Paul Durand-Ruel set out to create value for something that no one wanted, and changed the economics of taste for ever. With a brilliant eye and steady nerve, he was the first dealer to make a business from contemporary art, and for years he was the only one who sold, and often the only one who bought, the Impressionists.

He took out loans to pay his painters’ rents, tailors’ bills and doctors’ fees, marrying art and finance to devise a new paradigm for trading culture: he promoted individuality as a marketable commodity. A Catholic monarchist who attended mass every morning, Durand-Ruel co-ordinated the careers of atheist republican Claude Monet, Jewish anarchist Camille Pissarro, curmudgeonly anti-Semite Edgar Degas and reactionary misogynist Pierre-Auguste Renoir: a microcosm of the intellectual fissures underlying 19th-century Paris.

When Larry Gagosian exhibited Damien Hirst’s spot paintings simultaneously in his 11 galleries across the world in 2012, or William Acquavella settled a £2.7m gambling debt for Lucian Freud, these blue-chip dealers of today were reiterating strategies devised by their Parisian godfather. Pioneering the solo exhibition, gallery representation, the hyping of particular names, the creation of global brands and open access to exhibitions, Durand-Ruel defined — for good and bad — how we consume and understand art now.

Inventing Impressionism, a superb, penetrating show coming from the Musée du Luxembourg to the National Gallery in London next month, tells Durand-Ruel’s story through the masterpieces that made his fortune. It contains some of the best-loved works ever painted, plus revelatory archival material.

Paul Durand-Ruel in his gallery c1910 by Dornac
Paul Durand-Ruel in his gallery c1910 by Dornac © Durand-Ruel & Cie

The Musée d’Orsay is lending Renoir’s life-size “The Country Dance” and “The City Dance”, paeans to hedonism and democratic pleasure, which decorated Durand-Ruel’s salon, and Degas’ whirlwind experiment with movement “Horse Before the Stands”, made with petrol paint, which Durand-Ruel bought for 1,000 francs and sold for 30,000 francs. From Philadelphia comes Manet’s vertiginous aquamarine-black thriller “The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama”, which transformed the marine genre. Reunited from three continents are Monet’s “Poplars”, magnified to the point of abstraction by different effects of colour and light — paintings that were the first serial works to be displayed as a single installation. They secured Monet’s success — “not a scrap of poplar left to sell,” he noted when the show closed in 1891 — as well as forging a cultural sensibility.

Aesthetic innovation in these pictures often mirrors the social changes of which Durand-Ruel’s risky ventures, challenging the Salon’s monopoly on artistic value, were a part. He bought 23 paintings from Manet, who had hitherto sold almost nothing, on the day they met in 1872, and sold them gradually over the next three decades to collectors emerging from the new leisured middle class. Such flâneur types hover and swoop in their black suits among the artificial flat bands of trees and gold arabesques of industrially produced metal chairs in Manet’s “Music in the Tuileries Garden”. Durand-Ruel encouraged and exploited precisely the modern urban economy Manet depicted. He sold this seminal painting to the Irish dealer Hugh Lane in 1906.

His choreography of Impressionism began, before the movement even had a name, in London among a band of refugees from the Franco-Prussian war. Durand-Ruel, who had hoped to be a missionary but, instead, had inherited his father’s stationary and print shop, was introduced by Barbizon painter Charles-François Daubigny to the 30-year-old Monet with the words: “This artist will surpass us all.”

In 1871 Monet was a wild card: impecunious, unsaleable. The National Gallery has the iconic, mist-veiled morning view “The Thames below Westminster”, which Monet, influenced by the Turners he encountered in London, painted that year; it failed to sell until 1877. Through the 1870s, after Monet’s return to Argenteuil and Durand-Ruel’s own tragedy — he lost his wife, never remarried, and brought up five children alone — the dealer several times came close to bankruptcy, while supporting Impressionism became his new, lonely faith.

'The Galettes', 1882
'The Galettes', 1882 © Durand-Ruel & Cie

The sparkle of light on the Seine in “Pleasure Boats” and glowing russet foliage against cool water in “Autumn Effect, Argenteuil” (both 1872-73) constitute Impressionism’s apogee, as Monet fragmented the brushstroke to capture luminous vibrations and reflections. They “passed unnoticed by almost all the visitors to our galleries,” Durand-Ruel recalled, but he never wavered; to Monet’s suggestion of halving prices, he insisted: “I would not have sold any more and I would not have been able to fix the pictures in the minds of collectors in the same way.”

The miracle of these years is not just the mastery with which Monet and Renoir conquered the representation of light, and Durand-Ruel’s understanding of that revolution; it is also the distillation of joy on canvases created during dire times.

“Woman Reading”, which Durand-Ruel bought in 1872, depicts in unblended dabs of colour sun filtering through lilacs, with Monet’s wife Camille “dressed in white, sitting in the shade of the foliage, her dress dotted with bright sequins like drops of water”, as Zola described. “Lavacourt under Snow” (1878-81), painted as Camille was dying, refines the depiction of water as hard iridescent snow. Durand-Ruel sent this on tour to St Petersburg, Helsinki, Berlin and London as an Impressionist emblem; it was the first Monet to enter a British public collection — in 1915.

Durand-Ruel spoke no English but he made money talk. Encouraged by American visitors to his Rue Laffitte gallery, he crossed the Atlantic in 1886 with 43 crates of pictures and within weeks in New York he sold “paintings that took 20 years to be appreciated in Paris”.

“Do not think the Americans are savages,” he told his wary artists. “On the contrary, they are less ignorant, less closed-minded than our French collectors.” He called on the Rockefellers, sold to the Havemeyers, launched a gallery on Fifth Avenue in 1887, and believed that “without America, I would have been lost, ruined. Thanks to the [American] public, Monet and Renoir were enabled to live.”

New World collectors were bolder but they were also seeing more: by 1886, Durand-Ruel could present whole bodies of work showcasing the individual development of each of his artists. “He has Renoirs of such quality and quantity as one couldn’t imagine!” wrote Cleveland iron magnate Alfred Pope.

Showcased in his Paris apartment as a permanent trophy exhibition, open to visitors, many of these were sold by Durand-Ruel’s sons to America at undreamt-of prices shortly after the dealer’s death in 1922. “The Luncheon of the Boating Party” went to the Phillips Collection for $125,000. “Two Sisters”, set on the same terrace and with figures softly fused with the riverside surroundings, for which Durand-Ruel paid Renoir 1,500 francs in 1881, sold to a Chicago collector for $100,000 in 1925.

Monet lived long enough to watch these transactions. “Without Durand we would have died of hunger, all us Impressionists. We owe him everything,” he said.

The Thames below Westminster (c1871)
The Thames below Westminster (c1871) © The National Gallery

Every young art movement since has depended on a visionary dealer as public intermediary. Most, like the sombre and grey-haired Durand-Ruel whose American buyers loved his “fascinating manners”, have been radicals in bourgeois disguise, reassuring clients by their conservative demeanour that the latest artistic outrages are bankable.

“What would have become of us if [Daniel-Henry] Kahnweiler hadn’t had a business sense?” Picasso asked of the scholarly German gallerist who saved the Cubists from destitution. There was Herwarth Walden trading German Expressionists from a splendid apartment in Berlin; charming European Leo Castelli turning American pop art into an international phenomenon; dark-suited Etonian Jay Jopling selling the Young British Artists: all repeated the high-risk, high-returns strategy of heady speculation on unknown names, turning ridicule to triumph as their artists became the new establishment.

Visionaries or pragmatists? “I love the gallery, the arena of representation,” says Jeff Koons. “It’s a commercial world, and morality is based generally around economics, and that’s taking place in the art gallery.”

‘Music in the Tuileries Garden’ (1862) by Edouard Manet
‘Music in the Tuileries Garden’ (1862) by Edouard Manet © The National Gallery

Today a dealer with the Midas touch must refine Durand-Ruel’s model within a 21st-century experience economy where art-making, art-performing and art-marketing are converging. David Zwirner, for example, funded Oscar Murillo’s project to bring Colombian workers to a chocolate factory built in his New York gallery last year; collectors looking to buy Murillo’s paintings were thwarted.

But, as Durand-Ruel proved, there were never any rules, except perhaps Castelli’s that art “is what artists make of it. One does not have to like it, but one cannot discard it. One can lament a certain fashion, but one just cannot say, ‘This is not art, it will go away.’”

‘Inventing Impressionism’, National Gallery, London, March 4-May 31,; Philadelphia Museum of Art, June 24-September 13,

Photographs: Archives Durand-Ruel; The Art Institute of Chicago; National Gallery, London

Slideshow photographs: The Art Institute of Chicago; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; The National Gallery; National Gallery of Art; National Museum of Western Art; Durand-Ruel & Cie; RMN-Grand Palais/Hervé Lewandowski; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Shelburne Museum

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