For a show called ‘Impressionists in London’, there isn’t an awful lot of impressionism here. It’s almost as if the Tate organised a whole exhibition of old French paintings and realised too late that no one knows who any of these artists are. Then, in a total pat-on-the-back, give-that-guy-a-promotion moment of genius, someone came up with the idea of calling it ‘Impressionists in London’ despite the fact that most of the art is by people who had absolutely naff all to do with impressionism. Brilliant, now sit back and watch the ticket sales roll in.
Sure, there’s a bit of impressionism here: some stunning Monets, some middling Pissarros and some okay Sisleys. But they’re only part of the story. The show begins with the Franco-Prussian war. France is gripped by destruction, and artists are fleeing for the drizzly embrace of Blighty.
There are a couple of introductory photos of Paris and some paintings by Gustave Doré and Monet, but then you get hit with a room full of James Tissot paintings, and that’s where it gets good. Tissot came to England to make a name for himself as a society painter, and boy did he ace it. His paintings of parties in mansions, picnics in the garden, trysts on the Thames are lush, cool, refined and debauched. His colours are deep and luxurious, his fabrics flowing and infinitely detailed. This is society painting at its finest: knowing, cynical and sexy. He’s an obscure and not particularly cool artist, but it’s such a treat to see so many of his works together.
Alphonse Legros and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux come next – again, neither of whom were impressionists – in rooms over-stuffed with documentation and under-stuffed with good art.
Then you get some later paintings of sweet, bucolic English vistas – cricket, regattas and village greens – by Pissarro, and a properly smoggy painting of the filthy river Thames by Giuseppe de Nittis, before the real star shows up. They’ve brought together a bunch of Monet’s iconic paintings of the Thames and Houses of Parliament, and wow. It’s a mesmerising, atmospheric room, the fog and light leaching off the canvas and filling the space. You’re wrapped in haze, shrouded in Monet’s vision.
The problem is, he wasn't in exile at all when he painted these. Yes, they were painted in London, but in 1901, the war was over, it was basically a business trip. There’s some really great art here but there’s no coherent argument. It’s two different shows: ‘Impressionists in London’ and ‘French Artists in Exile’, and it manages to half-arse them both. Even if you love nineteenth-century art as much as I do, this show's vision of it is far too clouded and smoggy to ever be any good.