Before we go any further, we ought to get something out of the way: this isn’t an exhibition about impressionism. The small print lies in the subclause – it’s a collection of work by French artists living in London, some of whom are impressionists. Ignoring its specious title, the Tate Britain has gathered an absorbing body of work – both impressionist and not – and although somewhat chaotic, it’s certainly worth seeing.
Journey through the opening rooms and you’ll take in Camille Pissarro’s impressionist scenes of suburban London, overcast riverscapes by the barbizon painter Charles-François Daubigny and a striking pointillist rendering of the Thames by Alfred Sisley. Moments on, you may be surprised to find yourself in a room of James Tissot’s celebrated society paintings – vibrant, polished and the antithesis of impressionism. There’s even a pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais thrown in for good measure. Venture further and the confusion deepens with Alphonse Legros’s dramatic works of social realism, followed by sculptures from Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux and Jean-Léon Gérôme. At this point, you may wonder whether you’re in the right exhibition, but persevere, the reward is coming. The final rooms are a grand crescendo of impressionist paintings by Sisley, Pissarro, Giuseppe De Nittis, James McNeill Whistler and – the undoubtable highlight – Monet’s breathtaking series of the Thames. For a final twist, the exhibition ends with an homage to Monet’s work by fauvist painter André Derain, reimagining his ethereal scenes in an exotic deluge of colour.
Somewhat bewildering, yes. But also unique, and unlikely to be replicated any time soon. Although it’s true that not all of the artists are French and some of the exhibited works were painted post-exile, the story of their relationship with London is compelling. In 1870, as the impressionist movement was beginning to take form in France, the country was devastated by Napoleon III’s ill-fated decision to instigate the Franco-Prussian War – a disastrous feat that ended in France’s capitulation, followed by a brutally suppressed civil war in Paris. Both events were deeply traumatic. After serving in the National Guard, Édouard Manet was said to have suffered a nervous breakdown. Monet fled to England to avoid conscription, while Tissot witnessed the war’s horrors as a stretcher-bearer.
In the exhibition’s first room, dedicated to the impact of war, a lithograph by Manet depicts a summary execution, while a haunting watercolour by Tissot immortalises an executed rebel thrown over a wall, his weightless body suspended mid-air like a “rag doll”. After these events, thousands left France for England, and London was suddenly host to some of the country’s most talented artists. The exhibition strives to tell the story of their experience, weaving the French artists’ time in London into the tapestry of the impressionist movement.
Their experiences, however, were deeply contrasting. Tissot soared into the highest echelons of society, painting its occupants and gaining considerable financial success. His elegant scenes are lustrous, filled with opulent balls and extravagant bustles, but their radiance is tempered by an underlying ambiguity. Contemporary critics suspected he was, in fact, satirising the English. Portsmouth Dockyard, in which a soldier sits sandwiched between two women aboard a claustrophobically small boat, hints at the lascivious, while the similarly composed On the Thames (How Happy I Could Be with Either?) expedites the innuendo.
Further along the Thames, meanwhile, Monet was struggling to survive. While painting at the river’s edge en plein air (the outdoor approach championed by impressionists who eschewed recreating landscapes in a studio) he met Charles-François Daubigny – often considered a forefather of impressionism. The latter, whose disdain for Britain’s weather is evident in his gloomily atmospheric maritime scenes, introduced Monet to French art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, whose loyalty to the impressionists helped bring about their eventual success. Monet once said: “We would have died of hunger, all we impressionists. We owe him everything.”
Thirty years later, the now-celebrated Monet returned to England to paint from the riverside. Tate Britain has assembled nine of his works of the Houses of Parliament and they are truly magnificent. Spectral, transcendental studies of light and colour, refracted in shadowy blues and celestial pinks, or burnished in deep golds and luminous greens. Monet wrote at the time: “No one day is anything like another: yesterday there was sun, with an exquisite mist and a splendid sunset; today, rain and fog.” His canvases are rapturous studies of the ephemeral, capturing London in the crepuscular light in which it looks most beautiful.
What’s unique about this exhibition is the opportunity to view London through the eyes of such an influential group of émigré artists, comparing their different interpretations and interests. Pissarro and Sisley’s absorption with bucolic idylls, from Sisley’s bathers in Molesey Weir, Hampton Court, Morning to Pissarro’s cricketers in Hampton Court Green, London contrasts with the urban scene of Charing Cross Bridge captured by Monet, Sisley, Pissarro and Derain. Similarly, the fog, which Monet claimed “gives London its marvellous breath” added an insalubrious tinge to Tissot’s work and provided a thickly industrial glow to De Nittis’ Westminster. Yet Whistler, credited by Oscar Wilde with the “invention of fogs”, captures its atmospheric light in tranquil blues and silvers in three stunning nocturnes on display.
Although Impressionists in London could have been streamlined, it contains some remarkable work and takes you on a tour from Leicester Square to Sydenham through the eyes of some of France’s most ground-breaking painters. Along this journey, you’ll also find an intriguing narrative of the story of impressionism, from its barbizon roots to its fauvist descendants.
Impressionists in London runs at Tate Britain until 7 May 2018. For more information and to book tickets, visit the website.