"Gambling with Bread": Monet, Speculation, and the Marketplace
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"Gambling with Bread"
Monet, Speculation, and the Marketplace

Only weeks apart in 1886, two events occurred in rival American centers of international trade. On April 10, "The Special Exhibition of Works in Oil and Pastel by the Impressionists of Paris" opened at the American Art Association on Madison Square in New York City. Less than a month later on May 4, a bomb, and retaliatory police bullets, exploded at an anarchist protest meeting near Haymarket Square in Chicago, the city's only market for local producers and small merchantry including greengrocers and truckfarmers. Beginning in the bloody suppression of the McCormick Reaper Works strike and ending in the sensational trial of eight anarchists, the execution of four, and the suicide of a fifth, the Haymarket incident and its mass print images specularized class conflict. America's first impressionist exhibition and its first red scare were lived at once, as simultaneous spectacles blurring the political economy of foreign art and the capitalist crisis dividing the nation while 600,000 workers agitated for the eight-hour day.1 Two sources of economic anxiety, foreign-born labor and imported modernism, blended in public responses to the exhibition that associated the subversive politics of European anarchy and French impressionism; the consumer cultures of Madison Square and Haymarket Square; the exchange value of foreign art and domestic commodities. The "good bourgeois of New York," stated the Art Age, were "flocking to look at the impressionists and to read their own condemnation" in images the Collector regarded as "phantasms of dynamitic dexterity." Shapeless fears of post-Civil War America's "dynamite fiends," its "red-mouthed devils," took form in "explosions of paint," "rioting in color," and liquid fragments like "blood and ghastly wounds." [End Page 171] "Alien dealers" had introduced into the domestic economy "something monstrous," perhaps from the "planet Venus or Mars." Invasion—from the Old World and other worlds—became a mass culture metaphor for international capitalist competition.2

From the start, impressionist painting destabilized the commodity-form, passing duty-free through U.S. Customs, and shifting between taxed (sold) and exempted (exhibited) forms. It acquired or lost its commodity character from its sites of public display, in this case the sales galleries of the American Art Association in April 1886, and the loftier halls of the National Academy of Design the following month. The Association proprietor James F. Sutton, formerly of Macy's Fourteenth Street Bazaar, and the French dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, relocated their venture at a safe distance from dealers angered that Sutton, keeping one foot in and the other outside commerce, escaped the notorious thirty-percent duty on imported art. At the height of 1889 congressional tariff debates, the trade divided over statutes allowing associations to import on commission, but requiring dealers to pay at entry. The final split came when William Schaus and other New York dealers filed fraud charges with the U.S. Treasury Department against their major competitors for the French market including the American Art Association and the Grevin American Company. Organized under an association charter, Sutton's exhibition was a tax dodge for a "speculative venture," claimed his adversaries. Soon to follow was the ruin of legitimate dealers forced to pay import duties "even before seeing the goods."3

Cultural critics saw it this way. French dealers anxious for new profit streams in America created a desire for impressionism to offset depleted stores of authentic Barbizon paintings. The rhetoric of artificial value intensified among those who agreed that while the impressionist market originated in Barbizon "counterfeits," American finance capital and its class structure promoted "wholesale forgery" [Fig. 1]. Reformists considered the point in the Forum, a new monthly positioning the fine arts in 1886 alongside labor unionism, socialism, and free trade. The columnist rhymed his critique of the gallery system with an indictment of new wealth from nothing—wartime profiteers whose massive paper fortunes accrued from runaway currency expansion and speculative exploits connecting railroads to Wall Street. America was rich soil for French dealers because the "unfettered powers of issuing bonds and mortgages possessed by railroad presidents and trustees and the guardian angels of corporations" had produced an "abnormally" large ruling class...