Before the Beatles: the original British invasion

Imagine what it was like for a teenage French artist just starting to paint in 1815.

Napoleon had fallen. France was "a defeated nation" and in a state of "economic disaster." And "the principal of the French school of painting" - the strictly classical, official Napoleonic artist Jacques-Louis David - "was in exile. If he came back, he'd be executed as a regicide.

"You have to ask yourself how this generation was impacted by all this," says Patrick Noon, curator of the exhibition "Constable to Delacroix: British Art and the French Romantics," at the Tate Britain in London. The exhibit will travel to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts June 8.

Imagine, Mr. Noon says, what life was like for the 17-year-old Eugène Delacroix (destined to become the great genius of French Romantic painting).

Born in 1798, he belonged to a generation of artists in need of "a fresh breeze" of inspiration. The "banal classicism" (in the poet Théophile Gautier's phrase) of the banished David's official style, though still practiced by academic artists, offered this passionate man no such inspiration.

So, according to Noon and the evidence presented in this major exhibition of more than 100 oil paintings and watercolors, Delacroix and his contemporaries had to look elsewhere for stimulus. And says Noon, "British art was a very fresh breeze."

French art of the 1820s was influenced by the vitality and originality, the scale, freedom, and individuality of British art. Art historians broadly know this, but the general public may be less aware because they are more familiar with the supremacy of 19th-century French artists, such as the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

Noon, an American art historian, points out that the "very heady moment in the [1820s]" amounted to an Anglomania that gripped the French generally, not just the artists.

Horse racing and sporting clubs were all the rage, says Noon, and so were British styles of food and clothing. William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Sir Walter Scott became popular authors. (Scott's novels were even published simultaneously in French and English.)

This exhibition is far more complex, and involves many more artists than its title "Constable to Delacroix" suggests.

What is new about this show and its accompanying book is the gathering of an unprecedented wealth of French and British paintings from the period, and the investigation of the web of cross references and influences these works involved.

No national style?

The very English, stay-at-home landscapist John Constable may indeed have prompted the admiring Delacroix to instill fresh technical life into his style when some of Constable's works were exhibited in France. But this is far from the whole story.

British art was not at all uniform. That in itself probably outraged the French traditionalists. Contrast could hardly be greater than between such British artists as Constable, with his scintillating naturalism, and the lively portraits by Thomas Lawrence, the president of the Royal Academy and much admired by Delacroix.

Théodore Géricault, famous for his bold design and detail, was inspired by the dramatic genre pictures of David Wilkie. And then there were vaporous heroics of J.M.W. Turner, the sensuous nudes of William Etty, and the lucid spontaneity of Richard Parkes Bonington. Etty and Delacroix became friends, and Bonington shared Delacroix's studio in Paris.

All are spectacularly represented in this exhibition. But the show also demonstrates the even greater contrast between British paintings and French classicism, either in the form of smoothly classical portraits or the gigantic history paintings still dominant in the Salon exhibitions in Paris.

It was in 1824, to the sputtering protests of many entrenched French critics and artists, that the Salon was invaded, as it were, by a cross section of such British artists.

The Salon at that time was open to foreign artists (unlike the utterly clubby and chauvinist British Royal Academy). At some point later, the 1824 Salon even came to be known as "the British Salon" - though the British element was comparatively small.

Britain as 'a pot of gold'

Just as English artists traveled to and were exhibited in France, French artists came re- ciprocally to Britain. One reason they came was at root commercial. In both countries, this was the time when middle-class private collectors were buying art, and Britain was perceived "quite rightly," Noon says, "as a pot of gold."

Géricault's links with Britain are well shown. First, his enormous and politically charged "Raft of the Medusa" was exhibited in London.

In this exhibition today, a full-size copy of it is displayed with dramatic lighting in a dark gallery to imitate how it would originally have been seen. Its effect on British painters is not documented, but one or two shipwreck or abandoned-at-sea paintings in the show may, speculatively, have been responses to it. One is by Turner. Géricault became such an Anglophile that his subsequent lithographs and paintings were frequently of horse subjects.

One very un-French aspect of British art was the watercolor tradition. Again, it appealed to the rising French Romantics. Bonington carried over the luminous, white-ground technique of watercolor painting into his oil paintings.

To the French, this gave his oils an immediacy and pervasive brilliance that horrified diehards and delighted newcomers. Both camps were aware of the absence of obvious labor that brought such paintings into existence. Interestingly, Noon says, even the English Constable criticized him as a man who "doesn't work hard enough."

There are stunning Delacroix paintings on view, none more so than his own reduced copy of his renowned "Death of Sardanapalus." It is a horrifically violent subject, but painted with exuberant virtuosity.

Noon describes this picture as "completely at odds with French tradition." First exhibited in the 1827-28 Salon, it was recognized as a deliberate assault on French classical tradition. The influence of various British artists on this painting is undoubted.

And the reason Delacroix made a copy for himself was because a collector wanted to buy the original. The buyer was English.

'Constable to Delacroix: British Art and the French Romantics' travels to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts June 8 to Sept. 7, and to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art Oct. 7 to Jan. 4.

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