eipcp Policies A Critique of Creative Industries
11 2006

The Dealer as a Genius

The Creative Industries Approach and the History of the 19th Century Revolutionary Art

Language editing: Aileen Derieg

Ulf Wuggenig

Ulf Wuggenig




According to interpretations in the dominant hagiographic literature on art, as well as in the writings of some well known critics and intellectuals, the impressionists of the 1860s and 1870s in Paris challenged and overthrew the artistic orthodoxies and thus paved the way for aesthetic modernism. According to Clement Greenberg, Edouard Manet’s paintings became the first Modernist ones, as they stressed flatness and two-dimensionality.[1] Michel Foucault echoes this formalist interpretation and goes even further when he declares that the way in which Manet’s paintings represented the material aspects of the surface has made possible the whole art of the 20th century.[2] Social historians of art such as T. J. Clark, by contrast, understand the emergence of modernist painting in Paris primarily as a response to the experience of modernity – of the dehumanizing aspects of life under capitalism associated with a loss of certainty about the very act of representation.[3] Despite all the differences in interpretation there is a tendency to particularly highlight the role of Manet, who is credited with having set painting upon a new course. This is also true for Pierre Bourdieu: “The revolutionary hero, the liberator, is evidently Manet. Understanding the revolution brought about by Manet is also understanding the birth of the modern artist and of modern painting.”[4] Bourdieu interprets this revolution as a symbolic one, that is, as a revolution of mental structures, of the hierarchy of signifier and signified and the manner of representing it, of the function of painting. On the other hand, he outlines that the impressionist revolution led by Manet brought about a different understanding of the artist: he ceases to be a master and becomes an artist in the modern sense with an extraordinary biography, becoming the object of the celebration of outstanding singularity. For Bourdieu, Manet invented the position of the autonomous artist and imposed it on a field of art that was itself in a state of achieving relative autonomy.

Yet what Bourdieu emphasises as well is that historical figures can gain important functions in contemporary debates: “The works of the past, whether literary or pictorial, are always a matter of struggles in the present.”[5] Bourdieu’s eulogy on Manet was written shortly after the opening of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 1986. This “presidential museum” initiated by Giscard d’Estaing was dedicated to the art of the second half of the 19th century. Among French cultural leftists at that time, it was interpreted as an attempt to rehabilitate academic art – “art pompier” – marginalized by formalist as well as revisionist art history and criticism. Particularly Bourdieu associated this museum with a more general impetus to restore the model of “homo academicus”, interpreted as a homologous figure to the academic painter.

In view of the importance of historical figures and positions for contemporary discourses, I want to draw attention to the writings of an American author, Harrison C. White. He is well known in the field of impressionism research as well as in the field of the social sciences, where he is “regarded by many as the greatest living sociologist“[6].

In art discourse Harrison C. White is particularly known for a study of the institutional changes in the 19th century French art world, written together with art historian Cynthia White.[7] This study is recognized for having established the concept of the “dealer and critic system” and having described and explained the emergence of the modern institutional system of art. In sociology, White is regarded as having inaugurated network theory and having contributed much to the development of economic sociology. His major theoretical work Identity and Control[8] was published in 1992. It was written in such an idiosyncratic and technical style that hardly anyone was able to understand it; it gained the status of an intelligence test for sociologists. A spin-off of this work is White’s second book on art, which was published in 1993. Even its title, Creativity and Careers already demonstrates that it can be seen as belonging to the social science literature that is interested in innovation and creativity and their role and function for economic processes. A flood of literature on “creative industries”, “creative cities”, “creativity and innovation” etc. emerged in the late 1990s, after this theme had been taken up by Tony Blair and the “third way” spin-doctors in Great Britain. White’s book on the arts was thus published before this wave of the creative industries literature came up, long before writers such as Richard Florida, for example, made this theme popular.

Nevertheless, White’s scientific approach bears similarities with this literature in many respects, for example in regard to: a) the supposed economic importance of creativity; b) the uncritical use of this term; c) the position towards the differentiation of high and low art, for which in his view the same social and economic laws regarding innovations apply; d) the treatment of the opposition between art and economy, which in contrast to Bourdieu is explicitly or implicitly denied. Some of the theoretical features of his approach also resemble the creative industries type of literature, for instance, the use of general theory and the reliance on the notion of “art worlds” in the tradition of Howard S. Becker. This concept implies that the different actors involved in the production, distribution and reception of art are principally more or less of similar importance; it thus decenters the author or artist. In White’s approach this presupposition leads to a revaluation and celebration of the role of economic actors in the history of art, who appear to be as significant for artistic innovations as the artists themselves. This idea is reflected in a series of propositions on innovation in art. I will only mention and comment on two of them:

1. “Innovation in style involves change in social organization coordinated with cultural change across art worlds.”[9]

Artistic innovation itself is thus far from sufficient for major changes of conventions in art. Whereas in art history and philosophy most often aesthetic or symbolic aspects are regarded as decisive for changes of style, the approach of the Whites in their study on Canvases and Careers to which this more recent proposition refers, already emphasises that stylistic and institutional changes have to go hand in hand for radical innovations to occur. White in Careers and Creativity discusses this thesis mainly in regard to impressionism and abstract expressionism, but also with some examples from music, dance and theatre.

White stresses that a radical shift in “style” requires many and prolonged efforts. It presupposes social and economic support as well as changes in the social organisation of art, that is, its institutional frame. This argument constituted the central theme of the early study on Canvases and Careers, which was essentially the story of an old system being replaced by a new one after a period of hybridity in which the two systems were merged.[10] The old one was the “academic system” under state control. It was unable to react in a flexible way to changes in its environment, especially the dramatic rise of artists in Paris in the 19th century and the flood of pictures to be handled in the central exhibition and art market space, the Salon, which attracted hundreds of thousand visitors at this time.

The Whites showed how this bureaucratic and monopolist system was successfully attacked by a network of artists, dealers, critics and collectors. They added a lot of sociological insights to the well known heroic art history stories that highlight the Salon des Refusés, Manet’s Pavilion and the series of self-organised group exhibitions outside the Salon in the 1870s and 1880s as the decisive events in a struggle between academic art and the revolutionary “painters of modern life”. The new system, according to the Whites, was supported by a highly functional new ideology in intellectual as well as in economic respect, namely individualism, or, to be more precise, charismatic individualism.

Instead of single pictures, as it was in the old system influenced by the Salon, the new system shifted the artist to the centre of attention. For both the newly emerging type of dealers – real entrepreneurs and “gallerists” for the first time – and for the increasingly important critique, highlighting a personality and the entire oeuvre of a painter seemed obvious. As an isolated object a single work was too transient to serve as the focus of a system of trade or advertising. Conversely, the concept of the genius developed in the Romantic era, which implies being unrecognised, proved especially suitable for concentrating on the artist. In about twenty years, according to Emile Zola, one of the numerous writers who sought to distinguish themselves as intellectuals through art criticism at that time, one would be able to see the unrecognised and derided Manet in the Louvre. A view like this enabled not only unrecognised artists to maintain their motivation despite a lack of acknowledgement. At the same time it also opened up the possibility for speculations in taste in an economic sense and for the development of an ultimately highly speculative art market.[11]

For the development of a new system, however, still other factors were important, such as the change in the type and formats of artistic production. A greater number of smaller, often quickly painted pictures were produced, which was facilitated by technical progress in the field of paints. These took the place of the larger, planned “machines” of academism. In addition, accessing new classes of buyers assumed a central significance. A potential market for art was to be found in the expanding middle class and in the more prosperous bourgeoisie, if one was capable of accessing this market.

A second central proposition from White refers to this in a general form:
2. “The key to innovation in arts is flexibility in reception; that is, a field of alternative reception must be feasible not only culturally but also in material and social technology.“[12]

This also shifts attention away from artistic innovation as such to those protagonists who are capable of influencing desires and preferences and thus generating or opening up a demand for innovative art. In principle there are various art world protagonists that could be considered for this – the artists themselves, critics, gallerists and museum people.

And in this context White's attention undergoes a remarkable reorientation from the first to the second study on impressionism, a symptomatic transformation from the 1960s to the 1990s. As the conscious use of the term “dealer and critic system” in the first work shows, where the dealer is the first protagonist named, at that time White already regarded the dealers as the central actors of the new system. It was not until the 1990s, however, that White went as far as using formulations that virtually amounted to an apotheosis of a certain dealer, namely Paul Durand-Ruel.

From White's new perspective Durand-Ruel now appeared just as important for the recognition and establishment of Impressionism as those who had carried out the artistic innovation as such. In White's view, Durand-Ruel created a new role for the dealer, the gallerist as an entrepreneur in the modern sense. He recognised the speculative potential of purchasing unknown or unrecognised painters and persuaded others that this could be a profitable investment. He was generous toward initially unsuccessful artists, sometimes assuming the role of their patron. And finally, he also made use of new strategies, such as seeking control over all the works by an artist to gain a monopoly, or making informal contracts with the artists to bind them to him. In the end he introduced solo exhibitions for artists, similar to those that dominate the “dealer and critic system” today. According to White, he was also aware of the high value of publicity and advertising.

These observations take White substantially beyond the conventional remarks in art historical or sociological literature that Durand-Ruel was the central gallerist of the impressionists. White even chooses formulations, in which Durand-Ruel is elevated to the “father” of the entire new system and ultimately even to a “genius” with a significance homologous to that of Paul Cézanne: “The real core of a new style however is always dual. (..) Durand-Ruel was central to just such dual realization of the impressionists. In so doing, he can be called the father of a whole new system of art world.”[13] And in his response to the question of who the impressionists actually were artistically, White himself takes recourse to the charismatic individualist ideology of the “dealer and critic system”. Whereas the gallerists of the 19th century were supposed to remain entirely in the background in light of what is perhaps best described by Bourdieu as the anti-economism of the art field at that time, and White still described their role dispassionately and analytically in the 1960s, in the 1990s we find that Durand-Ruel is supposed to have been the “genius” that ultimately brought forth the impressionists. Indeed, according to him the Impressionists were not the first to make use of impressionist painting techniques, they did not really invent the new style but rather the Barbizon artist Charles-François Daubigny: “My own answer to this question of who the impressionists were artistically centers on Paul Durand-Ruel, who to a sociologist seems as predominant a genius in one way as was Cézanne in the painterly dimension among the impressionists-to-be. Subsequent recognition of ‘them’ as the impressionists, I argue, was accomplished by Durand-Ruel’s agency, not by some immanent painterly style.”[14]

White especially emphasises that Durand-Ruel, driven by his weak and vacillating success in France, came to prominence in the 1880s when he succeeded in finding a new audience particularly in the USA, where he opened a gallery in New York after organising a first major impressionist exhibition in 1887. Durand-Ruel thus exemplified the proposition of flexible reception with the ability to reach new relevant groups of the public, i.e. collectors.

Against the backdrop of the demise of the academic system, in this way the needs of painters, dealers and critics were united with the wishes of buyers and collectors for pictures that were suitable for bourgeois households. Through a complex process a new system emerged by the end of the 19th century, which took the control over the status and rewarding of artists out of the hands of the academic system. Whereas Bourdieu, in line with such diverse thinkers as Clement Greenberg, André Malraux, Michael Fried or Michel Foucault, is inclined toward an individualising heroicisation of Manet in conjunction with the impressionist revolution, Harrison C. White tends to emphasise a single protagonist from the relational constellation of fields and networks, namely Durand-Ruel, which is similarly surprising from a sociological perspective. In a turn that seems symptomatic, it is not an artist like Manet, but rather a gallerist like Durand-Ruel that is celebrated as a radically innovative genius.

What evidence is there for the emergence of the new system and the role of Durand-Ruel in particular? David Galenson and Robert Jensen[15], who refer only to the previous White and White study , have stressed that it took far longer than is assumed in this study for the Salon system to be replaced by a gallery system centred on the one-man show, ascribed to the initiative of Durand-Ruel. As an intermediate step a system of a plurality of Salons emerged in Paris, which finally gave way to the modern system, heavily based on an art market beyond state control. According to their analysis, a commercial gallery show devoted to a single artist – the dominant format in the 20th century – was no option for young or unrecognised artists until the end of the 19th century. Durand-Ruel only presented impressionist artists in solo shows, whose reputation was already established. White is right in emphasising that of all the major dealers of the time only Paul Durand-Ruel bought advanced art in quantity. Yet Galenson and Jensen have shown that he bought from the impressionists primarily only during two brief and widely separated periods, in 1872 and 1873, and in the early 1880s. Since the independent exhibitions of the impressionists took place from 1874 to 1886, they received almost no financial support from him during the most important period of their struggle against the Salon. Durand-Ruel only began to buy the work of impressionists again after they had gained substantial symbolic capital through their self-organized exhibitions. Thus he did not provide effective, continuous support for his artists. Furthermore, the French art historian Anne Distel[16] has identified just over two-dozen collectors who bought paintings by the Impressionists in Paris during the 1870s and early 1880s. Only two of them, the opera singer Jean-Baptiste Faure and the merchant Ernest Hoschedé, both collectors of the speculative type, appear to have become acquainted with the work of the impressionists through Durand-Ruel. Most of the others bought directly from the artists, having become acquainted with them through other artists or writers.

Although White, in his 1993 study, drew special attention to the importance of Durand-Ruel’s role in opening the American market for the impressionists, the truth is that the most important US collectors became acquainted with impressionism through the painter Mary Cassatt. She came from the upper class family of an investment banker in Pittsburgh and went to Paris as an artist, where she rose to become one of the dozen impressionist artists later regarded as the core of the movement in the mainstream art history.[17] There Cassatt became part of the circle of Degas, who was himself from the upper class and had a background of bankers with international family connections that also reached to the USA. Prior to Durand-Ruel’s New York venture, Mary Cassatt had already found a small, but crucial number of American collectors who were part of her social network, her upper class social capital. Thus she was able to convince some of her family members and close friends to buy paintings by Manet, Degas, Cézanne and other painters associated with impressionism. Among them was Louisine Elder, who was to marry Henry Havemeyer, the future “sugar king” in the USA. Based on consultation with Cassatt, the Havemeyers and also Potter Palmer and his wife – owners of a big hotel chain – began to build up the collections that would become the most important collections of impressionism in the USA. The initial acquaintance with the work of the impressionists, however, was due to an artist, not a dealer. Of course, the Havemeyer collection would not have gained such importance, had a large part of it not been donated by the widowed Louisine Havemeyer, who had meanwhile become a well-known bourgeois feminist, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1917.[18]

However, Manet represents the type of ambitious artists who were forcefully striving for a position in the history of art and for whom the crucial issue was not acceptance by private collectors – then as now usually upwardly mobile people, having become rich or super rich, aiming at enhancing their insecure social status. The struggle for recognition as an artist, inclusion in art history, is not decided in the private but in the public realm, in the museum. White did not take placement in the museum, neither in France nor in the US, into consideration. Nor did he adequately consider the strategies of the painters themselves. He neither took into account the role of Cassatt, nor Monet’s initiative of 1890. In that year Monet bought Manet’s Olympia for about 90 thousand dollars in today’s currency from Manet’s widow with the help of money he had raised. His intention was to offer this work to the state for placement in the Louvre. Thus he tried to force official recognition not only for the most charismatic figure of the movement, but also for impressionism in general. Nor did White consider the even more efficient strategy of another artist. Gustave Caillebotte, who belonged like Cassatt to the aforementioned dozen canonized impressionist artists, was one of the most important collectors and financial supporters of the impressionists. His introduction to the group also had nothing to do with Durand-Ruel. Like Manet, Morisot, Degas and Cassatt, he came from an upper class background, not in terms of symbolic capital, but in terms of economic capital, being the heir of a wealthy textile industrialist.

Caillebotte had built up a collection of sixty important works by Degas, Manet, Cézanne, Degas, Pissaro and others. As early as 1878 he donated his collection to a hostile state, under the condition, that it would not disappear into or a provincial museum, but would be presented in the two most important houses of that time, the Louvre and the Musée du Luxembourg. It was the Caillebotte’s bequest of 1894 that finally opened the door for the impressionists into a museum in France in 1896, when at least a part of this collection was accepted by a mostly hostile art administration. Here again, Durand-Ruel was not involved in Caillebotte’s highly sophisticated strategy of, which, according to Denvir, led to the “decisive official recognition of the impressionists in France”.[19]

Durand-Ruel deserves credit for being the first dealer to recognize the importance of the impressionists. Contrary to White’s portrayal, however, neither he nor other dealers of that time were leaders in the development of modern art and the development of its markets in the 19th century. They played their roles in art world networks, but these roles were far from the decisive ones.

Paul Durand-Ruel seems not to have been a person one would easily credit as a “genius”, which from a sociological point of view seems to be a ridiculous term anyway. The limits of Durand-Ruel’s role are evident in some of Anne Distel’s remarks, who basically tends to divide the world into geniuses and normal people: “Durand Ruel seems to have bought works by Cezanne only at the express request of certain faithful customers. He did not care for Seurat or Gauguin, though Gauguin’s first exhibition in 1893 was held in his gallery. He went so far as to refuse to organize a posthumous exhibition for Van Gogh.”[20]

In view of all the evidence on Durand-Ruel, it seems likely that Harrison C. White credits the wrong person with being responsible for the flexible reception of the impressionist revolution, for changing the art world in the 19th century, and for paving the way for the modern art market system. His apotheosis of the dealer seems to be due to an ideological bias, which is characteristic for a style of thought that also developed the “creative industries” hype. It not only celebrates individualism, but also emphasises the role of economic actors in fields of cultural production. Meanwhile even art history has become a target for reinterpretations in the light of this wave of economist thinking.

[1] Greenberg, Clement (1993). "Modernist painting" [1960]. In The Collected Essays and Criticism. Vol. 4 (pp. 85-93). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Foucault, Michel (1989). "La peinture de Manet." In Les Cahiers de Tunisie. Special Issue: Foucault en Tunisie. Tunisie.

[3] Cf. Clark, Timothy J. (1984). The Painting of Modern Life. Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers. London: Thames and Hudson.

[4] Bourdieu, Pierre (1987). "La révolution impressionniste." In: Noroit No. 303, September-October 1987, 4.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Collins, Randall (2005). "Foreword." In: G. Reza Azarian, The General Sociology of Harrison C. White. Houndmills / New York: Palgrave MacMillan, IX.

[7] White, Harrison C., & White, Cynthia (1993). Canvases and Careers: Institutional change in the French painting world [1965]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[8] White, Harrison C. (1992). Identity and Control. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[9] Cf. White, Harrison C. (1993). Careers and Creativity. Boulder, Col.: Westview, 72.

[10] White’s general “process” proposition for innovation in the arts reads as follows: “A new style results from an intermediate period of overlay and melding between one style and another in both social and cultural infrastructures; the new style is followed by rejection of the separate styles that went into its formation and then again became separate.” (White, 1993, op. cit., 82.)

[11] The speculative character of the modern art market is highlighted in Watson, Peter (1992). From Manet to Manhattan. The Rise of the Modern Art Market. London: Hutchinson.

[12] White, 1993, op. cit., 81.

[13] Ibid., 75.

[14] Ibid., 75.

[15] Galenson, David, & Jensen, Robert (2002). "Careers and Canvases: The Rise of the Market for Modern Art in the Nineteenth Century." http://www.nber.org/papers/w9123 (1.11.2006).

[16] Distel, Anne (1990). Impressionism: The First Collectors. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

[17] Cf. e.g. Callen, Anthea (2000). The Art of Impressionism. New Haven / London: Yale University Press; Thomson, Belinda (2000). Impressionism. Origins, Practice, Reception. London: Thames and Hudson.

[18] Cf. Distel, 1990, op. cit., 237ff. Weitzenhoffer, Frances (1986). The Havemeyers. Impressionism Comes to America. New York: Yale University Press.

[19] Denvir, Bernard (1993). The Chronicle of Impressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, 194.

[20] Distel, 1990, op. cit., 31.