Art; the Road to Impressionism

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Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

The Wallace Collection Hertford House, Manchester Square, W1 (020-7563 9500) Until Sun 3 Aug

Roll up! Roll up! New exhibition at the Wallace Collection! At the Wallace Collection? At the place that all who know it well want to keep to themselves as a haven shut off from the hoi polloi of London's tourist trade?

What is the director thinking of with this circus-barker business promising a 'spectacular exhibition' of the birth of Impressionism, the 'major outcome of an exciting new partnership between the Wallace Collection and the Bowes Museum', 300 miles away in Teesdale? Are these two sleepy old ladies of our museum world really kicking up their heels in a careless cancan to attract more visitors?

Of visitor numbers at the Bowes Museum I know nothing. I observe, in passing, that the museum is in Durham only by chance. John Bowes and Josephine, his French wife, originally intended it to be in Calais. A day's journey away from the metropolis, a day's journey back, and a day of hard aesthetic work if the fine things in this 'Wallace Collection of the North' are to be absorbed, means spending two nights on lumpy mattresses and eating Yorkshire pudding. Utterly incongruous and inappropriate in its moorland setting, this Louvre-like chateau contains wonderful ceramics, particularly from Meissen and Sevres, fine glass, fine tapestries, indifferent furniture and more than a thousand paintings - by Tiepolo, Goya, El Greco, Boucher, Giordano, Sassetta, Oudry and all sorts of rarities and obscurities.

It is from among these last, the obscurities, that the Wallace Collection has borrowed 21 of the 26 small paintings that form this 'spectacular exhibition... illustrating the story of how this popular artistic movement (Impressionism) was born in 19th-century France'. Here, I admit, is a respectable landscape at Ornans by Courbet (one of many), a trifle too late in the day, the light dying amid almost opaque dark greens, with not a hint of Impressionism in it. Here is a beach scene by Boudin (one of many), again so late in the day that one wonders why the silly women shelter under parasols. We all know that Monet sat at Boudin's knee, but this wretched example hardly makes that point.

And here too is a still life (one of many) by Fantin-Latour who, though more a Symbolist, was at least on the fringe of Impressionism, but it is a disjointed composition, with one viewpoint for a vase of flowers and another for fruit that has tumbled from an upturned basket. In the narcissi the handling of paint is swift and assured, but it is with a hesitant weaving of brushstrokes into unlikely textures that Fantin struggled to communicate the forms of pears and apples. Was there ever an uglier example of this usually accomplished artist's work? It is more on the road to Cubism than Impressionism.

And we have, too, a little Corot (one of many), an absolutely typical thing of wispy trees against the light, two cows and a peasant woman wearing Corot's essential touch of red to set the subtle greens alive. …