Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is a revelation and a treat. Valloton made lots of immensely pleasing, teasing, entertaining, beautiful and slightly puzzling images, enough to make it hard to leave the show. Normally I have half a dozen highlights from an exhibition, but I wanted to take twenty or thirty of Vallotton’s images away with me, wanted to be able to revisit them regularly, especially the woodcuts, and so I bought the catalogue (which is currently selling at the knock-down price of £12.50).

The exhibition is in six rooms so, rather than reinvent the wheel, I might as well follow the academy’s structure, with comments and observations along the way.

Early works

Félix Vallotton was born in 1865 into a Swiss Protestant family in Lausanne. At 16 he headed off for Paris, the art capital of the world, where he showed prodigious talent. He rejected studying at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and enrolled in the more informal Academie Julian. His early works are realistic and figurative in a way which completely ignored the avant-garde of the day, the (by now) prevailing style of Impressionism, or the various post-Impressionist styles which were on the horizon. From the start he went his own way, and his style right to the end would be realistic and, in many ways, deeply conservative. (Note, by the way, the large plain background to this confident self portrait; we’ll come back to it later…)

Self-portrait at the age of twenty (1885) by Félix Vallotton. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne. Photo © Nora Rupp

The early Nabis years

The Nabis was a group of French painters who rejected Impressionism in favour of lofty spiritual goals, and were more aligned with the late-nineteenth century movement of Symbolism.

The Nabis (from the Hebrew and Arabic term for ‘prophets’) were a Symbolist, cult-like group founded by Paul Sérusier, who organized his friends into a secret society. Wanting to be in touch with a higher power, this group felt that the artist could serve as a ‘high priest’ and ‘seer’ with the power to reveal the invisible. The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. While the works of the Nabis differed in subject matter from one another, they all ascribed to certain formal tenets – for example, the idea that a painting was a harmonious grouping of lines and colors. (from the Art Story website)

The Nabis’ most famous members were Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Valloton became involved with the Nabis in the early 1890s and their ideas produced a dramatic change in his style, as he experimented with non-naturalistic ways of playing with colour, pattern and form to try and convey the higher spiritual ideas the Nabis aspired to. Some of these are wonderful, for example an exquisite small stylised painting of a beach by moonlight, and a highly experimental painting of Parisians ice skating to waltz music, their gyrations throwing up sparkly fragments of ice which shimmer with multiple colours.

Waltz by Félix Vallotton (1893) Musée d’art moderne André-Malraux (MuMa), Le Havre, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By far the oddest of these paintings is Bathing on a summer evening which combines all kinds of influences (from Old Master bathing scenes to the Pointillism of his contemporary Seurat, and maybe something of the naive style of Le Douanier Rousseau) to produce something very strange and ‘modern’. The curators point out the influence on many artists of this time of classic Japanese prints, which liberated Western painters from Renaissance perspective and helped them rethink the picture plane as a flat arrangement of lines and blocks of colours.

Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-93) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

However, as the exhibition progresses you realise that early works like this are the exception rather than the rule. Or maybe that they were stepping stones towards his more mature and rather mysterious style. The oddity and ‘spiritual’ aspect of these Nabis works (if that’s what it is) become subsumed into a return to realism, but of a highly stylised variety.

Woodcuts

Valloton began making woodcuts in 1891 and quickly became an acknowledged expert in the medium, which was undergoing a revival across Europe. Changes in printing technology led in the 1880s and especially 1890s to a proliferation of illustrated journals and magazines.

(It was the proliferation of literary and popular magazines in London which led to the market for, and sudden florescence of, brilliant short fiction commissioned from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. And in fact, Vallotton was also a writer, producing three novels and eight plays. He was also heavily involved in the theatre, designed stage sets, took photographs and made sculpture. In his best-known novel, The Murderous Life, the protagonist, Jacques Verdier, has a power which causes everyone in his path to die in a tragic accident. Vallotton illustrated the novel himself in the darkly humorous style of his woodcuts. All this is reminiscent of the black humour of exactly contemporary  English works like The Picture of Dorian Grey or of Aubrey Beardsley’s black and white prints.)

Valloton turned out to have a gift for woodcut as a form, being able to produce images which were entertaining, troubling, moody, artistic or humorous, as required. He became principal illustrator for the influential journal La Revue Blanche and, as such, came into contact with and befriended many of Paris’s artistic, musical and literary élite – Mallarmé, Debussy, Proust, Satie and so on.

‘This newcomer, who is not a beginner, engraved on blocks of soft pearwood various scenes of contemporary life with the candour of a sixteenth-century woodcut.’ (French critic Octave Uzanne describing Vallotton’s exceptional talent for printmaking)

The exhibition contains some forty of Vallotton’s woodcuts, arranged by series.

Paris life

I can’t find a figure for how many illustrations he created for La Revue Blanche but presumably it was lots. Included here are all kinds of street scenes including crowds caught in downpours and rioters attacking the police, schoolgirls laughing, swans in the park, a sudden downpour of rain, and so on. My favourite was a beautifully clear and precise image of a naked woman lying on her front on a highly patterned coverlet and reaching out to scratch a cat, titled Laziness.

Laziness (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Musicians

The Musicians series shows starchy Victorian ladies and gents playing the violin or piano or trumpet. The one that caught my eye was a man playing the flute but keeping a wary eye on a cat which looks like it’s about to pounce on him or his sheet music.

The Flute (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Worlds Fair

There’s a series of six woodcuts on the subject of the 1900 Paris World Fair, showing visitors gawping at jewels, having a picnic lunch, caught in a sudden rain shower, a recreation of a street scene in Algiers, a footbridge between displays, and, finally, a vivid woodcut depicting fireworks. All these illustrations are wonderfully vivid and characterful and fascinating social history.

Intimacies

Most famous is the series of ten graphic woodcuts he titled Intimacies. These portray the sexual mores of Parisians, and the moral and psychological intensity of late-Victorian affairs. Each one shows a scene fraught with sexual or psychological tension (I say ‘sexual’ – there’s no nudity; everything is implied).

Below is maybe the most striking and intriguing one, Money. What money, where? Is the man handing her money (doesn’t look like it) or offering her money verbally? For what? Sex? To buy her silence? Is she his mistress? Or an unhappy wife?

The curators point out Valloton’s striking use of black. It’s simple but extremely effective to have about two-thirds of the image, the whole right side, jet black. Thus the man doesn’t stand against a backdrop or shadow, but emerges out of the blackness. He is part of the blackness. All the others in the Intimacies series are just as strange and teasing and suggest complex psychodramas on which we are eavesdropping.

Intimacies V: Money (1898) by Félix Vallotton © Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques

Vallotton’s extensive experience churning out woodcuts recording and satirising contemporary Paris life, fed over into his paintings. During this period they stopped being either the rather stiff portraits and still lifes of his first years in Paris, or the experimental paintings mentioned above like the Waltzers or Bathers, and became more like accompaniments in paint  of the contemporary social themes he was depicting in the woodcuts. Especially the Intimacies theme of the complexity of male-female relations, the complex lies and deceptions of the Paris bourgeoisie as they go about their affairs and infidelities. One is titled Five O’Clock which, we learn from the wall label, was the time of day when the Parisian bourgeois left their offices and went to visit their mistresses for an hour of pleasure, before returning home to their wives and families. Another shows a naked woman curled up in a very red chair, in a sort of defensive or foetal posture. You can’t help asking why. Has something bad happened to her, has she received good or bad news, or is it her usual comforting position?

Uncertainties

This is the theme or feeling which is present in his earlier paintings but comes more and more to the fore during the 1890s – which is that, although his technique remained pretty conservative (especially if you consider what was happening around him in Paris, with Picasso and Matisse just over the horizon), nonetheless, there is a very modern sense of unease and ambiguity about his paintings from the 1890s.

A good example is The Visit from 1899. Three points: 1. What is going on in this painting? Has she just arrived? Are they dancing? Or is he pushing her towards the open door at the left which we can assume leads into a bedroom? So is it an illicit visit from a mistress?

The Visit (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

2. Note the bold colours. This is what Valloton had in common with the other Nabis: it’s a figurative scene alright, but all the colours are too overbright and simplified. It is this overlit colouring which creates the unsettling mood as much as the composition.

3. As are the faces. You can see the influence of all those hundreds of popular woodcuts, which required often cartoon-like simplicity of faces, spilling over into a simplification of the faces and indeed the outlines of the bodies in his paintings. It’s a painting of a real scene but all done with overbright simplifications of colour and outline which bring to mind, say, the style of American painter Edward Hopper. The clothes and decor have changed but the mood of lassitude or ambiguity, the troubled atmosphere between a man and a woman, are very similiar and above all, conveyed by simplifying the shape and colour of the figures, and leaving their faces blurred and shadowed.

Room in New York by Edward Hopper (1932)

Marriage

In 1899 Valloton dumped the Bohemian mistress he had lived with during the 1890s, and married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. This was an excellent career move in two ways. 1. She was the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim, one of the most successful art dealers in Europe, and her brothers still ran the immensely successful art dealership. 2. She was rich.

At a stroke Vallotton moved from a garret studio with a mistress into a grand city house with a wife and step-children. He entertained. He became a good bourgeois and family man.

And his style changed, too. For a start he stopped making the woodcuts which had provided his livelihood during the 1890s, and ceased working for La Revue Blanche. Freed from financial worries he concentrated all his energies on painting.

A lot of these new paintings feature his wife, in a variety of respectable family poses, on the family sofa, or at the family dinner table. These portraits show the enduring influence on him of one of his heroes, Ingres, the painter of crystal-clear nudes and women’s faces.

But alongside these respectable paintings are others, also apparently sensible and polite, which nonetheless exude a strange unease and sense of foreboding. It is as if the psychological tensions he had investigated so ably in the Intimacies woodcuts has been driven underground to become merely implicit, barely implicit, only just noticeable.

The curators single out one particular painting from this period, The Ball, which shows a little girl in a garden chasing after a ball. What could be more innocent? And yet, when you look at it in the flesh, there is something very eerie about the way the shadow is creeping across the grass from the left and onto the gravel drive – almost as if it’s reaching out for her. And the darker shadows lurking at the bottom of the shrubbery above the girl. And something a little uncanny about the two figures in the distance…

The Ball (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Musée d’Orsay

This unsettling effect is much more obvious in a brilliant painting titled simply The Pond. A realistic painting of a pond, what could be more plain and simple? And yet (once again, more in the flesh than in this flat reproduction) once you’ve noticed the way the blackness of the pond water is seeping weirdly towards you, it’s impossible not to be a little worried by it. It’s like a still from the Disney film Fantasia, it looks like the shadow of the mountain coming to life, with big devil’s horns, rearing towards you…

The Pond (1909) by Félix Vallotton

Nudes

Also, from about 1904 onwards, alongside the many fully clothed and respectable portraits of his wife and step-children, Valloton began to focus his energies on the nude, the female nude.

If you realise that Picasso and Matisse were just launching their careers at just this time, it is astonishing just how conservative and traditional Valloton’s style was. If you do a quick google search of Félix Vallotton+nude it is astonishing to discover that he did so many of them.

Many of the nudes explicitly refer to the great tradition of Old Masters from his favourite, Ingres, through to Manet’s Olympia. In all of them there is a cold, detached, calculating air. The largest of the half dozen or so on display here is the wonderful White Woman and Black Woman of 1913.

White Woman and Black Woman (1913) by Félix Vallotton © Fondation Hahnloser, Winterthour

  1. The clarity There is hardly any shadow in the room. Everything is depicted in the exact crystalline light of Ingres.
  2. The technical virtuosity Look at him show off his ability to paint folds of cloth, one of the litmus tests of the Old Masters stretching back to Titian.
  3. Psychology In the Olympia of Manet the fully clothed black servant is bringing flowers to the naked prostitute Olympia, very obviously serving her. But what on earth is the relationship here, between the black woman who’s very casually dressed and – for God’s sake – smoking a fag!? All kinds of speculation is possible, the curators’ favourite one being that they are lesbian lovers, but it looks much more complex and weird than that.
  4. The nude The depiction of the white woman’s naked body is quite simply stunning. It is a masterwork in the depiction of fleshtones, and the way they vary across the naked body, rising towards her flushed red cheeks. Why are her cheeks flushed and red?

You remember me pointing out about the first painting in this review, how the background is a flat, bare wash? Well, same here. Once I’d processed the lavish sensual appeal of the naked body in this painting, and then wondered about the relationship between the two figures, than I turned to consider a third level or avenue of approach, which is to see it purely as a composition of colours – and surely the most striking thing is the huge size of the aquamarine wall behind both figures. Against which is set the black woman’s brilliant orange headscarf. And then her bright blue wrap, for sure. If it is a virtuoso display of folds and shadows in fabric, it is also, on another level, an exercise in big blocks of colour. Once I’d noticed this fondness for slabs of colour, I began to notice it in many of his paintings, and also link it up with his decisive use of solid black in the woodcuts. It’s an entire visual approach to see things as blocks rather than broken up into the multitude of details.

Landscapes

In 1909, alongside his prodigious output of nudes, Valloton turned his attention to landscapes. As with so many of his earlier depictions of people, these were done in a simplified style which often brought out the basic shapes underlying messy nature and, as with the nude above, done in primary or elemental colours.

A good example is The Pond, above, with its radical simplification of pond, grass, shrubs and trees to create an almost cartoon-like image.

He called them composed landscapes. He had taken to using a box camera at the turn of the century and now it became a habit to take photos of a scene and then use that, once developed, to paint the scene from the simplified (black and white) photo and from memory. He dreamed, he said, ‘of a painting free from any literal respect for nature.’

The result was landscapes reduced to broad ‘zones’ or shapes of colour which recall the simplifications of the woodblock. And also hark back to the principles of the Nabis from a decade or more earlier, the idea that art needn’t be realistic, but was more a matter of finding the colours and patterns which replicated your inner feelings.

A late landscape which really got me was Last Rays painted at Honfleur where Vallotton spent many of his summers and where he made several versions of this scene of umbrella pine trees overlooking the Bay of the Seine. In its simplification and strong sense of design it subtly references the clarity of the Japanese prints which had so influenced him in the 1890s.

Last Rays (1911) by Félix Vallotton © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

A conventional artist?

But, also, looking round any of the rooms, I kept being amazed at how… conventional Vallottin is. It’s as if Impressionism or any other modern art movement had never happened. Towards the end of the exhibition, I began to realise why I’d never heard of Félix Vallotton before – because he stands so totally outside the classic narrative of Modern Art, and its core lineage from Impressionism thru Post-Impressionism, to the eruption of Picasso and Matisse, and then into Cubism, Futurism etc etc.

None of this seems to have had any impact on Vallotton, and if you look at his Wikipedia article, you do get the impression that many if not most of his paintings can be read as utterly traditional and ‘straight’.

Which set me wondering whether the curator’s attempt to rebrand Vallotton as the painter of ‘unease’ quite stacks up. There’s nothing particularly uneasy about the trees at sunset above, nor about many of the nudes which are just skillful paintings of naked women, often in not very flattering postures, but depicted with beautiful fluency.

Maybe it would be impossible just to stage an exhibition of Vallotton’s work ‘cold’ as it were; maybe it would come across as too conventional and, possibly, in some cases, kitsch, as reworkings of Ingres-style nudes and Flemish-style still lifes being painted in the 1910s.

Maybe the curators had to find an angle, some kind of modernist theme, to make him appear edgy and relevant.

The Great War

Then the Great War broke out. Vallotton was swept up in the patriotic fervour (he had become a French citizen in 1900) but was dismayed to discover he was too old (49) to enlist. Interestingly, the war sparked the decision to create a new series of woodcuts, a genre he hadn’t touched since 1900. Maybe he associated the woodcut with journalism, with the immediate depiction of a society’s life, with the everyday activities of its citizens, and so with the journalistic immediacy of the war and its horrors. In fact the images were copied from newspaper photos or articles before he worked them up into woodcuts.

The result was a series of six woodcuts, collectively titled This is War! and consisting of: The Trench, The Orgy (being a piss-up in a wine cellar), Barbed wire, In the Darkness, the Lookout, and The Civilians.

The Trench (1915) by Félix Vallotton © Bibliothèque de Lausanne – Cabinet de gravures et xylogravures

In their stylised simplification, all six are cartoon-like and almost comic. They remind me a little of the Great War cartoons of William Heath-Robinson. They certainly evince the kind of visual humour which characterised the woodcuts of the 1890s and which largely disappeared from his paintings after 1900. It’s interesting to think that it was there all along, this impish humour, but that he had consciously suppressed it in order to become ‘a serious artist’.

In 1917 Vallotton managed to secure a government commission to tour the trenches in the Champagne region, which led to paintings of the battlefields of Verdun, of ruined churches behind the lines and so on.

Haunted realism

In line with the curator’s thesis that Vallotton is the painter of quiet unease, they end with an image which combines everything we’ve learned so far. It is an astonishingly realistic depiction of peppers on a plate, summarising his prodigious gift as a draughtsman and colorist, and his reverence for the naturalistic tradition of the Old Masters. (Also, I note, the blank slablike colouring of the neutral background.)

But this dazzling work of photorealism was painted during the appalling blood-letting of the Great War, and the curators draw our attention to the knife. Nothing in the picture justifies the way the knife blade is half covered in something red. Is it blood, symbolising the immense bloodletting going on all across the once peaceful civilised continent of Europe? Or just a reflection of the peppers next to it?

Red Peppers (1915) by Félix Vallotton. Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller Foundation. Photo © SIK-ISEA, Zurich

Disquiet or not?

Let’s weight the evidence.

The popular illustrative woodblocks he made for La Revue Blanche don’t display a trace of ‘disquiet’, they’re entertaining and very straightforward pictures of Parisians in parks or rain showers or at the Worlds Fair. But the Intimacies series of woodcuts are all about bourgeois guilt, hypocrisy and unease.

Some of the landscapes are just simplified landscapes stylised in the way he had made his own. But others, yes, some of the others are strange and a little… disconcerting.

And many of the paintings made during the 1890s definitely depict fully-dressed bourgeois couples in ambiguous situations. Or single individuals in rather… puzzling moods.

Of the half dozen nudes here, most are just paintings of women without their clothes on, highlighting the way women’s tummies or boobs can hang very unromantically downwards if they’re lying on their sides. But some of them hint at something a little more… mysterious and teasing…

So are the curators justified in labelling Vallotton ‘the painter of disquiet’? It’s hard to say. You’d have to review all 70 or so works on display here with this thesis in mind: maybe… And then are you allowed to review the rest of his works which are readily available online and most of which seem remarkably… un-disquieting…

All I can say with certainty is that this exhibition is a revelation of a painter I’d never heard of before – whose woodcuts are entertaining, charming and evocative – and whose range of paintings, from mysterious interiors to stunningly accurate nudes, through to the entrancing simplicity of the ‘composed landscapes’, from family portraits to slightly unnerving still lives – present an array of accessible, attractive, memorable and subtly haunting images. Wow. Very enjoyable. Well worth the price of admission.

Promotional video

Curators

Senior Curator – Ann Dumas,  Assistant Curator – Anna Testar.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne @ the National Gallery

Samuel Courtauld (1876 – 1947) was rich. He was born into the Courtauld family, which, over several generations, had built up a successful fabric company based in Essex. After a good education and trips abroad to study the business, Courtauld took over as general manager in 1908, and then served as chairman from 1921 to 1946. Under his guidance the firm developed and marketed rayon, an artificial fibre and inexpensive silk substitute, growing into a major international company.

Courtauld became interested in art after seeing the Hugh Lane collection on exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1917. However, his career as a collector only started in 1922 following an exhibition of French art at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. He was particularly taken with the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, which were still viewed with suspicion in Britain, even in the art establishment. On seeing a Cézanne, he said:

At that moment I felt the magic, and I have felt it in Cézanne’s work ever since.

He decided to become a full time collector and, during the 1920s Courtauld created two collections in parallel:

  1. in 1923 he created a fund, the Courtauld Fund, of £50,000 to acquire modern French paintings for the National Gallery, which worked through a board of trustees and a network of dealers
  2. at the same time, he also bought works for his own private collection which eventually grew to more than seventy works

This latter set, he displayed at the London house he rented for the purpose, Home House, 20 Portman Square.

Courtauld had always shared his passion with his wife, Elizabeth and when she died in 1931, his interest in collecting waned. However, the experience had shown him that there was a need for sophisticated modern art scholarship, and so he worked with other sponsors and partners to found the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1932.

The Courtauld, as it is generally referred to, went from strength to strength. It is now among the most prestigious institutions in the world for the study of the history of art and conservation, and well known for the disproportionate number of directors of major museums drawn from its small body of alumni.

The Institute houses the Courtauld Gallery which is like a miniature version of the National Gallery, showcasing masterpieces of Western art from medieval times until the turn of the 20th century. Ever since its inception the Gallery has been renowned for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings which Samuel Courtauld gave to it 85 years ago.

In autumn 2018 the Courtauld Gallery closed for a major refurbishment. What to do with its priceless art works? It occurred to someone to reunite the French paintings Courtauld gave to his Institute, with the works by the same masters which his trust acquired for the National Gallery back in the 1920s.

Hence this exhibition. Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne brings together the 26 French masterpieces from the Courtauld Gallery and reunites them with the paintings acquired for the National Trust by the Courtauld Trust back in the 1920s.

The result is three large gallery rooms displaying forty three paintings by twelve master of the period in straightforward chronological order. The artists are:

  1. Daumier
  2. Manet
  3. Monet
  4. Renoir
  5. Pissarro
  6. Seurat
  7. Cézanne
  8. Bonnard
  9. Toulouse-Lautrec
  10. Gauguin
  11. Van Gogh

The exhibition tells two stories at the same time. On the surface this is yet another excuse (or opportunity) to trace the epoch-defining development of French painting from the 1860s to the 1900s, with lengthy wall labels about each of the twelve artists, and how they contributed to Impressionism and what became known, rather unsatisfactorily, as post-Impressionism – and then a wall label for each painting, telling us about the subject matter and treatment.

But each of the wall labels, and the audioguide, also give the stories behind Courtauld’s purchases of each of the paintings. These are sometimes convoluted, often expensive, and sometimes funny. It was intriguing to learn that Vollard, the famous art collector and dealer, who had had his portrait done by Renoir, Pissarro and others, actively wished a representation of himself to be displayed in Britain and so encouraged Courtauld to buy Renoir’s portrait of him. It cost Courtauld a whopping 800,000 francs.

Other anecdotes include the fact that the sketch of Manet’s famous Dejeuner sur l’herbe set him back £10,000, and that Courtauld bought van Gogh’s searing painting of a wheatfield for a mere £3,300, a lot of money at the time – but think what it would fetch now!

Money and philistinism

Although the curators prefer to think of this as a story about Cortauld’s ‘visionary and extraordinarily generous’ approach to art, it is also a story about money. The power of money, the necessity of money, the unavoidable imbrecation of art and money.

And peeping through the chinks in this mostly positive account of one man’s taste, drive and generosity – there is another story about the staggering philistinism of the British. It really is worth reflecting that, in the 1920s and into the 1930s, major British art institutes chose not to buy Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art because they didn’t think it was proper painting.

What barbarism! What philistinism! (That, in case you didn’t realise it, is why so much Modern French art ended up in America; rich Yanks snapped up works which the hoity-toity Brits turned their noses up at).

It is shaming to learn that the National Gallery refused, twice, to buy Degas’s masterpiece Young Spartans Exercising. Courtauld bought it and only 15 years later was it bequested to the National who had, at last, grasped its importance.

Similarly, it is appalling to learn that when the Cézanne self-portrait which Courtauld had acquired was first publicly displayed, in 1934, it had to be glazed to protect it from any attempts to deface and vandalise it!

Greatest hits

The exhibition includes some of the absolute all-time high points of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, including La Loge by Renoir, Young Spartans Exercising by Degas, Seurat’s immense Bathers at Asnières, Cézanne’s Card PlayersTe Rerioa by Paul Gauguin

Personal favourites

From this treasury, I emerged liking four paintings in particular. This Degas painting of a woman at a window has always been tucked away in a corner when I’ve seen it at the Courtauld Gallery. This has added to its sense of mystery. But what I mainly like about it is the unfinished, dark obscurity of the image. In general, like strong defining black lines, disegno, outlines – and here you can feel Degas’s draughtsmanship performing an piece of magic – caught in the act of making a woman of flesh appear from a sequence of lines and dark colours. Next to it is a classic painting of two ballet dancers on stage, prettier, more finished. But for me, Woman at a window has always had atmosphere.

Woman at a Window (1871-72) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Woman at a Window (1871-72) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Talking of pairs, take the corner of the room where the Manet section ends and the Monet section begins. The Monets include a wonderfully light luminescent view of the River Seine titled Autumn Effect at Argenteuil. (Like most Monets it looks far better seen from across the room; the further away the more luminous it becomes.)

Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873) by Claude Monet © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873) by Claude Monet © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Famous though they are, I didn’t like the handful of other Manets on show here. They confirmed my feeling that I don’t like Manet that much, I really do find his paintings scrappy and unfinished, often with errors of draughtsmanship and perspective which annoy me.

Except for this view of the Seine which he painted around the time he got to know Monet and had gone to stay with him at his Seine-side house. Here you can see Manet copying Monet’s use of broken brushstrokes and light, airy palette. But what I like Manet’s river study, why I prefer it to Monet’s, is the intensity of the black – in the ribbon round the woman’s hat, in the shadow of the boats – and the deepness and richness of the blue tone he’s used for the river water, darker, fuller, richer than the light frolicsome Monet. For me, this makes the picture much more biting, punchy, virile.

Which one do you prefer?

Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874) by Edouard Manet, on loan to The Courtauld Gallery from a private collection © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874) by Edouard Manet, on loan to The Courtauld Gallery from a private collection © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Having established that I like strong blacks, it was no surprise to me that I kept returning to Renoir’s La Loge i.e. the box at the theatre.

In reviews of other Impressionist exhibitions, and books, I’ve already pointed out that it seems to me Renoir established a ‘look’, a style, a brand, early on and stuck to it for most of his career (until, admittedly, he drastically changed in the last decade of his life).

The commentary gives a sophisticated analysis of the picture. It explains that a Paris theatre box was a place to see and be seen. It explains that the woman is on show, knows she is on show, is looking straight at us, putting us right there, maybe in a box opposite, an effect subtly reinforced by the way a) her male companion is busy scanning the crowd with opera glasses, maybe looking for another beautiful woman to ogle at (as we, it is implied, as observing this one) and b) the way the details at the periphery (her hands, the edge of the box) are blurred as if we are looking at her through opera glasses, which blur the edge of vision.

All this is true, but I just like the pattern of her dress, the strong black and white lines – and above all, the porcelain beauty of the woman’s face, pale and perfect. It took me a while to realise that this is because her face is the only part of the composition which is painted smoothly and with great finish – everything else is blurred and unsettling to look at. Whichever detail you zero in on, you end up being pushed back to her perfect face as a point of rest. I find it hypnotic.

The Theatre Box (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

The Theatre Box (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

The three Gauguin paintings on display are important but don’t quite do it for me. I like Gauguin but, for all the talk of the exotic South Seas, the selection here was surprisingly drab, dominated by a worn out brown colour. (Poor Bonnard had a little section next to Gauguin and van Gogh; his two works were knocked completely into the shade by them).

No, the masterpiece of the final room is A Wheatfield, with Cypresses by Vincent van Gogh. Whereas reproductions tend to improve Monet’s Impressionist works (often a bit scrappy when seen close-up), no reproduction can convey the extraordinary turmoil and rhythm and energy of this van Gogh.

It is a revelation, a masterpiece which, for me, towers above all the other masterpieces on show. Being able to go right up to the surface and investigate the complex technique of whirls and splashes of thick oil van Gogh used to create the impression of tumult and dynamism is worth the price of admission by itself. It really is. The closer you get, the more you can see the gaps in the swirling brushstrokes and the raw canvas beneath, can see the way the red blodges at the bottom have been added to the already thick layers of paint to convey poppies. But the extravagance of the impasto, the thick layers of paint used, only adds to the tremendous emotionality of the picture. Viewed in a smoother-out reproduction (as below) it is great, but viewed in the flesh, close-up, it is like being struck by lightning.

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses (1889) by Vincent van Gogh by the Courtauld Fund, 1923 © The National Gallery, London

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses (1889) by Vincent van Gogh by the Courtauld Fund, 1923
© The National Gallery, London

A mystery

You exit the three big gallery rooms which contain these masterpieces into the shop (fridge magnets, books, tote bags etc) and then into room 41, another big National gallery room. This one follows on naturally from the subject matter of the previous exhibition with works by Monet and van Gogh among other turn of the century French artists and then….

You notice that no fewer than eight of the paintings in this room have a label next to them indicating that they, too, were collected by the Courtauld Trust and donated to the National Gallery. They should, in other words, be included in the exhibition. Why aren’t they?

Lack of space? But surely the existing 40 or so paintings could have been shuffled up a bit… or display panels could have been erected in the middle of the rooms, as I’ve seen done at countless exhibitions.

The paintings which are part of the Courtauld bequest but are not included in the Courtauld exhibition include a Monet waterlilies, a view of the St Lazare station in Paris, and van Gogh’s Sunflowers (bought by the Courtauld Fund, 1924) and van Gogh’s chair (bought by the Courtauld Fund, 1924).

If the exhibition aims to bring together all the Courtauld’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works in one place… these should without doubt have been included in the exhibition.

Maybe… maybe they’re too famous. Over six million people visit the National Gallery every year. These paintings are among the most popular attractions. Maybe the National Gallery is forbidden to make people pay to see them. Or maybe it was just discretion on the part of the curators, knowing that many people might make the pilgrimage down to London, or from abroad, many to see these treasures… and then be pretty disgruntled to discover they had to pay to see them.

Maybe displaying eight painting which Courtauld bought for the nation outside an exhibition about paintings which Courtauld bought for the nation, was the only solution.

Van Gogh's chair by Vincent van Gogh. Not in the Courtauld Impressionist exhibition, but free to see at the National gallery

Van Gogh’s chair by Vincent van Gogh. Not in the Courtauld Impressionist exhibition, but free to see anytime at the National Gallery

Video

Exhibition curator Anne Robbins talks us through two pivotal works bought by Courtauld, including Manet’s last great masterpiece, ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’.


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Press reviews

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe (2006)

‘What a fate! To be handed over to writers’ –
Edgar Degas on reading a biography of his friend Édouard Manet

Well, they’re not very private now – the ‘private lives of the Impressionists’, their friends, relatives, spouses and lovers, are nowadays the stuff of a multi-million dollar industry in books, biographies, catalogues and conferences.

Roe’s group biography of the Impressionists is an easy-going, highly enjoyable tour through the lives of the group of “artistic rebels who changed the face of western art” etc etc.

History Some of her historical background is a bit shaky (she says France beat Russia in 1854 whereas the Crimean War to which she’s presumably referring, ended only in 1856; she claims Napoleon Bonaparte ‘threw out the republicans and restored the empire’ in 1830, whereas Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821; it was his nephew, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who restored the Empire, and not until 1852; she scoots through the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune of 1870-71, strewing shaky generalisations along the way).

Gossip Disconcerting though these errors are, they needn’t worry us too much. The heart of the book is a really absorbing, gossipy account of how much in each others’ pockets Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and the rest lived and worked. The Salon system of the 1860s, the developing art market of the 1870s, the role of Durand-Ruel in sponsoring and buying up their works, the art schools they attended, the apartments they rented, their wives and children, the affairs and lovers – it’s all here in fascinating detail.

Roe gives a good account of the organisation and build-up to the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. I had no idea that they set up a joint stock company, signed legally binding contracts, agreeing to share the profits and so on, naming themselves ‘the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc’. At this first exhibition, thirty artists displayed 165 works at the photographer Nadar’s former studio, at 35 Boulevard des Capucines.

Roe gives an entertaining summary of the contemptuous reviews the show received, helping you to understand the objections of contemporaries who genuinely didn’t understand what these impudent daubers were trying to do. It was the scathing review by Louis Leroy in the satirical magazine Le Charivari that first mentioned the word ‘impressionist’, a term they themselves didn’t use in the early years.

Roe’s brisk journalistic approach to how and why the scandal was caused is, like the rest of the book, hugely enjoyable to read.

After retiring to lick their wounds after the generally harsh reviews, the group came back in March the next year (1875) with the idea of holding an auction at the Hôtel Drouot auction rooms, but this turned out even worse. Primed by the press to ridicule, the crowd mostly jeered and catcalled as the paintings were displayed, some deliberately upside down.

When the first of Berthe Morisot’s paintings was held up someone yelled out ‘Whore’, and Pissarro strode through the crowd and punched the man in the face. Worse was the ferocious review of the show written by the hottest art critic in town, the Albert Wolff (himself an odd figure, with the habit of wearing a corset and make-up and mincing through Paris’s fashionable hotels). Roe quotes it at magnificently malicious length:

The impression the impressionists create is that of a cat walking across the keys of a piano, or a monkey with a box of paints. (Critic Albert Wolff, writing in Figaro, quoted page 141)

Artists and issues

Monet tried to kill himself by jumping in the Seine in 1868. This was a rare moment of weakness in a man who was the most successful of the Impressionists partly because he was the most determined and money-minded. That said, I was genuinely shocked by the poverty Monet endured in the later 1870s, living in misery with his long-suffering wife Camille and a brood of demanding children, making repeated trips to Paris where nobody would buy his work and firing off hundreds of begging letters to friends, possible patrons or collectors. A big section late in the book is devoted to Monet’s extreme suffering which climaxed with the lingering illness and death of his poor wife, Camille (1879).

One of his most promising patrons was the millionaire department store magnate, Ernest Hoschedé, and a major strand in the book describes how Hoschedé managed to fritter away the vast fortune he inherited, eventually going bankrupt and moving, along with his wife and children, into Monet’s own troubled household in 1877. What a household it must have been!

And no one expected that, after Camille passed away, Hoschedé’s wife, Alice, would end up falling in love with Monet. It appears to have taken all parties several years to realise what was happening, and caused Hoschedé much heartbreak when his wife finally chose to leave Ernest and live with Monet. Ernest died in 1891, whereupon Alice finally married Monet (in 1892).

Manet was a natural aristocrat, charming everyone who met him, happy to socialise and support the gang but reluctant to exhibit with them because he never gave up his ambition of Salon success and official recognition. Roe brings out his obsession with the tall, ravishing Berthe Morisot who he painted numerous times, despite the objections of his wife, Suzanne; and of Berthe’s willingness to be painted, sometimes in seductive poses, even after she was married to Manet’s brother, Eugène. Older than the others and although he never exhibited in any of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, he was in an important sense, the central figure against which they all compared themselves with, who held together the complex and changing matrix of friendships, quarrels and debts. When he died after an agonising illness, in 1883, it signalled the beginning of the end of the group.

Berthe Morisot’s life is thoroughly covered, her relationships with her demanding mother and two happy sisters. In this account she is permanently depressed by her lack of success and failure to find a husband (until 1874).

Everyone was wary of surly unsociable Paul Cézanne (he of ‘the blunt manner and old, blue, paint-smattered smock’, p.144) and most of the gang didn’t want to include him in the first show. He was a problematic figure (‘a thorn in their side’)- something which certainly comes over from the big exhibition of Cézanne Portraits which I’ve just visited.

Degas I was continually surprised by the energy and commitment of Degas to the cause. He made most of the exhibitions happen, even when he violently disagreed with some of his colleagues about thier content or timing. It was news to me that he took a five-month-long trip to New Orleans in 1872, to visit wealthy members of the de Gas family who had emigrated and now ran very successful cotton and banking businesses over there. He was overwhelmed by the quality of the light, the brightness of all the colours, and especially the wonderful outlines and movements of the black people he saw.

Feminism In the light of reading Whitney Chadwick’s fiercely feminist book Women, Art and Society, I read Private Lives of the Impressionists alert to the exploitation of women a) in the paintings as passive subjects of the male gaze and b) as artists whose ambitions were blocked or stymied by an all-male establishment.

In relation to point a) it’s hard not to think that, although they were men very frequently painting women, it is not done with an exploitative eye: a lot of the women painted come over as strong and independent, and the Impressionist world, taken as a whole, is one of sensitive ‘feminine’ values, from Degas’ ballerinas to the working girls dancing in Renoir to Monet’s countless depictions of his female menageries in beautiful gardens. You only have to compare it with the sternly aristocratic or history or classical subjects of contemporary Salon art which tends to foreground heroic men, to see the huge difference.

Anyway, apart from a handful of nudes (mostly by Manet, a few by Renoir) the Impressionists aren’t really about naked people, male or female (all Degas’ women bathing and washing are really about composition, design and colour: there’s nothing remotely titillating about them). Roe spends a couple of pages detailing the series of portraits Manet did of Morisot, with whom he was obsessed, but they all show her as fully clothed, deploying a very imperious, commanding gaze of her own. She is nobody’s victim. (That said, these works tend to confirm my impression that Manet is quite a poor painter – of faces, anyway.)

Or:

As to point b), it’s a relief to read how generally pro-women artists the Impressionists were. Degas went out of his way to make sure that Berthe Morisot, and later on Mary Cassatt, were included in the group shows and gave them the opportunity to hang their own works. Indeed, Cassatt and Morisot (both independently well-off women) played an important role in funding the later group exhibitions. In other words, the key Impressionists actively encouraged the women painters among them, and leaped to their defence when they were criticised in person or in print.

Bosoms In a strikingly unfeminist way, Roe shows a persistent interest in bare bosoms and uncovered female flesh. She is good at spotting the frissons of titillation in Belle Époque France, for example the way crowds flocked to the seaside not only to try the new-fangled idea of taking a dip in the sea, but in the hope of seeing the bare ankles and calves (!) of the brave women wearing the risqué bathing suits (p.134). I noticed the boobs thing on pages 142-3.

Marguerite [Charpentier] was young, accomplished and clever; wealthy and popular she was the envy of many. She was physically striking with dark, heavy looks and a buxom figure…. (p.142)

[The socialist politician] Gambetta [was] now the idol of Parisian society, for whom every lady in the place lowered her décolleté… (p.142)

[Renoir] enjoyed the Charpentiers’ fine apartments, with their lavish interiors, elaborate refreshments and luxuriously dressed women… (p.142)

The eighteen-year-old actress Jeanne Samaray… was a vivacious redhead, very actressy, with huge dark eyes, a small, retroussé nose, pale, luminous skin, a wide mouth and perfect pearly teeth. She wore tailored outfits that showed off her tiny waist and ample bust… (p.143)

This focus on boobs is pleasant enough to a heterosexual man but I’m not sure what the sisterhood would say.

Fashion and clothes But then the whole book is like this, chattily interested in clothes and hats and crinolines and bathing costumes and flashing eyes and exposed flesh, giving a good sense of the visual and social world the artists lived in, along with plenty of gossip about who they fancied and why.

There’s lots of fascinating social history – the building of the new Paris designed around Baron Hausmann’s broad boulevards and imposing apartment blocks (which seemed to drag on for decades) sharply contrasted with the bohemian atmosphere around the hill of Montmartre, still semi-rural and inhabited by poor workers whose dances and entertainments Renoir loved to paint, especially the young women workers or grisettes, its slum shacks packed with vagrants, poor workers, circus performers and impecunious artists.

Poverty Throughout the text runs the persistent thread of the artists’ money troubles, troubles with their traditional parents, more money troubles, worries about professional success, and all the ways they tried to curry favour with the powers-that-were, repeated rejections by the Salon, ridicule from the critics.

Probably the grimmest account of poverty is the long-running struggle of poor Monet (mentioned above), although Pissarro’s woes are also chronicled. He managed to father seven children by his miserably long-suffering wife, Julie Vellay, a vineyard grower’s daughter and his mother’s maid, who he had married in 1871. Roe quotes from her pitiful letters complaining about struggling to feed all the mouths on the next to nothing Pissarro provided with his pitifully low sales.

And Sisley (who we don’t hear so much about) was in a similar plight. (Sisley seems to be the great loser of the gang, dying in abject poverty in 1899, yet reading these last books has made me come to appreciate his quiet persistence with the core Impressionist vision, especially his wonderful snowscapes – Snow Effect at Argenteuil, 1874.)

Through all these woes, it really helped that they were a gang, supporting and encouraging each other when they were down. Cézanne in particular needed lots of bucking up and there’s a fascinating little section recounting the advice the older man, Pissarro, gave him about painting the forms he sees, and creating them through colour alone, rather than trying to draw a realistic document of the world (p.124).

There are quite a few places where Roe briefly but effectively details the discussions about painting technique which the gang swapped and developed, and the book is littered with quick thumbnail portraits of their differing styles and visions.

In relationship terms, Cézanne was another who bucked society’s supposedly strict bourgeois norms, when he took the artist’s model, Marie-Hortense Fiquet, as his mistress in 1869. Because Cézanne’s father was a very well-off banker, Cézanne felt obliged to conceal his relationship with Hortense from his parents, for nearly 15 years, even after she had borne his son, Paul. The book chronicles the many (often ludicrous) subterfuges Cézanne resorted to, the lies and deceptions which blighted all their lives, until he finally married her in 1886 although, by that stage, he (with characteristic blunt honesty) announced that he no longer had feelings for her, and they lived the remainder of their married lives apart.

Patrons and collectors It’s fascinating to read in detail about the lives and personalities, the backgrounds, marriages and fortunes of the earliest collectors. Some of them were very rich indeed, and ‘got’ the new vision the gang were trying to create, embody and promote. Central was the gallery owner, exhibition organiser, funder and patron Paul Durand-Ruel, important enough to have an entire National Gallery exhibition devoted to him a few years ago – Inventing Impressionism.

But there were also Georges Charpentier, whose wife Renoir painted, Victor Chocquet, who also commissioned portraits from Renoir, and the ill-fated Ernest Hoschedé, mentioned above. Cézanne’s friend, Père Tanguy, supplied paints and canvasses on credit, accepting paintings in return.

It’s a surprise to learn that one of the most reliable providers of cash to the perpetually strapped Monet, Pissarro and Sisley was Gustave Caillebotte, himself a painter of admirably realistic works done with a distinctively narrow perspective, but who also had the money to make endless loans to his colleagues, and to fund and organise the exhibitions. At one stage he was paying Monet’s rent, paying for his trips up to Paris, subsidising Pissarro, and organising and funding the fifth Impressionist exhibition, alongside helping to set up the (short-lived) art magazine Le jour et la nuit. Wow.

Stories

So it’s a hugely enjoyable romp through the social history, the art history and the personal histories of these great painters, their families and patrons, studded with good anecdotes. Here are a few sample:

Renoir approved of Degas’ pastels of ballet dancers and himself loved going to the Paris Opera, but mainly to stare at the audience, drinking in all the human types and faces and clothes. He was extremely put out when the new fashion came in of dimming the houselights to force people to look at the stage (p.122).

When Wolff savaged the second Impressionist exhibition even more fiercely than the Hotel Drouot auction, he wrote some extra hard words about Morisot, with the result that her new husband, Eugène, challenged Wolff to a duel (p.155).

One afternoon Manet came to visit Monet in the house he rented for several years in Argenteuil, set up his easel and painted the family at ease, Monet pottering round with a watering can while his wife, Camille, lay on the lawn.

During the afternoon Renoir turned up – having walked along the river from his family’s house at nearby Louveciennes – set up his easel, and began painting the same scene.

Manet leaned over to Monet. ‘Who’s your friend?’ he joked; ‘Tell him to give it up, he’s got no talent.’ (p.132)

Maps I particularly liked the map of the territory just to the west of Paris where the River Seine performs some extreme loops, along which lie the villages where the Impressionists rented houses and painted their wives, each other, river life and boats and scenery. This book converted the names which crop up in the titles of so many paintings – Chatou, Bougival, Argenteuil, Louveciennes, Marly, Gennevilliers, Pointoise – into real locations, roads and houses and gardens and views, where Manet and Monet and Renoir and Sisley and Pissarro lived and worked. Finding them on the map whetted my appetite to go and visit them – except I imagine you wouldn’t be able to move for coachloads of tourists all having lunch at the Restaurant Renoir and staying the night at the Hotel Monet.

The same goes for addresses in Paris. Roe religiously records the addresses of all the artists’ many apartments and studios, as well as the exhibition rooms, auction houses, and grand homes of their sponsors, locating them not only geographically, but giving evocative descriptions of their layout, size and atmosphere, and their relationship with the ever-changing street map of Hausmann’s Paris.

I dug out an old map of Paris and began recording all the locations with little green decals my daughter has, but the area around Montmartre quickly became so infested it was impossible to make out individual locations. This book would be a handy resource if you ever wanted to go on a really thorough voyage of discovery of ‘the Paris of the Impressionists’.

Roe rounds off her account with the 1886 exhibition of Impressionists put on in New York by the ever-enterprising Durand-Ruel and his son, at which 300 or so paintings by almost the entire group (with the notable exception of Cézanne) drew a very different response from the jeers and catcalls of the Paris crowds and critics of 12 years earlier. They were greeted with respect and even excitement.

American collectors began buying them up and the show marks the start of the increasing involvement of American money in funding and buying up European art which was to dominate the 20th century (and arguably continues to this day). Durand-Ruel sold $18,000 of pictures. In 1888 he set up a permanent gallery and salesroom in New York.

It marks the commercial success of the group but also the point where, with Manet dead and the eighth and final group exhibition held, the unity of the gang dissolved and the survivors began going their very different ways, Monet continuing to become a god among painters of light and colour, Renoir never recapturing the dappled happiness of the Montmartre years, Degas perfecting his technique of pastel drawing, Cézanne and Gauguin going on to develop entirely new, post-impressionistic styles.

Roe gives a thorough description of the New York exhibition, naming half a dozen paintings by each of the main painters. Looking these up on Google images provides a really useful overview of the diversity, range and achievement of this astonishing group of artists. And includes one of my favourite Impressionist works, Pissarro’s early, wonderful depiction of Hoar frost.

Hoarfrost (1873) by Camille Pissarro

Hoarfrost (1873) by Camille Pissarro

Conclusion

In many ways, books are the best kind of tourism. This book is a great piece of travel writing, taking you not only to the streets and suburbs of 19th century Paris, but back in time to a simpler, far more relaxed and easy-going age, and surely that is the key to the Impressionists’ success. They thought of themselves (and many of their critics agreed) as painting the (often pretty rough and lowlife) reality of contemporary France.

But to everyone who came afterwards, their images – contrary to the sometimes harrowing personal circumstances they were created in – amount to a glorious evocation of a bright, light, lost age of innocence.


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Impressionists by Antonia Cunningham (2001)

This is a small (4½” x 6″) but dense (256 high-gloss pages), handily pocket-sized little overview of the Impressionist movement.

The ten-page introduction  by Karen Hurrell is marred by some spectacular errors. In the second paragraph she tells us that Paris was ‘in the throes of the belle epoque‘ when the 19-year-old Monet arrived in town in 1859 – whereas the Belle Époque period is generally dated 1871 to 1914. She tells us that Napoleon Bonaparte had commissioned the extensive redesign of the city – when she means Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the great man’s nephew and heir, more commonly known as Napoleon III, who reigned as Emperor of the French from 1852 to 1870.

Thus cautioned to take any other facts in the introduction or the picture captions with a touch of scepticism, nonetheless we learn some basic background facts about the Impressionists:

  • Monet was inspired by the French landscape painter Eugène Boudin (1824-98)
  • Success in the art world was defined as acceptance of your work into the biannual exhibition of the Paris Salon
  • Reputable artists were expected to train at the Académie des Beaux-Arts which was dominated by the classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), who insisted on training in draughtsmanship, copying the Old Masters, using a clear defined line.
  • Edgar Degas (1834-1917) enrolled in the Beaux-Arts as did Pissarro.
  • Monet attended the Académie Suisse where he met Pissarro, then entered the studio of Charles Gleyre: here he met Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Alfred Sisley (1839-99) and Frédéric Bazille (1841-70).
  • Older than the others and really from a different generation was their inspiration, Édouard Manet (1832-83). He sought academic success in the traditional style, attaining Salon success in 1861.
  • In 1863 the Salon refused so many contemporary painters that Napoleon III was asked to create a separate show for them, the Salon des Refusés. Manet stole the show with his The lunch on the grass showing a naked woman in the company of two fully dressed contemporary men.
  • The 1865 Salon show included works by Degas, Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Berthe Morisot (1841-95).
  • From 1866 Manet began to frequent the Café Guerbois, and was soon joined by Renoir, Sisley, Caillebotte and Monet, with Degas, Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and Pissarro also dropping by, when in town. They became known as the Batignolles Group after the area of Paris the cafe was in.
  • Paris life of all kinds was disrupted by the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War and then the disastrous rising of communists during the Paris Commune, which was only put down by the official government with great bloodshed and destruction (July 1870-May 1871). All the artists who could afford to fled the city, many to England and London – an event which was the basis of the Tate Britain exhibition, Impressionists in London.
  • From April to May 1874 this group held an independent art exhibition in the gallery of the photographer Nadar. The critic Louis Leroy took exception to Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise (1872), satirising the group’s focus on capturing fleeting impressions of light instead of painting what was there, but the name was taken up by more sympathetic critics and soon became a catch-phrase the artists found themselves lumbered with.
  • It’s interesting to note that Degas was a driving force behind this and the subsequent Impressionist shows, single-handedly persuading artists to take part. He himself was not really an impressionist, much of his subject matter, for example, being indoors instead of painting out of doors, en plein air, as Impressionist doctrine demanded. Similarly, whereas the other experimented with creating form through colour i.e. using colour alone to suggest shape and form, Degas was to the end of his life a believer in extremely strong, clear, defining lines to create shape and form and texture.
  • In 1876 the group exhibited again, at the gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel. The role played by Durand-Ruel in sponsoring and financing the Impressionists was chronicled in the national Gallery exhibition, Inventing Impressionism.
  • There were eight Impressionist exhibitions in total: in 1874, 1876, 1877, 1879, 1880, 1881, 1882, 1886. The eight Impressionist exhibitions

From this point on we begin to follow the differing fortunes and styles of the group. Monet developed his mature style in the first half of the 1870s, letting go of any attempt to document reality, instead developing ‘a new vocabulary of painting’ in blobs and dashes of often unmixed primary colours in order to capture the essence of the scene. In 1880 Monet organised a solo show and submitted two works to the Salon. Degas called him a sell-out, but he was trying to distance himself from the group.

Renoir developed a unique style of portraying the gaiety of contemporary Parisian life in realistic depictions of people dancing and drinking at outdoor cafés, with broad smiles, the whole scene dappled with light. He was to become the most financially successful of the group and you can see why: his uplifting works are popular to this day. In the 1880s he took to nudes and portraits rather than landscapes. He was always interested in people.

Degas resisted being called an Impressionist – he painted mostly indoor scenes and never abandoned his hard outlines – but certainly was influenced by the Impressionist emphasis on the effect of light captured in loose brushstrokes. During the 1870s he began to produce the hundreds of oil paintings and pastels of ballet dancers which were to be a key subject.

The American artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) saw a Degas in a dealer’s window and realised these were her people. She lightened her palette, adopted the modern attitude towards light and exhibited at the successive Impressionist exhibitions.

Sisley became dependent on Durand-Ruel. When the latter fell on hard times, Sisley and his family led a tough, hard-up, peripatetic life. Arguably he is the only one who never developed but carried on working in the same, pure Impressionist way.

Pissarro and Cézanne became firm friends, painting the same scenes side by side.

Even at the time commentators could see the difference with Cézanne applying paint in broad, heavy brushstrokes, and becoming ever more interested, less by light than by the geometric forms buried in nature, increasingly seeing the world as made of blocks and chunks and rectangles and rhomboids of pure colour – paving the way for Cubism and much modern art. His style diverged from the group just as Impressionism was becoming more accepted, by critics and public. He resigned from the group in 1887.

Neo-impressionism is the name given to the post-impressionist work of Georges Seurat (1859-91), Paul Signac (1863-1935) and their followers who used contemporary optical theory to try to take Impressionism to the next level. Seurat developed a theory called Divisionism (which he called chromoluminarism) the notion of creating a painting not from fluid brush strokes but from thousands of individual dots of colour. Seurat used contemporary colour theory and detailed colour wheels to work out how to place dots of contrasting colour next to each other in order to create the maximum clarity and luminosity. The better-known technique of pointillism refers just to the use of dots to build up a picture, without the accompanying theory dictating how the dots should be of carefully contrasting colours.


There follow 120 very small, full colour reproductions of key paintings by the main members of the movement (and some more peripheral figures). Each picture is on the right hand page, with text about the title, date, painter and a one-page analysis on the page opposite. Supremely practical and useful to flick through. Here’s a list of the painters and the one or two most striking things I learned:

  • Eugène Boudin (1) The landscape painter Monet credited with inspiring him to paint landscapes.
  • Manet (15) I love Manet for his striking use of black, for his use of varying shades of white but he is not a totally convincing painter. His two or three masterpieces are exceptions. I struggle with the perspective or placing of figures in Dejeuner sur l’herbe, particularly the woman in the lake who seems bigger and closer than the figures in the foreground and is a giant compared to the rowing boat, and the way the lake water is tilting over to the left. He was awful at painting faces – Inside the cafe, Blonde woman with bare breasts. The body of the Olympia is sensational but her badly modelled head looks stuck on. In 1874 he began experimenting with the Impressionists’ technique i.e. lighter tones and out of doors, not that convincingly (The barge).
  • Frederic Bazille (2) studied with Monet, Renoir and Sisley but on this showing never quit a highly realistic style – Family reunion.
  • Monet (16) without a doubt the god of the movement and the core practitioner of Impressionism, produced hundreds of masterpieces while slowly fascinatingly changing and evolving his technique. The big surprise was an early work, Women in the garden (1867) which shows what a staggeringly good realistic artist he could have been: look at the detail on the dresses! Of all the impressionist works here I was most struck by the modest brilliance of the water and reflections in The bridge at Argenteuil (1874).
  • Alfred Sisley (6) was the English Impressionist. Always hard up, he persisted in the core Impressionist style. I was struck by Misty morning (1874) and Snow at Louveciennes (1878).
  • Camille Pissarro (14) Ten years older than Monet, he quickly took to the Impressionist style (an open-mindedness which led him, in the 1880s, to adopt Seurat’s new invention of pointillism). Pissarro is the only one of the group who exhibited at all 8 Impressionist exhibitions. I was bowled over by Hoar frost (1873). I too have walked muddy country lanes in winter where the ridges of churned up mud are coated with frost and the puddles are iced over, while a weak bright winter sun illuminates the landscape.
  • Renoir (15) Everyone knows the depictions of happy Parisians dancing at outdoor cafés under a dappled summer light. Set next to the landscapes of Monet, Sisley and Pissarro you can see straightaway that Renoir was fascinated by the human figure and was an enthusiastic portrayer of faces. I like Dance in the country (1883) for the extremely strong depiction of the man, an amazing depiction of all the shades of black to be found in a man’s black suit and shoes. I was startled to learn that, in the mid-1880s, dissatisfied with Impressionism, he took trips abroad and returned from Italy determined to paint in a more austere classical style. The plait (1884) anticipates 20th century neo-classicism, and is not at all what you associate with Renoir.
  • Armand Guillaumin (2) from a working class background, he met the others at art school, exhibited in the Salon des Refusés show, but never had a large output.
  • Edgar Degas (17) Having visited and revisited the Degas exhibition at the National Gallery, I am convinced Degas was a god of draughtsmanship. It’s interesting that he lobbied hard for the Impressionists and organised the critical first exhibition, but always denied he was one. Skipping over the obvious masterpieces I was struck by the faces, especially the far left face, of The orchestra at the opera (1868). It shows his characteristic bunching up of objects. And the quite fabulous Blue dancers (1897).
  • Gustave Caillebotte (3) a naval engineer turned artist. The only link with the Impressionist style I can make out is his frank depiction of contemporary life. But the dabs and rough brushwork, leaving blank canvas, obsession with sunlight and creating form out of colour alone – none of that seems on show here. Street in Paris in the rain (1877). Very striking and distinctive but I’m surprised to find him in the same pages as Sisley or Pissarro.
  • Berthe Morisot (6) on the evidence here, painted lots of women in quiet domestic poses. Young girl at the ball (1875)
  • Mary Cassatt (5) More scenes of quiet domestic life, some of which eerily prefigure the same kind of rather bland domestic style of the early 20th century. Young mother sewing (1900)
  • Paul Cézanne (16) Yesterday I visited the exhibition of Cézanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, so those 50 or so portraits are ringing in my memory, along with knowledge of how he painted subjects in series, the style he developed of painting in kinds of blocks or slabs of colours, which bring out the geometric implications of his subjects, and his playing with perspective i.e. the three or four components of even a simple portrait will be depicted as if from different points of view, subtly upsetting the composition – The smoker (1890). Among the brown portraits and orangey still lifes, a dazzling riot of green stood out – Bridge over the pond (1896) though it, too, is made out of his characteristic blocks of (generally) diagonal brushstrokes, clustered into groups which suggest blocks or ‘chunks’, giving all his mature works that odd ‘monumental’ look, almost as if they’ve been sculpted out of colour more than painted smoothly.
  • Seurat (2) 19 years younger than Monet (born in 1859 to Monet’s 1840), Seurat was not an Impressionist, but exhibited with them in 1886. His highly intellectual theory of Divisionism divided the group, causing big arguments. Seurat produced some highly distinctive and classic images before dying tragically young, aged 31.

This is a very handy survey, a useful overview of 120 works which remind the reader a) how varied the Impressionists were b) who were the core flag-wavers (Monet, Sisley, Pissarro) c) who were the outriders (Manet, Degas) and above all, d) what scores and scores of wonderful, enduring masterpieces they created.


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Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse @ the Royal Academy

‘Using the work of Monet as a starting point, this landmark exhibition examines the role gardens played in the evolution of art from the early 1860s through to the 1920s’ and features ‘masterpieces by Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Manet, Sargent, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Matisse, Klimt and Klee.’

Gardens! Monet! As might be expected there was a massive queue to get into this huge Royal Academy blockbuster exhibition, and it was very busy inside, making it quite hard to see the paintings in some rooms.

The exhibition is in ten or so rooms, and its skeleton or backbone is a chronological survey of the flower and garden paintings of Claude Monet.

In the first room are early ‘realist’ works like Lady in the garden (below) from the 1870s, set among similar works by numerous contemporaries. Half-way through the show is a room explaining how in 1883 Monet started renting a large house at Giverny, 50 miles north-west of Paris, and began laying out his famous garden, going on to buy some adjoining land to create the famous water lily pond, complete with Japanese bridge, which he was to paint for the rest of his life.

Then the exhibition climaxes in two rooms devoted solely to Monet – the first showing 15 or so late works, before the final space which is devoted to bringing together three huge paintings of the waterlilies. These enormous works were always intended to form one massive super-painting but were separated and sold off at his death, and are brought together here for the first time in nearly a century.

Lady in the Garden (1867) by Claude Monet. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo (c) The State Hermitage Museum. Photography: Vladimir Terebenin

Lady in the Garden (1867) by Claude Monet. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo (c) The State Hermitage Museum. Photography: Vladimir Terebenin

The rise of gardening

At the Guildhall Art Gallery recently, I was interested to read how the nineteenth century saw the rise of the ‘home’. For many people in the 1800s the house they lived in was also the site of their work, where they performed all sorts of labouring, spinning, the manufacture of small artefacts etc. By 1900 the separation of home and workplace was complete for most people, who went to offices or factories to work, with ‘the home’ now a place which increasing numbers of people prided themselves on decorating and adorning according to the latest fashions, a place to express their personality or flaunt their status, a book market catered to by an ever-growing range of books and magazines dedicated to suggesting the best fabrics and wallpapers and furniture and ‘look’. (The Ideal Home Show was founded in 1908.)

Something similar happened with gardening. In 1800 ‘gardens’ were what aristocrats in grand houses had or where peasants in cottages grew vegetables. By 1900 ‘gardening’ had become a popular middle-class activity, complete with handbooks, guides and magazines to advise on which plants and flowers to grow where, how to lay out a garden, what to sow to achieve ‘year-round colour’, and an ever-growing range of exotic plants and hybrids imported from abroad to provide intense and novel colours. (The Chelsea Flower Show was established in 1912).

Auguste Renoir - Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil (1873) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell. Photo (c) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT

Auguste Renoir – Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil (1873) Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell. Photo (c) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT

Impressionism, insofar as it was ever a coherent movement, was about using the convenience of a broader range of oil paints newly available in easily portable tubes, and the newly-built railways lines around Paris, to take a day trip out to the suburbs and paint scenes of ‘real life’ in their actual setting. Naturally, part of this interest in the real life of the 1860s and 70s was the growing fashion for gardens, and this exhibition shows that many painters not only painted gardens – many, many paintings of gardens – but were often themselves enthusiastic gardeners.

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1911) by Joaquin Sorolla. On loan from the Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. Photo (c) Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1911) by Joaquin Sorolla. On loan from the Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. Photo (c) Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York

Average garden paintings

Thus, alongside the early Monets, the first rooms we walk through feature works by numerous other artists in the same plein air style –  Pierre Bonnard, Jean-Édouard Vuillard, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. There are three big rooms showing scores of paintings of gardens, garden paths, flowery borders, ladies with bonnets in chairs, and profusions of flowers, all in a hazy summery impressionist style. To be honest, not many really stood out. Lots were as bland or sketchy as, for example:

I liked:

Bad garden paintings

Among the many very average paintings here – it’s a massive show – some stood out as being actively bad, amateurish and shapeless, lacking life, definition, colour. Some of the real stinkers included:

  • Garden of le Relais and Seated Woman Reading by Jean-Édouard Vuillard
  • Weeping Willow by Monet Even the sainted Claude painted some horrible paintings, their palettes garish and pukey. There’s a lot of Monets here and not all of them are good.

This Bonnard is one of the images the RA has selected for reviewers to use, but I find it bland and lifeless. Does it convey the fierce heat of the south of France or the play of sunlight on leaves in a breeze? No.

Resting in the Garden (Sieste au jardin) (1914) by Pierre Bonnard. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. Photo (c) Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design/The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design / (c) ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Resting in the Garden (Sieste au jardin) (1914) by Pierre Bonnard. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. Photo (c) Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design/The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design / (c) ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

Monet at Giverny

After wading through lots of so-so pictures, it’s a change of mood to enter the room devoted to Monet’s famous garden at Giverny. Several hundred books, thousands of articles, posters, mugs and posters and badges and tea towels have made these images of water lilies among the most famous in art. But to see them in the flesh is to be converted all over again to their strange magic.

By not depicting the edges of the pond, the surrounding trees, let alone the sky – by concentrating purely on the surface of the water, with its mysterious reflections punctuated by the clumps of free-floating lilies – Monet creates a hauntingly free space into which you feel yourself being ineluctably drawn. I was struck by how much purple and mauve and violet he used in his depictions of water which, in my experience, is rarely purple or mauve. By 1900 his pond paintings are more about composition and palette ie about the interaction between colours on the canvas, than the so-called ‘real world’. Images which are obviously about the ‘real world’, but just as clearly about pattern, shape, composition and colour. They are genuinely bewitching, and in a different league from everything else in the show.

Nympheas (Waterlilies) (1914-15) by Claude Monet. Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16. Photo (c) Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Nympheas (Waterlilies) (1914-15) by Claude Monet. Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16. Photo (c) Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Monet garden dates

  • 1883 Monet rents the house at Giverny
  • 1890 Monet buys the house and starts designing the gardens
  • 1889 Monet admires the water-lily garden at the Paris Universal Exhibition
  • 1893 Monet buys a property next to the garden and diverts a stream to create a lily pond
  • He builds a bridge modelled on the Japanese prints he likes
  • 1899 Monet paints 12 paintings of the the bridge and water lilies beneath
  • 1909 Monet exhibits 48 water lily paintings

The greenhouse room

I was surprised to walk into a room dominated by glasshouse-, greenhouse- and hothouse-shaped display cases showing a selection of books, articles and magazines about gardening from across Europe in the late 19th century. This is a room for the true horticulturalists among the visitors. There were also photos of Monet in his garden, accounts of the instructions he gave the six (6!) gardeners he employed, notes on seeds to buy, species and varieties to select, planting dates and so on.

Interesting if you’re a real Monet-maniac, but for me the standout items in this room were the five or so Japanese prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige.

It was a shock to be transported for a moment to a completely different tradition. The clear, fine, black outlines and delicacy of colour and detail of these Japanese prints are as opposite as can be from the smudgy western impressionism and post-impressionism which this exhibition is foregrounding. They crystallised for me what I didn’t enjoy about many of the paintings earlier in the show – their vague mistiness, the depiction of flowers as great woolly expanses of undifferentiated colour – and helped explain the paintings I was drawn to – ones which showed some kind of clarity of line, like Caillebotte’s Nasturtiums, or:

I worked at Kew Gardens and occasionally write my own, very amateur flower blog (just a diary of wild flowers I try to identify when out and about). Years of looking at flowers and trying to distinguish, say, lesser burdock from greater burdock, or broad-leaved willowherb from short-fruited willowherb, have made me look very closely at the structure of plants, at the stems and leaf shapes and edges, at stamens and anthers; and have also given me a taste for the small, the shy and retiring native wild flowers of England (eg the tiny scarlet pimpernel).

Thus, as I wandered past scores and scores of soft-focus portrayals of great swathes of blossoms set vaguely amid stippled, sunny gardens, I found myself preferring the paintings where you could actually identify the species of flower being depicted, or alternatively where the blossoms were subtle and understated – and tending not to like the ones where the flora consisted of undifferentiated washes of colour or great sprawls of acid yellow and vivid red commercial hybrids, impossible to identify and difficult for a wildflower lover like me, to like.

Mention of Tissot made me think of other contemporary British artists and the show includes at least two works by John Singer Sergeant who, in between painting his lucrative society portraits, spent summers at the village of Broadway in the Cotswolds, painting flowers and gardens. The two samples here are not his best – eg Garden Study of the Vicker’s Children (1884) – and they don’t, for some reason, include his super-famous garden masterpiece, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1886).

Modernist garden paintings

The exhibition puts the efforts of Monet and the other impressionists into the widest possible context, featuring generous selections of European contemporaries – those we know, like Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Edvard Munch – and those we’d never heard of, like Santiago Rusiñol, Joaquin Mir y Trinxet, Henri Le Sidanier, Henri Martin and the German impressionist, Max Liebermann.

  • Green Wall by Santiago Rusiñol – The four or five paintings by Rusiñol really stood out in this room, unusually ‘realist’ in detail but also for the orange dusk light which dominates them, very unlike the summery green of many of the other chocolate box images.
  • Glorieta de cipreses, Jardines de Aranjuez (1919) by Santiago Rusiñol
  • Steps, Gerberoy by Henri Le Sidanier

There were quite a few Libermanns and, although the wall labels point out how prolific he was, how famous in his day, and how devoted to the garden he created on the shore of Lake Wannsee in Berlin, I found them unfinished, undetailed, unsatisfying.

One room was devoted to the Fauves and other experimental, turn-of-the century art movements. I didn’t like the two Matisses on display: Rose-table (below) seemed to me just ugly, in composition and colour, and Palm Leaf, Tangier (1912) just looked unfinished but not in a good way.

The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer (1917) by Henri Matisse. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956 Photo (c) 2015. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / (c) Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015

The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer (1917) by Henri Matisse.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956
Photo (c) 2015. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / (c) Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015

But like the other rooms, it’s a fascinating selection of the good, the bad and the indifferent. Also in the category of ‘little known garden paintings by super-famous twentieth century artists’ were:

I liked the three little Klee paintings (he may be my favourite 20th century artist), and the way he turns everything into his own quirky type of linear composition. But, contrary to everything I had just told myself about liking understated and clearly defined flowers, I also really liked Kandinsky’s Murnau The Garden II (below). It was completely unlike almost everything else in the show, not trying to be gentle and sensitive, or an attempt at plein air painting, or particularly figurative, but a violent, vibrant exercise in primary colours and tones. I liked its virile confidence.

Murnau The Garden II (1910) by Wassily Kandinsky. Merzbacher Kunststiftung Photo (c) Merzbacher Kunststiftung

Murnau The Garden II (1910) by Wassily Kandinsky. Merzbacher Kunststiftung
Photo (c) Merzbacher Kunststiftung

The photo room

The biggest surprise of the show was entering a room which is full of garden tables and benches. It’s a rare opportunity in an exhibition of this size to be able to sit down and have a rest. There were four big wooden garden tables, each with a set of chairs, and bearing two or three copies of the exhibition catalogue to flip through.

The walls of this room were lined by extra-large (really large) black-and-white photos of many of the artists featured (Klee, Kandinsky, Bonnard etc), snapped in their respective gardens, the whole thing dominated by a big screen on the far wall showing three short clips from films of a) Monet at work, French fag hanging from his mouth, dressed in a white jacket, palette in hand and standing next to the famous lily pond b) Max Lieberman painting in his garden c) le Sidanier ditto.

Monet’s later years at Giverny

Immediately following the photo and film room you move into Monet’s final years.

He had been devastated by his wife’s death in 1911 and was also suffering from eye trouble, and so stopped painting for three years. Then, on the eve of the Great War, he took up his palette again and, when war came, bravely refused to leave even as the Germans advanced towards his house and garden and studio.

This penultimate room contains about a dozen paintings of the pond, lilies and trees from around the time of the War. What came over for me is how, by this stage, Monet had stopped really being an impressionist. Many of the paintings were painted from memory, inside the large studio he had built. Purple and violet tones predominate in the lily paintings, making the clumps of lilies float in a neutral non-space, an increasingly abstract arrangement of colours which have a genuinely hypnotic effect.

That’s not to say there aren’t some very poor works on offer, some crude heavy depictions of the Japanese bridge in a completely different palette from the gentle violets of the other paintings, hard to believe they’re by the same man.

But among half a dozen breath-taking works on show here, my favourite was the large weeping willow – probably because it is unfinished and I always love the idea of a work of art emerging from the raw canvas, of beauty struggling to free itself from chaos or banality – and because I like strong black marks and outlines, even if only sketchy, of the kind that can be seen here. The commentary points out that he did a series of weeping willow paintings date around 1918 which might express his feelings about the terrible catastrophe which had destroyed European civilisation. All the more poignant.

The agapanthus tryptich

The final room (in fact the Academy’s Wohl Central Hall) is devoted to the Agapanthus triptych, three enormous (7 feet by 14 feet) canvases Monet worked on from around 1915 to his death in 1926. The three separate pieces were sold off to different galleries and are rarely brought together, so this is a rare opportunity to see them reunited and to immerse yourself in Monet’s unique floating world.

Monet spoke and wrote a lot about his work, words which have been recombined into a thousand books, articles and t-shirt mottos: of all the words written about them, I liked the idea that these last works, enormous in scale and floating free of tradition, restraint, of all his previous work and from previous art, are Monet’s attempt to create harmony, balance, poise and beauty after the devastation of the Great War.

No matter how stupid and destructive humanity is, in the waterponds of the world the lilies will always blossom again.

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Every room in the Courtauld Gallery

The aim of doing all the rooms in a gallery isn’t necessarily to look at every exhibit in the place. It is to:

  • discover the out-of-the-way corners where treasures are sometimes hidden
  • get a feel for the complete geography of a place, to understand how it fits together as a building
  • and understand how the works exhibited in it fit together to tell a story (or multiple stories)

Background

The Courtauld Gallery houses the art collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a self-governing college of the University of London specialising in the study of the history of art.

The Courtauld collection was formed largely through donations and bequests and includes paintings, drawings, sculptures and other works from medieval to modern times. It’s a kind of miniature National Gallery, following the same story of Western art through a much smaller selection of, in many ways more exquisite, pieces. It’s best known for its French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings; those rooms are always packed.

In total, the collection contains some 530 paintings and over 26,000 drawings and prints, displayed in 12 rooms over three floors reached via the charming old stone circular staircase.

The rooms

Room one: 13th-15th century 30 paintings and altar pieces, a big statue of the crowned Virgin Mary, 12 exquisite little ivory carvings, five caskets, a marriage chest and 12 pieces of Islamic metalwork. I liked:

  • The ivory Virgin and child with a chaffinch. I understand the symbolism, having seen the same subject at the V&A ie the chaffinch was thought to eat seeds from thorny plants, thus prefiguring the crown of thorns which the little baby Jesus was destined to wear 33 years later.
  • An ivory depicting ‘Scenes from the life of Jesus’, with an Ascension scene where the crowd are, Monty Python-style, looking up at a tunic and pair of sandals disappearing out of the frame (top left section).
  • What I liked about the medieval ivories is that the figures are cramped and packed into the composition, yet important ones, the Virgin in particular, are still willowy and sinuous; it’s the combination of cramped with willowy which is one of their appeals.
  • I discovered I like Robert Campin at the National Gallery: here, I liked his Seilern Triptych (1425). The most obvious thing is how dark it is; he uses an intense black to create variety or drama across the picture plane. On a separate level, I also liked the use of the grapes motif in the gilt background. And homely details like the handmade hedge in the bottom right.
  • Compare, in terms of light, with the nearby Coronation of the Virgin by Lorenzo Monaco, amazingly sumptuous and golden, but without the extremes of black, the density and drama of the Campin.
  • I realised at the National Gallery that I like northern European medieval and Renaissance painting for its concern for individuals. A good example here is the portrait of Guillaume Fillastre from the workshop of Roger van der Weyden (1430s)
  • Ugliest baby award went to Virgin and Child with angels by Quentin Massys

Mezzanine room: ‘Panorama’ Half-way up the stairs to the first floor is a small room which holds changing displays of prints. Currently it houses 14 drawings or prints on the theme of ‘the panoramic view’, including Canaletto, two Turners, a Towne etc. The wall label said the panorama derives from Dutch interest in landscapes, confirming my view of northern Europe as being humanist, interested in individuals and places, as opposed to Italy and Spain, home to countless images of the simpering Madonna, weeping saints and the limp corpse of Jesus, all set in rocky, barren deserts.

Room two: 16th century Renaissance Europe 19 paintings and some painted marriage chests, objects whose long narrow front panels are well suited to paintings depicting processions or battle scenes. There are also 23 Renaissance ceramics in an exhibition case, but the room is dominated by Botticelli’s Trinity with saints. As I discovered in the National Gallery, I like Botticelli as a cartoonist but not as a serious painter of the human condition.

Room three: 17th century Rubens and the Baroque 18 paintings, 11 of them Rubens, and a chest. My favourites were:

  • Cranach Adam and Eve (1526) for the medieval feel, the sumptuous northern flora, and the symbolic animals. Although it’s a well known story, the painting has a strange mysterious air, as if pregnant with additional, hidden meanings.
  • Hans Mielich Portrait of Anna Reitnor (1539) A typically north European, humanistic and individualistic portrait of a specific person. Compare and contrast with…
  • Rubens Cain killing Abel The wall label can go on about what Rubens had learned from his visit to Italy and his debt to Michelangelo – this still seems to me an over-muscled, deformed account of the human body, glorifying in a kind of murder porn.
  • Similarly, I disliked the nine sketches by Tiepolo, typified by St Aloysius Gonzaga. Words can’t convey the kitsch nastiness of this Catholic propaganda.

Room four: 18th century Enlightenment As at the National Gallery, it is a great relief to walk from rooms full of tortured saints, crucified Christs and weeping Maries into the common sense, calmness and reason of the English Enlightenment. This rooms contains a pleasant selection of comfortable, bourgeois paintings by Romney, Ramsay, Gainsborough and display cases full of silver plate, cups and so on. I liked:

Room five: 19th century Early Impressionism And now for something completely different, the rooms the Courtauld is famous for, this one holding 6 paintings, 2 sculptures. I liked:

  • Degas Two dancers on stage (1874) He did hundreds of studies and oils of this subject, this one is good.
  • Renoir La Loge (1874) When I went to see the Inventing Impressionism show at the National Gallery, Renoir emerged for me as the most consistent of the Impressionists, finding his style early and sticking to it, in paintings that look more consistently finished than his colleagues’ ones.
  • Monet Autumn effect at Argenteuil (1873) Exactly the kind of Monet which looks better compacted onto a computer screen or chocolate box, than how it appears here, in the flesh, where it is much larger, much blurrier and wispier.
  • Compare and contrast with Manet’s Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874). The wall label says this is the most impressionist painting Manet ever did, made while he was staying at Monet’s house at Argenteuil. Although using the same short dabs of paint and showing the same hazy disregard for detail, as his friend, the striking thing is the quality of the black in the painting, a really deep, intense, black black, there in the boat but especially the woman’s hat, and giving the other colours, especially the blue, a darker hue. This gives the whole painting a greater intensity. It kind of roots it into a starker world, a firmer world, than anything in the pink and yellow creations of Monet’s which are hanging near it.

Room six :19th century Impressionism and post-impressionism

  • Manet The bar at the Folies Bergers (1880) This isn’t a very good reproduction, but again it highlights the importance of black in Manet’s compositions.
  • Cézanne The card players (1896) The stylisation of the human form is completely convincing.
  • Cézanne Mont St Victoire (1887) Characteristic deployment of the blocks and rectangles of colour which anticipate cubism.
  • Gauguin Te Rerioa (1897) I didn’t like Gauguin when I was young. I think exposure to lots and lots of tribal and native art has helped me ‘read’ him better, so that now I just accept and enjoy the whole composition.
  • Gauguin Nevermore (1897)

Room seven: 19th century Post-impressionism Just seven paintings, the standout specimen being Self-portrait with a bandaged ear by Vincent van Gogh. I like the strong back lines and the forceful, not necessarily realistic colouring.

Room eight: An exhibition room this is currently dedicated to Bridget Riley: learning from Seurat.

Room nine: 20th century French painting 12 paintings and statues by among others Derain, Braque, early Matisse, Vlaminck.

Room ten: 20th century French painting 1905-20 12 paintings, including specimens by Dufy, Bonnard, Picasso, Léger, all dominated by the Modigliani.

  • Modigliani Female nude (1916) Perfectly and completely itself.

Room eleven a: Late 19th-early 20th century painting 8 paintings.

  • Cézanne Route tournante (1905) a) Unfinished, so I like it. b) Even more of Cézanne’s characteristic cubes and blocks of paint, creating a powerfully dynamic image.
  • Degas Woman at a window Unfinished and with strong black lines, a wonderful visionary image.

Room eleven b: 19th century Seurat sketches. A small room with 8 tiny paintings by Seurat (died 1891)

Room 12: 20th century German Expressionists A bit of a relief to emerge from the fuzziness of France into the bright, barbarian virility of strident German expressionism. 12 big bold crude paintings.

Room 13: 20th century British painting Half a dozen big horrible paintings by Leon Kossof and Frank Auerbach, with an early Lucien Freud to brighten the gloom.

Rooms 14 and 15 are devoted to temporary exhibitions – earlier in the year Goya’s Witches and Old Women Album, currently the wonderful show of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings.

Conclusions

If I didn’t know before, spending three hours walking slowly through these wonderful rooms packed with treasures, made me realise a few simple things about my taste:

  • I like unfinished paintings, sketches and cartoons, where the image/work/composition is struggling to emerge, struggling to create order and beauty from the chaos of perception, or has the pathos and fragility of incompletion
  • I like firm lines which define the subject, especially the human subject, as in Degas or van Gogh
  • I like works which contain black blacks: for some reason its presence makes the entire work seem deeper, as if the spectrum from a really deep black to the light which reveals the object is wider, the experience of the colours on the canvas or wood, deeper and richer.

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Other museums and galleries

Maggi Hambling: War Requiem & Aftermath @ King’s College London

The Inigo Rooms at Somerset House are hosting an exhibition of recent work by one of Britain’s most established artists, Maggi Hambling CBE.

(The Inigo Rooms are reached through a doorway in the East Wing of the main quad of Somerset House – which is itself accessed either via a grand archway from the Strand or via the river terrace, linked directly to Waterloo Bridge by a sloping ramp.)

Aftermath

To see the exhibition you have to climb down an atmospheric old winding staircase to a long, narrow, darkened corridor with five rooms off it. Each room is sealed by a heavy wooden door giving an eerie Alice in Wonderland effect. But on pedestals the length of the corridor you can immediately see some of the 30 or so Aftermath works, all about human head-size, sitting on four-foot-high pedestals, spotlit in the darkness.

Hambling was born and raised in East Anglia and the sea is a big presence in her work. Probably her most famous – and controversial – piece is the four-metre-high steel sculpture of a seashell, Scallop, unveiled at the north end of Aldeburgh beach in 2003.

Aftermath is the name she’s given to a series of relatively small sculptures, begun in 2013. She’s taken driftwood from the shore, carved and reformed the pieces, coated them in plaster to soften the outlines and to create a dripping, molten look – and then cast them in bronze, and painted and repainted them with thick gloopy layers of paint. They’ve been subject, in other words, to quite radical transformations.

Installation view of the Aftermath sculptures

Installation view of the Aftermath sculptures

What is art if not an act of attention – the creation of an object or sounds or series of words – which themselves command attention? Quite how much attention is entirely up to the strolling viewer.

Walking down the corridor past ten or so of these strange, melted gargoyle shapes painted purple or blue-white or yellow – and then into a room full of twenty or so more – their sheer abundance liberates the viewer to window-shop and alight on this or that object as whims of light, angles or curves, catch your fancy.

Because one hanging on the wall at the start is shaped like a pig’s head, and the next one is a bright yellow glutinous object with tubes protruding which could be a heart, I wondered if they were going to be visions from an abattoir, and that that would be the link with the overall war theme of the exhibition.

But as I explored further I realised that they are far more diverse than that, in shape and colour and intention. I liked:

War Requiem II

The sign on the heavy wooden door advises that only one visitor at a time should enter the War Requiem II room, so I turned the handle and entered with trepidation.

It is a small room made smaller by four wall-sized panels of rough hardboard, on which are hanging about 20 abstract oil paintings all using the same thick swirls of Indian yellow and jet black oil paint to create tortured gashes.

Maybe – I thought – they are the fires burning up out of the oil deliberately released by Saddam Hussein during the First Gulf War.

In fact they have titles like Victim XXX and Battlefield XVIII, from which I realise they are intended to be much more figurative than at first appeared.

Battlefield XVIII by Maggi Hambling

Battlefield XVIII by Maggi Hambling

From loudspeakers overhead comes the haunting, swooning sound of the soprano singing the Lacrymosa from Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

The room contains an old wooden chair to sit on and also two mirrors, all three objects lightly flecked with the same colours as the paintings.

Maybe as we walk round the small space we are meant to catch our reflection in the mirrors and think these victims of atrocity could be us.

You are the sea

At the end of the long dark Alice in Wonderland-style corridor is another heavy door with a minatory sign on it warning entrants to be prepared.

Inside another small room is a two-metre-wide concrete drainage pipe, placed on its side to form a circular seat. The mouth of the pipe is covered with a metal grille and the whole thing is a recreation of a vent from one of the many drainage systems which cover Hambling’s native East Anglia. Apparently, this one is a replica of part of the sluice at Thorpeness, built to prevent the sea flooding the river Hundred and, more metaphorically, from rushing in to overwhelm the land.

There’s a loudspeaker in the pipe and from it comes a recording of the seasounds, the remote booming and breaking of waters far below, which you can hear in the real vent. And mixed into the swashing, crashing sounds are fragments of speech, phonemes torn from Hambling’s 2009 poem You Are The Sea.

Dominating the wall is one of her very large Wall of water paintings – as so often she’s painted a series on the same theme – thick garottes of oil paint depicting the unruly element which threatens to wash us away.

Figurative

Those were the highlights. In other rooms are more obviously representational works. A vivid charcoal copy of a detail of Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian stands as their mascot, reopening the possibility of an immediately understandable figurative art. They include:

  • A large striking painting of a line of women in black burqas holding rocket launchers – Gulf women prepare for war – taken from a photograph, a snapshot of the absurdity and incongruity of a war which is still raging.
  • Cuddling skulls evocative depiction of a timeless theme for moralists.

In the 1990s Hambling created a series of bronze sculptures titled War coffin – consisting of small frames with fragments of metal dangling down – and the figurative room contains a TV on a pedestal showing a video which features the sound of the metal pieces knocking each other like wind chimes – an eerie tinkling which echoes down the darkened corridor.

Comment

For me the Requiem room didn’t really work, much though I liked the individual paintings: they felt too samey hung together, their similitude drained them of impact.

By contrast the walls of water paintings seemed to me to successfully vary a theme or subject and a style, ensuring visual consistency by the use of the same palette of whites and greys, but producing lots of new and fresh images.

They were helped by their scale. Whereas the victim paintings are all small and close to each other in the viewer’s field of vision, and so have a similar affect, the big walls of water had more space in which to express the variety of the canvases. You had to physically turn to address each one individually, which involved a slight but important mental adjustment as well.

But in my opinion it is worth visiting the show just to see the Aftermath pieces, to wander among these strange combinations of accident and artifice, and let the shapes and colours and configurations sink in, striking chords in your mind, opening visual and tactile possibilities. God, I wish artists let you touch their sculptures!


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