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Why the impressionists were drawn to London

Why the impressionists were drawn to London

A new exhibition in London reminds us of the important role played by the British capital in the artistic movement

A new exhibition in London reminds us of the important role played by the British capital in the artistic movement

Joe Lloyd | November 17th 2017

Seldom has an exhibition’s title been so at odds with its contents as “Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile 1870-1904” at Tate Britain in London. Although it features two of the genre’s greatest exponents – Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro (as well as notable fellow traveller Alfred Sisley) – the vast majority of the show is devoted to artists who would deny they were impressionists. The society painter James Tissot, the classically inspired sculptors Jean-Bapiste Carpeaux and Jules Dalou: whatever the merits of these practitioners, they belong to a more traditionally representational stream in French art, one long overshadowed by impressionism’s spontaneous, movement-filled scenes of everyday life. 

The exhibition’s idea of exile, too, is something of a misnomer. Although some of this work was made after artists like Monet sought refuge across the Channel from the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, followed by the fall of the Second Empire and the economic devastation of France, much of it stems from holidays spent in Britain during calmer times. There is a scintillating story to be told about the relationship between impressionism and British art, as well as French artists in exile. By trying to tell both, this show tells neither.

Nevertheless, “Impressionists in London” is worth a visit for the best works on display, by James McNeill Whistler, Jean-Baptiste-Camile Corot and André Derain as well as Monet and Pisarro. It is a particular pleasure to see six of Monet’s paintings from his “Houses of Parliament” series reunited. And by placing its impressionists in the context of their more conservative contemporaries, it revives the sense of awe and wonder that this now-familiar movement once inspired. 

 

“The Ball on Shipboard” (1874) by James Tissot

James (born Jean-Jacques) Tissot moved to London during the Franco-Prussian War and remained there for the rest of his life, though whether his motives were political, financial or both is unknown. He was best known for his portraits of aristocratic ladies in flouncing frocks, which made Tissot, a dandy himself, extraordinarily wealthy. His work, however, was not beloved by all. Henry James thought his canvases “hard, vulgar and banal”. He may have been a little harsh, but “The Ball on Shipboard”, which depicts the London haut monde on a summer boat party off the Isle of Wight, certainly has a sterility at odds with the festive occasion it tries to capture. Compare the frigidity of Tissot’s blank faces to the vital animation of those in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Bal du moulin de la Galette” (1876). And while Renoir’s masterpiece captured Paris’s burgeoning urban working class, Tissot’s soirée centres around the Princess of Wales and her sister, dressed identically in blue and white creampuff dresses in the centre-right foreground. The composition feels staged, less a glimpse into real life and more a piece of theatre. Works like this typify the society painting that impressionism consigned to history: flat, fussy and strictly realistic. 

 

“Molesey Weir, Hampton Court, Morning” (1874) by Alfred Sisley

A British citizen who was born in the Île-de-France, where he lived for most of his life, Alfred Sisley studied business in London, before resolving to become an artist and moving to Paris. Thrown into poverty when the Franco-Prussian War ruined his father’s silk business, he relied on patrons to fund occasional trips across the Channel, where the relative peace and prosperity created a burgeoning market for depictions of the English landscape.

Sisley’s first jaunt to Britain took place in 1874 and saw him follow the Thames west into the Surrey countryside. This depiction of a weir upstream from Hampton Court Palace ranks amongst his finest paintings. A cloudy English sky, captured with dappled brushstrokes, glowers over the vibrant greens of the vegetation and the deep blues of the river. Images of relaxation – a pair of bathers, and a man removing his socks for a dip – contrast with the power of the deluge itself, which froths into a tempestuous foam. The Temple to Shakespeare, a small garden folly built by David Garrick, an actor, can be glimpsed in the background, between the two barriers on the far left – a reminder that the city is not as far away as it seems.

 

“Kew Green” (1892) by Camille Pissarro

After the Prussian army requisitioned Camille Pissarro’s house and destroyed much of his art, he moved temporarily to London. This painting, though, dates from a later visit made in the summer of a more tranquil year: 1892. Pisarro, then 62 years old, rented an apartment in Kew and painted his surroundings. The resulting series represents the peak of his neo-impressionist phase, which sought to refine the original movement’s arrangement of light and colour, particularly by using unblended colours. “Kew Green” is radiant even by Pissarro’s standards, with both earth and sky formed of unmixed spots of pigment. This technique creates a sense of motion, even drama, as well as a remarkable luminosity – almost as if the canvas has been backlit. The green is fringed by brick cottages and the Kew Bridge Pumping Station, the tower of which can be seen rising to the left. Although we are far from the centre of the city, Pissarro shows the interplay of industry, domesticity and green space characteristic of the modern metropolitan sprawl.

 

“Leicester Square” (1901) by Claude Monet

Monet was astonished by the the bustle and activity of London, which he visited for the first time in 1871, in order to escape conscription, and again 30 years later. On witnessing the funeral of Queen Victoria, he wrote “What a crowd! I wish I could have made a sketch of it!” A similar exhilaration makes its way into “Leicester Square”, perhaps the most exciting painting in the exhibition. Painted from a window high over the square (to which Monet had secured access through John Singer Sargent), it encapsulates all the frenzy of an evening out on the town. In its blurred whirl of people and electric light, it also foreshadows the abstract styles that would rise to prominence with the modernism of the 20th century. Monet planned to make an entire series from this vantage point, but was prevented by a combination of illness and exhaustion.

 

“Houses of Parliament, Sunlight Effect” (1903) by Claude Monet

“Impressionists in London” concludes with one of the series Monet did manage to complete, albeit in the years after the visit. In 1871, he had painted the recently built Palace of Westminster as a tangled mass of towers and spires lurking over the Thames embankment. On his second visit he took an entirely different approach. The “Houses of Parliament” series, of which six examples are gathered in the Tate, depict the palace in a dazzling range of different palettes, though always from the same vantage point. Painting each day from 4pm to sunset so that the building is backlit, Monet transformed its heavy limestone into an ethereal apparition, its form shifting enormously with changes in light. Over the course of several paintings, the Palace becomes an anchor for the visual splendour of the sky above and water below. This “Sunlight Effect” rendition, for instance, shows a blaze of afternoon light from the right of the canvas, which glistens on the river before fading away. 

Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile 1870-1905 Tate Britain, until May 7th 2018

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