Madame Monet was bored. Wouldn’t you have been? Exiled to London in the bad, cold winter of 1870–71. In rented rooms above Shaftesbury Avenue, with a three-year-old son in tow, a husband who couldn’t speak English, and no money coming in. Every day roast beef and potatoes and fog, fog, fog choking the city. ‘Brouillardopolis’, French writers called it. Camille Monet had offered to give language lessons, but when she hadn’t a pupil — and Claude hadn’t a commission — she let him paint her, listless on a chaise-longue, book unread on her lap. Her malaise was ‘l’exilité’ — the low, homesick spirits of the French in England. ‘Meditation, Mrs Monet Sitting on a Sofa’ (1871) sets the scene for Tate Britain’s autumn exhibition Impressionists in London, which gathers works by the French artists who fled the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris, and the short-lived Paris Commune for London. Monet captures his wife looking out of the window, remembering, perhaps, their honeymoon in Trouville just a few months before, and wondering if they would ever go home to France.
Still, it could have been worse. The Monets could have been in Paris, sawing the stair bannisters for firewood, queuing for rations, trading recipes with fearful, hungry neighbours for rats-en-ragoût. Gustave Moreau, after hearing France declare war on Prussia on 19 July 1870, had holed himself up in his studio on the rue de la Rochefoucauld with his mother, twitching at every bombardment. Henri Fantin-Latour had buried himself in the cellar at the start of the Siege of Paris on 19 September, and wouldn’t emerge until after the end of the Commune on28 May 1871. Jean-François Millet had fled to Gruchy, a hamlet near Cherbourg, and Paul Cézanne to L’Estaque near Marseilles.
The painters Gustave Doré, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet and James Tissot were all serving in the National Guard. The sculptor Joseph Cuvelier was killed in an attack on the Prussian stronghold of Malmaison. Tissot, on the scene as a stretcher-bearer, made a rapid sketch of Cuvelier’s body. When he showed the drawing to Degas, a mutual friend, Degas was furious: ‘You would have done better to have picked him up.’
When he wasn’t on sorties outside Paris, Tissot was rooming with the English journalist Thomas Gibson Bowles, then a reporter for the Morning Post, later founding editor of Vanity Fair. With Paris surrounded by the Prussian army, communication with the coast, and then with London, was by hot-air balloon and ‘colombogrammes’ sent by pigeon post.
In the first seven weeks of the Franco–Prussian War, around 100,000 men were killed on either side. The Emperor Napoléon III was defeated at Sedan on 2 September, and taken prisoner at Wilhelmshöhe. He passed the time playing cards until allowed to join the Empress Eugénie and the Imperial Prince Louis Napoléon in exile at Chislehurst in Kent.
France had fallen, but Paris held. Mr Bismarck’s strategy, wrote Bowles, was a starve-’em-out campaign. Bismarck had failed, though, in his estimation of the Parisian character. Alphonse Karr, the French wit, had once said that if Paris were besieged, it would surrender as soon as the strawberries ran out. They were already scarce by mid-September, but Paris was resolute. Spoof menus circulated for gala dinners offering rats à la crapaudine, haricot de chien, cheval à la mode. The zoo was raided and enterprising chefs cooked cat, rat, donkey, peacock, elephant, pelican, camel, crow and wolf. Bowles, with the Englishman’s sentimentality about horses, couldn’t bring himself to eat horsemeat. He was, however, ‘keeping a sharp eye on my concièrge’s cat, which I am surreptitiously feeding up for eventualities’.
With Tissot, Bowles saw the dead at Malmaison, and visited peasant farmers at Rueil, who were keeping vegetables under their mattresses. At Créteil, houses had been pillaged and the church clock tower smashed.
Others had not wanted to take their chances. Better a London particular than the Prussian army. Monet left France to avoid conscription. Camille Pissarro fled when the Prussians requisitioned his house at Louveciennes, joining his mother in Lower Norwood, a south London suburb; Alfred Sisley when the Prussians sacked his home in Bougival. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, a courtier and drawing master to Louis Napoléon, followed the Imperial family to Chislehurst.
The art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel packed the contents of his rue Laffitte gallery and arrived in London with 35 crates of pictures. It was thanks to Durand-Ruel that Pissarro and Monet did not starve for want of work.
The painter François Bonvin, who made the crossing from Saint-Malo to Southampton (16 hours), and the railway journey to London (five hours), wrote: ‘Here I am in London, experiencing exceptional fog. Hell! I had been warned, but not sufficiently!’
Hell, yes, but London had its moments. The British Museum Reading Room, with its free heating, lighting, pens and ink, became a popular meeting place. Dulwich Picture Gallery was a ‘jewel of a museum’, wrote Bonvin, who pronounced it ‘Deuletche’. Monet and Pissarro also visited the gallery, and Pissarro painted the new buildings of Dulwich College and the Crystal Palace which, after the Great Exhibition of 1851, had been moved to Sydenham.
Choux buns could be had at Maison Bertaux, opened by a Communard patissier in 1871, and still serving éclairs in Soho today. Bottles of ratafia de cassis were shared at the Café Royal. Monet painted Hyde Park and Green Park and had his figures walk anywhere but on the paths — a freedom forbidden in the Bois de Boulogne. Pissarro took up cricket and with his son Lucien watched a match between Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush Police and Tradesman at Bedford Park. He and Sisley painted rowers, regattas and the underside of Hampton Court Bridge.
When Tissot came to London he was a sensation. ‘This ingenious exploiter of English idiocy,’ the gossiping Goncourt brothers called him. He painted tea tables, and rowboats, and girls in tartan coats, and parties by the Thames, and boys in Christ’s Hospital School uniforms, as fast as dealer William Agnew could sell them. He bought a house in St John’s Wood, where he picnicked in the garden with his mistress, the ‘ravissante Irlandaise’ Kathleen Newton.
Even Monet, after that first ‘miserable’ winter in London, fell in love with its fogs, a sulphurous addiction that drew him back in 1899, 1900, 1901 and 1904. He stayed at the Savoy and painted the city’s ‘brumes’ and ‘brouillards’ from the balconies in shifting, sunless shades of black, brown, yellow, green and purple. Six of his ‘Houses of Parliament’ (1900–1904) series will be seen at the Tate, infinitely subtle and smog-smoked. What had depressed him when he came to London in exile came to thrill him. He threw his brush down on fine, sunny, sabotaging days, and exalted in chimney-stack mists. ‘This morning I believed the weather had totally changed,’ he wrote fretfully in March 1900. ‘On getting up I was terrified to see that there was no fog, not even the shadow of a fog; I was devastated and saw all my canvases ruined, but little by little, the fires kindled, and the smoke and fog returned.’
Impressionists in London is at Tate Britain from 2 November 2017 until 22 April 2018.