The Ey Exhibition: Impressionists in London at Tate Britain

The Tate Britain currently presents a collection of absolutely captivating works of art by various artists including Monet, Tissot, Pissarro and many more in the stunning exhibition, Impressionists in London, French Artists in Exile (18070 - 1904). The exhibition tells the story of the artists who fled to Britain to escape the horrors of war in France through the medium of painting.

In the 1870’s, France was devastated by the Franco-Prussian war and insurrection of Paris. The war was a conflict between the Second French Empire of Napoleon III and the German states of the North German Confederation led by the Kingdom of Prussia (a German kingdom that included parts of present-day Germany, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Denmark, Belgium and the Czech Republic). The conflict was caused by Prussian ambitions to extend German unification and French fears of the shift in the European balance of power that would result. A series of swift Prussian and German victories in eastern France, culminating in the Siege of Mets and the Battle of Sedan, saw Napoleon III captured and the army of the Second Empire defeated. The war continued for another five months after the Government of National Defense declared the Third Republic in Paris; the German forces fought and defeated the new French armies in Northern France. The capital fell after the Siege of Paris and a new revolutionary uprising began with the Paris Commune seizing power in the capital and they held their power until it was bloodily suppressed by the regular French army at the end of May 1871. The German conquest of France and the unification of Germany upset the European balance of power that had existed since the Congress of Vienna 1815. French determination and fear of another war, alongside British apprehension about the balance of power became huge factors in the causes of World War I.  This tempestuous political time surely gave rise to a more peaceful, romantic vision, as demonstrated by the artists whose work is displayed in this expansive show.

Possibly one of the most interesting paintings featured in the exhibition is ‘The Dream: Paris Burning’(1870) by Jean-Baptiste Corot. The painting is the result of a vivid dream that Corot had in September 1870, when Prussian troops were on their way to paris. Coro transposed it to canvas the very next morning, and at great speed. The scene shows Paris submerged by an ocean of flames, it is quite the apocalyptic vision. Coro kept this painting almost secretly in his studio until he died, he came to see it as a premonition after Communards set fire to many monuments during Bloody Week in May 1871.

Paris was in an ugly mood and these combined calamities seared the minds of a generation of Frenchmen and changed the lives and careers of many of France’s most famous writers, artists and composers. During the war food was in such short supply that people turned to eating pets, rats, and zoo animals to survive. Much of France was set on fire and around 20,000 people, including women and children, died. Paris was burning. Among the affected were Victor Hugo, the best selling author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Misérables, who, when the Commune of Paris was declared, wisely went back into exile. Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet, a notorious radical and freethinker fled to Switzerland, where he continued to paint.

Among the artists who fled to Britain to escape the bloody and horrific scenes of France were Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Jaques Joseph Tissot.

After the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, having only Danish nationality and being unable to join the army, Camille Pissarro moved his family to Norwood, a village on the edge of London. His painting style, which was later called “Impressionism” did not do well. Pissarro met the Parisian art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, who put Pissarro in touch with Monet who was also in London during this period. They both viewed the works of British landscape artists, which confirmed their beliefs that their style of painting gave the truest depiction of light and atmosphere. ‘The Avenue, Sydenham’ (1871), shows St Bartholomew’s Church in the background. In this painting Pissarro uses a more vibrant palette than he did in works executed before his departure for London. Dulwich College was officially opened in 1870 and was inspired by the northern Italian gothic style, the building was a striking new addition to the neighbourhood, in which Pissarro had settled. In ‘Dulwich College’(1870), Pissarro’s brushwork is freer, bolder and more impressionistic than his other English paintings of 1870-71.  Sadly, when Pissarro returned to his home in France after the war he discovered that out of the 1,500 or so paintings he had done over 20 years, which he was forced to leave behind when he moved to London, only 40 remained. The rest had been destroyed or damaged by the soldiers, who often used them as floor mats to wipe the mud off of their boots.

Claude Monet also fled to England with his family, where he studied the works of Turner and Constable (with Pissarro) which would later serve as inspiration in his study of colour.  Monet’s ‘Leicester Square at Night’ shows a stunning scene, the majority of which is in a dark blue-purple tone, with sparkles of red and orange dashed around the canvas, showing the bustling night life of London. London fog seems an unlikely inspiration for a painter but impressionist Claude Monet was one of many captured by it, and rose to the challenge of capturing its essence, returning to the capital for three extended winters to see the fog over the Thames. Monet criticised Victorian painters for painting London ‘brick by brick… bricks they didn’t see, bricks they could not see. It’s the fog that gives London its marvelous breadth’. He painted Waterloo Bridge, Charing Cross Railway Bridge and the Houses of Parliament; he painted the first two from the Savoy Hotel. In 1901 as the fog swirled and the sun rose he worked on five canvases at once, being reported to have exclaimed: “I cannot begin to describe a day as wonderful as this. One marvel after another, each lasting less than five minutes, it was another to drive one mad.” Viewers to this incredible exhibition can marvel at the many stunning paintings Monet’s ‘Thames Series’, as they see London through the eyes of the father of impressionism, including, ‘Houses of Parliament’, ‘Houses of Parliament, Sunlight Effect’, ‘Charing Cross Bridge’, ‘Houses of Parliament, Effect of Sunlight in the Fog’ and ‘Houses of Parliament, Sunset’ which was a more unusual version of the Houses of Parliament, with it’s dying sun. Monet tackled the Thames’s atmospheric effects until he returned to France in 1901 when he fell ill, he finished The Thames Series at home in France.

However. it was another foreign artist who truly reinvented London’s fog - James Abbott Whistler. Whistler painted the Thames in an entirely different way to anyone else, he created an aestheticised Thames. Pollution is one very clear theme in Whistler’s depictions of the Thames, not just the fact that it is a very dirty river, but also the fact that it is morally polluted, which Whistler made apparent with his depictions of fallen women in his paintings - those who had committed suicide, lying next to the river. The themes of pollution are especially apparent in his Nocturne series, which draws viewers in with its haunting yet alluring atmosphere. Light was a key factor for both Monet and Whistler, which viewers will clearly see when admiring each of the artists works, however, while Monet loved the daylight, Whistler painted the night. Oscar Wilde credited Whistler with ‘the invention of fogs’.

Jaques Joseph Tissot stayed in Paris during the war as a stretcher-bearer in the National Guard, witnessing executions as the Commune fell. In written notes Tissot recalls how he saw hundreds of people being executed and dumped, he describes the most horrific scenes of the war he had to not only witness but take part in. When the war broke out Tissot was enjoying considerable wealth and success in France, owning a large house in Paris, but after the ‘Terrible Year’ in 1871 Tissot crossed the Channel to England as France no longer offered him the same prospects that it once had. Tissot found shelter with Thomas Gibson Bowles, the editor of Vanity Fair, who introduced him to high society, and Tissot rapidly rose to success though English critics often implied that he was making a mockery of British customs. Viewers can see on display Tissot’s magnificent painting depicting typical high society gatherings, “Hush!”. “Hush!” is said to record a particular musical soiree, but Tissot was not allowed to make portraits of the performance itself for reason of privacy. This is perhaps why he has included portraits of his own artistic circle within the complex canvas, including Thomas Gibson Bowles, Giuseppe de Nittis, Ferdinand Heilbuth, Sir Julius Benedict and Jules Diaz de Soria. Tissot remained in London buying a large house in St Johns Wood which he shared with his Irish lover Kathleen Newton, until her death from consumption in 1882. He then abruptly returned to France.

‘Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile 1870 - 1904’ shares a vast display of paintings and works by some of the best French artists known to man. It shows the love and appreciation that these artists had for our city of London, as they captured her beauty in each of their own unique ways. France was drained and scarred, and these artists sought refuge from the traumatic events taking place in their home, and London embraced them as they embraced London. They all engaged with the British landscape and culture, and this exhibition explores just how they transformed representations of London. ‘Impressionists of London’ has something round every corner that just leaves viewers begging for more.

The Ey Exhibition: Impressionists in London at Tate Britain is on until 7th May 2018.  More information can be found here.