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Monday, September 3, 2012

English Impressionism

The Thames Below Westminster, 1871, Claude Monet, in refuge from war.
Invariably, when we think of Impressionism, we automatically think of French Impressionism. This is only natural in that the style originated there. But it's only to be expected that once such an innovative approach to painting and color took hold, it would eventually spread worldwide. There came to be American Impressionism, English Impressionism, even little known schools of Spanish and Italian Impressionism to name just a few. The first step beyond the shores of France was a small one, a couple hours ferry ride across the channel to England, but it was not one that came easily. It was a move forced upon the French school by war--the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Impressionists such as Daubigny, Monet, and Pissarro, among others, sought refuge in London when life in besieged Paris became untenable. And, while they found the London area landscape to be most beautiful, intriguing, and a joy to paint, the public response to their work was, as one of them put it, " Paris of 25 years ago." It was a good place to paint but one wouldn't want to live there...perhaps even couldn't live there. As several of the refugee Frenchmen noted, in London, art was about money. English artists painted only what would sell, and to no one's surprise, there was little or no market for the impressionist's painted "sketches." Once the war was over, the impressionists were only too glad to get back home.

Nocturne in Blue and Silver, 1871, James McNeill Whistler. Same river, same year,
it's not hard to see Manet's influence, though it's likely the artists influenced one another.
Impressionism in England thus revolves around one man, who ironically, isn't usually thought of as an impressionist--James McNeill Whistler. Not only was Whistler not an impressionist per se, he wasn't even French. He was American, born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the son of a railroad engineer working in Russia. Thus he had such a cosmopolitan upbringing one could imagine him as being a man without a country. And, though Whistler was undoubtedly influenced to a degree by the impressionists, and at times adopted their painting style, his own style, which he labelled "Aestheticism," was much to strong to be dominated by anything as ephemeral as Impressionism. With as many ties to London as Paris, Whistler was thus a bridge between France and England, his personality so strong as to attract a whole corps of English artists, among them Walter Richard Sickert, William Scott, Theodore Roussel, Sidney Starr (bottom), Mortimer Menpes, and Edward Atkinson Hornel - they became the English Impressionists.

Charing Cross Bridge, 1899, Claude Monet,
painted when Monet returned to London.

View of the Thames, Charing Cross
Bridge, 1874, Alfred Sisley, after the war.

Later, once there developed a modest market for Impressionism in England, due largely to the efforts of dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, there flowed back across the channel several true French Impressionists such as Alfred Sisley and Berthe Morisot. Durand-Ruel had, during the war, purchased several Impressionist paintings by Monet, Pissarro, and others. These he had shown around the country in various exhibitions in the years after the war, sparking interest amongst younger British artists, if not the public at large, in the new movement. Thus it could be said, despite fierce resistance from the critics (principally Ruskin) and the British art establishment (primarily, of course, the Royal Academy) Impressionism sort of "infiltrated," almost surreptitiously, into the fringe of British art during the last twenty years of the Victorian period. But surprisingly, given its antecedents in the work of J. M. W. Turner, Impressionism took longer to "catch on" in England than it did an ocean away in  the U.S. Impressionism in America was quite popular well before the turn of the century. In England, despite Turner, Durand-Ruel, Whistler and all his followers, it never achieved this degree of popularity.

The City Atlas, 1888-90, Sidney Starr, Impressionism takes root in England.

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