Provenance is an artwork’s history of ownership from its creation to the present. More than a list of names, provenance reveals the intricate history of an object and how a work is understood at different times. New research on the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Le Matin, temps brumeux, Pourville (Foggy Morning at Pourville) by Claude Monet traces the ownership history of the painting back to the artist himself–a rarity in provenance research. The entire provenance narrative for the work can be read on its object page. Here, we will examine how the early provenance of our painting illustrates the different perceptions of Impressionism in France and the United States in the late nineteenth century.
Claude Monet, one of the leading Impressionist painters, found little acceptance among the French art establishment. Most art critics, peers, and the public considered his works to be unfinished and lacking realism. The dominant artist organization in France, the Académie des Beaux-Arts, barred many Impressionists from exhibiting their works at the Salon de Paris, the major annual art exhibition in Europe. As a result, these artists, including Monet, struggled to sell their paintings to a French market that favored realistic paintings in the classical, academic tradition.
However, almost immediately after Monet painted Le Matin, temps brumeux, Pourville, the Parisian dealer Paul Durand-Ruel purchased this work. Durand-Ruel, recognizing the potential of Impressionism, supported Monet and other artists with monthly stipends in exchange for paintings. Unable to sell his growing inventory, the dealer crept closer to bankruptcy until a fortuitous connection brought his Impressionist paintings, including Le Matin, temps brumeux, Pourville, across the Atlantic. In April 1886, James Sotton, director of the first auction house in the United States, invited Durand-Ruel to exhibit more than 300 of his works in New York City. This exhibition at the American Art Galleries triggered a market explosion for Impressionism that saved Durand-Ruel, and arguably also Monet. Referencing the different reception of Impressionism in France, the dealer is reported to have exclaimed, “The American public does not laugh. It buys!”
An annotated copy of the exhibition catalogue, seen above, indicates that our work, number 216, was purchased by “Spencer.” Later, the buyer lent Le Matin, temps brumeux, Pourville to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The exhibition catalogue entry for our work, number 2954, seen below, reveals his full name as Albert Spencer. The American organizers of the exhibition hung the painting in Galleries 40, 41, and 42, identified as the “U.S. Loans” section of French works, although Impressionism was still not broadly accepted there. Albert Spencer is the first of many Americans to own Le Matin, temps brumeux, Pourville before it came to the Birmingham Museum of Art.
The early provenance of Le Matin, temps brumeux, Pourville shows how quickly the United States accepted Impressionism compared to France at the end of the nineteenth century. In Paris, these paintings could hardly be exhibited, let alone sold, whereas they found a ready market with eager buyers abroad.
Stories like this show how we can continue to learn about objects in the Birmingham Museum of Art’s collection through thoughtful research and examine how the past lives of our paintings fit within a larger art-historical context. More about provenance research at the Birmingham Museum of Art can be read by clicking here.