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A Refuge for Genius
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In Monet’s Footsteps
An American in London
Lesser-known, Home-grown
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SISLEY by the Thames
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In 1870 all the principal characters in the movement, which would later be called Impressionism, were working prolifically in the highly-charged atmosphere of Paris, undeniably a hothouse of creativity. They all had their confrontations with the art establishment of the Second Empire of Napoleon III but whatever their political views may have been, there was now a far more deadly foe on their doorstep. The political and territorial ambitions of the rulers of France and Germany led to armed conflict in July and within a matter of weeks the Emperor had been comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Sedan. This ended his reign but did not end the war. France became a republic and the advance of German forces continued to the suburbs of Paris.

Some artists such as Manet and Renoir chose to stay and play their part in uniform and indeed one of the brightest stars of the early movement, Frédéric Bazille, lost his life at the tragically early age of 28. Manet was witness to the privations of the siege of the city and its surrender and later to the chaos of the Paris Commune. Renoir’s brief military career ended with a dangerous bout of dysentry and he returned to Paris during the desperate days of the Commune. This shambolic regime with revolutionary aspirations continued until May 1871 when forces of the new French government finally defeated the insurgents in shocking and bloody confrontation on the streets of the city.

Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley had to flee their homes and both artists lost much of their early work, destroyed by the occupying Prussian army. The exact whereabouts of the Sisley household during the war are not known but Pissarro and his young family took flight, first to Brittany and then to England in December 1870. He already had family connections in the southeast suburbs of London with his mother and four of her grandchildren living in West Dulwich, his elder brother, Alfred and family in West Norwood and also a cousin nearby. It is likely that his mother arranged accommodation for Camille and his family in the area. The semi-rural surroundings had much in common with Pontoise and Louveciennes on the outskirts of Paris where Pissarro had lived and worked and he quickly picked up the threads of his work. Prolific as ever, Pissarro set to work on a series of canvases of the local area, continuing his development as a painter of the fleeting effects of weather and atmosphere on the landscape. During this period of exile, his mother must have come to terms with her son’s relationship with his non-Jewish partner, and she finally gave permission for him to marry. The ceremony took place at Croydon Register Office in June 1871. They stayed in the area for a few more weeks until it seemed safe to return to France, but it was then that Pissarro discovered the loss of maybe as many as 1400 paintings, destroyed or looted. Within a few months he moved his family to Pontoise where he established himself as the ‘father-figure’ of the Impressionist movement. Pissarro made many more visits to England and his son Lucien became a permanent resident, while other members of his extensive family, many of them artists, also chose to live and work in England. Some of their descendants continue his artistic legacy to this day.

Just before hostilities started in July 1870 Monet had married his partner Camille Doncieux and they went to Trouville in Normandy for their honeymoon. Keen to avoid conscription, Monet fled to England in September and was soon joined by his wife and child. The family first found rented rooms close to Picadilly Circus but soon moved to an address in Kensington. The accommodation would have been fairly basic and life was probably a fairly hand-to-mouth affair. The family were to spend about six months in London but Monet’s output of paintings was very limited perhaps indicating a difficult time mentally. A couple of years before while plagued by all-to-familiar money troubles he had attempted suicide and these financial problems must have followed him to London. In addition, for the first few months of his stay he undoubtedly felt alone in a foreign city with a poor understanding of the language. It was also at this time that he learned of his father’s death in January 1871. Monet tried to exhibit some of his recent paintings at the Royal Academy but was rejected, a cruel echo of his relationship with the official Salon in Paris. The River Thames obviously fascinated him with its splendour and squalor, its majestic public buildings and teeming commerce. This artery of empire with all its attendant human activity was an irrestistable subject for someone working to capture something of the essence of life in the context of the modern world. Other subjects that he worked on were people taking their leisure in Hyde and Green Parks and the few paintings which resulted from this sojourn in London have taken their place in the artists development as the master of Impressionism. It also laid the foundations of an enduring affection for the city which he was to visit many times in later life, in rather more style and comfort than this first expedition, when humble rented rooms and indifference were replaced by the luxury of the Savoy hotel and celebrity status.

Monet’s feelings of isolation in those early weeks of exile were alleviated by a chance encounter with Charles Daubigny, another artist taking refuge from the hostilities at home. Although he came from a slightly older generation of painters and is recognised as one of the leading members of the Barbizon School, he was well-known and respected by the ‘young Turks’ of the ‘new  school’. Indeed, he later became friends with Pissarro, Cézanne, Sisley and others and championed their cause by getting some of their work accepted by the official Salon. Daubigny’s brooding visions of the industrial Thames with its warehouses and barges, rendered in sombre tones, are in complete contrast to the almost idyllic paintings of the river near his home at Auvers-sur-Oise.

Daubigny offered to introduce Monet to the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who had also fled to London with much of his stock of paintings and was preparing a show at a gallery in Bond Street. He agreed to include one of Monet’s recent paintings in the show and so began a relationship which was to prove vital for the artist’s later success. Durand-Ruel was a visionary dealer and it was his support and encouragement that sustained many of the Impressionists through periods of financial difficulty and rejection by the art establishment. Durand-Ruel had already met Pissarro and agreed to include two of his ‘Norwood’ pictures in the exhibition. Until this time Monet had been unaware that his friend Pissarro was in England but now the two were able to meet and share some of the experiences of exile. They met frequently and visited galleries and museums together, where they were particularly impressed by the work of Turner and Constable. There was also an early meeting with the American artist James McNeill Whistler. They probably recognised qualities and aspirations in each other that was to lead to an exchange of ideas and influences over many years to come.

Several other artists had joined the exodus from Paris in order to avoid conscription and also in the hope of finding a more lucrative and dependable market for their work. Among these were François Bonvin and Jean-Léon Gérôme, both artists from a slightly older and more established generation. Indeed Gérôme was already an honorary member of the Royal Academy and showed work there in 1870 and 1871.

Another refugee who arrived after the fall of the Paris Commune was James Tissot who, as an ex-communard, was worried about possible retribution meted out by the new government of the Third Republic. He was probably also keen to find a more profitable market for his work and he already had extensive connections in England and was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy. His choice of subject matter was fashionable London life with slightly erotic undertones and this was in complete contrast to the work of Monet and Pissarro who chose to depict everyday life, ‘warts and all’. Tissot stayed in England until about 1882 and profited enormously from his popular style.

Finally, this group of Frenchmen would no doubt be aware of their countryman, Gustave Doré, who spent much of his time in England in the late 1860’s and 1870’s. Infact there was a gallery in Bond Street dedicated to his work. He was well-respected as an illustrator and engraver and at this time he was working on a series of images which would be published in ‘London: A Pilgrimage’ in 1872. This was an uncompromising work of social commentary on the city, portraying the gritty reality of life with all its disparities of class, wealth and environment. Vincent Van Gogh was much influenced by his work and referred to him as an ‘Artist of the People’ who recorded the reality of contemporary life and made it available to the masses. He never received the recognition he deserved in his homeland and spent most of his final years in England where his unique talent was appreciated.

By clicking on most of the images you will be taken directly to the appropriate website to view the painting at a better resolution.

Paul Durand-Ruel