When Impressionists were refugees in London
Francesco Carelli, University of Milan, Rome, Bari – Six paintings from Claude Monet’s famous Houses of Parliament series are on display at Tate Britain, being the largest group of Monet’s Houses of Parliament series seen in over 40 years.
These masterpieces are each held in the collections of different museums across the USA, France and Germany, and this grouping is the largest number of works from the series to be exhibited in Europe since 1973.
A room of The EY Exhibition: Impressionists in London is dedicated to images of the Thames, where visitors are able to draw comparisons between the works – including the variations in the colour of the water, the appearance of the sky and the changing atmosphere. For Monet, the Houses of Parliament allowed him to observe and record the Thames and its infamous fogs, and also provided a theme for infinite chromatic variations. He worked simultaneously on the canvases until 1904, the year of the Entente Cordiale, a formal pact of peace and unity between Britain and France that also promised stability for Europe as a whole.
He then exhibited the paintings in Paris at the gallery of Durand-Ruel, the dealer he had met in London 34 years earlier. Their relationship was part of a network of French artists, patrons, teachers and dealers in London which is
explored in the exhibition.
Also two important watercolours by the French artist James Tissot are being shown in public for the first time in this Tate Britain’s The EY Exhibition: Impressionists in London. These rare works depict scenes from the Franco-
Prussian war (19 July 1870 – 10 May 1871), which drove many artists to leave Paris and take refuge in London. The Wounded Soldier c.1870 shows a young man recovering in what is thought to be the makeshifthospital at La Comédie-Française, a famous Parisian theatre. It is the most finished of Tissot’s works from this period and the artist kept it in his studio throughout his life, perhaps as a memento of his experience as a stretcher-bearer during the war. The work only resurfaced last year and was acquired by Tate, having been left by the artist to his niece Jeanne Tissot and then sold by a local auctioneer in Doubs when she died in 1964.
The second watercolour, also exhibited for the first time, is The Execution of Communards by French Government Forces at Fortifications in the Bois de Boulogne 1871. This is a rare representation of the mass execution that took place on the Place Dauphine in May 1871 which Tissot witnessed first-hand. A note in Tissot’s handwriting describing the terrible execution was found attached to the back of the painting – a facsimile of which is displayed alongside the work – providing a disturbingly personal account of the scene.
Tissot gave the watercolour and his written account of the execution to Lady Waldegrave when he came toLondon in 1871 to communicate the atrocities happening in Paris at the time. It is on loan to Tate Britain froma private collection having never been seen in public before.
The exhibition brings together two paintings of Kew by Camille Pissarro, both on loan from private collections, neither of which have been shown in the UK before. They include a view of Saint Anne’s church painted in June 1892 during Pissarro’s third visit to England at the age of 62. The artist enjoyed Kew’s green spaces and stayed nearby at 1 Gloucester Terrace in order to paint the area in the morning light without having to travel from central London each day.
Although the French Impressionists typically painted ‘en plein air’, Pissarro had to stay indoors on a rainy British summer’s day to capture this view from his apartment window. Alongside this work, a beautiful painting of rhododendrons in Kew Gardens is shown in public for the first time. Pissarro
created this work during the same trip to London and it was regarded by his contemporaries as the finest in his Kew Gardens series.
Impressionists in London looks at French painters’ keen observations of British culture and social life, which were notably different to the café culture found in Paris. Evocative depictions of figures enjoying London parks such as Pissarro’s Kew Green 1892 are in stark contrast to formal French gardens where walking on the grass was prohibited. Scenes of regattas fringed with bunting as painted by Alfred Sisley and James Tissot in The Ball on Shipboard c.1874 demonstrate how British social codes and traditions captured the imagination of the Impressionists at the time.
While in London, French artists gravitated towards notable figures who would help them develop their careers and provide them with financial support. The exhibition looks at the mentorship Monet received from Charles-François Daubigny and considers the significant role of opera singer and art patron Jean-Baptiste Faure – works that he owned including Sisley’s Molesey Weir, Hampton Court, Morning 1874 are exhibited. One
of the most influential figures to be celebrated is art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who first met Monet and Pissarro in London during their exile in 1870-71. Durand-Ruel purchased over 5,000 Impressionist works over his lifetime which, in Monet’s own words, saved them from starving.
Part of the exhibition examines the central role of Alphonse Legros in French émigré networks. As Professor of Fine Art at the Slade School in London from 1876 to 1893, he made a dynamic impact on British art education both as a painter and etcher, and exerted a decisive influence on the representation of peasant life as can be seen in The Tinker 1874. He introduced his patrons Constantine Alexander Ionides and George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle, to sculptor Aimé-Jules Dalou who then, together with fellow sculptor and émigré Edouard Lantéri, shaped British institutions by changing the way modelling was taught.
The final and largest section of the exhibition is dedicated to representations of the Thames. Featuring a group of Monet’s Houses of Parliament series, this room looks at how depictions of the Thames and London developed into a key theme in French art. A selection of André Derain’s paintings of London landmarks, which answer directly to Monet’s, demonstrate the continuity of this motif in art history.
The show concludes with the Entente Cordiale – a formal pact of peace and unity between Britain and France – which, in the case of Monet in particular, coincided with the culmination of an artistic project which started in 1870.
Some text is taken with permission and input from Tate offices