Depeaux’s Impressionists in Rouen

Black and white photo of the collector François Depeaux
François Depeaux (Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution)

François Depeaux (1853-1920) was not among the first collectors of the Impressionists. There was a generation before him who had started to see, with interest and curiosity, this formal metamorphosis of art merchants, like Durand-Ruel. However, in my opinion, he was one of the best and he was more prudent than the American millionaire Albert Barnes. This great bourgeois Norman, who made his fortune on coal, began to buy paintings by these artists from 1892, a year after his father’s death.

The wonderful exhibition of the Musée des Beaux-Arts di Rouen shows a part of the splendors he’s accumulated (about 600 pieces, including the famous Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen by Claude Monet; he had bought one of the canvases from the wonderful cycle of 30 paintings).

In the full-bodied and very well documented catalogue (François Depeaux, collectionneur des impressionnistes, Editions in fine, 336 p., 39,00€), one can discover the personality of this passionate man through texts, photographs, his letters and also a complete catalogue of his collection on display in a large gallery, as great amateurs once did, at his home in Rouen – usually, the amateurs in his era placed the works inside their apartments and the rest in deposits.

He had ties to painters and had a marked fondness for Alfred Sisley. In the end he had no less than six hundred paintings of the latter. He had intimate relations with him, maybe because he knew his economic situation wasn’t fabulous. He also loved Claude Monet (twenty pieces), Gustave Caillebotte, Berthe Morisot, Auguste Renoir (he had one of his masterpieces in possession), Henri Fantin-Latour, to mention a few. He was also interested in the Rouen artists, such as Léon-Jules Lemaître, who had made descriptions of the city’s streets, and was close to the Norman artists who created, in fours, the school of Rouen.

His life was completely dedicated to the love of this type of art, which was still at the end of the nineteenth century the most modern form of creation (it’s clear that there are few other artists in his collection, apart from Gustave Courbet). You can understand that he chose the paintings and the drawings with a keen eye, correct, there’s not one work which is mediocre.

The exhibition is a real treat, because the visitor has the possibility to not only see all the works          worthy of being in a museum, but, also at the same time to understand and to hear what were the aesthetic intentions of these rebels, that have greatly scandalized the small art world.

This exhibition will undoubtedly be one of the most beautiful of the summer in France. It is a unique opportunity to see this vast panorama of the choices of a collector (a rare insight) and to rediscover the specific atmosphere of impressionism. A collector who found inspiration in the tradition: going to paint the little countries in the countryside, fields or edges of rivers (the Seine in this case, but also the Marne), but also in modernity, representing life in the city in full transformation.

Reading the catalog will help you better understand how this school (all informal) managed to seduce at the beginning of the Belle Epoque and the symbolic role of Rouen, which was then a small capital of painting. There is still time to visit this exceptional exhibition: it closes only on 15 November this year.