Poplar trees once lined the left bank of the River Epte near Giverny, in France, casting long shadows across the water. When Monet heard they were to be felled, he paid for their preservation until he had finished painting them – which he did, balanced in a flat-bottomed boat on the river. At dusk and under cloud, in full sun and beneath the breeze, he produced 24 canvases, five of which have been reunited for the National Gallery’s latest blockbuster.
The sight of them is enough to induce arrhythmia. If no one was looking, you would happily lie down beneath them to be cradled by the purple skies and pops of yellow, pink and greens.
In an otherwise jubilant exhibition, it is sobering to be reminded that Monet’s work, like that of Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Degas and others, did not go down well with the jury of the hallowed Paris Salon in the 19th century. To their eyes, the Impressionists’ plein air paintings looked unfinished, otherworldly in their brightness, irreverent next to the allegorical and religious representations of many of their contemporaries.
“People burst into laughter in front of these objects. Personally, I am saddened by them,” wrote one po-faced critic in Le Figaro.
It took a shrewd French businessman and art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, to ensure that their art received the recognition it deserved. He didn’t care what other people thought. Manet’s paintings were routinely rejected from the Salon, but upon seeing his romantic Moonlight at the Port of Boulogne and The Salmon, both on display here, Durand-Ruel snapped them up, and made it Manet’s lucky day by proceeding to purchase almost two dozen more of his canvases.
His bulk-buying continued across a 30-year span until he had amassed nearly 12,000 pictures – and as good as bankrupted himself in the process. He was in every respect the Impressionists’ patron, providing them with moral support, cash for bills and exhibitions across Europe and in New York, where they finally found acceptance.
Durand-Ruel’s efforts, failures and defiance provide a dramatic narrative for this magnificent show. We see the Impressionists through his eyes, not as subversive second-raters, but as bold, emotive new heirs of Delacroix, Courbet and Millet, whose still-lifes and landscapes are exhibited as forerunners of their “New Painting”. Courbet’s 1868 Woman in the Waves finds a counterpart in Renoir’s 1875/6 Study: Torso, Sunlight Effect. The flesh of Courbet’s lady gleams like porcelain in candlelight; Renoir’s is dappled by daylight – “putrefying flesh”, according to his critics.
What did this matter to Durand-Ruel? It was Renoir he singled out to paint his own portrait and those of his children: self-conscious youths with their first moustaches, and girls in the garden, full of life.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (20/3/15).
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