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Review: Impressionists in London at Tate Britain

houses of parliament

Tate Britain’s latest exhibition may be more notable for bringing together six of Monet’s Houses of Parliament series, rather than for illuminating its visitors on the real value of the Impressionists in London

If Impressionism has a natural home it is not London. However, Tate Britain’s latest exhibition, Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile, goes some way to giving the movement lodgings in the British capital; be it the society sensible suburbia in which Tissot found himself ensconced, or the Savoy hotel rooms Monet used as a basecamp from which to ascend the ethereal Thames fogs.

These places are crucial because, as this exhibition makes clear, these are French artists in London, not of London. They come in exile and remain adjacent to the main, exercising the émigré’s creative licence, leaving Pre-Raphaelite trails, providing a Gallic satire through portraiture and turning the brand-new, neo-gothic, Victorian Parliament into a shimmering castle of glittering cloud.

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And then they leave. As you progress through this exhibition it becomes harder and harder to discern what these artists left behind. The focus on the more personal experiences of the artists and the reliance on James Tissot’s works (26), mean a loss of contrast with contemporary France and other artistic schools, so it is hard to get a comprehensive view of London’s role in Impressionism.

That is a shame because there is clearly ambition behind this collection. The opening space gives the departure point: Contrasting a Paris still nursing the wounds of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and subsequent bloody putdown of the Paris Commune, with the assertive imperial metropolis of London – then the world’s biggest city.

Pertinently we begin with Gustave Dore’s depiction of a Sister of Charity saving a child from the burning siege of Paris and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s terrorising Angel of Death, leaving a city destroyed in a mesmerising canvas he kept hidden for much of his life. Tissot’s portrait of a wounded soldier convalescing in the Comédie-Français, a theatre turned war-hospital, could almost show a tragic stage-hand. The arresting, boyish, look offset by a worn, disjointed stare.

The Ball

James Tissot’s ‘The Ball on Shipboard’, c.1874. Tate. Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1937

This all contrasts significantly with the drawing room next door. Large and beige, it is devoted to Tissot’s large, gold-framed social scenes, recitals, picnics and portraits. Captain Frederick Burnaby (1870) is achingly Victorian: Leisurely accomplished, the waxed moustached cavalry man rests a lit cigarette, stretched on a settee in front of a pink shaded map of India. There’s vanity everywhere, these are painted portraits in the age of photography after all. The curation hints at Tissot’s mockery of English customs; he certainly isn’t shy of suggesting scandal in his interactions but it is harder to say whether he is opposed in principle to his paymasters’ positions or just disinterested in their trite mores – one suspects both. While receiving these commissions he was also rendering his memories of the Bloody Week – the put down of the Paris Commune in which 20,000 people lost their lives. The Execution of Communards by French Government Forces at Fortifications in the Bois de Boulogne (1871) shows the broken corpses beneath a castle wall, another communard in freefall being sent to join them. While Britain was a haven from such events, it no doubt mirrored the intransigence of establishment.

Tissot is followed by a room given over to the influence of Alphonse Legros, the “artist at the heart of the French refugee community”. Legros taught at South Kensington and later at UCL focusing on sculpture and etching as well as painting. As French artists left France they sought him out for introductions and to build their networks. As a result the curator, Dr Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, has stated her desire to celebrate Legros’ role in giving these artists a livelihood in London. That is commendable, without his conscientiousness perhaps this exhibition would not exist at all. However, as this is an exhibition about refugee Impressionists, turning over the largest room to the neo-biblical, Pre-Raphaelite art of a London based academic and his students is a mistake: His art is far from Impressionist, does not portray London and he moved here through choice rather than circumstance. As if to underline the tenuousness we’re told he once had lunch with Monet and Pissarro.

With the focus lost to such a degree it’s hard to really feel the exhibition gets going. Fortunately we return from distraction with the final rooms, which feature Monet’s scenes of Parliament and the Impressionist views of London parks and games of cricket. These Anglo-Franco synergies are best seen in Pissarro’s resplendent brushstrokes capturing the dappling light within Kew Garden’s rhododendron bowers, or in hueing the figures of a cricket outfield to give them the misremembered wonder of Impressionism – a strangely suitable nostalgic light for the national game.

Kew Green

Camille Pissarro’s ‘Kew Green’, 1892. Private collection

Like the sports and parks of London the fog is also presented “through outsiders eyes”. Unfortunately for the French refugees this includes the American James Abbot McNeil Whistler, whose supine blue river scenes were credited by Oscar Wilde as “inventing” London’s iconic mists. Whistler’s three views of the Thames provide a welcome reference but further the confusion of the exhibition being an all French affair. Finally though, the fog and Impressionism are joined in Monet’s astounding views of the Houses of Parliament.

Monet returned to London to capture the light over the Thames in 1899, having first painted it when avoiding conscription in 1871. On his return he managed to fill his rooms in the Savoy with over 100 working canvases, complaining of the constant colourful flux of the fogs and Sisyphean nature of his task. He returned to France to finish them, finally handing them over for exhibition in 1904. There are 19 in total, Tate have managed to bring 6 together to provide an enrapturing, Impressionist’s kaleidoscope of the Palace of Westminster. They are incredible frames of light and movement, representing the tender sentiments of the fluid colour that French Impressionism captures so well. Having only been fully finished in 1870 the palace was still relatively new. In one frame it sleeps blanketed in blushing hues, in one it backdrops a vortex of shouting blues, in another it is all ablaze atop the sunlit petals of the Thames. Would any real Londoner have seen such beauty?

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These Parliaments, purpled behind Monet’s shimmering vignettes, make the hook, heart and shrine of this exhibition. It is the real thing, reminding us these painters of light did find London a suitable subject – as Monet said, he wanted “to appreciate London as an artist”. His range establishes the motif of Parliament, showing it as something other than a gothic power container. Standing in front of these paintings you feel he has liberated it from itself.

But Parliament and the Thames are the exception rather than the rule. Although we have Pissarro’s blushing parks to compliment Monet’s masterful light washes, there is so much other art that it is hard for this exhibition to feel really about the Impressionists. There are too many other themes it could more accurately be identified with. These all warrant exhibitions of their own: Victorians through visitors’ eyes; inspiration & industry; London’s cultural calibre; but that doesn’t mean they help this exhibition.

Speaking to Glint before the exhibition Corbeau-Parsons described how London initially held little artistic inspiration for the Impressionists, who really came for the art market. “They were hoping they would appeal to a British clientele. It would have been easier to go to Brussels, in terms of  language and proximity, but commercial possibilities were not as great.” Given the weight of the stifled social painting shown here that certainly seems true.

Ultimately it is the far-removed English society scenes that yokes this collection; Parisian cafes these clearly aren’t. We see little of the Impressionist legacy in London beyond Legros’ academic influence and while Westminster qualifies as an artistic subject, we’re told the rest of the city and its inhabitants provided curiosity or comedy rather than muses. On balance, the exhibition succeeds most in making the Impressionist talismans of Pissarro, Monet and Sisley shine all the more against the protracted and mundane exploration of why Tissot et al’s Impressionist bent was stunted. Monet’s parliamentary towers are well pressured to pillar this show’s meek middle.

Main image: Houses of Parliament, Claude Monet c.1900. Art Institute of Chicago

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