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  • Articles by Sonali

    Exhibition review: Impressionists in London, French Artists in Exile 1870-1904 at Tate Britain

    Winter is here. What better way to beat the grey skies and daylight saving than a display of sun-drenched Impressionist paintings. The arrival of 'Impressionists in London, French Artists in Exile 1870-1904' at Tate Britain would seem perfectly timed, right? Well, sort of.

    The exhibition has stirred up art critics because there are only three actual Impressionists artists represented here. They say the title is misleading. The Impressionist angle is used to pull in the crowds. They’ve got a point. Large swathes of these works (one hundred in total) are by people whom you may never of heard of, let alone associate with the Impressionist movement (painter Alphonse Legros and sculptor Jules Dalou?).

    Fortunately there are some redeeming features. Room 1 gives us a compelling context: a view of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) when French artists fled the Paris war zone and extreme food shortages en masse to London. Claude Monet, penniless at the time, fled from being conscripted. There are paintings and photographs (sepia toned) of the Siege of Paris, a massacre leading to a huge civilian death toll and many monuments being destroyed.

    We’re reminded that the French émigré artists are refugees, giving their story a contemporary resonance. Their experience is comparatively rarefied though. They received sanctuary and support from the artistic community in London, hanging out at the Arts Club, Hanover Square. They were accepted into the Royal Academy displaying works at the Summer Exhibition. We’re told that most of them felt very homesick. A painting entitled Meditation, Mrs Monet Sitting on a Sofa (1871) shows Monet’s wife looking pensive and wistful.

    More importantly they continued to work in London, often painting outdoors ‘en plein air’. Camille Pissarro found refuge in London’s outer suburbs from 1870-1871. He painted South London and its streets - the snow covered streetscape of Fox Hill, Upper Norwood(1870), and the sunny Avenue in Sydenham(1871).

    These are everyday, matter of fact depictions of the landscape. But we also get a sense of the British climate, its light and atmosphere. Pissarro’s painting of Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich (1870) evokes a damp, drizzly London morning. Pissarro returned to Paris as soon he could. He went on to help establish the Impressionist movement in 1874. In truth, his work during his brief exile is a beguiling diversion from the main event.

    They also cast an eye on British culture, looking at traditions from a visitor's perspective. Alfred Sisley paints a windswept scene of the Regatta in Moseley(1874). We see Pissarro’s 'Hampton Court Green' (1891), a cricket pitch on a languidly hot summer day. Tiny brushstrokes of white sunshine highlight the green stretch of lawn. Pissarro and Monet each paint a more dour aspect of British weather: the fog across the River Thames.

    The exhibition's major drawcard is the series of eight ‘fog’ paintings (1900-1904) by Monet. These are displayed together, made when he was in his sixties. He was a successful artist by then (staying at the Savoy), returning to London to repaint a motif from early on in his career. He captures the transition of fog across the Thames, at sunset in glowing shades of pink and purple. The scene is underpinned by the iconic Houses of Parliament building in mauve/black. The juxtaposition of colours and transcendental quality is reminiscent of Mark Rothko's Seagram Murals.

    Monet’s ‘Leicester Square at Night’ 1901 and Pissarro’s ‘Bank Holiday in Kew’1892, both painted in a freer, more energetic style, also point at Abstract Expressionism to follow 150 years later.

    If anything, this exhibition confirms the Impressionists are visionaries, influencing the likes of Rothko, Cy Twombly and Jackson Pollock. Finally, there is a sculpture by Auguste Rodin (of Jean Dalou), which looks so lifelike it might just be breathing . Again, Rodin is associated with the movement, rather than an active part of it. Rodin's extraordinary sculpture and the real Impressionist's charming renditions of London make this exhibition worth a look.

    Houses of Parliament, sunlight effect
    Claude Monet (1840-1926)
    Houses of Parliament, Sunlight Effect 1903
    Oil paint on canvas
    813 x 921 mm
    Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York 

    Impressionist in London, French Artists in Exile 1870-1904 until 7 May 2018


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