Monographic Exhibitions and the History of the Impressionist Avant-garde in Paris in the 1880’s
The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
The second half of the 19th century is generally considered to have witnessed the rise and the development of monographic exhibitions, especially solo-shows devoted to living artists. In this respect, the series of exhibitions organized by the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in 1883 and devoted to painters he had championed from the early 1870’s (Boudin, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley) are regarded as pivotal. Nevertheless a closer look at these exhibitions reveals that there remained isolated phenomena for almost ten years. It is not before the beginning of the 1890’s that the solo show would be understood as a mark of major recognition, accompanied by a catalogue with an introduction signed by an influential critic. Based on unpublished research, this paper will explore the reasons of this “painful birth”, to quote a seminal book by Francis Haskell (The painful Birth of the Art Book, 1988). Our demonstration will focus on the paradoxical responses to this series and its impacts on the knowledge of Impressionism. On one hand, the 1883 series triggered a body of biographical approaches and general surveys of the Impressionist unfolding. In that regard, the 1883 series, as a first series of monographic shows held in 1879-1880, improved the knowledge of impressionism to the point that it would fuel the first histories of the movement at the turn of the 20th century. On the other hand, the artists resisted the idea of solo-shows, with the firm belief that they would jeopardize a better understanding of their art. Meaningfully, in 1883, only one out of five of these exhibitions had a catalogue.