by Heather A. Fraser
"The Impressionists certainly did not make it easy for people to
understand their artistic ideas -- but in what a bad way the art appreciation
of the public must have been to allow such great, honest and peaceable artists
as Monet, Renoir and Pissarro almost to starve." Arnold Hauser, The
Social History of Art (first published in 1951, re-printed in 1977).
Historian Arnold Hauser blames the public for the misery of the starving Impressionist artists. Before joining Hauser in this all too typical view, however, we must accept two factors: the French public hated 'good' art; and the artists took no responsibility for making their own business decisions. On the contrary, Impressionist paintings did appeal to many people in France (and elsewhere) at the time (the latter part of the 19th century) and Impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) in particular, developed a very successful art business. What hindered Monet's financial sucess in his early years, however, were: his initial inexperience in selling his art; and a bank crash in 1873 that was followed by a general economic downturn, lasting until 1880. Just before and continuing after the economic downturn, Monet's paintings sold well, for increasing sums and on a regular basis.
Monet in his Water-Lily Studio, c. 1923.
Monet came from a prosperous family in the wholesale business in Le Havre
on the Seine River in France. He grew up in a commercially oriented household
but decided at the age of 19 in 1859 to attend art school in Paris. With
some hesitation, his family accepted his decision and provided him with
an allowance. Monet subsidised this stipend with money he earned by drawing
caricatures. Monet attended the atelier libre, a school where he
met members of the later Impressionist group. At the atelier he also
encountered contemporary Realist thought. "Realist means being a friend
of real truth," declared the movement's leader Gustave Courbet. In
contrast, academic art schooling meant sacrificing reality in art to a beautiful
ideal. Greatly assisting the cause of Realism in art, significantly, was
the invention of portable tubes of oil paint in the 1840's. These tubes
allowed artists to paint out of doors, closer to the 'truth'.
Under the Realist influence and with tubes in hand, Monet began to paint in the 'open-air'. He had great confidence and few responsibilities during his school years. Renoir attended school with Monet and provides this description of him as a student:
"When he arrived at the atelier, the students -- all envious of his magnificent appearance -- called him a 'dandy'. He didn't have a penny, but he wore shirts with lace cuffs... With the exception of friends of the 'group', Monet viewed the students as an anonymous mass, as 'narrow minds'."
It is reported that Monet liked to enjoy life's luxuries. It is said that he ate for four and enjoyed wine and tobacco in great quantities.
In 1863, a carefree Monet left school to travel across France painting with his friend Bazille. In 1864, Monet began an affair with his future wife, Camille Doncieux. As a result of this affair, apparently, his father cut off Monet's allowance. Significantly, this was Monet's first real incentive to make money from his art -- otherwise, he would starve. Immediately, he turned to portraiture and for the first time, in 1865, he submitted two of his open-air paintings to the Salon (the official arbiter of taste at the time). Although both paintings were accepted, his financial situation remained dismal. In 1866, he was again accepted by the Salon but in 1867 he was rejected. In that same year, 1867, he and Camille had a son, Jean. With a family to support, Monet was desperate to generate revenue. Creditors had seized his paintings and the Monets were living with no heat and no food. There is no indication to suggest that people disliked Monet's paintings at this time. It is quite possible that Monet simply lacked the knowledge and skills required to make money, to reach customers. That he did not know what to do one way or another is made clear by the attempt he made to drown himself in 1868.
Fortunately for Monet, a kind collector bought back his paintings from the creditors and commissioned a portrait. And in 1870, Monet began his life-long relationship with dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who had galleries in London and Paris. Durand-Ruel was an idealistic dealer committed to what was soon to be labelled, in 1874, Impressionist art.
Due primarily to Durand-Ruel, Monet's yearly income rose to over 14,000 Francs (a laborer made 10,000 Francs) in 1872. At his new home in Argenteuil, Monet hired two domestics and a gardener.
Unfortunately, Monet's budding art business was about to hit very hard times. A bank crash in 1873 was followed by six years of nation-wide economic recession. The recession left Durand-Ruel temporarily unable to purchase art from anyone.
This financial crisis was the impetus for the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. 30 artists participated including: Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne, Degas, Sisley and Morisot. The month long show attracted quite a large number of visitors, about 3500. However, there were few sales and the critics were unkind. Writer-painter Louis Leroy has since become a historical footnote for his review of the show. In his review, two fictitious exhibition visitors converse:
"It was left up to Monet to deal him the final blow. 'Ah, there he is,' he muttered in front of picture no.98. '...But what is it? Have a look in the catalogue.' 'Impression, Sunrise,' said I. 'Impression I knew it; after all I'm impressed, so it must be an impression... What freedom! What ease of craftsmanship! Wallpaper in its original state is more finished than this seascape!'"
This first Impressionist exhibition is reported by historians to have been a shock to the public. Yet prior to the crash of 1873, Monet's paintings were selling quite well. Looking back to Hauser's critique of an unfeeling public, this writer would suggest that Monet's paintings were not selling between 1873 and 1880 because of generally poor, nation-wide, economic conditions. The market was not unwilling but rather unable to buy art. We will see that in 1881, with the end of the recession, Monet's finances improve suddenly and dramatically.
In the tough economic climate between 1873 and 1881, Monet worked hard to attract new collectors. These included an opera singer and a wealthy cloth dealer Ernest Hoschede. Hoschede quickly became a regular buyer of Impressionist art.
The second Impressionist exhibition at Durand-Ruel's gallery in 1876 was not a financial success. The third Impressionist exhibition in 1877 in Paris was a critical success but again a financial failure.
Despite the hard times, or perhaps because of them, Paris was being shaped by modern capitalist spirit of competition and desire for profit. Luxurious department stores sprung up, such as the famous Bon Marche in 1876, as well as malls, exhibition halls and panoramas. Paris was becoming the world's centre of luxury and fashion.
At the same time, there were economic casualties. Collector Ernest Hoschede was near bankruptcy. In 1878, he was forced to put his large collection of Impressionist art up for auction. The auction was a catastrophe for the Impressionists since it caused prices for their works to plummet. Monet was forced to sell his works at knock down prices. Faced with such hard economic lessons, it is difficult to imagine anyone not learning a great deal about business.
Monet's wife's health was deteriorating. In 1878, their second son Michel was born. The Monets moved in with the kindly Hoschede family. They were12 people in all plus maid, cook and governess. The finances of both families remained poor although sales of Monet's paintings were improving somewhat.
The 1879 fourth Impressionist exhibition in Paris saw a large number of visitors, partly due to a good location. It also took a profit for the first time. The press continued to complain that the paintings looked unfinished. While an aim of Impressionism was to render the moment in quick brush strokes, there was some validity to the complaints of the media. Indeed, Monet had to sell as many paintings as he could and therefore, often exhibited hastily painted works. In Jan., 1879, Monet wrote in a letter:
"I am sitting here literally without a sou. I am therefore compelled to beg for my continued existence. I have no money to buy canvas or paints."
His wife Camille died in 1879. The two families' debts had grown; unpaid bills were constantly landing on the doorstep, followed a few times by the bailiff.
In 1880, in a surprising business decision, Monet did not exhibit in the fifth Impressionist show but rather submitted two works to the Salon. One was accepted. Monet wrote about this decision in a letter:
"I am suddenly being treated as a deserter by the whole band, but I believe it was in my own interest to make the decision I did, since I'm more or less sure to do some business, particularly with Petit, once I've broken into the Salon."
And in fact, gallery owner Georges Petit, a competitor of Durand-Ruel, subsequently purchased three of Monet's paintings.
In 1880, Monet had his first one man show in the galleries of the magazine La Vie Moderne. In an interview with the magazine he announced his resignation from the Impressionist group:
"I am and always will be an Impressionist... but I now see my comrades-in-arms, men and women, only rarely. The small set has today become a banal school opening its doors to the first dauber who comes along."
The show was well reviewed. The 40 year old Monet found new collectors and admirers for his art, including banker Charles Ephrussi. This banker also owned the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, an art magazine which included articles on the Impressionist movement from 1880 onwards.
In 1881, Durand-Ruel's business had recovered enough for him to sign a contract with Monet; a commitment to purchase a large number of pictures at regular intervals. From this point on Monet turned out better finished pictures and began to travel again in search of new material to paint. And with each succeeding year, Monet's financial situation improved. In 1884, he and Alice Hoschede (who became his wife after the death of her husband Ernest) bought a house in the village of Giverny. There Monet remained for the rest of his life although he made several trips away in search of fresh scenes to paint.
Monet maintained contacts with other dealers, such as Georges Petit and Adolphe Portier. It is reported that Monet had developed the skill of playing one dealer off against another. Art dealers visited Monet at home in order to buy from him direct. Portier also bartered for Monet's works with works by other Impressionists. Monet built an impressive (no pun intended) collection that included 12 Cezannes, nine Renoirs, four Manets, and three Pissarros.
Monet did not take part in the last Impressionist exhibition of 1886. His works were selling extremely well without the group. A regular buyer of his work was Theo van Gogh, director of Boussod-Valadon. At this gallery in 1888, Monet had an exhibition of paintings which sold primarily to U.S. buyers. It is documented that at this time Monet was making 100,000 Francs a year.
Monet's fame in the U.S. was growing steadily due in part to the assistance of John Singer Sargent, the American painter. Monet had one man shows in New York in 1891 and in Boston in 1892. Increasing numbers of private American collectors came ot Giverny in person.
In the late 1880's, Monet developed serial painting to a greater degree than ever before. His Grain Stacks paintings were exhibited at Durand-Ruel in 1891. All the pictures were sold within a few days. A few of his colleagues including Pissarro, accused Monet of mass-producing art for commercial reasons and of being corrupted by success.
Monet is said to be the first artist to question the idea of the unique masterpiece by producing a repeatable series of pictures of comparable value. Monet sold each of the 20 views of Rouen Cathedral in 1895 for 15,000 Francs. By 1909 he was earning 30,000 Francs per picture. In 1921, he sold Woman in the Garden to the French government for 200,000 Francs.
"... in what a bad way the art appreciation of the public must have
been to allow such great, honest and peaceable artists as Monet, Renoir
and Pissarro almost to starve."
As we have seen, Monet starved along with the rest of France in an economic downturn between 1873 and 1880. Otherwise, once he had some grasp of art business by 1870, Monet sold his art successfully on a regular basis.
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