The gray-haired art dealer poses in a plush Parisian interior. He relaxes in an armchair, one hand on his chest, looking lost in thought.
The dealer is Paul Durand-Ruel, the leading French gallerist of the 19th century, and the portrait is by one of his best-selling artists, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Painted in 1910, it hangs in a new exhibition at La Monnaie de Paris titled “Money in Art” — an in-depth exploration of the relationship between commerce and creativity.
Durand-Ruel appears as a picture of poise and restraint compared with today’s mega-dealers, who shift big-ticket artworks in a multibillion-dollar global industry. In fact, he blazed the trail for the generations that followed: He was the first dealer to invest hugely in artists and their careers, and to turn art into a highly lucrative international business.
“Durand-Ruel was the model for the contemporary-art dealers and galleries we see today in major capitals around the world,” said Jean-Michel Bouhours, the exhibition’s curator. “He invented the paradigm.”
Bouhours, a former chief curator of modern art at the Pompidou Center, acknowledged that Durand-Ruel was generous to his artists, helping them even when they had no clients. “Yet behind this philanthropy was speculation,” he added.
The exhibition shows how money has been represented in art through some 200 objects that range from Babylonian seals and ancient Greek pottery to digital artworks made in 2022. Scholarly in scope, the show is steeped in the writings of economic theorists such as Karl Marx, whose “Das Kapital” is on display in a French-language first edition. Some of the items on display are drawn from the collection of La Monnaie, the historic headquarters of the Paris Mint, which now houses a museum and an exhibition space.
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The exhibition’s essential thesis is that art and economics have always been closely intertwined, and that to understand the characteristics of art in modern times, you need to follow the money.
For a long time, artists were in the pay of the church, the crown or the state, and were commissioned to produce works on religious, mythological, or political themes. After the Industrial Revolution, when funds were needed to pay for factories, railways and mines, the state took a back seat, and capital was provided by the financial sector. Before long, it became the lifeline of the art world, too.
Suddenly, in France, speculation was everywhere: in the first casinos, where gambling was openly authorized, and at the Paris Bourse, the stock exchange, which was inaugurated in 1826. “This temple of the modern era gave rise to completely new types of behavior,” Bouhours said. “People placed bets. They took risks.”
“We’re no longer talking about a real economy, but about a financial economy, based on gambling and speculation,” he said. “Durand-Ruel was a product of this economic environment.”
A photograph taken in the 1860s shows Baron James de Rothschild, a scion of one of Europe’s leading banking families, posing with a top hat and a walking stick. Another banker, Ernest May, a collector of Edgar Degas, is painted by Degas at the Bourse. Wearing a top hat and pince-nez, he is ready to hit the trading floor as a colleague leans over to whisper in his ear.
These ultrarich financiers were soon reviled by the public, and lampooned and disparaged in caricature and literature, as the exhibition demonstrates.
A corpulent banker with a gold-encrusted hat frowns at a group of ailing and maimed figures in a caricature by Albert Hahn. The protagonist of Emile Zola’s novel “L’Argent” (“Money”) — the manuscript of which is on display — is a powerful and scheming banker who destroys lives through stock-market speculation.
In the case of Durand-Ruel, the object of speculation was art, not stocks. He borrowed heavily from banks to invest in paintings, and nearly went bankrupt in the process. What saved him in the end was a relentless international expansion effort that boosted Impressionism’s appeal and made it a big hit with wealthy American collectors.
Durand-Ruel’s business model in the 1870s was to bulk-buy Impressionist works while they were mocked and scorned by the public — and therefore very affordable. One of his descendants estimated that Durand-Ruel bought some 1,500 works by Renoir, more than 1,000 by Monet, 800 by Pissarro, more than 400 by Degas, and 200 by Manet, according to the catalog of a 2015 exhibition at the National Gallery in London titled “Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market.”
The son of an established Paris art dealer, Durand-Ruel took over his father’s gallery in 1865. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, he moved to London, met Monet and Pissarro, and decided “to take a punt on them,” said Christopher Riopelle, a co-curator of the National Gallery’s 2015 show.
Back in Paris, he also invested in Degas, Renoir and Sisley, and on a single visit to Manet’s studio bought 21 paintings, effectively controlling the artist’s nascent market.
In a stroke of marketing genius, he presented his artists not as individuals working in isolation but as members of a movement, so they would “prop up one another, but also come to be seen in the public eye as having some kind of collective weight,” Riopelle said. Presenting artists as a collective “becomes fairly standard practice from that moment on,” he said.
Durand-Ruel was, in so many ways, a pioneer of the art market as we know it. Today, major international gallerists such as Larry Gagosian maintain close personal relationships with their artists, and provide them with regular advice and financial support, Riopelle said. And artists are encouraged to develop a signature style that their biggest clients — billionaires and hedge-fund managers — will instantly recognize.
The art market “has metastasized in size and in the amount of money that moves through it,” Riopelle said. “But it’s a continuum.”
As the exhibition moves forward in time, the relationship between art and business becomes more and more entangled, and the legacy of Durand-Ruel looks increasingly complicated. Some artists embrace the overlap between art and business openly — producing lucrative series catering to wealthy collectors, and representing money in their work. Andy Warhol, for example, makes large paintings of the dollar sign, representing the world’s leading currency and the global symbol of wealth; one such painting is in the exhibition.
The overlap of art and the luxury industry is parodied in a work by the artist Sylvie Fleury, “La Mer” (2014), which is nothing more than an assortment of real-life branded shopping bags.
“Contemporary artists are now part of an industrial, globalized process in which goods are sold everywhere,” Bouhours said. “The risk is that in this ultra-commoditized world, art may end up getting a little bit lost.”
Money in Art
Through Sept. 14 at the Monnaie de Paris; monnaiedeparis.fr.
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