The London fog – it never looked more beautiful or provided greater inspiration than for Claude Monet when he decamped to London to escape the political violence of his home city, Paris in the 1970s. The most famous of the collection – and there are six of them together in this show – were painted over three consecutive winters at the turn of the 20th century and were completed in his studio in 1904. For Monet, the swirling mists which rose from the Thames and engulfed the riverside buildings and bridges provided the perfect subject for his fascination with the effects of light and atmosphere.
But Monet was just one of many artists who decamped to London during the final quarter of the 19th century. For illustration of why they left, the first gallery in this excellent show provides grisly and graphic evidence. James Tissot gives us some very strong and visceral clues to the murderous days following the Prussian invasion of Paris in 1870 and the Siege of Paris which caused appalling famine. This was followed by a popular uprising by the ‘communards’ – Parisians who felt furious with the behaviour of the Government – who were cruelly rounded up and executed. There’s a very graphic watercolour by Tissot of crumpled bodies at the bottom of a high wall while further victims rain down upon them.
London provided a safe haven and the ex-pat community of painters appear to have become close friends and looked out for one another. The sights of the city became a focus for their artwork. Some, like Alfred Sisley and Camille Pissarro enjoyed the look and feel of the suburbs where they lived. I’ve always adored the picture of Fox Hill in Upper Norwood and the railway station at Lordship Lane. It was a surprise and delight to see paintings by Pissarro of Kew Gardens, a cricket match on Kew Green as well as impressions of the centre such as the bright lights of Leicester Square by Monet and a chilly winter scene in Piccadilly by Guiseppe de Nittis
Tissot seems to have swiftly recreated his successful lifestyle in London establishing himself as a society portrait painter but also a recorder of aristocratic soirees and depicting wealthy people enjoying the finer things of life. But I was amused by a painting he made called Too Early, showing the blushes of the enthusiastic guests who have arrived FAR too early for a posh ball at a smart town house.
The exhibition introduced me to artists I confess I was unfamiliar with too: Alphonse Legros, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux and Jules Dalou are all spectacular sculptors. This marble sculpture of a mother with her baby, entitled La Berceuse (the Rocking Chair) by Dalou is intensely moving and a joy to walk round.
The exhibition concludes with three works by Andre Derain. Much younger than the established Impressionists, and arriving more for professional advancement than apparent flight from persecution, he brings a refreshing sense of colour and abandonment to his depictions of London. I really love the brightly coloured riverscapes which fill the final room. It’s a splendid send off from a show which is not only a visual joy but thought-provoking and historically fascinating.
The EY Exhibition: Impressionists in London runs from 2 November 2017 to 22 April 2018. http://www.tate.org.uk