by Roderick Conway Morris

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Private Collection
The Victorian Embankment by Giuseppe de Nittis, 1875

French Artists in Exile 1870-1904


By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 17 November 2017

 

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the subsequent popular uprising that led to the short-lived Paris Commune were among the most disastrous and traumatic events in French history. They led to an exodus of artists from Paris, many of them ending up in London.

Some, like Claude Monet left to avoid conscription; others, like Camille Pissarro, had been rendered homeless by the Prussian invasion; others still, notably Jules Dalou, a condemned Communard, were fleeing for their lives. But many, such as Charles-François Daubigny, James Tissot and Giuseppe de Nittis, were seeking new opportunities after the collapse of the Paris art market. The last were joined in this by Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer who was to play such a key role in promoting Impressionism, and had decamped in September 1870, with 35 crates of canvases. In fact, it was in London that Durand-Ruel was to discover two of the movement's most important exponents, Monet and Pissarro.

The title of the current exhibition, 'The Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile 1870-1904' is somewhat off-beam, as many works on display - by Tissot, Alphonse Legros, André Derain and by the sculptors Jules Dalou and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux - were anything but Impressionist. Nor were all these pictures created by exiles. To take but one example, the stunning array of Monet's 'fog' pictures of the Houses of Parliament and Charing Cross Bridge, from 1899-1901 and gathered here from widely dispersed collections, were by the hand of a by then established artist returning to locations with which he had become acquainted in his younger days.

But the unfortunate title should not detract from this engaging show, curated by Caroline Corbeau-Parsons with the assistance of Elizabeth Jacklin, that is all the richer for not confining itself to Impressionist migrant artists. In the opening room, designated 'The Terrible Year': The Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune' - are two pieces by Tissot: the watercolours 'The Wounded Soldier' and the gruesome 'Execution of Communards by French Government Forces at Fortifications in the Bois de Boulogne 29 May 1871', neither of which has been exhibited publicly before.

This section is followed by a splendid more or less chronological succession of London pictures, both cityscapes and interiors. Here we have Daubigny's 'St Paul's from the Surrey Side' (1871-3) and Monet's 'The Thames below Westminster' (1871) and Pissarro's pictures of Upper Norwood and Dulwich.

Monet was so short of funds to buy materials during this first 'miserable' stay that he only painted half a dozen pictures. Another of these here, 'Meditation (Madame Monet on the Sofa)', suggests that his wife was equally unhappy. And like a number of these exiles, Pissarro's new wife, Julie, had difficulty dealing with English, complaining that 'this succession of curious noises could not be a language'.

The cosmopolitan James Tissot had no such problems. He already had a glittering career behind him in Paris, was well-connected in London and had instant entrée into high society, winning such commissions as 'Captain Frederick Burnaby' and the opportunity to depict the upper classes at play in a line-up of minutely observed, fashion-parade pictures, among them 'Too Early', 'Hush!' and the sumptuously colourful 'The Ball on Shipboard'.

Some of his images had risqué narrative implications, like 'The Gallery of HMS Calcutta', which highlights the Kardashianesque rear quarters of the leading ladies, and English critics also often suspected that Tissot might also have been subtly sending up the host nation, but (despite the disapproval of the po-faced Puritans de nos jours) these are thoroughly enjoyable period pieces.

No less diverting are the works of the Impressionist migrants who left such lively views of socially broader leisure pursuits. These include Sisley's images of the Thames at Molesey and Hampton Court, Monet's 'Hyde Park' and, among others by Pissarro, two canvases of Kew that have never been shown in Britain before. There are also two wonderful large works, 'Piccadilly: Wintry Walk in London' and the almost apocalyptically foggy 'Westminster', both by Giuseppe de Nittis, a naturalized Parisian who deserves to be better known.

A number of visiting Impressionists became little short of obsessed with London's famous and semi-permanent fogs. Indeed, the lack of it once threw Monet into a blind panic. 'When I got up,' he recorded, 'I was terrified to see that there was no fog... I was in despair.' But happily, 'as the fires were lit, the smoke and mist returned', and all was saved.

In what appears to have been an artistic coincidence, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, was also becoming entranced with this London phenomenon at the same time that the Impressionists were first discovering it. The American artist is represented here by three classic 'Nocturnes' of this subject from the first half of the 1870s. Indeed, artists were inclined to become positively proprietorial about this atmospheric manifestation, with Whistler declaring: 'My own lovely London fogs! They are lovely those fogs - and I am their painter!'

Four canvases by André Derain provide an amusing coda to the exhibition. The artist travelled to London in 1906 and, in both a homage and a challenge to Monet, created a series of dazzlingly bright Fauvist images that violently and dramatically dispel the London gloom so lovingly depicted by his predecessors.

The Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile 1870-1904; Tate Britain; 2 November 2017- 7 May 2018


First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022