I visited the Impressionists in London exhibition at Tate Britain, both out of general interest in Impressionist art, but also wanting to have a close look at how the Impressionists approached landscape painting in a City.
The exhibition opened by setting the scene as to why French artists moved to London at this point. Following defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris commune uprising, the city was in ruins. A number of photographs portrayed the landscape at the time.
By Alphonse J. Liébert (French, 1827–1913) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This was an interesting introduction to the exhibition, on the train down to London I had been reading about the ‘picturesque’ and thought that I might see some examples on display. So it came as something of a surprise that the first ‘landscapes’ in the exhibition were of the ruins of the city similar to the one above. Describing one of the photos, of the Suresnes Bridge taken around 1870, the gallery notes stated that “ Parisiens were struck by the beauty of the ruins … here the play of light and reflections of the industrial landscape in the Seine create a poetry which at first diverts attraction from the damage that was done by the Prussians to the suspended bridge of Suresnes”. This did give a lot of context to the influences on the Impressionist painters that moved to London at the time.
In the exhibition I found the work of Camille Pissarro particularly interesting. The gallery notes explained that “During his stay in London 1870-71 Pissarro became interested in the encroachment of the suburbs on rural spaces”.
Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich, Camille Pissarro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The gallery contrasts Pissarro’s Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich, from 1871 with Turners 1844 Rain, Steam and Speed, commenting how Pissarro “Painted a picture of daily life in his new surroundings”. In the context of my studies of landscape I was intrigued by how this ‘picture of daily life’ was used as a subject. It was not what I had traditionally associated with the Impressionists, although there were other paintings in the exhibition that I would have classified as typical impressionist landscapes.
Kew Green from 1882 was also interesting, withe the gallery notes explaining how it “demonstrates the endurance of Pissarro’s attention in Britain to a landscape in which nature and industry coexist; the picture dominated to the left by the standpipe tower of the old Kew Bridge Pumping Station”.
Kew Green, Camille Pissarro [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The exhibition itself has received some scathing reviews, LUKE (2017) calls it “inaccurate and dishonest” while JONES (2017) states “Unfortunately, I must soberly report that Tate Britain has created the worst show about the impressionists I have ever seen. It comes close to achieving the impossible: making Monet dull”. The main thrust of their complaints is that the show title is misleading as the exhibition contains works by French artists in exile in London, but who would not be classified as Impressionist artists. Indeed a substantial part of the exhibition is given over to work by these artists.
I personally appreciated the opportunity to see the work of Pissarro and Monet, but was less attracted to the work of Tissot and did find the room devoted to Legros’ work less rewarding than the other artists.
However I did learn to rethink my ideas of what landscape is, particularly from seeing the work of Pissarro and how landscape can ‘paint a picture of daily life’.
Jones, J. (2017) Impressionists in London review – how not to tell the origin story of modern art. At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/oct/30/impressionists-in-london-review-tate-britain-exhibition (Accessed on 24 February 2018)
Luke, B. (2017) Impressionists in London, exhibition review: Inaccurate and dishonest. At: https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/arts/impressionists-in-london-exhibition-review-inaccurate-and-dishonest-a3712261.html (Accessed on 24 February 2018)