How French Impressionism began on the banks of the River Thames

“Impressionists in London” at the Tate Britain explores the British capital’s little-known influence.

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Impressionism has much to thank England for. The quintessential French movement was born not on the banks of the Seine but on the banks of the Thames. In September 1870, Monet moved to London to escape conscription during the Franco-Prussian War, which had broken out in July. He was not alone and joined a burgeoning French diaspora, and he was adopted by the landscapist Charles-François Daubigny. Daubigny introduced him to another displaced Frenchman, the gallery owner Paul Durand-Ruel, with the endorsement, “This artist will surpass us all.” The dealer took him at his word, buying several canvases. A few days later, an encouraged Monet returned to the gallery with the struggling Camille Pissarro. This chain of mutual assistance made in London was at the core of Impressionism for the next 30 years.

Monet didn’t stay long in England, leaving for the Netherlands in the spring of 1871, but the succour that London had given him, the sight of the river at Westminster, the London fogs and the paintings of Constable and Turner that he saw here stayed with him. Decades later, he returned. For three successive winters, from 1899 to 1901, he took rooms at the Savoy Hotel and painted the Thames in all weathers. At one point, he was working on around 100 canvases simultaneously. In 1904, 30 years after the Paris exhibition that launched the Impressionists as a group, Durand-Ruel showed 37 of Monet’s pictures in a successful exhibition called “Views of the Thames”.

Kew Green by Camille Pissarro

A room containing a cluster of these paintings – six showing the Palace of Westminster and two of Charing Cross Bridge – is the highlight of “Impressionists in London” at Tate Britain. With its rich, dark blue walls offsetting eight canvases throbbing with lapidary colour and liquid brushstrokes, you won’t see a more euphoric room in years of gallery going.

The room is also necessary to justify the exhibition’s title. This is not a show about Impressionism at all and should have been called “The French in London”. Monet, Pissarro and Sisley are all here but so are Salon and genre painters such as James Tissot, Jean-Léon Gérôme and Alphonse Legros and the sculptors Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux and Jules Dalou. There are spin-off artists, too, such as the American-born, French-trained Whistler, whose Thames nocturnes perfectly complement Monet’s river views.

The Franco-Prussian War and the ensuing internecine struggle between the radical Paris Commune and the French government hurried artists across the Channel. Some stayed behind: Courbet, for example, was an active communard and formed the Federation of Artists (whose members included Manet, Honoré Daumier and Corot). It was Courbet who was behind the toppling of the column in the Place Vendôme – although he was later ordered to pay to have it put back up. England offered not just safety but new patrons when the war caused the collapse of the French art market.

Tissot already had a successful career as a painter of the Parisian beau monde and he simply switched to depicting London’s high society instead. He looked at English manners with a wry outsider’s eye: his Too Early of 1873 shows a group of embarrassed guests who have made the faux pas of arriving rather too promptly for a ball. His scenes of picnics, flirtations and languid soldiers squiring eligible girls on boats have charm and panache but en masse they pall quickly.

He could be a very different artist, as demonstrated by his terrifying watercolour of executed communards lying beneath the wall of the fort in the Bois de Boulogne from which they had been pushed. “They fall like a rag doll,” Tissot wrote of what he witnessed, “and one can see the sergeant rushing to give the coup de grâce.” This potent little picture leaves the big, elegant oils he went on to paint looking horribly vacuous.

Leicester Square by Claude Monet

Meanwhile Jules Dalou, another communard, carried on his sculptural practice during his eight-year stay in England and became an important teacher, at the National Art Training School (on the recommendation of Alphonse Legros, who was a professor at the Slade) and in his studio. Dalou’s teaching by example, his expressive naturalism and the freedom and rapidity of his modelling had a profound effect on the English students who became the core of the British “New Sculpture” movement in the late 19th century. Dalou also brought Rodin to the notice of the British public.

What becomes increasingly noticeable as this intriguing exhibition progresses is just how absent are the traumatic events in France in the work of the émigrés. Some 10,000 Frenchmen and women died in the Commune fighting but Monet’s Thames flows as gently as the Seine and Pissarro’s Norwood and Kew Green are as sun-dappled as the Tuileries Garden.

The exhibition runs until 7 May 2018

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over