Paul Durand-Ruel had an outward appearance at odds with his true character. The art dealer, who had taken over his father’s business as a young man, was said to resemble ‘a provincial notary or a suburban advocate’, or perhaps ‘an ageing non-commissioned officer’. He possessed ‘gentle manners’ and a ‘slightly muffled tone of voice’. He seemed the ‘personification of simplicity’.
According to Émile Zola, whose novel L’Oeuvre covered the Paris art world of that time, he was ‘a small beardless man, cold in temperament and sustained by clerics’. But in the words of one anonymous observer: ‘Look again!’ Durand-Ruel’s friend Pierre-Auguste Renoir, one of many painters whose work he represented, said of him: ‘This neat bourgeois, good husband and father, loyal monarchist, and practising Christian was also an out-and-out gambler.’ The group of artists sometimes known as ‘Les Intransigents’ needed, Renoir said, ‘a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary’ on their side. They needed Durand-Ruel, the canny salesman who slept with a crucifix above his bed.
Pierre Assouline’s biography of Durand-Ruel is called Discovering Impressionism. Truth would have required something more ungainly. Durand-Ruel discovered, petted, promoted, protected, advocated and finally exported the work of Renoir, Monet, Degas and Pissarro. Born in Paris in 1831, he was not, as the title of his newly translated autobiography claims, ‘the First Impressionist Art Dealer’, but he was by far the most committed, investing in their work at a time when, according to the scholar John Rewald, they had ‘only refusals and laughter to their credit’. By the time of his death in 1922, the Impressionists enjoyed acceptance and praise, and Durand-Ruel continues to be the ‘non-artist’ — Rewald’s word — most closely bound to their story.
Duchamp said that dealers are lice on artists’ backs, but in this case it was the other way around. As late as 1905, almost 35 years after he met Monet and Pissarro in London, Durand-Ruel received a letter from Degas that said: ‘I am expecting you, like the Messiah, to pay the damned quarterly rent.’ The relationship was mostly one way. While Durand-Ruel provided emotional and financial support, the artists repaid him with the only thing they had: their loyalty — which was as good as worthless since he was the only one who wanted it. He made a habit of buying their work, often overpaying in order to keep their prices up, but he was rarely able to sell it on. As Rewald pointed out, such an approach ‘can hardly be considered a sound business basis.’
Looking back on a career full of risk and fear, Durand-Ruel said that if he had passed away at 60, he would have died ‘debt-ridden and bankrupt, surrounded by a wealth of underrated treasures’. He was exaggerating. By the age of 60, things were starting to come good. But that would certainly have been his fate at 50, when the Union Générale went bankrupt, forcing Durand-Ruel to repay the money he had borrowed from its struggling director, Jules Feder. Being Durand-Ruel, he then went out of his way to help Feder, ‘in the hope that his intelligence and experience would enable him to turn his situation around’. It never happened. Year after year, bad luck followed bad luck. But Durand-Ruel was nothing if not obstinate. He remained true to his original instincts, and not long before his death he was able to tell a friend: ‘My madness has been wisdom.’
That isn’t quite right. Durand-Ruel can be forgiven a feeling of vindication, even smugness, but he played a very active role in making sure his gambles paid off. He wasn’t just the ‘Impressionist dealer’ enshrined in his own mythology. He was also, as the National Gallery says, the man who ‘created the Modern Art Market’. In working to gain recognition for the Impressionists, he organised one-man shows and funded critical magazines that might discuss and bolster their work — strategies that took the emphasis away from a single, often problematic painting and placed it instead on an artist’s body of work, their project.
It’s unlikely that, even when things were at their toughest, Durand-Ruel ever believed his mission was madness. He had good reason to think that, with a little nudging, things might turn in the Impressionists’ favour. His father, Jean-Marie-Fortuné Durand, who had traded in stationery and artists’ supplies before offering to sell his customers’ work, had also backed artists unpopular in their own time, such as Géricault,
and Corot. Durand-Ruel knew that no price is permanent. He also knew that work rejected by the public could often enjoy an afterlife of worship among collectors and galleries.
In the 1906 edition of Histoire des Peintres Impressionistes, Théodore Duret said that Durand- Ruel was ‘not a dealer in pictures but... a prophet’. He intended it as praise, but Durand-Ruel’s greatest achievement was, instead, to be a dealer in pictures so savvy and wily that his calculations would one day be seen as foresight. He didn’t know that Parisian taste in painting would change, but he thought that it could and set out to make sure it did.
And while waiting for that process to unfold, he courted attention in a country wholly indifferent to aesthetic conflicts in far-off Europe. Sue Roe’s book, The Private Lives of the Impressionists, opens in 1886 with what she called ‘the climactic moment’ of the Impressionist story: ‘a short, dapper Frenchman in black frock-coat, starched collar and top hat’ arriving at the American Art Association in Madison Square Garden to attend an exhibition, Works in Oil and Pastel by the Impressionists of Paris, which included 300 paintings from Durand-Ruel’s own collection.
For Durand-Ruel, too, New York was a sort of climax, and he brings his autobiography to a close around this time, more than 30 years before his death. He explains that all shipping, insurance, exhibition and advertising costs were met by the American Art Association. Like any sensible businessman, he had made sure of that. But he doesn’t tell a story that reveals the other side of his personality.
Fearing that some of Renoir’s nudes would be confiscated by the authorities, he sought out the chief customs officer, accompanied him to Mass, and when the offerings plate came around, made a generous contribution. Renoir’s nudes were admitted. The story might be apocryphal, but it captures Durand-Ruel — the imaginative gambler parading as a respectable Catholic, the pioneer mistaken for a prophet.