The English Invade Paris

"Peinture Romantique Anglaise"

Petit Palais (Paris) Winter/Spring, 1972

Four years ago the museums of Detroit and Philadelphia sponsored an exhibition of “Romantic Art in Britain, 1760-1860.” I did not see it, but to judge from the catalogue,* itself an outstanding contribution to our knowledge of the subject, the exhibition was as impressive as it was imaginative and pioneering, for it brought to general attention a number of artists who, until then, had been little known except to specialists, but who could certainly stand alongside their more famous contemporaries. Moreover, the fact that the exhibition was organized outside Great Britain, by officials of museums that contain distinguished examples of European art, gave an entirely new perspective to the characterization of the works on display. Indeed, in one of the sparkling essays included in the catalogue, Robert Rosenblum attempted to lift the study of British art out of the ghetto to which it has so often been relegated and to give a brief general survey of its relationship to wider currents of European painting than the endlessly repeated, but little verified, parallels between Constable and the School of Barbizon, and Turner and the Impressionists.

When, in the euphoria following the decision of the French government to rescind its ban on Britain’s entry into the Common Market, it was announced that an exhibition of British art was to be held in Paris, this may have seemed exactly the right occasion on which to follow up some of the hints suggested in Rosenblum’s essay and in much other scholarly writing of recent years. Where better than in Paris to see, side by side, Thomas Jones and Valenciennes; Lawrence and Gérard; Flaxman and Ingres; Constable, Georges Michel, and Théodore Rousseau; Bonington, Etty, and Delacroix; Landseer and Courbet; Burne-Jones and Gustave Moreau; and—of course—Turner and Monet? The fascination, as well as the real value, of exhibitions of this kind was demonstrated at the Tate Gallery last year when, under the title “Shock of Recognition,” the works of many British landscape artists were indeed shown in the same rooms as the Dutch Old Masters which had inspired them. A well-organized Anglo-French exhibition on similar lines looked to be even more interesting because of the much wider range of subject matter involved.

In fact, however, we have recently been seeing in Paris a display of British art covering much the same ground (and with almost exactly the same title) as the Detroit-Philadelphia show of 1968, and American visitors to that exhibition need not feel that they have missed anything very new by not coming to the Petit Palais this spring.

It is true that the useful catalogue was constantly drawing attention to interesting parallels between English and French painting, and that the energetic visitor could, so to speak, arrange the ideal “exposition imaginaire” for himself by hurrying from the Petit Palais to the many museums which contain the pertinent French pictures. The new subterranean rooms in the Musée Marmottan, which now houses a marvelous group of Monets, were particularly inviting from this point of…

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