Paul Durand-Ruel and the Impressionists

On view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Shimmering light refracted through a talented prism is the essence of Impressionist painting. But, as shown in a stellar exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art called Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting, had it not been for one uniquely perceptive, hard-working Parisian dealer, the movement might have faded away like the clouds in a Monet sky.

This completely new genre often defied the conventional subject matter, approach, and colour palette; art-lovers did not immediately recognize the genius in the sometimes subversive works. One man who did was Paul Durand-Ruel, who, around five years into his role running the gallery he had inherited from his parents, first encountered the work of Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro in London in 1871.

Instantly besotted by their freshness of interpretation, he bought, and bought. In 1872 alone, he acquired 36 works by Pissarro, 29 each by Alfred Sisley and Monet, and 10 by Edgar Degas. He visited Manet’s studio, and purchased everything in it. On display in the Philadelphia exhibit, a facsimile of Durand-Ruel’s stock book shows his almost reckless (but, in hindsight, visionary) buying habits while a life-sized photo of his gallery transforms viewer into art collector. He had not only an eagle eye for talent but also the courage and conviction to support it against all odds. Believing utterly in his artists, he paid some a monthly stipend; on more than one occasion, he risked bankruptcy.

The event is a tale of three cities. “In 2007 we started talking with colleagues in London and Paris about an exhibition that would enable us to look at the Impressionist artists from a new angle,” says Jennifer Thompson, associate curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “That of the criticism and struggles they faced in their early years and the art dealer who was their champion and helped them overcome these challenges.” While Durand-Ruel has been celebrated in commercial art galleries, “the critical role that he played in the development of Impressionism has not been thoroughly studied,” says Thompson.

The Impressionists’ world was one of honest details, such as the vertiginous angle that Degas used to stress the skill of a circus performer.

Attracting large crowds during its Paris launch in 2014 at the Musée du Luxembourg, the collection earned raves when it moved to London’s National Gallery in March, with The Telegraph calling it “the exhibition of the year” and “the most significant Impressionist show we’ve seen in this country in 20 years.” The final stop on its tour is Philadelphia, its sole North American venue, where some 90 works by Monet, Pissarro, Manet, Degas, Sisley, and others will be on display.

Philadelphia is arguably the most appropriate choice for the tour’s final destination. Largely unknown outside the world of the art collector is the key role that the United States played in raising the profile of the Impressionists. Besides holding ambitious exhibitions in his gallery in Paris, Durand-Ruel worked tirelessly, travelling internationally to publicize his artists. (His landmark exhibit in 1905 at the Grafton Galleries in London featured 315 canvases.) By the 1860s, Durand-Ruel was selling paintings to Philadelphians. Among his supporters was native Philadelphian Mary Cassatt. A noted painter herself, she became famed for her intimate and engaging snapshots of domestic life, such as the tangible love and trust between mother and daughter clearly visible in The Child’s Bath.

The Impressionists’ world was one of honest details, such as the vertiginous angle that Degas used to stress the skill of a circus performer. On loan from a private collection, Monet’s Les Galettes are fruit tarts so crisply and juicily rendered that the viewer can almost taste them. Affectionate body language reveals much about the couple in Dance at Bougival by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whose paintings of all five Durand-Ruel children are also in the exhibit. Another family reunion of sorts is the showing of two Monet Poplar paintings from the Philadelphia Museum collection, with four others from the series demonstrating, in depth, the artist’s approach to the subject.

Via door panels painted by Monet, and period photographs that re-create the Durand-Ruel apartment and its artistic wealth, the exhibition slingshots visitors back to the 19th century with an embarrassment of artistic riches. From Parisian train stations to ballet dancers and pastoral French scenes, rarely has such a wide range of Impressionist painters and subject matter been brought together. Says Thompson, “We have sought to re-create, in the exhibition, a sense of the boldness and novelty these works had when they were freshly painted.”