Do politics and war leave their imprints on artistic creations? Or do painters just go ahead with their work, indifferent to these phenomena? We have already discussed this enigma in our description of Picasso’s famous work ‘Guernica’. But this time the Petit Palais in Paris is going through the unusual and little-known legend of a group of French impressionists who had crossed the English Channel in order to escape a massive military conflict in their own country. As a consequence, they ended up creating a series of incredibly inventive works in London.
Claude Monet, Camille Pissaro, James Tissot, Gieuseppe de Nittis, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Alfred Sisley, Charles-François Daubigny, Jean Legros, Jules Dalou and André Derain had left France following the Prussian invasion in 1870 and had stayed and worked in London despite the fact that many British museums had refused either to buy their paintings or arrange their exhibitions.
Recently, the Tate Gallery in London took the initiative to show these works under a new light, stressing the conditions under which they were created. Now for the first time in France, the Petit Palais is showing 140 of these paintings as well.
An exhibition in Petit Palais in Paris highlights the hitherto little known history of a group of impressionists’ exile in London
Isabelle Collet, the museum’s curator in-charge of the show, says organising the event was important in the sense that, though these works have since become well-known, not many art enthusiasts are aware of the historical details and ignore that the Prussian forces had defeated France in only a few months’ time.
Monet made up his mind when he was ordered to join the army and move to the front. As he only wanted to paint and do nothing else, he decided to take a boat and crossed the Channel instead with his family. He was met at the port by Daubigny who was among the first impressionist refugees in London. They were soon joined by Pissaro and others.
There are a number of critics and art historians who tend to believe that Monet changed his style after arriving in London. Collet says he always stuck to his own technique — though his London works show a great deal of fog, rains and snow instead of the scenes under clear sunshine that he had created in southern France — and his style remained the same.
Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, the Tate curator who was a great help in organising the current Paris show, says it was Oscar Wilde who precisely described the phenomenon in his own particular way by saying that Londoners became aware of their fog for the first time only after seeing Monet’s paintings.
Collet says the refugee French impressionist painters’ attraction to London’s atmospheric scenes later had its effect on the British artists as well who, until this period, had considered the only way to paint landscapes was to show the sunshine. William Turner and Thomas Gainsborough’s pieces from 1874 onwards reflect the French Impressionists’ influence.
Corbeau-Parsons adds that though most of these painters returned to France when the war was over, a few like Tissot, Dalou and Legros stayed for many more years in London.
“The Impressionists in London” is being displayed at the Petit Palais, Champs Elysées in Paris from June 21 to October 14, 2018
The writer is an art critic based in Paris
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 14th, 2018