14 March 2020

A Tale Of The Art Market

I. The art market as we now know it was an invention of dealers in late ninetieth century Paris when artists and patrons became buyers and sellers.

The Salon system of art exhibitions was being subjected to increasing and vehement criticism from artists for its bland  selections and threadbare aesthetics.  Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet, arguably, the most exciting artists of their day were not welcomed by the salons.

Newly prosperous merchants, bankers, and industrialists had little knowledge of the classics or mythology, frequent subjects of academic and religious paintings.  Unlike  aristocratic patrons of previous centuries, these new collectors lived not in palaces but in houses, large and grand, but still houses.  The new collectors wanted pictures they could enjoy and understand without academic training.  Landscapes, genre scenes from everyday life, and portraits of themselves and their loved ones were what they wanted.

Whether the artists liked it or not, and Eugene Delacroix most emphatically did not, the demand for smaller paintings created a market.  "There is no encouragement for anything but cabinet pictures," Delacroix grumbled.

By the time of the Impressionists  the distinction between art and interior decoration was collapsing.  The artists were Janus-faced, on the one hand deconstructing realism on canvas, on the other catering to the tastes of the newly-minted bourgeoisie. For one, Pierre Bonnard was inspired by the idea of the  standing screen, designing them for specific rooms in his clients' homes.

II. To create a market for Impressionist paintings, dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) camouflaged their radical style with gilded and richly-carved frames that were understood to signify quality. This gambit was described as  a Trojan horse being wheeled before a credulous public.  Durand-Ruel established the solo exhibition, which we now take for granted, as an effective way to build an artist's reputation. He was also the first French dealer to establish a beach-head in the United States. "Without America, I would have been lost, ruined, after buying so many Monets and Renoirs," he admitted. Durand-Ruel's ascendance in the art world was based on a gamble and not without challenges, years of critical opposition, and the financial drain that subsidizing his artists entailed.

III. Born on the remote island of La Reunion, a French colony in the Indian Ocean, Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) was supposed to study law but instead became the leading dealer in contemporary art of his generation.  He opened a gallery in 1893 on rue Lafitte, which became known as the "street of pictures.'  His first major exhibition in 1896 included paintings by Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Vlaminck, Roualt, and also Bonnard.

A "marchand-decouvreur," a dealer-discoverer, Vollard shrewdly bought up the contents of entire studios from little known artists at bargain prices.  He drew people out, saying "Dites-moi" meaning 'Tell me, then'.  Somnolence and evasion were Vollard's favored techniques with prospective clients; his eccentric selling techniques including frequent dozing in his gallery, making a point of not showing his clients what they asked to see, and concealing most of his paintings behind a screen at the back of his shop.  All this was neatly captured by Bonnard in Vollard and His Cat (at left).

Vollard himself was full of contradictions and remains an enigma in retrospect.  Opinions of his contemporaries differed greatly.  Some artists like Matisse  considered him a thief  who had exploited his art while others spoke warmly of Vollard's loyalty and generosity to them.  Cezanne was extremely grateful to the dealer for rescuing him from obscurity.   Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, whose gallery supported the next generation, the Cubist painters,  recalled,  "Vollard was very secretive.  He knew how to weave a mystery around his pictures in order to fetch a higher price."

IV. An artist who functioned as a de facto dealer was Mary Cassatt, who moved from Pennsylvania to France in 1874.  She became a friend of Edgar Degas and, through him, met other Impressionists.   After Louisine Elder (later Havemeyer) sailed to Paris in 1873 she was introduced to Cassatt, who would advise her on collecting art after she married the wealthy H.O. Havemeyer who single-handedly controlled the American sugar market.  As collectors, the Havemeyers were able to acquire artworks from landed European aristocrats who were strapped for cash.  Willing buyers met needy sellers.  Henry James, an expatriate American who sided with Europeans was dismayed at the prospect of losing their artistic patrimony, even wrote a novel The Outcry (1911) about it. Fast forward to the 1980s as Western buyers wrung their hands as Japanese collectors went on a buying spree, snapping  up van Goghs and Picassos. Life imitates art imitating life.

For further reading:
1. Paul Durand-Ruel: The man who saved the Impressionists, The Times, UK, 14 Februay 2015.
2. Cezanne to Picasso: patron of the avant-garde, Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Yale University, New Haven: 2006.
1. Edgar Degas  - Mary Cassatt (and her sister Lydia( at the Louvre, 1879-1885, pastel, private collection.
2. Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Paul Durand-Ruel, 1910, oil on canvas, private collection.
3. Pierre Bonnard - Vollard and his Cat, circa 1904-1905, oil on canvas, Kunsthaus, Zurich.
4. Mary Cassatt - Portrait of Louisine Havemeyer, 1896, pastel, Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont.


Hels said...

That Paul Durand-Ruel tried to camouflage Impressionist paintings' radical style with gilded and richly-carved frames might have been well motivated by the dealer, but contradictory for the artists. But establishing solo exhibitions to build an artists' reputation was sensible and effective.

Jane said...

Hels, an to this day most museums I have been to have kept the original "authentic" frames. I guess "Consistency is the hobgoblin of small is true" sometimes.