La belle epoque

Art - Ned Denny takes in the good and the bad of 19th- and early 20th-century French painting

On loan from public collections in Baltimore, "Ingres to Matisse: masterpieces of French painting" gathers works from one of the great ages of art into three smallish rooms. It sounds wonderful, and very nearly is. To carp at all the significant omissions (there is no Daumier, no Toulouse-Lautrec, no fauves, no cubists) would be somewhat beside the point. This isn't a comprehensive overview of a period or movement, but a reflection of the tastes of certain American collectors in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As such, it allows us to view the art of the time with a more capacious eye than usual, seeing the bad as well as the good.

The poles of French painting in the early 19th century are neatly summarised by the first two pictures in the exhibition. On the one hand, there's the immaculate neoclassicism that came from David through Ingres and thence to every culturally minded haut bourgeois in the Second Empire. Marguerite Gerard's Family Group may be technically accomplished, but it's also as airless as a crypt, a painting for people disturbed by the messiness of paint. These silken surfaces and unblemished limbs are the creations of a culture dedicated to averting the gaze from death. Those tranquillised stares say it all.

If Family Group is literally deathless, then the adjacent Sketch for the Battle of Poitiers, by Delacroix, is the perfect antidote. Everything in this canvas - the heavy sky, the frenzy of brushmarks, the trapped figures beneath the high horizon - speaks of violence and decay. The swiftly sketched soldiers already seem to be dissolving into the landscape. Delacroix was the leading exponent of the "romantic" style, jettisoning the drawing-based technique of Ingres in favour of this much more physical use of paint. It's only a sketch, admittedly, but the pagan energies of these "unfinished" works (derived, in part, from the preparatory sketches of Constable) resonate throughout the modern era.

Delacroix may have provided the stylistic innovations, but it is other painters on show here who effected a change in the subject matter. This was a crucial change - from historical scenes to contemporary ones, from the exotic to the quotidian; it has something of the nature of a homecoming, as though artists realised that the miraculous was to be found through a shift not in time or location, but in ways of seeing. Corot's Sevres-Brimborion, View towards Paris, a late work, shows nothing more than a nondescript stretch of country lane. But the trees and hedgerows, their blurred edges suggesting the influence of early photography, are tremulous masses that seem far from merely picturesque. The painter's touch renders familiar terrain strange.

Equally crucial to this renewed interest in landscapes, and well represented here, are the frequently overlooked Barbizon painters. Jean-Francois Millet, the least typical of the artists associated with the group, has three radiant works on display. Look, in particular, for the spectral glow of The Sheepfold, Moonlight, the vast orb looming on the horizon with almost surrealistic menace. Here, too, is the unmistakable Virgile Narcisse Diaz de la Pena (much admired by Monet, Sisley and Renoir), whose Forest of Fontainebleau, Autumn burns with a weird and impenetrable splendour. And there's a wonderful late painting by Charles-Francois Daubigny, who famously haunted France's rivers and tributaries. On the Oise shows all the qualities that must have attracted Monet to his work - the sense of immersion in a distinct hour of the day, the touches of pale colour that illuminate the cloudy sky, the transformation of the riverbank into the shore of another earth.

The impressionists seem to have less of a presence, probably because the whole impressionist "canon" is overfamiliar and overexposed. What this show does offer is an opportunity to see their work as it must have appeared to people at the time. Gerome's wintry The Duel after the Masquerade is typical of the Salon paintings of the day, a melodramatic and drably coloured fantasy with all the depth of a stage set. Pissarro's Route to Versailles, Louveciennes, another snow scene done barely more than a decade later, seems by comparison to have been painted with a handful of slush and dirt from the street it depicts. Here one gets a glimpse of the impressionists' primitivism, the rawness that animates their finest work, and which we overlook to our loss.

The latter part of the show consists largely of the collection of Etta and Claribel Cone, the Baltimorean sisters with a wide-ranging (if somewhat cautious) taste in modern art. Viewed after a turgid group of academic paintings, individual works by Cezanne, Van Gogh and Bonnard vibrate with shocking light. There's a typically unsettling canvas from Henri Rousseau, with blank-faced figures set against a background of inscrutable vapidity. But the sisters' real passion was for Matisse, and the exhibition ends in a burst of patterns and fierce colour harmonies. His Purple Robe and Anemones, painted in 1937, returns us (in theme, if not in mood) to the first picture in the show. But whereas the Gerard showed frozen figures in a pallid glare, this interior blazes forth with voluptuous sensuality. French painting had opened its eyes.

"Ingres to Matisse: masterpieces of French painting" is at the Royal Academy (020 7300 8000) until 23 September

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, In the line of fire