real sense
today's avant-gardism seems to be trying to turn the clock back, rather than
forward. A great deal of the art now placed by critics, and indeed by the artists
themselves, in this supposedly flattering category is an exercise in preaching
to the converted. When Mark Wallinger
won the Turner Prize in 2007 with a reconstruction, within the grandiosely
official galleries of Tate Britain,
of Brian Haw's “Peace Camp"—originally located in Parliament Square and protesting against
West's foreign policies from 2001—the Tate's website stated: “Wallinger's work is noted for its succinct social
commentary and political resonance." Resonance, my foot! In fact,
the reconstruction clearly had less chance of making any converts to radical
thinking than the ramshackle original, defiantly exposed in the open air for all the world to see.
Durand-Ruel, after considerable struggle (he nearly went bankrupt
twice) made a success of his aim to establish the new and, to his
contemporaries, visually challenging work of the Impressionists. If we take
them for granted now, it is in part because of his faith in them. Not only his
faith in the art itself, but also his faith in the commercial possibilities
their work offered, within a rapidly evolving bourgeois society. New horizons
were opening up. His biggest success was not in France,
not in Britain, but in the United States:
Impressionism eventually took wings from the expanding American economy. The
magnificent loans from American museums in the NG exhibition amply demonstrate
that. The whole idea of an “official avant-garde," which
is what we now seem to have, is an oxymoron. It's an attempt to drag art
back to the times when the official Salons still seemed to hold the key to
building profitable reputations. It is easier of course to define the problem
than to offer a solution to the current creative deadlock. But political rants
smugly housed in museums aren't going to do it. Meanwhile go to the NG and
enjoy a show that feels no impulse to shout at you.