In 1870, as Paris was pounded by Prussian artillery, the besieged citizens of the then walled city were reduced to eating rats, zoo animals and household pets. Meanwhile, the group of artists who came to be known as the impressionists were far away from the city they so famously and originally depicted. Most had escaped across the channel, to avoid conscription, political strife and the attendant horrors of war, and made their temporary homes in Victorian London.
London was at this time perhaps the largest metropolis the world had ever seen, the capital of the British Empire and a global hub for trade, finance and industry; a strikingly different kind of place from the recently Haussmanised Paris of Napoleon III. It was also filthy, crowded, and, in the eyes of at least some of the exil painters, rather wet and dour. The Tate’s new exhibition, Impressionists in London, aims to present a view of Victorian London as it was seen by that unique generation of painters, and to shed light on how their encounter with the city shaped both the art of the developing school, and subsequent depictions of London.
The Introductory section of this new exhibition does an excellent job of situating the works in the grim context of the Franco-Prussian war and the internecine strife of the semaine sanglante which followed. We see contemporary photographs of the ruined Tuileries palace and the Hôtel de Ville, which are lent a ghostly quality by the long exposure film cameras, as well as striking charcoal sketches of the summary executions of Communards, which lasted long after order had nominally been restored to Paris.
But after this intriguing introduction, the opening rooms of the exhibition fall rather flat. There are far too many tedious pieces that showcase little more than the uninspired taste of the Victorian art-buying public, and of the willingness of French artists to indulge these tastes. The bland frivolity of these pictures jar in the way that they contrast with the morbid seriousness of the introduction.
The only real highlight in the first four rooms is a pair of complimentary works, one by Alphonse Legros, and the other by a precocious sculptor he brought to London, a young man by the name of Auguste Rodin. The two works, a sketch of Rodin by Legros, and a bust in bronze by Rodin of Legros, both masterfully represent the one-time friends in their preferred medium. The faithfulness of these works to their subject was made apparent by the ease with which I could imagine the intense, brooding figure depicted in the painting creating the sculpture, and vice versa. The sheer power of these two deeply serious faces, and the conviction with which they are realised, stands in stark contrast to the anaemic presentation of the previous rooms.
However, things pick up significantly in the fifth room, where we see in greater detail exactly what fascinated the French artists about their new home. Some were captivated by competitive sports matches and the crowds that these drew, others by the lights of Leicester square. A favourite subject was the London parks, in which, unlike the formal gardens of Paris, one could walk on the grass. The paintings of Camille Pissarro convey a genuine affection for his adopted home – there is an evident warmth to his depictions of south London streets and train stations, and his Hampton Court Green, a gorgeous, damply luminous scene of a summer cricket match (a game in which he took a passionate interest), is a fond and tranquil paean to that most English of institutions.
In room 6 one of the most impressive and surprising paintings of the exhibition is displayed, a huge canvas of the Thames and the palace of Westminster by Guiseppe de Nittis. Set next to Whistler’s pioneering, highly abstract studies of fog, so beloved by Oscar Wilde, the work has an almost antiquatedly traditional feel, yet it surpasses everything else exhibited in its attention to both the effects of atmosphere and light, as well as to the human and architectural aspects of the scene. The palace of Westminster has never been depicted with greater admiration, and the Thames workers smoking tiredly on the bridge are hugely compelling, likeable characters. The pinky-orange flecked clouds which rise from their pipes, mingling with the fog and dirty air, stand as fine artistic depictions of smoke.
But even if rooms 5 & 6 hadn’t significantly upped the ante, the penultimate room would easily justify the entire exhibition. In this room eight of Monet’s Views of the Thames are collected together, including six studies of the river and the houses of Parliament from Westminster bridge. The composition of the paintings are very alike; the palace remains the same size in all, although viewed from marginally different angles, and the only other variation is the position of the sun and its reflections on the river. The paintings structural similarity emphasises the minute attention to near- imperceptible detail with which each was created. In one canvas the sun hangs high in the sky, a great fireball radiating strands of colour, whilst in others it rests just out of frame, casting a diagonal slant of golden light over the river and its fogs. The palace varies from a ghostly apparition in the background to an imposing, tangible presence, silhouetted against the sky. In each picture we see Monet’s unique genius for the observation of light, working at its most penetrating and creative, as well as his ability to draw out deep visual differences from the smallest deviation in atmosphere or time of day. The pictures collected in this room exhibit the very, very best of what one of the greatest of painters could do, and consequentially what impressionism was able to achieve when it was most visually indulgent, yet also most strictly honest to immediate sensation.
The sheer quality of this final room does pose problems for the exhibition as a whole. The interest of the first half was largely that of seeing Victorian London through the eyes of French artists fleeing a ruined Paris and a humiliated France. But the stand out paintings of the exhibition are not those of the young, starving Monet of the 1870’s, but of the wealthy, established Monet of the early 20th century, revisiting ‘impressions and sensations of the past’, in which the central interest is not London at all, but his eternal muse of light, and its interactions with water, fog and cloud. Whilst the exhibition overall is therefore perhaps a little underwhelming, it’s still very worth visiting; go and see those Monet’s while you can.