EXHIBITIONS / Great little masterclass: The history of the petits maitres of French painting has long been overlooked in this country. But three exhibitions in London offer a chance to catch up

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S a lot of French painting in London at the moment, and much pleasure to be found in it. I suppose that pride of place must be given to the pictures from the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Lille, now lent to the National Gallery, which I wrote about last month. But this was rather a severe selection, full of civic and republican virtues. Now, in welcome contrast, we see the relaxed and hedonistic side of French art, in the form of Boudin at the Courtauld Institute Galleries, Braque's prints at the Tate and a lovely mixed show of paintings and drawings at JPL Fine Art in Davies Street.

The JPL pictures - broadly, from Vuillard to Picasso and Leger - have all the richness and poise that belong to the final stages of a long tradition. And the course of French painting, from the early 1600s to 1939 with scarcely a break, is one of the great developments in Western art. It's also, for the British, a neighbourly tradition, so disappointment is the greater that no English writer has ever attempted to write a major book about the nature of French visual culture. We know about it piecemeal.

Such a book might explain to us why the French have so many of the painters they call petits maitres, and also why there were so many of them towards the end of the 19th century, the golden age of minor art. Characteristically, they are painters of large and sometimes superb confidence, who have a contemporary eye, possess lots of charm, who produce abundantly but have no great ambitions. Perhaps, in England, they would be watercolourists? However that may be, petits maitres are artists that the French are happy to possess; and the Courtauld Institute now invites us to examine one of the best loved of them, Eugene Boudin, and his work at Trouville, the resort on the Normandy coast just across the Seine estuary from Le Havre.

Brought up in the Channel port, Boudin followed a quite different profession (in the stationery business) before he became a painter, and no doubt there was something of the small businessman in his attitude to art. Obviously he liked Trouville, and no one can look at these pictures without feeling that he was lovingly devoted to the craft of painting. At the same time he cannily realised that there was a living to be made from the new popularity of Trouville as a resort. Practically all the people in his pictures are holidaymakers and almost without exception they are seen on the beach or the promenade. Though we don't see their individual features, their fashions are accurately depicted and were always kept up to date. Boudin had a sort of courteous intimacy with his subjects. For, of course, they also formed his clientele.

Boudin is restricted, both in his social view of the world and in his aesthetic. In one large matter, though, he had a boundless desire for something that art can never attain, complete faithfulness to the nature of sea and sky. 'I feel this vastness, this delicacy, the brilliant light which transforms everything . . . and I can't make my muddle of colours convey this.' The heavens and the deep, conveniently viewed from the shoreline, meant more to Boudin than to any other painter of his day. Here was a perfectly reasonable petit-bourgeois longing, not far removed from the feelings of the amateur artist. Boudin could not give himself utterly to nature. Had he done so, nature herself would have forced his painting into struggle and metaphysics, things unknown to the petit-maitre mentality. But it's appropriate that Boudin should have encouraged a younger artist who did enter such areas, Monet.

The classic Impressionist never failed to praise the kindly Boudin, who had taken him on walks and encouraged him to paint what he saw. So the older painter is in reference books both as a naturalist and as a precursor of the first modern movement. The Courtauld show demonstrates his strengths, which are in touch and atmospheric colour. Trouville is always there, but I doubt if one would mistake a Boudin even if the town were not recognisable. His low horizons always give room for breezy, open spaces of sky and cloud, handled as though light and air were almost grasped. He must have learnt a lot, consciously or not, from a genre he did not work in - still life. I also see a slight but telling influence from Parisian illustration. But Boudin did not allow his way of observing modern habits to take over his pictures. That would have led to a different kind of art: and this petit maitre was masterly because he knew his limits.

Still life is the main theme of the JPL show called Fleurs et Natures Mortes. Here are 70 works by 27 French artists, none of them tremendous in intention or impact: but they're so good, full of painterly lore and unashamed in their desire to please. This is an underrated quality, perhaps because it's instinctive in so many French artists, as well as Picasso. He contributes a little picture of a jug and an apple, done in 1938 - not a good year for Picasso, nor indeed for the world. It plays with still-life convention and with the work of his former Cubist comrade Braque. Only Picasso could mock the Norman master, in art or life, but this is also a sophisticated homage.

There are more homages in French than in English art, also more sophistication. Another theme for my absent writer to explore. She or he might also consider why flower painting is so powerful in the French tradition, while the Brits tend to leave the genre to amateurs. We feel it to be the sprightly, living and burgeoning side of the still-life genre. Vuillard's flower pictures are among the most sensitive in the show. I enjoyed the early pre-Cubist Dufy. Connoisseurs of Cubism will note the drawings by Gris and an abandoned, brave canvas by Roger de la Fresnaye. Don't go without looking in the window next door at Lumley Cazalet, which has a magnificent unfinished Matisse, an odalisque from his Nice period.

At the Tate are prints by Braque, mostly taken from his own collection and therefore treasured by the artist as well as his admirers. There are gaps and some longueurs but the graphic work covers most of his career and at its best is superb. I find the later work the most moving and wish that we could have a well-chosen exhibition of Braque in the post-war years. Some people think that his paintings of the Forties were too laborious, that he bore down on them too much. One still life in the JPL show might support this view. But Braque's lithography is by its nature free of heavy-handedness with brush or palette knife. Indeed, the sombre but silky surfaces put these prints among Braque's most elevated productions.

There is something heavenly in the artist's plainness. Braque's still-life prints haven't the same character as his comparable paintings. Their song is clearer and wider. It's known that Braque deliberated on them for long periods and that his attention to tone occupied his printers through many workshop sessions. The results have the beautiful look of art that is quite unmeditated. Birds, teapots and lemons are emblems of another and more elevated life - though of course we know them to be as ordinary as the kitchen and the bottom of the garden.

I am less sure about the prints Braque made between the wars. Their stamp loses force as they become complicated and silhouetted shapes tend to wander. Nor are the Cubist prints entirely satisfactory. The best is a mysterious work in which we find the letters FOX and another in which BASS and PAL may be discerned. They refer to Picasso's and Braque's liking for a couple of English-run Parisian bars. Here the Cubists talked the night away, and I wish my English writer had been with them.

Boudin: Courtauld Institute (071-873 2526) to 4 May. 'Fleurs et Natures Mortes': JPL, 26 Davies St W1 (071-493 2630) to 19 May. Braque: Tate (071-821 1313) to 27 June.

(Photographs omitted)