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.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London