The making of the market for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting, 1886-2014

The making of the market for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting, 1886-2014

Even though Impressionism is among the most popular movements in art history nowadays – inspiring artists, audiences, museum conservators, authors, filmmakers, scholars, and many others – research on the development of the market for Impressionist art from a broader perspective is limited. Therefore, the following research question will be addressed in this Phd-project: How did the market for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting develop from a ridiculed non-event to a substantive segment in the market for art over the course of the period 1886-2014. To answer this question, I examine several factors that have had an impact on the development of a market for Impressionist painting such as collectors, canon formation by museums and scholars, and developments in the art market itself.

The Impressionist movement originated in France during the sixties and seventies of the nineteenth century, and remains to this day one of the most celebrated schools of painting worldwide. Although already in January 1874 the first Impressionist picture was sold at auction, it was only in the 1950s that the paintings produced by so-called Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists took center stage in the secondary market. Since then, they have remained one of the most important segments in the global art market. 

This dissertation looks at the market for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art over the period 1886-2014. More specifically, I am interested in the emergence and development of a new market segment, from a dealer market at the beginning of the research period to one of the most important and imaginative segments of the secondary market nowadays. Several elements that have had an impact on these processes will be identified and discussed, based on a chronological overview.

Despite the fact that Impressionism is such a popular movement, resulting in plenty of large exhibitions, media coverage, documentaries, (academic) publications etc., research on the market for Impressionist art remains limited. Monographs written about Impressionism usually cover the movement or an artist’s persona and/or career from a broader art historical point of view, without putting much emphasis on the market (e.g. J. Isaacson, 1978; R. Kendall, 1996; J. Rewald, 1973; and many others). Certainly a broader contextualization, i.e. a long-term overview of the developments of the market for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, does not exist as far as we know. When looking at literature specifically on the market for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, what stands out is the attention paid to the early developments. These studies focus on for example the exhibitions the Impressionists organized themselves in the period 1874-1886 in order to try to find a market for their art (e.g. C.S. Moffett (ed.), 1986), or on their earliest supporter and first dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. Especially over the last years interest for the latter has spiked, with for example a large traveling exhibition in 2014-2015 in the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, the National Gallery in London and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a result. Alongside this exhibition, his memoires and an elaborated catalogue were published with plenty of information on how the market for Impressionist art developed in the early years, but without much information on the resale market, which is the focus of this PhD-project. There are a few examples of studies of the auction market for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, for example the article by Bodelsen (1968) on the first auctions held between 1874 and 1894, but never for a longer period of time.

Besides popular or art-historical research, there has been interest from the field of cultural economics for the Impressionists. When looking at studies on the secondary market it is striking how many researchers, certainly in the field of cultural economics, have used Impressionist art as a focus group. However, when taking a closer look at these studies, ‘Impressionism’ is most often not well defined and seen as a solid, uniform group. In these studies “Impressionism” is used as an example, to compare for example price evolutions within the segment with price evolutions for Old masters, or stocks and bonds (see e.g. M de la Barre, S. Docclo and V. Ginsburgh, 1994; J. Mei and M. Moses, 2002; and many others). What seems to be the case in nearly all of these studies performed by cultural economists, is that Impressionism does not seem to be interesting as a movement per se, but is reduced to a vehicle used because of its interesting market history, especially after the 1980s. This makes the movement an interesting case to compare other segments with, but whether or not painting A is completely different (in style, provenance, etc.) from painting B does not seem to matter. In this study, I intend to go beyond this almost rationalization of art objects and also take into account the particularities of the works and their history. By using both a cultural economics perspective, enabling us to take a step back from the details and look at the bigger picture, and an art historical perspective, in which much attention is paid to the aforementioned details, we will construct a well-researched overview of the development of the market for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art for the period 1886-2014.

The broader research question for this PhD-project is:

How and why did the market for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting develop from a peripheral phenomenon to an independent and important category in the art market over the course of the period 1886-2014?

Broader sub-questions will include:

  1. How did an auction market for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting develop?
  2. What are the key events in the history of the market for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art? 
  3. Which broader developments in the art world (exhibitions, publications, attention from art historians and media, etc.) and the art market (changes in the organization of auctions, globalization, etc.) have had an impact on the market for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art? And in what way did they impact this market?
  4. How and when did public opinion about Impressionism and Post-Impressionism change? What factors contributed to their canonization (media attention, exhibitions, publications etc.)? Is there a causal relationship between the rising popularity and the increasing prices? (The chicken-and-egg problem will be important here)
  5. (In line with the previous question) Which elements contributed to the emergence of a new market segment? What factors contributed to the flowering of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movement?
  6. Can we apply concepts used in the field of economics such as ‘market bubbles’ and ‘volatility’ to the market for art? How would we operationalize these concepts to make them usable for the art market, and can using them shed a light on developments in the market for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting and supply an explanation for certain events?

Research team

Portrait Liesbeth de Strooper

Liesbeth de Strooper, MA

PhD Candidate

Personal page
Portrait Erwin Dekker

Dr. Erwin Dekker

Promotor

Personal page
Portrait Filip Vermeylen

Prof. dr. Filip Vermeylen

Promotor

Personal page