I t's not easy to change the way people look at things.
When critics, and most people, first looked at the works of the French painters who, in 1874, began to call themselves impressionists, they thought them perverse, or perhaps deranged. The freedom of the painters' brushstrokes, combined with their study of the complexity and multiplicity of color as it changes moment by moment, looked just plain messy to the late-19th-century eye. "Go ahead," wrote one critic, "and try to explain to Renoir that a woman's torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with the purplish-green splotches that denote the final stage of putrefaction in a corpse!"
Today, that Renoir nude looks perhaps a bit overripe to us, but not strange. We have grown up with and are perhaps a little too comfortable with the impressionist aesthetic. We shouldn't condescend to predecessors trying to come to terms with what they'd never seen before. For us, the challenge is to see the works with new eyes.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art show "Discovering Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting," is expected to be wildly popular here, as it was at the National Gallery in London and the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. The three museums know impressionism sells. But that's not enough to justify a big, international traveling show. So they decided to organize their exhibition around a man who, more than anyone, figured out how to sell impressionism.
Indeed, the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel pioneered many of the rituals and stratagems of today's art world. By paying his artists monthly stipends in exchange for new work, he invested in, and exercised control over, their careers. He produced publications to get attention for them, and spent too much for their paintings when they came up for auction, in order to raise the prices. He had an extraordinary apartment, overflowing with art - Claude Monet painted door panels for it - that became a magnet for collectors visiting Paris. He was the first to mount solo shows of what are now called emerging artists. He borrowed from bankers so his gallery and artists would make an impact and change people's tastes. He nearly went bankrupt twice but finally prospered when Americans, of all people, embraced the new art.
His is quite an interesting story, though it seems more suitable for a business school case study than a museum blockbuster. He was a wheeler-dealer who won a measure of immortality because he tried to corner the market in Monets, rather than in wheat.
It's unlikely that more than a handful of people will see the show because they are interested in Durand-Ruel and his role in creating the art market as we know it. They will go because half a dozen of Monet's 15 paintings of poplars are there. They will go to let their eyes luxuriate in the sensuously animated brushwork of Berthe Morisot's Woman at Her Toilette.
They will go to scrutinize an enduringly strange masterpiece like Edouard Manet's Music in the Tuileries Gardens, with its depictions of important cultural people, along with some almost cartoonish figures and a little girl who seems to have a beard. They will become voyeurs, with Edgar Degas, watching ballerinas and racehorses before they spring into action. They will look for the wall that holds Renoir's three big dance paintings, and along the way notice how the ripples in the river of Alfred Sisley's The Bridge of Villeneuve-la-Garenne reflect every color of every structure in that pastel town.
And there is nothing wrong with that. Seeing art like this is its own reward. You needn't spend too much time figuring out all the times Durand-Ruel bought and sold, then bought back and sold again, the same seductive picture, though all this information is provided on labels and time lines throughout the show.
Even so, the exhibition's focus on the dealer does offer an occasion for a broader view, of both the art and the time, than one typically expects in an impressionist show. For example, Durand-Ruel was a dealer before there were impressionists, and the show's first gallery has work from major artists whose work he handled. Arab Horses Fighting in a Stable by Eugene Delacroix, with its drama, muscular forms, and sense of contained force, seems the opposite of impressionism, though it was painted in 1861, just as the later generation was getting underway. A few years later, Theodore Rousseau, a painter whose work I tend to overlook, painted a gorgeous view of Mont Blanc in which every tree seems to be individually depicted, not impressionistic at all. But two works from three decades before show free brushwork and daring color that seem to look forward to impressionism.
Manet, who was not, strictly speaking, an impressionist, also looms large in the show because Durand-Ruel's decision to buy 23 of his works on a single day in 1872 was one of the defining moves of his career. Boy With a Sword (1861), apparently the work that inspired that shopping spree, shows a young man holding a weapon way too big for him with an attitude of bemused, awkward dignity. Manet (along with Degas) brings to the show a psychological acuteness often missing in the works of those who sought only to evoke what strikes the eye.
Monet, the subject of Durand-Ruel's first solo show, gets a gallery all to himself. The Artist's Garden in Argenteuil (1873) is a work the eyes want to sink into, and Road at La Cavée, Pourville (1882), which shows a path descending through brush to the sea, is like a summer vacation distilled into one image. Two of Monet's poplars are in Philadelphia all the time, but they benefit from being seen with four others that emphasize structure, strength, and winds, not just the pure effects of light.
It is easy to feel, when we see these, as well as Renoir's sun-dappled depictions of people enjoying themselves, that late-19th-century France was idyllic. In fact, it was a time of political upheaval, deep polarization, and war. Indeed, Durand-Ruel made his first contact with the impressionists when he met Monet and Camille Pissarro in London in 1870. All three had fled Paris to escape the Franco-Prussian War, and once all were back in Paris, the painters introduced him to Renoir, Manet, Sisley, and others.
By focusing on the dealer, this show situates impressionism in the real world of politics, finance, and publicity, though not of science and technology - which might be an excuse for another show in a few years. It does not tell us how or why artists stopped seeking to show us an enduring truth and instead concentrated on visual sensation and radical subjectivity.
It does offer a theory, though, on what finally led the public to embrace this art: Even beauty needs marketing.
Discovering the Impressionists:
and the New Painting
Wednesday through Sept. 15 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; until 8:45 p.m. Wednesday and Friday; closed Monday.
Timed tickets: Adults, $25; 65 and over, $23; students and youths (13-18), $20; children (5-12), $12; 4 and under, free.