Andrew Lambirth

The French have it

Andrew Lambirth is in no doubt that the Americans come second at the Royal Academy

In the first room of the Royal Academy’s Impressionism Abroad: Boston and French Painting — a strangely mixed and muted Impressionist exhibition — a Monet ‘Haystacks’ is flanked by two lively open-air scenes by Sargent, one of them depicting Monet himself at work. This group is obviously intended to set the tone and pace of the display, but it raises false hopes. Nearby, the pedestrian nature of William Morris Hunt’s gloomy copy of Millet’s ‘Three Men Shearing Sheep in a Barn’ sounds a knell of warning. Paintings by Boudin and Diaz help to rekindle the viewer’s optimism, but the show’s fundamental flaw is soon revealed. The problem with hanging French Masters with American pupils is that the eye tends to skate over the lesser works to enjoy the greater. So a perfectly reasonable (but not very interesting) river landscape by Joseph Foxcroft Cole is ignored in favour of the lovely Daubigny next to it.

One gallery in the Sackler suite is given over principally to Monet. This is where the crowds will no doubt gather. Yet there are other delights in this room — namely the Degas painting from 1871, ‘Race Horses at Longchamp’. It’s a shock to see this picture after consulting its reproduction in the catalogue. The image has a monumentality which suggests a large painting, but it’s actually quite small. It was the first Degas to enter an American public collection: the more radical ‘Orchestra Musicians’ (now in Frankfurt) was offered at the same time but turned down in favour of ‘Race Horses’. The jockeys in their jewel-bright silks and caps are spread easily across the field, and we are presented with an array of equine hindquarters. Compare this view to Stubbs’s preferred profiles. Degas orchestrates his animals and riders in deep perspectival space; Stubbs favoured a shallow, relief-like space.

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