Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market

National Gallery

4 March–31 May 2015

Admission £18, concessions available


This is an unusual show, one of a new genre of art exhibitions. In the past shows were either blockbusters with lots of good and important works, like the National’s ‘Late Rembrandt’ earlier this year. Or they are shows which make a scholarly point. The Courtauld is especially adept at these, and notoriously Tate Britain isn’t under current management. ‘Inventing Impressionism’ is not quite a blockbuster, but it does have many excellent paintings and whets the appetite to go to the great US collections. And at the scholarly level it explains why there are so many Impressionist paintings in the States. It also explains the genesis of the modern art market, or at least the market as it existed before the rise of the current great American art brokers.

The filthy lucre side of art is delicately treated at the National. The emphasis is largely on the gambles Durand-Ruel took, the size of his speculations and the glamorous international shows he put on for individual artists. It is good to understand this. Not only does it put the artists in their social context, it also helps put the development of taste in context. This is especially important because many critical fingers were burnt by the rise of Impressionism. One reason innovation became the god of the art world in the twentieth century was that no critic of weight wanted to repeat the mistake of the nineteenth-century Establishment and ignore or deny the ‘future of art.’

Visitors to the show can, of course, ignore all that and just enjoy the paintings and marvel at photos of grand nineteenth-century rooms stacked with Impressionist treasure. The greats are all here. Monet, Manet, Renoir are each well-represented. There are Degases, Sisleys, Pissarros and, as a hint to the future, a solitary Cézanne, his version of the ‘Haywain’ theme. And the point of these artists was, at least to begin with, the vitality of their freshness and their new subject matter. The Impressionists’ experiments with light and atmosphere might not have achieved what the artists hoped for, but the unforced acceptance of modern landscape, be it urban, rural, or rural-urban, puts these artists apart from their predecessors. Those predecessors are shown with a sprinkling of pictures by Courbet, Rousseau and Millet. They are no mean artists themselves and innovative in their own way but here they are romantically dull and backward-looking. They do not embrace the moment in modernist fashion. Alongside their work even early Manet at his most turgid is a breath of fresh air. Fortunately we have two interesting early Manets, a still life with salmon, beautifully peeled lemon and delicately glazed Chinese cups – surely owing something to Chardin – and his curious painting of The Battle of the USS Kearsage and the CSS Alabama, which features a lot of sea and a small boat come to view the fight, in the stern of which stands a top-hatted journalist (?) in short sleeves.

The majority of the paintings are Monets and two groups are really enjoyable. There are five of the original fifteen Poplar series. Not only are these interesting paintings in their own right but to see them all together gives a sense of Monet’s brilliantly simple series design which he is able to vary with different thicknesses of paint and colour to show changing times and atmosphere. Amongst his other works there are also a number of coastal pictures. Though more abstract than some, in Road at La Cavée, Pourville Monet captures the heat haze over sea and grasses and a little road in an almost Madeleine moment.

Durand-Ruel sold a lot of Renoirs, but he also kept a number for himself. The first room of the show has a number of these including Renoir’s portrait of the great dealer. Personally, I have never much liked Renoir. I don’t care for the sentimentality which is too common in his work. But common is precisely what Renoir can do. The show unites three of his dancer pictures. Two are indoor scenes of nice folk. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts Dance at Bougival is outside in a beer garden with cigarette butts on the ground and dodgy toffs and a cheery drinker in the background, all caught, as it were, in a glance. The male dancer clearly likes dancing, and what comes later. The female dancer has moved her hand around his neck and looks very happy. It is a life-enhancing, seamy picture. Renoir and Durand-Ruel knew the art business and the business of art.

Owen Higgs


Book of the month


Peter Westfield hails a remarkable study of a well-loved devotion  



The Mystery Hymn

Desmond Fisher

Gracewing, 176pp, pbk

978 0852448625, £9.99


This is a remarkable book about a remarkable poem. Desmond Fisher died last year at the age of 95. This book is written in a very personal style, and if at times it reads like an old man’s account of the hobby – even obsession – to which he devoted the latter years of his life, then perhaps that accounts for part of its charm.

Fisher – a self-described ‘journeyman journalist’ – sets himself a number of tasks here: to set out the context in which the Stabat Mater was written; to identify its author; to examine the history of the text and the numerous translations that have been made of it; and finally to offer a new translation which is faithful both to the Latin and the grammatical structure of the poem, and also to its meaning and its traditional use in Catholic devotion.


Author and context

The first of these challenges are met competently: Fisher concludes that Jacopone da Todi wrote the Stabat Mater (among a host of contenders the other most serious candidate is Pope Innocent III) and gives a biographical sketch of this playboy-turned-fanatical-Franciscan friar. He places the composition of the poem in an age of political and religious turmoil across Europe, which when combined with the horrors of the Black Death and the frenzied persecution of the pogroms led many to believe that the end of the world was imminent. Out of this maelstrom emerged a streak of popular mysticism, which in turn produced the Stabat Mater.


Aweful significance

This background material is presented succinctly and readably, if not originally. But it is in the examination of the text itself, and of its history, that Fisher’s passion for his subject really comes alive and makes this book worthwhile.

The Stabat Mater is a remarkable poem. As Fisher puts it, ‘The Latin text of the first stanza of the Stabat Mater in the Graduale Romanum is unforgettable. In just nine words that sound like drum beats at a military funeral a mood of deepest pathos is established. The narrator is speaking as an eyewitness, recalling the scene at Calvary on that first Good Friday’. He realizes the aweful significance of what is taking place. The poem then moves to a new phase, as the narrator asks Our Lady to win for him a place in heaven – in peremptory language which, Fisher points out, takes us to the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy in the way it addresses Our Lady and what it expects her to achieve for us. Finally, the narrator addresses Christ himself, and bids him to welcome him in paradise. In his use of rhythm, rhyme and words, the author of the Stabat Mater places himself – and the reader – at the centre of the events of Good Friday, and requests a share first of all in the terrible suffering of that day, and then in its rewards. Fisher is adamant that the Stabat Mater is not the gentle, sentimental text it has sometimes been made out to be.


History of the text

The history of the text of the Stabat Mater is fascinating in itself. Fisher dates its composition to around 1286 AD, after which it quickly spread across Europe and became one of thousands of sequences that were inserted into the liturgy until all but four of them were banned by the Council of Trent. Stabat Mater was among the proscribed, but it was restored to the liturgy by Pope Benedict XIII in 1727 and in 1913 Pius X assigned it to the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Fisher estimates that there are over sixty English translations, the most famous of them being the one by Edward Caswall which features in the English Hymnal and the Walsingham pilgrim manuals (at least in part).


Challenges of translation

Along with a literal rendering of the Latin, Fisher prints Caswall’s translation in full, and also those by Beatrice Bulman, D.F. MacCarthy, and the Collegeville Hymnal. However, he convincingly shows that each of these is flawed in one way or another. This is in part because of the unusual metre of the Stabat Mater – it is a poem of twenty three-line stanzas written in trochaic tetrameter, with a complicated rhyme system to boot. Fisher is expert at explaining how this works: ‘As you read this explanation/You will find elucidation/Of the Stabat Mater hymn/Rhyme and rhythm, words and metre/All unite to sound much sweeter/Cherubim and Seraphim’. This rhythm will be immediately familiar to anyone who has sung the Stabat Mater during the Stations of the Cross, for example. But the system which works so well in the Latin produces formidable complications in translation, and none of the best-known translations succeed in replicating in full the combination of rhyme, metre and meaning. For example, Caswall’s famous version falls into a far less demanding metre for all but the first two stanzas and the eighth. In the other verses, the first line is reduced from eight syllables to seven – ‘Christ above in torment hangs’. Fisher concludes, ‘Discarding the eighth syllable weakens the vigour and assertiveness of the original poem and impairs a version that is otherwise generally acceptable’. Other translations (adaptations may be a better word) sacrifice faithfulness to the Latin for metre and rhyme, and still others descend into false piety and sentimentality (‘Saw her loved One, her consoler/dying in his dreadful dolour/till at length his spirit fled’).


The book’s centrepiece

This critical analysis is fascinating, but Fisher is not content to rest at the level of criticism. What is in many ways the centrepiece of this book is his own new translation, in which he has attempted to be as faithful as possible to the words, metre and rhyming format of the original. He modestly leaves readers to make up their own minds as to how successful he is, but to my mind he meets his objectives admirably. If the familiarity of the Caswall translation means that Fisher’s version is unlikely to replace it in liturgical use, there is much to be gained in understanding the poem and the devotion that it seeks to foster by private reading of the new text. Indeed, it could also be read and studied by groups, since Fisher’s version works well both in portraying accurately the meaning of the Latin and as poetry per se.


A labour of love

I have already said that in some ways this book is manifestly the result of one man’s labour of love, bordering on obsession. By way of conclusion, let me say that though Desmond Fisher’s work is admirable, he is by no means alone in his interest in Stabat Mater. In particular, he identifies a website called The Ultimate Stabat Mater Website ( which lists 241 different musical versions of the poem and includes information on the composers, the music and the texts with translations in twenty-four languages. Do buy this book, visit this website, and immerse yourself in the mystery and splendour of the Stabat Mater. But be careful: it could become an obsession.