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Impressionist exhibition has some gems

This ambitious exhibition brings together over 100 works to illustrate the work of French artists who sought refuge in Britain during the Franco-Prussian war

Camille Pissarro, Charing Cross Bridge, 1890, Oil paint on canvas, National Gallery of Art (Washington, USA)

The Ey Exhibition: Impressionists in London, French Artists in Exile (1870 -1904) exhibition aims to explore the artistic networks these exiles established in Britain, and considers the aesthetic impact of Britain – in particular London – on their work and explores the ways in which these French artists interpreted their impressions of British culture and social life.

There are many superb impressionist works to enjoy, and the jewel of the exhibition is undoubtedly Monet’s Thames series of six paintings, which are beautifully displayed against a mid-grey background that serves to bring out the muted pastel shades. The River Thames, and Westminster in particular, seems to have obsessed Monet and he ended up working on nearly 100 canvases at the same time. The constantly changing atmospheric effects of mists and water was a theme that caught the imagination of many French artists, though the (rather odd) inclusion of the Nocturnes by Whistler demonstrate that this was not a French preserve.

Houses of Parliament, sunlight effect, Claude Monet (1840-1926), Houses of Parliament, Sunlight Effect,1903, Oil paint on canvas, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York

These rooms are at the end of the exhibition but it would be a good idea to visit them first, noting on the way anything that catches the eye to return to later. Otherwise you’re likely to be too exhausted – and saturated – to appreciate them as they deserve. At least that was my experience.

The first room establishes the historical context – the devastation of the Franco-Prussian war, the siege of Paris and the uprising of the Paris Commune. Tissot remained in Paris during these terrible events, serving as a stretcher-bearer for the National Guard. Two of his paintings depict scenes he witnessed, which have not been seen in public before. The poignant The Wounded Soldier (c.1870) exudes exhaustion and disillusionment, while the shocking Execution of Communards…. (1871) records the mass execution that Tissot witnessed first-hand. This room also displays the wonderful Thames below Westminster (1871) by Monet, where the scumbling technique of soft colours captures the depth and luminosity of the foggy sky – a ‘typical’ Monet.

The next four rooms are intended to elucidate the networks of support and patronage. Room 2 contains mostly Tissot paintings of Victorian high society. However, two paintings hung side-by-side in the Pre-Raphaelite manner are worthy of mention. One is A Huguenot, on St Bartholomew’s Day…. (1851-52) by John Everett Millais and the other, an accolade by Tissot The Farewells (1871). They both address the theme of troubled young lovers, but while in one the couple embrace in the other they are separated by an iron fence.

The centre of the exhibition in Room 3 displays sculpture by Dalou – particularly of Victorian nursing mothers… at which point you may be forgiven for wondering what the Impressionist link is… There is, however, an arresting and very fine portrait of Rodin by Legros.

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Saint Anne's Church at Kew, London, 1892, Oil paint on canvas, Private collection

Room 5, among much else, includes an especial gem, namely Kew Gardens, Rhododendron Dell (1892) by Pissarro – it is absolutely delightful, textually complex and lush. Together with St Anne’s Church at Kew (1892)(above), these two are a must see – they are from a private collection and haven’t been shown in the UK before. Another, very unusual painting – almost abstract rather than impressionist – is Monet's Leicester Square at Night (1901): the cacophony of colour and the violence of the brushstrokes evoke an atmosphere fizzing with crowds and flashing lights.

There is much to see and appreciate in this exhibition but I am unconvinced by the framing ‘themes’, which strike me as rather vague. Notwithstanding, the artworks deserve to be appreciated in their own right – and given the variety, there’s surely something here to suit most tastes.


The Ey Exhibition: Impressionists in London (1870-1904)

Tate Britain, Millbank, London

Showing from: 2 November 2017 - 7 May 2018

For more information CLICK HERE


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