When Constable Learned French

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Byline: PHILIP HENSHER

Constable To Delacroix: French Art And The British Romantics Tate Britain, London Until May 11 *****

This is not just an extraordinary show, but, I think, quite an important one.

It tries very hard to recreate a particular cultural moment, not just identify the important players with the wisdom of hindsight.

It attempts to show the exchanges between French and English painting at the beginning of the 19th Century as they would have seemed at the time. It focuses on the art from each country which made a direct impact on the other and on the attempts - not always successful, often embarrassing and inappropriate - to make sense of a foreign genius, to absorb it into a different tradition. It is absolutely fascinating.

The English painter who made the most lasting impact on French painting was Constable. At the Paris Salon in 1824, his art electrified the French establishment and many individual painters. Nothing so grand and free had ever been seen in French painting.

The French immediately tried to emulate Constable's visionary liberty, but if you want to see how difficult it was for them, take a look at a landscape by Huet. Bizarrely incoherent, Huet's painting has the Constable subject of a cottage by a stream, but Constable's freedom is translated into uncertain, smeary brushwork, and the whole drifts uncontrollably towards one of Fragonard's dreamy idylls. It makes no sense; but Huet was doing his best to understand something entirely outside his experience.

Occasionally, these stumbling attempts produce something terribly interesting. English painters knew, or knew about, Gericault's great The Raft Of The Medusa - Francis Danby tried to recreate it from a verbal description, with very peculiar results. But when Turner borrows from it, the extravagantly macabre gusto of the original is turned into a ghostly, phantasmagoric scene; the sort of dream fantasy English painters always did so well.

Strikingly, the painters from both sides of the Channel defy any kind of national stereotype; there are dreamily poetic Englishmen, such as the wonderful Richard Parkes Bonington, and robust, raucous-French painters. …