London’s big impression on escaping French artists


The exhibition explores the influence London had on escaping Parisian artists

The lasting popularity of the classic Impressionist paintings has made Monet’s garden a major tourist attraction.

But an important exhibition opening this week at Tate Britain shows that inspiration for the French artists came from much closer to home.

Impressionists In London: French Artists In Exile will show how the capital city became a magnet for Gallic artists who came to London to escape the Franco Prussian War, which sent France into a crisis and turned Paris into a hotbed of radical socialism.

The Prussian Siege of Paris lasted until January 1871, when citizens were so starving they were eating pets and zoo animals.

Then the revolutionary Paris Commune seized power from March to May, when it was bloodily suppressed by the French army.

The Tate BritainGETTY

Impressionists In London: French Artists In Exile will be showing at the Tate Britain this week

Anyone would think there never were any painters and artists in Paris

Theodore Duret

A rarely-seen watercolour in the show by James Tissot shows dead Communards – supporters of the Commune – at the foot of a wall.

No wonder artists, who had already been under threat of censorship, wanted to escape.

Art critic and Impressionist supporter Theodore Duret said: “The horror and terror are still everywhere. Paris is empty and becoming emptier… anyone would think there never were any painters and artists in Paris.”

Caroline Courbet-Parsons, the show’s lead curator, explains: “Some artists went to Belgium, because of the language, but it was easy to come to London because of all the cross-Channel ferries.

“There were already artistic networks in place in the city with other French artists and teachers; friendships were made which led to relationships with art collectors.”

Paris SkylineGETTY

Artists were escaping to London from an increasingly hostile Paris

Impressionist artists came to Britain for different reasons. An impoverished Monet came with his wife and son to avoid being conscripted into the army.

Camille Pissarro came as the Prussians had invaded his home village of Louveciennes, turning his house into a stable, but he was fortunate in that his mother was already living in London and a move there meant he could marry Julie Vellay, mother of his children.

Julie had been the Pissarro family maid, and his mother would only sanction the marriage if it happened in London so nobody knew.

The pair were married in Croydon Register Office in 1871 and settled in south-east London where he painted a snowy Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, Sydenham Station and the newly-rebuilt Crystal Palace.

Tissot, too, was lucky on his arrival in London.


Camille Pissaro came to London after his home was invaded by Prussians

“In Paris he had already befriended the war reporter Thomas Gibson Bowles, who had become the editor of Vanity Fair magazine,” says Caroline.

“This meant Bowles was able to give Tissot an introduction into high society.”

Tissot entered a world far from that of the dead Communards, painting elegantly dressed ladies and society events such as his best-known work, The Ball On Shipboard.

He became popular with wealthy clients who paid him a fortune. He earned 94,000 francs in 1872, a sum only the upper classes were taking home.

Monet was not so lucky, says Caroline: “He had a very miserable time during his exile and in seven or eight months he only painted six works. He probably didn’t have the money for artists’ materials.”

The French artists who came to London found support in various ways.

Informally, their scene was centred around Soho, which became known as the “French ghetto”; their cafes and restaurants like the Café Royal and Maison Bertaux are still there today.

Formal support came from educators and dealers, who are vital to the Tate’s new exhibition.

A key figure was painter Alphonse Legros, professor of fine art at the Slade School in London.

“He had been in London for some time,” says Caroline, “and already had an artistic network that included the Pre-Raphaelites and patrons such as George Howard, ninth Earl of Carlisle, whom he introduced to sculptor Aimé-Charles Dalou.”

He was even commissioned by Queen Victoria to make a memorial sculpture to her grandchildren who had died in infancy for her private chapel in Windsor.

Art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel was also a key figure in London.

He moved there and opened a gallery in 1870, championing fellow exiles and purchasing 5,000 of their works himself, saving the artists from penury.

But they were not an easy sell to the London art scene, with Monet later reflecting: “England did not want any of our paintings. It was tough.”

Yet the French artists found inspiration in their London exile, painting wonderful landscapes, pictures that showed London’s lively social life and changing industries.


Pissaro’s Kew saw classes walking together in the park, something not seen in Paris

They keenly observed British social and cultural life, from Tissot’s paintings of the rich at leisure to ordinary people taking a walk in the park.

Pisarro’s Kew Green and Monet’s Hyde Park show all classes at leisure together and walking on the grass – something that would not have happened in the Paris of the time.

One of the show’s highlights is the presentation of six of Monet’s views of the Houses of Parliament, which he painted after he returned to France and had become very successful.

He could afford to stay at the London Savoy this time.

Monet paintingTATE BRITAIN

Monet was another acclaimed artist who fled to London

These pictures were painted in the evening, from a viewpoint on a terrace at St Thomas’ Hospital overlooking the Thames.

For all his lack of success when living in London, the Paris exhibition that Monet held of the 37 views he painted of the River Thames in 1904 was the most successful and profitable of his career so far.

He considered the Thames paintings to be some of his most important and technically challenging, showing the changing light and looming fog over the river.

“What I like most of all in London is the fog,” he wrote. “It is the fog that gives London its marvellous breadth. Its regular massive blocks become grandiose in this mysterious cloak.”