3 min read

How did Claude Monet go from being denied credit and living off potatoes in 1868 to selling a single canvas to a Japanese tycoon for 800,000 francs in 1922?

That story, ably told in full by the art historian Ross King in a fine essay for Aeon Magazine, has as much to do with the changing tastes of the American rich as with the tumultuous social dynamics of 20th century Europe. Though King’s essay shows the extent to which artistic preferences are shaped by a complex web of cultural factors, those interested in charity and civil society can glean another lesson about the ultimate malleability of market demand.

King traced much of Monet’s popularity back to the talents of art “impresario” James Sutton, a canny New York gallery owner who managed to perfectly read the national mood and match it to prevailing trends in European art. In the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction, American industry grew by leaps and bounds, producing a whole new class of millionaires eager to cement (and display) their social status. By the latter half of the 19th century, the American nouveau riche had (gradually) come around to the idea of embracing European high-art as the right signifier of good taste, but their preferences were generally conservative, tending towards classic masters like Raphael or Rembrandt.

Yet amidst the political, social, and cultural changes brewing after the war, Sutton saw an opportunity to push the more experimental realism of the Barbizon school, which he did with great panache. No doubt having learned a lesson from his father-in-law R.H. Macy, founder of the department store chain, Sutton focused on presentation and marketing. He held viewings in a luxurious Madison Square galleries and held formal auctions in a grand Fifth Avenue concert hall. The auction catalogs alone cost $23--in the late 1880s!

Eventually Sutton’s American Art Association succeeded in branding the contemporary French paintings as legitimate “badges of conspicuous consumption like racehorses, porcelain or vintage wines.” From there it was a small step to shift from the Barbizon school—with its dour if touching tones—to the bright and airy elegance of Impressionism.

Sutton was active during this time bringing over dozens of Monets (as well as works by Renoir, Manet, and Pissarro) from France to show and sell in Boston and New York. By the early 1890s, French Impressionism had a foothold in the high-ceilinged living rooms of the rich and famous. It was not long after that that these same pieces began finding their way into major museums, solidifying their high-culture caché.

By the 1920s, Monet was getting visited at his Giverny home by foreign collectors who would simply write him checks for huge sums on the spot. By the time he died in 1926, the previously impecunious artist was world-famous, flush with cash, and never wanting for creature comforts. And as King notes, his star had yet to stop rising: “In the decades after the Second World War, Monet’s paintings appreciated at an average annual rate of 21 per cent.”

Again, King’s essay is worth the read. It’s particularly interesting for readers of Philanthropy Daily as a case-study in the sort of cultural trend-setting that both drives and defines civil society and philanthropic priorities. And it further suggests the particular logic of American society, which yet again proves itself endlessly flexible. In America, it seems, whole new genres of art and culture can emerge provided there are those like James Sutton who can find a way to combine both people’s crude economic self-interest with a shrewd appraisal of their social self-image. Those in the nonprofit sector seeking to tap into the American mind might do well, then, to spend some time thinking about water lilies.

Photo credit: CarlosR38 via Visualhunt / CC BY-ND

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