Exhibitions/ Crossing the Channel

Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism

October 8, 2003–January 4, 2004
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

Some one hundred paintings and fifty works on paper by such artists as Constable, Turner, Delacroix, and Géricault chart the rich cultural exchanges between France and Britain between 1820 and 1840. A selection of major works that created a dialogue between the two national schools emphasizes artistic affinities in terms of subject, technique, and theoretical approaches, showing that British art made a defining contribution to French Romanticism.

Whereas traditional views have tended to stress the impact that early nineteenth-century French painters had on their British counterparts, this presentation reveals the important influence that English innovations—notably a new emphasis on pure landscape painting, the experimental, impressionistic techniques of the English watercolorists, and the works of the British Romantic writers—exerted on French art at this time.

Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the restoration of peace, French and English civilians flocked across the Channel. Among them were artists, connoisseurs, and collectors, eager to rediscover and explore the culture of their erstwhile enemies. Following the end of the Napoleonic regime, however, a conviction also grew that the eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideals of rationalism, confidence, and order—given artistic expression in the smooth perfection of the Neoclassical style—were no longer valid. A new array of attitudes and aesthetic sensibilities—which came to be called Romanticism—now celebrated extremes of emotion, the irrational, and the power of nature to awe and inspire.

This need to break with the past and explore new modes of expression was felt keenly on both sides of the Channel. While French artists—led by the twin titans of Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault—became the supreme exponents of Romantic painting, their achievement assimilated aspects of contemporary English art and culture.

On view are key works, reunited for the first time in almost two centuries, from the Paris Salons of 1824 and 1827—nicknamed the "English Salons" because of the preponderance of British pictures on view. Prominent among them is Constable's View on the Stour near Dedham (1822, The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens)—one of the artist's famous "six-footers"—whose majestic scale and bold naturalism caused a sensation at the Salon of 1824. Also on view is Thomas Lawrence's Portrait of Master Charles William Lambton (1825, private collection), one of the stars of the Salon of 1827 and greatly admired by the French for its "Byronic" qualities. Also featured in the exhibition, Delacroix's Portrait of Louis-Auguste Schwiter (ca. 1826, The National Gallery, London), with its poetic mood and suave handling of paint, has been regarded as an homage to Lawrence.

One of the defining moments in the English perception of French Romantic painting was the 1820 exhibition in London of Géricault's colossal image of shipwreck and despair, The Raft of the Medusa (1819, Musée du Louvre, Paris), which attracted some forty thousand visitors—among them was possibly England's own master of marine disasters, J. M. W. Turner. The sensational impact of this event was reconstructed through the display of a number of Géricault's studies for the work, as well as a full-scale replica made by French Academicians (1859–60, Musée de Picardie, Amiens) of the 16 x 23–foot original.

The exhibition explores the pivotal role played by the expatriate English artist Richard Parkes Bonington as a mediator between the developing schools of French and British Romantic painting. A close friend of Delacroix, with whom he once shared a studio, Bonington also knew and studied the works of Lawrence and Turner. Important examples of his marine views, remarkable for their luminous palette and free handling of paint, include French Coast with Fisherman (ca. 1825, private collection), the first of his paintings exhibited in London, and A Fishmarket near Boulogne (1824, Yale Center for British Art), which was awarded a medal in Paris at the Salon of 1824.

Contemporary British writers, particularly Byron and Sir Walter Scott, played a pioneering role in the Romantic movement, and the exhibition fully documents the important impact their works had on artists on both sides of the Channel. The most famous of Delacroix's many illustrations of Byronic themes, The Death of Sardanapalus (1827, Musée du Louvre), was represented by a reduced version of the painting (ca. 1846, Philadelphia Museum of Art), created by the artist for himself, prior to selling the original to an English collector. Quintessentially Romantic in its exoticism and harrowing violence, it shows the king of ancient Assyria witnessing his dying wish—the slaughter of his slaves, harem, and horses. Works inspired by the historical romances of Scott include Edwin Henry Landseer's The Hunting of Chevy Chase (1825–26, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery), Bonington's Quentin Durward at Liège (1828, Nottingham City Museums and Galleries), and Camille Roqueplan's The Equinoctial Tide (The Antiquary) (1826, Chi Mei Museum, Taiwan).

Scott's evocative novels also inspired a vogue for so-called genre-historique paintings, which sought to re-create historical events in a realistic and compellingly human manner. The exhibition includes one of the most masterful examples by a French artist, Paul Delaroche's The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833, The National Gallery, London). The poignant scene of the beautiful young English queen, blindfolded and kneeling before the executioner's block, was one of the most popular works in the Paris Salon of 1834.

The English predilection for illustrating scenes from contemporary life, particularly of the lower classes, was also taken up by the French, as evidenced in works such as Louis-Léopold Boilly's Moving Day (1822, The Art Institute of Chicago), also included in the exhibition.

Above all, it is in the field of landscape painting that the English influence on French art was the most profound and far-reaching, extending even to the origins of Impressionism. Works by Paul Huet and the Barbizon School painters Théodore Rousseau, and Jules Dupré, with their immediacy, chromatic brilliance, and atmospheric effects, all of which are represented in the exhibition, are clearly indebted to the examples of Constable, Turner, and Bonington.

Turner and other English artists were also pioneers in the use of watercolor as an expressive medium, and their innovations encouraged the revival of the watercolor tradition in France. On view is Roqueplan's A Shipwreck (ca.1825–30, Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle, Calais). With its fluid brushwork and emphasis on the terrifying forces of nature, the masterpiece is Turneresque in both technique and subject matter.

The exhibition is made possible by United Technologies Corporation.
The exhibition was organized by Tate Britain, in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.