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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 8 OCTOBER 2018 —The outbreak of the Franco –Prussian war in July 1870, followed by the siege of Paris when food shortages and bombings were exacerbated by a particularly harsh winter, saw the exodus of many French painters and sculptors who fled to London with their families. Matters escalated with
the Paris Commune the following year, when 20,000 civilians lost their lives.

This fascinating exhibition, Les impressionistes à Londres, Artistes français en éxil, 1870 - 1904, at the Petit Palais presents the little-known story of how Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, Derain, Tissot and the sculptor Carpeaux among others escaped the civil war in France, ushering in a new and exciting art form in the midst of Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian painting in England even if few of their creations sold at the time.

Only Jacques-Joseph Tissot who had been exhibiting in London since 1861, after anglicizing his name to James, made his fortune. An astute businessman as well as being an observant and excellent painter, he adapted his work to suit the tastes of the aristocracy. Works such as Bal sur le pont, and the elegant La Galerie du HMS Calcutta found buyers instantly.

Jacques-Joseph Tissot : Bal sur le pont
Tate / David Lambert

That was far from being the case for Claude Monet, 31 when war broke out. He left his home in Bougival just outside Paris, stored his paintings at Pissarro’s house in nearby Louveciennes, and arrived in the British capital, Europe’s industrial centre, with his wife and son in September of 1870.

Poor and unknown, he was intrigued by the British climate of rain and fog, as well as by the smoke,
steam and smog emitted by the steam boats on the Thames, and fond of nature, he initially divided
his painting time between the river banks and the city’s parks. He chose to paint Hyde Park using a horizontal format giving his work both space and freedom, while the people strolling round the park appear to come from many social classes. But the painting did not sell. Disillusioned, he moved back to France, not returning to England until 1899, when, fame and fortune acquired, he resided at the Savoy Hotel, observing the river Thames and painting Charing Cross Bridge and Waterloo from his bedroom window. He also completed his famous series of the Houses of Parliament, first in sunshine and then in fog paintings reminiscent of his series of the cathedral of Rouen.

Claude Monet: Houses of Parliament
Brooklyn Museum

Intent on capturing the variations of light specific to the meeting of river and sky beside the Houses of Parliament, he commented, "This morning at dawn there was an extraordinary fog, entirely yellow; I believe I’ve rendered a fairly good impression of it".

Several years earlier, in May 1874, Sisley, a British national who spent his entire life in France, had participated with Monet and Pissarro in the Parisian exhibition that gave its name to the Impressionist movement. He subsequently increased his commitment to open air painting in London despite the changeable weather, resulting in a panoramic view of Charing Cross Bridge, a work completed the same year, which was the first of 14 canvases that Sisley painted in England. Le
Barrage de Molesley
followed, painted in bold strokes where one can almost feel the force of the wind and the changing light reflected in the turbulent water. Even the flags seem to be flickering in the wind.

After 1871, Pissarro too, who speaks of how he and Monet were "brimming with enthusiasm" for the landscapes of London, made several visits to Britain where his two sons eventually settled. But sales of his works, including the canvases of Kew Gardens in their light, vivid colours were rare and it wasn’t until he was over sixty that he finally achieved success.

Meanwhile, the sculptor Carpeaux, best known today for La Danse on the façade of the Palais Garnier, the sculpture which caused an immense scandal at its unveiling, headed for England for economic reasons. Deprived of his livelihood during the civil war, he sought commissions in London by exhibiting each year at the Royal Academy and sending his pieces to be auctioned at Christie’s. He produced portraits of famous artists and was successful in selling graceful, decorative works in marble adapted to the tastes of his customers.

But perhaps the most financially successful people at the time were the far-seeing art dealers, Paul Durand–Ruel and Ambroise Vollard, the former supporting many of the artists and opening a gallery on New Bond Street. He later held Pissarro’s first major retrospective in Paris in
1892 when every painting found a buyer.

André Derain: Big Ben 
ADAGP Paris et DACS London / Laurent Lecas

Vollard spotted the young André Derain and in the 1890’s financed the painter’s winter stay in London by commissioning views of the city to echo those of Monet. Derain, whose explosive, colouful works serve as an epilogue for the exhibition, paid homage to the French master by choosing similar subjects along the Thames and in the parks. He offered a radically new vision of
London in the beginning of the 20 th century with his fauvist treatment in such bold canvases as Big Ben, coloured all in blue, completed in 1906, and his controversial Charing Cross Bridge.

Moreover, the influence of such relatively unknown artists including Alphonse Legros and Jules Dalou
who were hired to teach at the best art colleges of the time was enormous. Far from Victorian England being a temporary haven, the exhibition shows that the French artists who initially sought a place of refuge there brought in a new era of fresh air and modernity.

Les impressionists à Londres. Artistes français en exil 1870 -1904. Petit Palais, Paris, until 14th October.

Headline image: Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux: Flore
Calouste gulbenkian Foundation Lisbon / Carlos Azevedo

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque. 

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