“He had to whore himself to get by!”
As I was strolling through the Albertina in Vienna this summer, I overheard this remark by a Canadian tourist. He was sharing his thoughts with his friend while I assume they were on holiday travel, regarding a painting, “Portrait of a Young Girl (Elisabeth Maître, 1879),” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. If it weren’t for my great fear of landing in a foreign prison, I would have convinced this fellow of the American continent, either by my words or by threats to his health and wellbeing, of the incorrectness of his position. Of course, I reckon this is dependent upon what he meant by “whoring” oneself out. There is a possibility that he has a strong reverence for the oldest profession (even older than painting!) and those who profess it. By his tone of voice however, I could only guess that he meant it in the common and therefore vulgar sense: a sacrifice of one’s principles for filthy lucre.
This opinion could no doubt be properly held about some artists throughout history. Just as there have always been court historians, so have we had artists directly subsidized and complicitly supportive of regimes, both good or more likely ill. But to level this accusation at any of the Impressionists, or really any of the major artistic figures of France in the 19th century, or any major artists in the world after that time, is absurd. Heck, even Michelangelo, barely harkening out of the Middle Ages, had a tremendous amount of efficacy and power. To compel a pope to beg him to return to his commission, just a few hundred years after a king had crawled through the snow on his knees to beg a pope’s forgiveness, shows a level of power that the artist had achieved in society beyond mere strumpet to perform for his or her client whatever they may want, when and how they want it. Rembrandt and his colleagues during the Dutch Golden Age had broadened the market for art such that customers paid gobs of guilders for the privilege of paying to sit for a portrait. The age of the artist as a mere victim of society had long since passed.
Now it is likely that this gallery visitor just views anyone who engages in a market transaction as a trollop. If that is the case, there is nothing I can do for him. But here for you fair reader, I hope to make the argument that the Impressionists and their compatriots of the same time and place were brave entrepreneurs, going up against what was a virtual government monopoly on the creation and distribution of art. Due to advances in the market, they were able to harness the power of new innovations in tools, travel, and methods so that they could create what they loved – in the words of Gaugin, “painting without recipes.”
The French government attempted to control the physical arts, just as they had with the opera and so many other things, by always stifling and limiting their development in the process. Opera would have been a difficult breakaway since it requires some heavy capital investments, not the least of which is a large indoor seated arena. But fortunately, the production of physical art proved much easier to split away from government dominance. Much easier however is distinct from easy. The government was in control of the art scene via the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The Académie was highly conservative in its regulation of paintings, valuing historical, classical, and religious focused pieces, along with portraits. Landscapes and still lifes were not valued or promoted. The Académie decided via jury among their members which paintings would be hung in the biennial Salon, the grand showing to the public. This event served as an opportunity to garner attention for your work, gather commissions, and even make sales. The walls would be covered floor to ceiling in paintings. Your room and height placement was determined as well. As you can imagine, the radical innovations of the Impressionists meant they were likely not to be selected. If any were selected, they were placed in an unfavorable room and “skyed,” that is to say placed at the highest point on the wall just below the ceiling. When in 1863 a large number of paintings were rejected (more than 2/3 of the entrants), an attempt was made to show the democratic nature of the Salon, and Emperor Napoleon III held the Salon de Refuses. Though much of the public entered to laugh at the works that were included in this exhibition, having their work on display was enough to begin adding credibility to the impressionist and other avant-garde movements. This was the only year the rejected pieces had a Salon held by the government.
During this time, the independent art market was growing, in spite of the strong centralizing influence. In 1855, Gustave Courbet, a forerunner of and friend to the Impressionists, held his own one-man show, within eyesight of an official government exhibition. (To give you an idea of Courbet’s personality, in a letter he wrote, “when I am dead let this be said of me: ‘He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty.’” This is the attitude that is needed for revolution to occur in art or anything else). This paved the way for other artists to engage in similar entrepreneurial endeavors. In 1867 Édouard Manet joined Courbet and they organized a show together. These were limited in success but led to future efforts. 1874 saw the first of eight Impressionist exhibitions. The initial one included Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, and Renoir. By the fourth show they were becoming much more critically and financially successful in terms of admission ticket sales and art sales for their painters. By the eighth show in 1886, they had served their purpose and commercial art galleries were overtaking the success of the Salon.
What was happening in the world at this time that would facilitate these changes? The 19th century saw advances in liberalism for Europe, which included a wider berth for freer markets to develop. This generated a tremendous advance in many aspects of life and facilitated greater prosperity. Not only were there wonderful improvements in the technologies associated with art production, prices became cheaper as well. Obviously, this was not just a phenomenon to hit the art world, but this greater wealth was shared by all aspects of the economy, allowing for greater discretionary income and time. This is clearly on display in the subject matter of the Impressionists – picnics, cafes, boating parties, opera visits, etc. This also resulted in a greater level of consumption of art as the bourgeois class developed. More people were of a status and level of comfort that they could purchase and even commission artistic creations, making their own lives better, richer, and fuller, as well as that of the artist. In the words of painter Eugene Boudin, “…don’t those middle-class men and woman walking along their piers towards the setting sun also have the right to be fixed on canvas, to be brought to light? Don’t you agree that these people, getting away from their daily grind, are seeking relaxation after hard work?” The Impressionists brought a democratizing effect, the true promise of a market economy, to the creation and distribution of art.
As mentioned, new technologies had sprung up to make their jobs easier, and in some cases even possible as never before. New chemical advances brought forth color that was uncreatable beforehand. Greater demand for color in textiles compelled manufacturers to develop new, vibrant colors. Though not developed with this intent in mind, these were later adapted for the art market. The innovation of paint in tubes by American painter John Rand allowed for not only easy access to paint, but the portability that permitted en plein air painting for which the Impressionists became renowned. Additionally, portable artist kits that had an easel, parasol, etc. made it simple for these same artists to paint outdoors and no longer in need of a large studio for their work. The camera was both a threat and a learning opportunity for the painter. Its ability to capture realistic images in some ways diminished the value of the painter in service of a similar function. It also gave a whole new way of looking at the world. With the importance of shadows in a black and white image and the blurring effect that would occur when movement is captured, these influenced the way in which Impressionist painters sought to portray what we see and how we see through their work on canvas. Trains and steamships not only served as fascinating new subjects to capture, but they also facilitated travel opportunities for the artist and their productions. This convenient ability to visit more places faster and cheaper brought a variety of locations to serve as inspiration for their art and allowed the final products to be displayed and sold globally. The innovations in travel allowed the American and Russian markets to become huge initial supporters of the works of the Impressionists.
Of course, one of the beautiful aspects of advanced and broad economies is the division of labor. Some individuals specialized in the creation of art, and some specialized in the sale of it. The great Paul Durand-Ruel not only made himself rich, but made Monet and several others wealthy in the process. The benefit of this relationship of dealer to artist would be hard to overstate. “It was in 1873 that one of the most important events of my life took place: I made the acquaintance of Durand-Ruel, the first dealer – the only one, in fact, for many a long year – who believed in me,” stated Renoir. He and other art dealers would buy a large stock of a specific artist’s works and then would seek to promote their reputation. These speculative endeavors did not always pay off but often enough would make both dealer and artist rich in the process. Dealers would display art in a more appealing fashion, much like department stores would, providing ample space in a comfortable setting, in direct contrast to the overcrowded, hyper stimulus of the Salon. Remote galleries and road shows were also a key to success, facilitated by trains and steamships. Durand-Ruel brought the Impressionists to London, New York, and many cities in continental Europe. He credits his NYC gallery with truly rescuing him from the brink of possible bankruptcy and catapulting him to success. He would send his artwork into temporary exhibitions in the Midwest and the nouveau riche of America would acquire works of Monet, Degas, and Renoir. This is why you can go to such cities as Pittsburgh and Cleveland and find tremendous collections of Impressionism. The art dealer of today is still very much in debt to Durand-Ruel’s innovations and inspiration.
Let us return again to our opening thoughts and the harsh critique of Renoir. My emotions were likely piqued as he is the painter I most admire from this period. Born in Limoges in 1841, he had very humble beginnings. His father, a tailor, moved the family to Paris, near the Louvre, when Pierre was very young. He had a penchant for drawing – he would get in trouble at school for drawing in his books. His parents celebrated this as they hoped he would become a successful china painter, familiar as they were with that practice since they came from a city renowned for it. Despite this, Pierre initially was recognized in the arts as a singer. Though he had achieved some notoriety as such, the cost of singing lessons became too onerous, and he took up an apprenticeship at a porcelain factory in his teens. The factory owner had noticed his talents as a painter and had encouraged his parents to engage art lessons for him. Shortly after, the factory moved to machine made designs. The public at this time preferred the exactness of mechanical reproductions in opposition to the small, unique differences that would exist in hand made pieces. While making ends meet painting fans, he walked by a café and observed an argument between the owner and the men he had painting the walls. It was not going to be completed in time for the opening. Renoir volunteered to jump in and complete the work and promised to do so in time. The owner scoffed declaring that he needed at least three, solid workmen. Ever the entrepreneur, Renoir ignored this slight, picked up a brush, and began to paint frescoes at such a rate as to assuage the owner’s concerns.
From there he began to work for a shade maker. He took the place of a veteran who would take quite a long time in the preparation and execution of his works. The owner attempted to negotiate Renoir’s rates down since he could create the final product so quickly. But Renoir stuck to his guns. Once he built a bit of a war chest he decided to leave and further invest in his education. The owner attempted to make him a partner at this point. As tempting as those earnings would have been, he knew that he was destined for greater things. He was right. His works were shown in the Salon, though sporadically, but he achieved much more success with his later independent exhibitions and his relationship with Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard, another art dealer whom he grew close to as well.
Renoir built a career out of painting youth and pleasure. It seems that much of this may have been due to his own choices to pursue what he loved as a career, despite the many costs. “I pay dearly for the pleasure I get from this canvas; but it is so satisfying to give in entirely to the sheer pleasure of painting,” he declared. The sacrifices early on were financial, later in life physical as arthritis struck him, a common ailment in his field. While his dealer was visiting him in his final years, he required an assistant to wheel him around in his chair and then to place the brush in his bound hands as he could no longer grip. “You see, Vollard? One doesn’t need hands to paint. They’re quite superfluous.” From the beginning, he learned to create art with very little money or approval. Now that he had attained both, he was not about to allow his body to limit what he could do either. This perseverance is the hallmark of the entrepreneur, to go forth and create whatever the obstacle before you.
By the time of his death, this son of a humble tailor had amassed a good-sized fortune, passing it on to his sons so that they may each become artists in their own right. The upward economic mobility he experienced was due in part to his entrepreneurial spirit and perseverance despite the artistic orthodoxy of the day, but also the liberalizing forces which allowed for market innovations that had occurred and unleashed the fuller potential of all in society, including the artist.
“I think that if you shake the tree, you ought to be around when the fruit falls to pick it up.”
These are the words of Mary Cassatt, an American among the French Impressionists, who shared in their independent exhibitions of the 1870s. Fortunately, due to market mechanisms, many of the Impressionists were able to harvest the fruits of their labor. The entrepreneurial attitude among many of them and the advances of a market economy had allowed for greater individual and societal flourishing. Renoir shows us a living embodiment of the artist entrepreneur who achieved greater social mobility without sacrificing his art, regardless of what the average museum goer may think. Just as there were those who jeered the Impressionist in their day, so too do we have detractors today such as our fellow museum goer. The important thing is to stay the course so that all may share in the fallen fruit.