London through French eyes

Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile, 1870-1904

Tate Britain, London. 2 November 2017 – 7 May 2018

1871. France is ravaged by the Franco-Prussian war. Paris is under siege and rife with insurrection. Thousands flee the country in search of refuge and a new life away from war and revolution. Amongst those that fled to England in the wake of the traumatic events were a small group of artists and sculptors. They faced no entry restrictions and were welcomed into the country, with leave to stay indefinitely.

The premise for this exhibition is an intriguing one; sadly, in reality it’s a dull, worthy survey of French art produced in England at the tail end of Victoria’s reign. Claude Monet, who came to London to avoid conscription into the French army, lived not in a poor artist’s garret, but in chintzy lodgings on High Street Kensington (see ‘Meditation’, the picture of Madame Monet on the sofa, c.1871), and James Tissot, who cannot truly be considered an Impressionist painter (though this doesn’t seem to worry the Tate), had access to Victorian high society, replete with all its feathers and furbelows. In fact, his paintings are some of the more interesting works on display: he captured Victorian Londoners d’une certaine classe at play, at soirees and boating parties, picnics and park strolls. Neither artist could be considered to be “struggling” when he arrived in London, and the group of French artists active in London towards the end of the nineteenth century were quickly taken under the wing of sponsors, dealers and patrons, who offered mentoring and financial support, notably Charles-François Daubigny (who supported Monet), Jean-Baptise Faure and Paul Durand-Ruel, who purchased over 5000 impressionist works in his lifetime.

The Ball on Shipboard c.1874 by James Tissot 1836-1902
James Tissot – The Ball on Shipboard, c1874. Tate

There are some attractive Pissarros and Sisleys in the exhibition, scenes of London and its suburbs, its people and their everyday lives.  As the visitor moves inexorably towards the famous Monets, there are three exquisite Whistler paintings of the Thames – blue-grey nocturnes with delicate dabs of yellow lights. Before that, one must run the gamut of some pretty tedious sculptures by Jules Dalou and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.

The penultimate room contains the six paintings of the Houses of Parliament by Claude Monet. Like his series of Rouen Cathedral, haystacks and of course the waterlilies, these paintings share the same viewpoint (from Monet’s window or a terrace at St Thomas’ Hospital overlooking the Thames) and are painted at different times of the day. They all share elements of the same palette of misty mauves, blues, pinks and oranges, but they don’t vibrate with quite the same astonishing resonance as the waterlilies series, and their impact is rather dulled by the lavender-coloured walls on which they are hung.

In the final room is an odd little trio of works by Paul Derain. It feels like an after-thought because the works are so different to what has gone before. Here London’s river life is portrayed in the hot earthy colours of the south of France and Derain’s Fauvist eye.

The exhibition title and the publicity material – a detail of one of Monet’s misty evocations of the Houses of Parliament – and the lure of six of Monet’s Houses of Parliament series on display together for the first time in 40 years will have the crowds queuing for entry, but I fear they will be disappointed. This is not an exhibition about Impressionism, but rather a dry examination of French émigré artists London in the 1870s-90s. As such, it’s really not that interesting…..


(header picture: Claude Monet – Houses of Parliament, Sunlight effect, 1903. Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York)

ArtMuseLondon reviewers recommend:

Soutine’s Portraits (Courtauld Gallery, London)

Cézanne Portraits (National Portrait Gallery, London)

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