Art and Literature (Philly Edition)
Sometimes, all sorts of creative strands come together — and the result can be wholly unexpected. Wholly enjoyable, too, with a healthy dose of learning and making new connections.
Recently, we’ve been watching Ken Burns’s remastered The Civil War. I’ve seen the entire series once, and I’ve watched several segments multiple times (usually, after we’ve visited one of the battlefields.) The remastered images are much clearer than the originals, which makes the story they tell much more terrible.
The American Civil War, of course, took place from 1861 to 1865. In 1865, in Paris, France, Paul Durand-Ruel inherited his family’s art gallery. Paul Who? you might ask.
Durand-Ruel was the first gallery owner who took the Impressionists seriously. He bought up large numbers of their paintings (and, in some cases, held those paintings for decades, while he built a market for them.) That’s an image of him at the top of this post, toward the end of his nine-decade life, painted by Renoir.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently hosted the exhibit: Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting. (It closed on September 13; I visited a couple of weeks ago.) I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of Impressionist paintings before, especially large collections of Renoir and Monet. But this Philadelphia exhibit taught me things I never knew before.
The Philadelphia show was built around the notion of Durand-Ruel’s gallery. Each painting included a typical curatorial plaque, with the artist’s name and the painting’s name, the date it was created, the medium, and a brief summary of the work. But each plaque also included information on when Durand-Ruel acquired the work and when he sold it.
And therein lay many a tale.
Some paintings were bought and sold within a matter of days. Others were held for months. A few were held for decades. In some cases, the artists reclaimed their work, only to return it to Durand-Ruel’s possession, after which it sold.
Those purchase notes completely changed the way I viewed the paintings. They were no longer just pretty pictures. And they weren’t just the calculated canvases that I’ve learned how to analyze — with specific applications of paint, with color schemes and artistic tricks.
They were commodities, bought and sold, in a market largely created by Durand-Ruel. The dealer held salons, at which he educated potential buyers about the new painting. He curated shows, bringing Impressionism to the establishment (and enduring scathing criticism.) He built a market where none had existed before.
As I walked through the exhibit, I kept thinking about the current writing field. With the advent of self-publishing, we’re watching a change in publishing similar to the change over which Durand-Ruel presided. The old gatekeepers (of traditional publishing, of the Paris Salon art show) are losing their tight grip. New models are emerging, with artistic experimentation in form (Monet’s series paintings, boxed sets of multiple novellas.)
(I also thought about how Durand-Ruel functioned in ways similar to an agent — he promoted his artists, selling them to collectors. And he often loaned them money when they were in particularly difficult straits — something I was told on day one never to expect from my agent (but I knew of people who had borrowed from him in the past!))
We bought the catalog from this show, and I look forward to reading it in detail. Who knows? There might be a story or three lurking behind those pictures!