It’s a curious fact that the decisive moment in the history of Impressionism took place not in Paris but in London. In September 1870, just after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) moved a large part of his stock to safety in London, opening a gallery in New Bond Street. That winter, Durand-Ruel had a life-changing encounter when he met two struggling young artists who had also taken refuge in the city, Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. He liked what he saw of their work: both were painting directly from nature in a bold and novel way. Durand-Ruel began to buy and exhibit their pictures.
This exhibition devoted to Durand-Ruel’s career was potentially as high-risk as its subject’s own speculation in “the new painting.” A business history of Impressionism, anyone? I don’t think so! Shrewdly, the organizers have focused squarely on the paintings: There are just 85 of these, but they include key works by all the leading names: Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Manet, Sisley and Degas. Offering, in effect, a concise history of Impressionism, the exhibition follows a broadly chronological format, tying the artworks in with the ups-and-downs of Durand-Ruel’s fortunes as a dealer.
The show underlines the crucial role that Durand-Ruel played in establishing the movement after his return to France in 1872. Before then, the Impressionists had been universally derided; routinely rejected by the Salon, the artists were living a hand-to-mouth existence. Durand-Ruel instead provided regular salaries against future work, bought paintings in bulk, offered moral support and frequently paid their bills. “Without him,” Monet wrote, “we wouldn’t have survived.” However, sales remained sluggish, and a surplus of unsold stock, together with a banking crisis in 1874, brought Durand-Ruel under increasing financial strain.
Nowadays, of course, standing in front of, say, a Sisley view of the Seine or a scene of peasants dancing by Renoir, it’s difficult to understand what all the fuss was about. But there are still one or two surprises in this show. Take, for example, Degas’s “Peasant Girls Bathing in the Sea at Dusk.” To describe the girls as “bathing” doesn’t do them justice; they are actually frolicking with naked abandon. Quite apart from the subject matter, the picture is as broadly and as viscerally painted as anything Picasso or Munch might have produced 50 years later. “Peasant Girls” caused a huge furor at the Second Impressionist Exhibition of 1876, one critic labeling Degas “the most intransigent of this intransigent company.”
To promote their work, Durand-Ruel pioneered sales techniques that the art world now takes for granted: advertising campaigns, reproductions in the press, ostentatious private views and one-man shows. A good example of the latter is the exhibition he devoted to Monet’s “Poplars” series in 1892. In something of a coup for the National Gallery, this show brings together five of the Poplars paintings, today split between Tokyo, Paris, London and Philadelphia.
In 1884 another banking crash brought Durand-Ruel to the brink of ruin. He was rescued, above all, by the American market. Collectors in the United States were far more amenable to Impressionism than most of their European counterparts, and by 1888 Durand-Ruel had established a permanent gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York. As the show brings out very well, a major factor in Durand-Ruel’s success in America was the role played by Mary Cassatt, who in addition to being a considerable painter in her own right (demonstrated here by the charming “Child’s Bath”  from the Art Institute of Chicago) introduced Durand-Ruel to many wealthy patrons. These included members of her own family; in 1880, for example, she persuaded her brother Alexander, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, to buy “The Ballet Class” by her friend Degas, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The last room evokes the show Durand-Ruel held at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1905, which remains to this day the largest exhibition of Impressionist paintings anywhere. Yet Durand-Ruel never really cracked the London market, and of the 315 paintings shown, only 13 were sold. Ironically, resistance to Impressionism in Britain was strongest at the National Gallery, as the catalog of the current show ruefully concedes. When, for instance, a group calling itself “The French Impressionist Fund” tried to present Monet’s “Lavacourt under Snow” (1878-81) to the nation, the Gallery politely declined the offer.
Despite such setbacks, Durand-Ruel lived to see the final triumph of Impressionism, for which he deserves the lion’s share of the credit, apart from the artists themselves, of course. It is estimated that he bought more than 12,000 pictures between 1891 and 1922, including 1,000 Monets, 1,500 Renoirs, 800 by Pissarro and 400 each by Degas and Sisley. It is breathtaking to imagine what this haul would be worth at today’s prices. As Durand-Ruel himself put it, “my madness had been wisdom.”