Musée d’Orsay Curator Sylvie Patry On the Origins of the Modern Art Market

How was the modern art market born?

Claude Monet, Poplars on the Bank of the Epte River (1891)
Photo: Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Anne Thomson in memory of her father, Frank Thomson, and her mother, Mary Elizabeth Clarke Thomson, 1954.

When the exhibition “Paul Durand-Ruel: The gamble of the Impressionists,” opened on a rainy October evening at the Musée du Luxembourg, lines of people extended down the rue de Vaugirard. The exhibition, which runs until February 8, 2015, celebrates a dealer who was one of the founders of the modern art market and is widely credited as the man who “made” the Impressionists. Born in 1831, Durand-Ruel not only ran a family gallery in Paris beginning in the 1860s, he also amassed his own personal collection of paintings which he exhibited and sold in his gallery-apartment at 35 rue de Rome. In 1876 an exhibition of 250 works by 19 Impressionist artists marked a turning point for this group in the eyes of the public. Not long after, in the 1880s, the dealer strengthened his connections with wealthy patrons in New York and Philadelphia and cultivated their taste for such artists as Monet, Manet, and Renoir.

Sylvie Patry, head curator at the Musée d’Orsay, led a curating team with experts from the National Gallery in London and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the exhibition will be appear in expanded form this coming June. The current exhibition in Paris, which, as Patry puts it, “aims to tell the story of the gallery and to investigate the retionships between a dealer and an ‘avant-garde,'” was organized by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais in partnership with the Musée d’Orsay, the National Gallery, London, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In October artnet News viewed the exhibition and met with Ms. Patry and subsequently conducted the following interview via e-mail.

Claude Monet, Poplars on the Bank of the Epte River (1891)

Claude Monet, Poplars on the Bank of the Epte River (1891)
Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

First, I am wondering if the experience of mounting this exhibition has affected your own impressions about the Impressionists, generally speaking. What has unfolded in your own mind?
It’s hard to tell from a general point of view, as, most of the time, we’ve made many “small” discoveries on specific paintings. But the mere fact that we had to pick less than one hundred pictures out of thousands of candidates implies a complete visual immersion into Impressionism. This immersion has given me a broader sense of a bold duality of this body of works: variety and evolution/homogeneity and repetition. Thinking of Durand-Ruel’s role in the unfolding of the Impressionist movement, it’s fascinating to consider that he might be partly responsible for these two opposed trends. On a very different level, I would say that the preparation of the exhibition and the accompanied research in the Durand-Ruel archives have revealed the intense circulation of some Impressionist paintings in the 19th century (pictures sent across the world for exhibitions, on deposit by various collectors, then back to the Durand-Ruel gallery, incessant comings and goings and/or transfers between the Durand-Ruel gallery and Durand-Ruel’s apartment…).

The group of Monet’s poplars was quite striking, seen together at the exhibition. Do you have any particular comments on this group? And do you have a favorite painting or group of works in this exhibition?
I agree that Monet’s poplars are one of the highlights of the exhibition. The group will be even more striking and spectacular in London and Philadelphia, as my colleagues will be able to display up to five (in London at the National Gallery) and six Poplars (at the Philadelphia Museum of Art). It will allow visitors to experiment and to understand what Monet’s series mean. I would also mention Dance at Bougival, Dance in the Country, and Dance in the City by Renoir that are exceptionally brought together in the exhibition.

With the Poplars and the three dances, I particularly appreciate the fact that the exhibition provides a truly unique visual experience. Displaying these paintings all together restitutes or revives an”aura,” which is a strength when it comes to popular and over-reproduced works. People usually imagine they are familiar with these paintings. By gathering these works, magnifying them thanks to the scenography, or layout, the exhibition aims at refreshing visitors’ eyes and minds.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Danse à Bougival (1883) Courtesy © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Danse à Bougival (1883)
Courtesy © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

What general observation can you provide about the Impressionists’ representations of dance and dancing?
The presence of different kinds of dances is linked to the artists interest in “modern life”: the classical ballet, but also dance halls, “guinguettes,” and so forth were fashionable distractions of the time. It was also a way for the Impressionists to rejuvenate the tradition: The representation of the human body stood at the top of the aesthetic hierarchy. The representation of dance, dancing, and dancers is a way of perpetuating and revitalizing this tradition of the figure painting, thanks to modern subjects and to a new “body langage” (as opposed to the conventional poses in historical paintings).

The exhibition includes paneled doors that Monet painted. What can you tell me about your selection of these artworks for inclusion in the exhibition?
The paneled doors (maybe not this one but hopefully two or three out of the five which were installed in Durand-Ruel’s salon in 1885) will be included in a future exhibition tentatively titled “Impressionism, Decorative and Decoration” at the Musée de l’Orangerie, from fall 2017 until 2018. The exhibition will focus on an almost unknown aspect of Impressionism: its decorative dimension. From their beginnings in the mid-1860s up to the Nymphéas murals by Monet (“grandes décorations”) at the Orangerie, the Impressionists expressed interest in decoration. Private collectors commissioned mural paintings from Monet, Renoir, or Pissarro for instance. Some artists such as Renoir or Pissarro designed ceramics, tapestries, and so on.

You spoke about a time delay Durand-Ruel allowed for in order for his patrons’ tastes to “ripen.” What conditions might make such a practice impossible today?
Durand-Ruel himself claimed this “ripening” process as a condition for becoming an authentic and successful art dealer, since the ripening is tied to speculation and financial interests. If you are able to keep a work of art for many years, even decades, you have time to cultivate collectors, to convince them, to change existing tastes and fashion new ones. Then, when buyers are ready to bite into new art, the value of the dealer’s stock increases. Durand-Ruel thought that the dealer’s mission was to guide and to enlighten the public, to stand at the avant garde, and to discover today the great artists of tomorrow (buying at low prices and selling at high prices). Time, a precious tool and critical factor in Durand-Ruel’s success, does not exist any more for dealers today.

Could you name a dealer since Durand-Ruel’s day who has had a comparable influence upon the art market?
I would say probably Leo Castelli.

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