French Artists in Exile

The story of the artists who fled to Britain to escape the war in France.

On 19th July 1870, Napoleon III (1808-73), the first president of the Republic of France, declared war on Prussia resulting in a six-month battle that became known as the Franco-Prussian War. Otto von Bismarck (1815-98), the Prussian chancellor, had essentially provoked France into conflict and was prepared for the attack. With no hope of winning from the outset, France was officially defeated on 28th January the following year.

Although the war with Prussia was over, France was not at peace. The French Empire had collapsed following the deposition of Napoleon III in September 1870, leaving the country in the hands of a provisional government of national defence. From this moment, until the end of the war, Paris was surrounded by their enemies resulting in a punishing siege that left the city in ruins and its inhabitants starving from famine.

After the war ended, the radical working-class of Paris rose up against the government. This group was known as the Paris Commune and their uprising caused a brief but brutal revolt that was not suppressed until the end of La Semaine sanglante or “The Bloody Week”, which began on 21st May 1871.

Naturally, many citizens tried to escape from Paris during these turbulent times and took advantage of the British Isles and its welcoming attitude toward refugees. Amongst these émigrés were a handful of French painters who became known as the Impressionists. The Tate Britain in London is currently holding The Ey Exhibition: Impressionists in Britain in celebration of these artist’s work, their stories and the network they developed during their time in Britain, whilst also looking into the ways these foreigners perceived London, evidenced through their artworks.

“The horror and terror are still everywhere … Paris is empty and will become emptier … Anyone would think there never were any painters and artists in Paris” – Théodore Duret (1838-1927), May 1871

Thousands of French citizens fled to London, and it is not surprising why given the state of Paris as shown in the first room of the exhibition. The paintings and photographs exhibited here are mostly produced in France during the war and resulting uprising. They are not works of Impressionist art that the exhibition title promises, however, they visually reveal the state the French capital was in at the beginning of the 1870s. Food shortages forced people to resort to eating their pets or zoo animals in order to survive and the streets were not safe places to frequent due to the violence of war. Many monuments and buildings were destroyed, and it is estimated that around 20,000 people died during this period.

The exhibition includes a number of artists who moved to London as a result of the hostilities in Europe. Many of these were Impressionist painters, a movement that had only begun within a decade before the Franco-Prussian war. Like all movements, the artists involved were breaking away from the conventions of a higher authority, in this instance, the rules taught in art schools. Impressionists rejected the large formal, highly finished paintings in preference to works that expressed the personality of the artist.  Traditionally, historical and mythological scenes were the accepted themes of paintings, however, these 19th-century French artists began producing landscapes and pictures of everyday life, including mundane things such as cooking, sleeping and bathing.

Impressionist artists aimed to depict their surroundings with spontaneity and freshness, recording what the eye sees in that instant, rather than a detailed record of appearance. As a result of wanting to capture the moment as it happened, artists had to work on the spot rather than in a studio and use thick paint with quick, messy brushstrokes. Similarly to the adjustment in subject matter, this method of painting was an outright change from the flatter, neater artworks where the brushstrokes could not be detected.

“Work at the same time on sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis … Don’t be afraid of putting on colour … Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression.” – Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)

Landscapes became the archetypal subject of the Impressionists and introduced the idea of painting en plein air, often with no regard to the weather. The paintings often include bright colours and sketchy brushwork to emphasise the way the sunlight reflects off various surfaces. The constant changing of the sunlight was the main reason why artists had to keep up a rapid pace when producing their work.

Although regarded as a key movement in the art world, Impressionism was never established as a formal group with clearly defined principles. It was a loose association of artists who were linked together by the community they found themselves in, for instance, the French refugees in London. In fact, the group was so indeterminate that their name almost came about by accident. The artists struggled to get their work exhibited because they were generally rejected by art critics, however, Claude Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise (1872) was latched onto and attacked in an essay by Louis Leroy (1812–85) called Exposition des Impressionistes (25th April 1874), and thus the name Impressionism was coined.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) is one of the most representative Impressionist artists. Initially, he began as a caricaturist, however, a tutor inspired him to turn to landscape painting. From here, Monet started studying at the Académie Suisse in 1859, where he met Camille Pissarro and later, in 1862, entered the studio of Gleyre in Paris where he encountered Alfred Sisley (1839-99), an Anglo-French Impressionist – both feature in this exhibition alongside Monet.

Monet, impoverished and only 29-years old, crossed the Channel with Pissarro to avoid being conscripted into the Franco-Prussian war. With nothing but his painting skills to use in an attempt to earn money, Monet spent time beside the Thames and in the London parks, painting the scenery. Whilst here, Monet encountered the landscape artist Charles-François Daubigny (1817-78), the earliest exponent of en plein air painting who had also sought refuge in London. It is thanks to his connection with the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922), another refugee, that Monet and the other French Impressionists began to find their feet.

Comparing an early painting by Monet displayed at the beginning of the exhibition with a later painting in the final rooms shows the difference between the style of painting that was generally accepted during the 19th-century compared to the types of impressionist painting the artist eventually turned to. It is without a doubt when looking at Meditation, Mrs Monet Sitting on a Sofa (1871), that Monet was a talented painter, however, his later works, such as Leicester Square (1901), could arguably suggest that the artist is incompetent.

These two paintings by Monet are two extremes and the majority of Impressionist paintings fall somewhere in between. Many French artists focused on painting their impressions of the city they found themselves in, rather than produce something bordering on Abstract Expressionism.

In comparison to the devastating landscape they left behind, the Impressionists were drawn to the open spaces around London. Here, they became fascinated with British customs and culture which was significantly different to their own. The French were enthusiastic about the British sports played throughout the year, particularly regattas and rowing events to which spectators wore a range of costumes.

More importantly, the Impressionists were awed by the teeming crowds and forbidding buildings that made up the cityscape. Coming from a country where monuments and important buildings had been destroyed by armies and rebels, the towering facades were a marvel to the refugee artists. It was during this period that the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt on the north bank of the River Thames, which became a central focal point for a vast amount of paintings.

“Monet and I were very enthusiastic over the London landscapes” – Camille Pissarro

The London fog was also a fascination for the artists, particularly Monet who, around his 60th birthday, returned to London in 1900 to paint the Thames’ atmospheric effects. During this time, he produced multiples of oil paintings showing the same scene but experimenting with the effects the sunlight, or lack of light, affected the ambience of the location.

“I find London lovelier to paint each day,” Monet told his wife Alice in one of the many letters he wrote whilst he completed this project in the British capital. He wrote about his fascination with the mist and sunsets as well as the varying colours of the sky. He notes the difficulties he had in creating his impression of the cityscape in front of him before the sky changed once again. A few of these paintings are on show in one of the final rooms of the exhibition.

Despite titling the exhibition Impressionists in London, the Tate Britain displays more paintings by other artists than the promised examples of Impressionism. The subtitle French Artists in Exile 1870-1904 is a much more accurate representation of the included artworks. Although many artists who sought refuge in London were Impressionist painters, there were others who were not. One of the major artists in the exhibition is James Tissot (1836-1902) whose paintings were a complete contrast to the spontaneous landscapes.

Unlike Monet who fled France to avoid becoming part of the war, Tissot was a supporter of the Paris Commune. He was already an established artist in France but the Franco-Prussian war, and probably his association with the Commune limited his prospects, prompting him to seek shelter on the other side of the Channel.

Tissot received support from the editor of Vanity Fair, Thomas Gibson Bowles (1841-1922), who introduced him to British high society – a complete contrast to the communities Monet and his friends found themselves in. This allowed him to concentrate on scenes he loved best, contemporary life and women wearing intricate costumes.

Tissot’s parents were in the clothing business, which may have influenced his passion for painting the full-length complex dresses that women amongst the middle and upper classes wore. He was also skilled in observing and portraying nuances of social interaction, particularly of a romantic or sexual nature.

Tissot did not restrict himself to London and painted other areas of Britain, for instance, Portsmouth. However, his themes were the same: the fashionable Victorian life. Some critics believed Tissot was mocking British customs and not painting a realistic version of society, but it was more likely that Tissot was focusing on things he found interesting and reflected his early life in France. On the other hand, some critics admired Tissot’s work, referring to its “fashion-plate elegance” and “chocolate-box charm”.

As well as Tissot, other artists that do not fall under the Impressionist blanket are also featured in this exhibition. These include two sculptors, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-75) and Jules Dalou (1838-1902), the latter exiled in London as a result of supporting the Paris Commune. For such a popular and crowded exhibition, the rooms containing the sculptures are almost deserted, implying that these were not what people had come to see. Granted, people would not expect to see James Tissot in an exhibition about Impressionism, however, they would be prepared for paintings.

Nonetheless, there are enough examples of Impressionist paintings for the exhibition to be worthy of the title Impressionists in London. The addition of other painters such as Tissot provides a contrast which emphasises the traits and nature of Impressionism. The use of brushstrokes and colour are brought to attention in juxtaposition with the smoothness of other paintings. It is also interesting to observe the differences between the Impressionist artists, each employing a different method.

To conclude the exhibition, the Tate Britain provides yet another contrast, this time being completely unrelated to French exiles. The final room is titled Derain and the Thames: Homage and Challenge and contains three paintings by the French painter André Derain (1880-1954). Although mostly associated with Fauvism and Cubism, Derain was interested in Monet’s Views of the Thames which he saw in an exhibition at Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery.

“In spite of everything, I adore him. Wasn’t he right to render with his fugitive and durable colour, the natural impression which is no more than an impression, without lasting power, and did he not increase the character of this painting? As for myself, I’m looking for something different, something in nature which, on the contrary, is fixed, eternal, complex.” – André Derain

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Charing Cross Bridge, 1906-7, André Derain

These final paintings were part of thirty canvases that art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) sent Derain to London to paint in 1906. In an attempt to imitate Monet’s Views of the Thames, Derain focused on similar landscapes including Charing Cross Bridge and other buildings seen from the Thames. These, however, look in no way similar to the Impressionist’s version, being full of unnatural colour and bold lines – not unlike a child’s drawing.

Although not much to look at, Derain’s work goes to show the changes in the style of art that sparked from the development of Impressionism. For years, art had remained relatively the same, but after Impressionism, the 20th-century saw the most changes within art in history.

Impressionists in London is a huge exhibition that successfully introduces the Impressionist artists that were, in some way, affected by the Franco-Prussian war. For those less interested in the relaxed, impromptu works, the paintings by Tissot and a few others are there to satisfy different tastes.

Despite the designation of “exhibition”, the Tate Britain is doing far more than showing a few paintings. Detailed information is provided about the majority of the artists, but more importantly, the experiences of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune is expertly expressed. This is a period of history that is usually left out of British education, preferring to focus on events that affected Britain directly. Seeing the paintings that came about as a result of the war, even though they do not necessarily show the incidents, makes the whole account more real, distressing and important.

Often, artists who do not paint realistic images are ridiculed by those who do not understand the art movement or scenario that led to the artwork. As a result, some may deem Impressionists artists who do not know how to draw or paint, however, after coming away from this exhibition, those thoughts will have been challenged and, hopefully, visitors will feel more enlightened and knowledgeable.

The Ey Exhibition: Impressionists in London will remain at the Tate Britain until 7th May 2018. Tickets are £19.70 (with donation) and can either be booked online or bought at the gallery on the day. 

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6 thoughts on “French Artists in Exile

  1. Excellent, excellent, excellent.
    The only way to describe another amazing piece of written work by the ever talented and gifted Hazel.
    Excellent.

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