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Move over Impressionism…the British are (finally) coming

France doesn’t have much time for British 19th century art, so the exhibition now on in Paris is a big risk

The once neglected  British “rivals” to the French Impressionists have finally achieved  a place of honour in the birthplace of Impressionism.

From this weekend, Parisians can discover the most varied collection of British paintings from the second half of the 19th century ever to cross the Channel ... or, rather, the Atlantic. All 50 works in the exhibition – including paintings by John Millais and Edward Burne-Jones but also by relatively “forgotten” artists such as Albert Moore and John Strudwick – come from a private collection in Mexico.

“This is a great risk. We don’t know how the French public will react,” said Véronique Gerard-Powell, curator of the exhibition. “The typical exhibition-goers in Paris – women especially – like to see what they know, such as the Impressionists. They are almost completely ignorant of British  19th-century art.”

There have been exhibitions in France of the work of individual British artists, such as Burne-Jones, in recent years. But the last time that British 19th-century art was given a generic show in Paris was at the Great Exhibition in 1900 – and then not all the principal names were represented. Why the neglect? 

“Compared with Impressionism, the British movement turned out to be a dead end. Or so it seemed,” Ms Gerard-Powell said. “From the early 20th century, their work was despised in France but also despised in Britain.”

The dozen painters in the exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André until 20 January cover the period 1860-1914, the end of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and the coming of the Aesthetic Movement. Like their contemporaries in France – the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists – the British painters turned away from the traditional 18th- and 19th-century approaches to art.

There the comparison ends. The British artists looked back to the supposedly golden ages of medieval and ancient times. Their paintings were dizzyingly bright and detailed.

The French Impressionists embraced modernity. They painted trains and factory chimneys as well as poppies and haystacks. They played with subtle tricks of natural light, trying to define the essence of a scene, not its surface detail.

“The Impressionists led to another movement which led to another, and so on,” said Ms Gerard-Powell. “They were the beginning of modern art. The British painters seemed to lead nowhere, except to the Symbolist movement, which was itself a cul-de-sac.”

Since the 1970s, and especially since the 1990s, the reputation of the British painters in the Paris exhibition has risen – in some cases, risen from the dead. The composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, a great collector of British 19th-century art, tells how his grandmother refused him a loan of £50 to buy Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June from a shop in the 1960s.

“I will not have Victorian junk in my flat,” she told him. Paintings by Leighton (1830-1896) can now sell for more than £1m. One of his most admired paintings, Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea, is in the show.

In November 2010, Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s The Finding of Moses was sold for $36m, shattering the record for any 19th-century European painting, including the work of the Impressionists. Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), born in Holland and naturalised British, is well represented in the Jacquemart-André exhibition.

Provincial art galleries in Britain are beginning to move their “Victorian junk”, such as work by York-born Albert Moore (1841-1893), out of their basements, giving it pride of place. A painting regarded as one of Moore’s masterpieces, A Quartet, a Painter’s Tribute to the Art of Music, is in the Paris show.

Like the others on display, it was acquired relatively cheaply, in the 1990s, by the Mexican billionaire businessman and art lover Juan Antonio Perez Simon, whose eclectic private collection of 3,000 works is one of the biggest in the world.

Why the revival in interest in British 19th-century art? In the art market it began, says Ms Gerard-Powell, with rich collectors in Hollywood, who adored the cinematic brightness and epic character of some of the canvasses. The paintings also appeal to Latin American and Middle Eastern tastes. The $36m painting ended up in Qatar.

Artistically, Ms Gerard-Powell says, the paintings have proved not to be such a dead end after all. The concept of beauty and art for its own sake has found, she says, many echoes in contemporary art. The curator chose women and beauty as the theme of the exhibition, which is called “Désirs et Volupté a l’époque victorienne” (“Desire and Voluptuousness in the Victorian era”). The British artists’ obsession with beauty for its own sake often turned towards female beauty. However, as Ms Gerard-Powell points out, the women are often portrayed as strong, unlike those in much Victorian literature.

The exhibition goes on to Madrid and Rome and may come to Leighton House, Lord Leighton’s former London home, at the end of 2014. How is it going down with the French? There was a steady stream of visitors on the first day. “It is very bizarre,” said Charlotte, a regular exhibition visitor. “It is very beautiful but very cold. It doesn’t move me.”