Impressionists in London

A new Tate Britain show has some fine works and some that are off-topic, John Westbrooke reports

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The London connection didn’t play a huge part in the lives of French Impressionist painters, and few people know anything about it, so Tate Britain’s latest exhibition is a welcome insight – even if a lot of it doesn’t seem to fulfil the brief.

To start near the end: the high point of the show is a magnificent room full of Monet’s paintings of the Thames, borrowed from collections in the US and Europe. Two of them feature Charing Cross bridge, and six more are studies of the Houses of Parliament, all painted barely a mile from the Tate.

He went back and back to the subject, sometimes with many paintings on the go at once, seeking to capture changes in light and colour as the city’s notorious fogs enveloped it – a challenge he seldom faced in France. He was particularly keen to get the sun sinking in the west over Parliament, as form vanishes into mist. He got it just right, he thought, in “Houses of Parliament, effect of sunlight in the fog” in 1904: it’s hung here, but really, you could die happy with any of the paintings in the room.

To go back to the start of the story decades earlier: in 1870, France rashly declared war on Prussia (which next year became the major partner in the new country of Germany). It went calamitously. Napoleon III was deposed. Paris was besieged for three months; citizens ate zoo animals or, failing that, rats.

Next year, an angry popular movement, the Paris Commune, seized control of the capital. The French army had better luck fighting their own countrymen: Paris was left in ruins and 20,000 people died. Artists were among the many who fled.

The first room documents the devastation. Artists who stayed painted what they saw: Doré a nun saving a child, Tissot (who was a stretcher-bearer) the execution of Communards. A guidebook to the ruins was published: the finance ministry, it noted, was a mediocre building but a superb ruin.

Some headed for London. Camille Pissarro made the streets of south London suburbia, even the Lordship Lane train, look picturesque. Alfred Sisley’s subjects included the Hampton Court bridge (locals thought it ugly, but Impressionists never shrank from depicting the new). As well as meeting his future dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, for the first time, Monet painted a rural-looking Hyde Park: people are strolling on the grass in very un-French fashion. Some of these paintings are drably coloured: maybe the artists weren’t happy in exile, but maybe it was just the London weather.

At this point, though, the exhibition has already left its title – “Impressionists in London, French Artists in Exile” – behind. Sisley, for instance, didn’t arrive in Britain until 1874, well after the war, which had bankrupted his family. (On a later trip, he married in Cardiff in 1897.) And the most intriguing works by Pissarro and Monet also came on subsequent working visits, not exiles at all.

Pissarro painted bank holiday crowds at Kew, and even cricket, a game he came to love. Sisley portrayed the regatta at Molesey. Tissot painted a garden party in St John’s Wood, with young folk flirting as their elders sleep. No longer war refugees, the painters seem to be enjoying social activity. They all painted Charing Cross bridge.

Tissot gets a room of his own with his pleasantly frothy society portraits. He too arrived after the war was over, and wasn’t an Impressionist. The British always mistrusted him, suspecting he was poking fun at them. Maybe he was: his depictions of Empress Eugénie (a real exile) and the Princess of Wales may be properly flattering, but he is also represented by “Too Early”, showing people who have embarrassingly turned up too soon for a ball and are hanging around, nervous or bored, the women dressed up like wedding cakes, while the servants peek round the door in amusement.

There are a great many minor artists here – ironically, they were the ones who got the most work in Britain. Alphonse Legros taught at the Slade, Jules Dalou was an able sculptor and apparently a good teacher, but they weren’t Impressionists and only devotees will have heard of them. James Whistler really was a fine painter, and his three beautiful Nocturnes on display could just about be called Impressionist (like Tissot, he’d been invited to exhibit with the group but refused). But he wasn’t French and, having been in London off and on since the 1840s, he wasn’t in exile either.

The final artist on show, André Derain, wasn’t even born until 1880, though his 1906 paintings were at least a response to the those of the Impressionists who’d come before him. (Yes, there’s one of Charing Cross bridge.) There are some dazzling paintings here, but with Dérain’s, as with so many others, you wonder if they’re doing quite what it says on the tin.

Impressionists in London, French Artists in Exile 1870 – 1904, runs at Tate Britain until 7 May 2018. Adults £17.70, seniors £16.70, under 12s free; family tickets available.