mARTSm; Impressionists v Salon: the winners by a canvas

How can artists from the same period - the Impressionists and the Salon painters - be so different? A new show explains
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The Independent Culture
THE PUBLIC appetite for Impressionist painting seems insatiable. The Hayward Gallery's new exhibition "Landscapes of France: Impressionism and its Rivals" both caters for this taste and helps to explain its origins. The basic idea of the show is to contrast the work of Pissarro, Monet, Renoir and other masters with the more official painting that was displayed in the Paris Salon. The result is much as we would have guessed. The academic art is stiff, formal, without life. Over it all hangs a cloud of pessimism. By contrast, Impressionist painting is spontaneous and free, surely issuing from a more direct love of nature.

There's a great deal of this nature to consider, for the exhibition - which fills the whole of the Hayward Gallery, and is therefore pretty large - confines itself to landscape. By the end of the third room one does begin to have a longing for human activity, nudes, portraits and so on. Occasionally, of course, there's a shepherd in sight, a crone gathering sticks, quite a number of cowgirls in their peasant bonnets; but still the general view is rather empty. It's as though France were a largely untenanted country. Add the predilection among Salon painters for dawn and twilight scenes and we have the feeling of France without French society, an eternal land whose soil will always be productive and whose rural nature will never change.

Such myths were popular in the 30 years between 1860 and 1890 that are examined at the Hayward. John House, who advised the show and has written most of its valuable catalogue, introduces us to French conservative attitudes that obviously had much bearing on landscape. But the political story is more complex. In the 1860s, House points out, there was a fair amount of vigorous painting within Salon art. It was supported and distributed. Landscape paintings were often purchased by the state, then placed in museums and other public buildings. After 1871, the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune, the state bought far fewer landscapes, preferring old-fashioned history paintings; but from 1879 a new republican government was disposed to patronise both open-air painting and "modern" subject matter.

The familiar story of the rise and triumph of Impressionism is now set against this background with, for the first time, the visual evidence. Very few of us will be familiar with the Salon artists. It must be said that their pictures are the ones we walk past most rapidly when visiting provincial French museums. None the less we must try to find good things in them. Take Jules Noel's The Port of Brest, shown in the Salon in 1864 and immediately purchased by the state for the museum at La Rochelle, another port on the Atlantic coast. This picture self-consciously refers to the tradition of naval painting established by Joseph Vernet a century earlier, but it has a good deal of contemporary life in it and some attempt at virtuoso detail.

Is this enough to make it a successful picture? House now digs into his store of faint praise, as he so often has to do when describing Salon pictures, and comments that "the figures are closely and at times wittily defined and the play of light is carefully observed. The space can be read with surprising clarity ... " and so on. Still we are not convinced. Whatever the merits of its execution, the painting does not feel authentic. The painter's brush is a sensitive instrument. It tells us when an artist is being merely functional, and the great fault of French Salon painting is of this sort. It is painting by decree and rote.

Many things separate Impressionist painting from academicism, but landscape art emphasises that the crucial difference was in touch. At its best, Impressionist handwriting is one of the wonders of modern Western art. And it led to so many other things, as academic art did not. Freer application liberated colour, let in light and air, allowed the painter to have a more varied and delicate relationship to the canvas. The new touch evidently bestowed happy skills on artists who were not quite of the first rank. Berthe Morisot is an example. Her native talent was limited (whatever feminists say). But her three paintings at the Hayward present an art of increasing vivacity and confidence. The earliest of them is the 1869 Harbour of Lorient, still rather bound to the solidity of mid-century painting. By 1875 her justly celebrated Laundresses Hanging Out the Wash is almost the work of a different person: daring, insouciant and very clever.

Manet helped her most, as we know, but he scarcely appears in this exhibition. The show does not pretend to give a coherent survey of Im-pressionism. Its interest lies in contrasts, for after a time one wearies of looking at the Salon paintings for their own sake. As an example of the academic sensibility at its most null and frozen House presents Jean-Paul Flandrin's Souvenir of Provence. Here is an imitation of a 17th-century painting. And yet the 17th century could not have produced a painting such as this, for it has the additional sheen of a modern vulgarity, horribly evident in its enamelled surface and the depiction of sunlight and shadow. How smooth it all is, how accomplished and yet so false ...

I feel some enmity toward Flandrin's painting but wouldn't claim that all Salon art was the work of the forces of darkness. It simply wasn't very good. No doubt that House has searched widely for good Salon art as well as representative examples of its academic traditions. He's come up with some telling paintings, but none of really high quality. The more interesting of these pictures are by Paul Muet, Paul Gigou, Emmanuel Lansyer, Jules Laurens and Henri Harpignies. These artists were all successful and well-known at one time. But little in their canvases makes one wish to seek out more of their work. And perhaps that is precisely because we are considering landscapes. The genre has an inbuilt disposition towards sameness. Surely such painters might show more nimbleness of mind if their subjects were of sophisticated men and women in modern cities.

One way of approaching this mixture of a show is to look for signs of high intelligence in its contributors. One might contrast Gauguin with Cezanne, the young man coming to Impression-ism with a brilliant, intuitive, grasping and ruthless mind, Cezanne with a deliberate majesty of intellect. There's a section of the show given to his paintings that's quite awe- inspiring. Again, one notices the importance of touch. Impres-sionist handling was not simply spontaneous or dashing. In some masters it had a massive deliberation. This seriousness is very evident in Pissarro, who looks at his best throughout the show, is there in Guillaumin but most of all in Cezanne's paintings of Auvers and Pontoise.

The paintings in this intriguing exhibition tell us a lot about late- 19th-century French art. Especially we are instructed about landscape as a vehicle for thoughtful discussion of la patrie. Yet it would be wrong to consider the show with books and politics too much in mind. Time and again, we are reminded that Impres-sionism's great gift to its audience lies in hedonism and sensuality. Salon painting could not give these pleasures to anyone. The most relaxed and lovely paintings come from Renoir. What an admirable sybarite he was, painting's patron saint of all that is delicious!

! 'Landscapes of France': Hayward Gallery, SE1 (0171 261 0127) to 28 August.