Anne Gardom visits Constable to Delacroix at Tate Britain

This exhibition examines the relationship between British and French artists and writers during the period that followed the end of the Napoleonic wars. A whole generation of artists had been divided by the conflict and when hostilities ceased, new discoveries were made, new relationships established, painting and literature were explored in ways that must have been enormously exciting at the time and had far-reaching results.

Cultures meet

The French school of painting was classical, formal, finished to a high degree of technical excellence, and was exemplified in the exquisite work of painters like Ingres and David. In contrast the English style was very much freer and more spontaneous, with open brushwork, such as seen in Constable, Lawrence and Turner. Watercolour painting was popular and widely practised in England, whereas in France it was not seen as a serious style of painting at all. The theme of this exhibition is the effect that these two different artistic cultures had on each other.

The free open style of British painters was a revelation in French artistic circles. The work of Bonington, who moved to Paris in his late teens, had always had its admirers and his paintings commanded a ready market. He painted with the young French painter Huet. In the last three years of his life his friendship with Delacroix was very important to them both. Though Bonington died in his mid-twenties, his work, especially his small jewel-like watercolours had a far-reaching influence on French artistic tastes and perceptions. Bonington is represented in this exhibition but it is at the Wallace Collection that it is possible to see a number of his rarely exhibited watercolours – they are worth the trip.

Channel crossings

Constable painted with an eye to the French market. Two of his ‘six-footers’ (his own description), View on the Stour near Dedham and The Haywain, were much admired when they were exhibited in the Paris salon in 1824, and Constable himself was awarded a gold medal. View on the Stour at Dedham is shown in this exhibition and is a magnificent example of his luminous and spontaneous technique, with all the freshness of plein-air painting.

However, it was a two-way traffic and when the painter Géricault exhibited his enormous painting The Raft of the Medusa in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, forty-thousand people came to view it. The picture had previously been shown in Paris, but in London it created a sensation. The incident it portrays is indeed sensational and was a shameful scandal in France. Following a shipwreck a raft with a hundred and fifty people on it was deliberately cut adrift from the lifeboats, and when the few tragic survivors were rescued the French public were shocked by the accounts of cannibalism and other horrors. A full-sized copy of this vast picture occupies a room of its own. It is a monumental work in the heroic style, with the half-clad figures, dead and alive, shown in classic attitudes of hope, despair and grief, against a stormy sea and the dreadful disappearance over the horizon of a ship that had failed to see their desperate signals.

Sea paintings and shipwrecks, storms and harbours had long been popular on both sides of the Channel, and there are some lovely examples in the exhibition, as well as prints and illustrations. Some of Géricault’s preparatory studies for The Raft of the Medusa are shown, and they make grisly viewing.

Pictures in an exhibition

In both France and Britain exhibitions and salons were the main way in which artists presented their work to the public, and paintings intended to be shown in this way were designed to impress. Large paintings, such as Wilkie’s Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Despatch and Turner’s The Field of Waterloo were created for such exhibitions. It is interesting to note that in both these paintings as in Gros’s Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau it is not the glory of war that is described, rather its tragic consequences. Turner visited the battlefield in 1817 and his notebooks testify to his impressions of waste and suffering.

It was not only in the art world that the exchange of ideas was fruitful. Shakespeare had for many years been part of French culture, and now the works of Scott and Byron were being translated and proving very popular. The romantic tales of remote and misty Scotland caught the French imagination and the acting of Edmund Keane was much admired. Both French and English artists produced illustrations, paintings and prints inspired by these works. Alexandre-Marie Colin painted Byron’s Giaour Contemplating the Death of Hassan, Delacroix and Bonington both illustrated Quentin Durward, and there is in the exhibition an abundance of wonderful dark painting of mysterious monks in romantic ruined abbeys.

Sentimental historicism

The depiction of myths and legends began to give way to pictures portraying incidents in French and English history. There is a delightfully improbable Wilkie of The Future Empress Josephine Having her Fortune Told. Delaroche painted a vast, emotionally-loaded and historically inaccurate Execution of Lady Jane Grey which carries resonances of the executions of the French Revolution.

Lawrence’s portraits when exhibited in the French salons were admired for his very free and open technique. The well-known painting of Lord Lambton – a beautiful dark-eyed boy in a red velvet suit sitting on a rocky shore – was noted for its Byronic atmosphere and painterly technique. His double portrait of the two little daughters of Charles Calmady is a delight. However, when Delacroix painted his full-length portrait of Louis Auguste Schwiter in the same free style it was not accepted for the salon of 1827. Ingres’ portrait of Le Comte de Pastoret is a grand portrait in the classical French style – finished to the last detail – and affords an opportunity to compare the best examples of the very different styles of portrait painting.

Landscape and watercolour

Watercolour was not part of the French tradition of painting, but French artists experimented with this medium with considerable success. Though the watercolours of Turner and Bonington are of unrivalled quality (Turner painted thousands) there are lovely paintings on display showing how watercolour painting, long an important part of British tradition, captured the imagination of French artists as well.

Landscape painting and animal and sporting paintings were an area in which both France and Britain had traditions and styles of their own. Corot, with his luminous lighting, the wonderful technique of Rousseau, the dramatic landscapes of Géricault, hang alongside the huge skies of Bonington, and the sun-filled pastoral landscapes of Constable. Vernet’s seascapes and Isabey’s harbours can be seen with Turner’s rivers and seashores. These and other paintings hang together and demonstrate the excitement and interest they generated both in the artists who painted them and the public in France and England who saw and bought them.

Anne Gardom is Art Correspondent for New Directions

Constable to Delacroix at Tate Britain is on till 11th May: £8.50, Concessions £6.

Bonington & his Contemporaries is at the Wallace Collection and ends 27th April. It is free.