French Seascapes and Dutch Portraits in London

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

French Seascapes and Dutch Portraits in London

Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review

THE Royal Academy has added a copious sequence to its The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings. There one witnessed his liberation from the painstaking but mirthless caricatures he drew during his late schooldays at Le Havre, and such heavily painted oil-sketches as his Street in Honfleur (Washington National Gallery) and the study for The Picnic, now in its lighter, finished form in the St Petersburg Hermitage. Like his close friend Boudin, Monet did not excel at pent-up urban confines. His characteristic buoyancy and airiness emerges in his late twenties in such small canvases as Cattle at Pasture of c. 1868. His volatility is still more encompassing in his pen-and-brush drawings of The Old Quarter of Dieppe, with its balance of rotund sailing-boats moored alongside steep narrow quayside houses; and in his Seine Estuary (presumably painted from a boat offshore), a sky-pitched tracery of masts, cranes and steeples. These drawings may have been suggested by the water-colours of Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28), who spent most of his twenty-six years in France.

The new exhibition, Impressionists by the Sea, will be at the Royal Academy until 30 September, when it departs to the Phillips Collection in Washington (from 20 October) and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut (from 19 February 2008).

Varied and interesting, it deserves its widespread travels, although many of its most admirable works are not by artists who described themselves as Impressionists, a dubious term which has become largely meaningless. Pictures are painted by individuals, not by movements. The artists on display include Courbet and Boudin, neither of whom considered himself to be an Impressionist; Eugene Isabey (son of a famous miniaturist) thirty-seven years older than Monet, and a follower of Delacroix; Daubigny and the Dutchman Johan Jongkind, who worked independently with Millet at Barbizon, a village in the Forest of Fontainebleau. There are only a few pictures by Monet, the single indisputable Impressionist, after whose Impression of the Sun Rising Impressionism took its name.

The coast of Normandy was divided, largely seasonally, between boule-vardiers down from Paris and the labourers of the sea. As in many seaside resorts, the native population covertly resented the strangers whose money enriched their town. Isabey was a partisan of fishermen in rough weather, as in his Low Tide (Musee de Le Havre), in which brinewater gushes into and across their beached coasters. He hardly tempts sea-bathers in his Beach at Granville (Musee de Laval). Young women, well built and heavily costumed (not much like Proust's jeunes filles en fleurs), skirmish and stoutly contend with the embattled waves. L.G. Pelouse's cocklewomen troop out barefooted, their toes splayed on the wet sand, their weighty skirts tucked up, their rakes shouldered to harvest their hard-gained, sand-dripping sustenance, in his Low Tide at Grandcamp (Musee de Carcassone).

Along the coast from Grandcamp-les-Bains is the minor watering-place Cabourg, which Proust (1871-1922) re-christened Balbec in his vast novel, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. There is nothing in common between the workers Pelouse depicts and those of his younger contemporary Proust at Balbec. At Balbec the workers are mostly waiters, pages, lift-boys and chauffeurs, in attendance on affluent Parisians there for the summer. About a quarter of A la Recherche takes place on the Norman coast: mostly on the beaches where the hero, Marcel, falls under the spell of the young girls in blossom, with their sports-caps and their new-fangled bicycles; at the still existing Grand Hotel, where he ponders over the half-rustic, half-pretentious idioms of the lift-boy; and inside the local train, with his favourite Albertine on his visits to Mme Verdurin, the rich duplicitous domineering vulgarian leasee of a manor house from the marquis de Cambremer, who is physically and intellectually degenerate. …

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