Impressionism is 150 years old – this is the anniversary show to see

The time that elapsed between the fall of the Paris Commune and the opening of the first proper impressionist exhibition amounted to less than three years. Over the course of that period, the city had witnessed the collapse of the Second Empire, suffered a siege at the hands of the Prussian army and seen vicious house-to-house fighting between the troops of the Versailles government and thescrappy citizen-army of Paris proper. All Parisians would recall the rivers of blood running down the city’s ritziest shopping streets, zoo animals being butchered for restaurant fodder, and the mass slaughter of rebel prisoners across the public squares of the city’s eastern faubourgs. Given that

Masterclass of an exhibition: Impressionists on Paper, at the RA, reviewed

Viewers have different relationships with small pictures, or perhaps it’s the other way round: small pictures have different relationships with them. A big picture clamours for attention; a small picture you have to lean in to hear. No picture is more intimate than a drawing, and none brings you closer to the artist’s hand. A drawing can’t lie; it wears its facture on its sleeve. If you look closely, you can work out how it was made and even track the artist’s changes of direction. You can see, for instance, how Van Gogh launched into ‘The Fortifications of Paris with Houses’ (1887) in watercolour, then fortified the fortifications with gouache

Why did this brilliant Irish artist fall off the radar? 

Sir John Lavery has always had a place in Irish affections. His depiction of his wife, Hazel, as the mythical figure of Cathleen ni Houlihan, which appeared on the old ten shilling and subsequently on the watermark of the Irish pound notes, meant, as the joke went, that every Irishman kept her close to his heart. He was indeed Irish – born in Belfast – but was at home in Scotland, and was the best known of the spirited group of painters called the Glasgow Boys. Yet he lived most of his life in London, was friends with Winston Churchill (they took a painting trip together) and also with Michael

The force of nature that drove Claude Monet

There have been some really good biographies of artists over recent years and what distinguishes the best of them is their sense of context and a lucid prose free from the jargon of the art historian. In the end, of course, any work of art has to be able to stand by itself, but for Jackie Wullschläger her appreciation of Monet’s paintings has been immeasurably deepened by her sense of the man behind them. ‘My approach,’ she writes, ‘stems from the belief that painters transform the raw material of experience into art’, and that material, both the familiar external events and, more illuminatingly, the inner man, is what she gives

The quiet genius of Gwen John

In the rush to right the historical gender balance, galleries have been corralling neglected women artists into group exhibitions: the Whitechapel Gallery rounded up 80 women abstract expressionists for its recent Action, Gesture, Paint show. But imbalances can’t be corrected retrospectively. Rather than elevating women artists who didn’t make it in a male-dominated world – not all of whose work, if we’re honest, helps the female cause – we should be celebrating the grit and talent of the few who did. And Berthe Morisot and Gwen John – currently the subjects of solo shows at Dulwich Picture Gallery and Pallant House – had both in spades. What’s remarkable, in the

The genius of Cezanne

Pity the poor curators of major exhibitions struggling to find fresh takes on famous masters. The curators of Tate Modern’s new Cezanne blockbuster have begun by dropping the acute accent from his surname, apparently a Parisian affectation not in use on the artist’s home turf. Anticipating grumbles about another major exhibition devoted to a dead white male artist, they have emphasised Cezanne’s outsider status by painting him as a provincial from Provence. It was a role the artist liked to play in Paris, once famously excusing himself from shaking Manet’s hand on the grounds that he hadn’t washed in a week. Cezanne’s peers put their money where their mouths were,

Laura Freeman

London calling | 26 October 2017

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

How good is he? Pissarro: Father of Impressionism, at the Ashmolean Museum, reviewed

Two markers: ‘Cottages at Auvers-sur-Oise’ (c.1873) is a sweet especial rural scene of faintly slovenly thatched cottages with, at its centre, an outside privy, its door modestly shut. A discreet little detail. Second, early in the exhibition, Corot’s ‘Duck-Pond’ (1855–60), an indicator of the tradition to which Pissarro belongs — a world of unconsidered trifles, granted a quiet importance. Linda Whiteley’s excellent, informative catalogue essay quotes Pissarro on Corot: ‘Happy are those who see beauty in modest places where others see nothing. Everything is beautiful, the whole secret lies in knowing how to interpret.’ He is writing this credo to his son Lucien in 1893. Later, Cézanne described Pissarro as

The supreme pictures of the Courtauld finally have a home of equal magnificence

When the Courtauld Gallery’s impressionist pictures were shown at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris in 2019, the Parisian public was so bowled over by the exhibition that some were inclined to claim Samuel Courtauld as an honorary Frenchman. This was not completely unreasonable; after all Courtauld (1876–1947) was a Francophile from an old Huguenot family. But it was even more of a compliment to the magnificent array of French art he had put together. In this city of impressionism, home to the Musée d’Orsay and the Orangerie, half a million visitors came to see it. I went round that show with an eminent art dealer, and as we did

We’re wrong to think the impressionists were chocolate boxy

One Sunday evening in the autumn of 1888 Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin went for a walk. They headed out of Arles into the countryside and when they looked back towards town they saw a sunset so splendid that each was inspired to paint a masterpiece. One of these, Gauguin’s painting bearing the timely title ‘Human Misery’, is among the star exhibits in a new exhibition at the Royal Academy. All the works in this show come from a delightful small museum in the northern suburbs of Copenhagen, housed in the early 20th-century mansion from which it takes its name, Ordrupgaard. This was the dwelling of Wilhelm Hansen (1868–1936),

Making sense of Seurat

‘It’s too familiar, too obvious,’ says Cathy FitzGerald at the beginning of her new interactive series for Radio 4, Moving Pictures. But then she took another look at Georges Seurat’s ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’, that huge, weird and unsettling pointilliste painting of a crowd of Parisians enjoying a sunny afternoon on the banks of the Seine some time in the 1880s. Instead of the 30-second glance we might give it in the art gallery, or five minutes at the very most, FitzGerald encourages us to linger, to look a little more slowly, take in the detail and fully appreciate what’s there on the canvas. After all, Seurat took

Remembrance of things past | 24 January 2019

An attendant at an art gallery in France once apprehended a little old vandal, or so the story goes. He had smuggled in a palette, paints and brushes under his coat and was trying to alter one of the exhibits — a picture by Pierre Bonnard. On further questioning, it turned out that the elderly vandal was none other than Bonnard himself. Though the work in question had been ‘finished’ years before, he just couldn’t leave it alone. Bonnard (1867–1947) was a master of indecision, as a glance at just about any picture in Tate Modern’s new exhibition The Colour of Memory reveals. There are no straight lines or clear

Women and children first

A lady licking an envelope. An intimate thing. It might be only the bill from the coal-man she’s paying, but it has the feel of something else: an assignation, a confession, an apology, a breaking-off. Would this woman in her deep-blue day dress and jacket be so unguarded if the artist had been a man? Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) was a femme sérieuse who painted women of quick wits and tender instincts. No grubby models, no ballet rats, no laundresses, no absinthe. Her sitters, you feel, would write a thank-you note, send flowers, recommend a dressmaker. Mary Cassatt: An American Impressionist in Paris, at the Musée Jacquemart-André, is the first French

The evanescence of everything

Think of the work of Claude Monet and water lilies come to mind, so do reflections in rippling rivers, and sparkling seas — but not buildings. He was scarcely a topographical artist — an impressionist Canaletto, even if Venice was among his themes. Nonetheless, Monet & Architecture at the National Gallery is an intriguing experience. Before I saw it, the suspicion crossed my mind that this was the solution to a conundrum that must puzzle many galleries. Namely, how to put together another Monet exhibition without it being the same as all the others? An institution such as the National Gallery could not just borrow a lorry-load of Monets and

August Auguste

In 1959 the formidable interviewer John Freeman took the Face to Face crew to the 81-year-old Augustus John’s studio. The beetling brow, piercing eye and a succession of roll-ups stuck to his lower lip offer almost a caricature of the undimmed rascality of the old devil. Like all the films in that remarkable series, it offers a glimpse into a world that we thought television was invented too late to record. But how much more extraordinary it is to watch, in a three-minute film made in 1915, another elderly artist — the 74-year-old Pierre-Auguste Renoir, crippled with arthritis, working at his easel. The externals are similar — the beard, the

I spy | 28 September 2017

Where was Degas standing as he sketched his ‘Laundresses’ (c.1882–4)? Did he watch the two women from behind sheets hanging to dry? Or was he hidden by steam from the basins? The laundry women are unselfconscious, unguarded. One reads aloud from a list, calling out shirts, collars, cuffs to be washed and ironed. Another leans over her workbench, staring into the placket of a folded shirt like Narcissus into his pool. Neither is the least bit bothered by the artist making a rapid chalk sketch to be worked up later in pastel. Nor the two men in ‘At the Café de Châteaudun’ (c.1869–71), reading a newspaper with monocle and magnifying

Making waves | 25 May 2017

The end, whenever it came, was always going to be too soon for Katsushika Hokusai. There was still so much to see. So much he had not painted. On his deathbed, Hokusai, attended by his doctor, said a prayer. ‘If heaven will extend my life by ten more years…’. He paused and made a private calculation. ‘If heaven will afford me five more years of life, then I’ll manage to become a true artist.’ He may have been 90, but he wasn’t done yet. In life, Hokusai (1760–1849) painted dragons, creatures of long life, by the dozen. He has them disappear in puffs of inky smoke, then reappear across the

Monet’s great war effort

Claude Monet wanted to be buried in a buoy. ‘This idea seemed to please him,’ his friend Gustave Geffroy wrote. ‘He laughed under his breath at the thought of being locked forever in this kind of invulnerable cork, dancing among the waves, braving storms, resting gently in the harmonious movements of calm weather, in the light of the sun.’ Tethered below the water, but bobbing on the surface like a necropolitan bud, this bizarre image would have the great Impressionist finally metamorphosing into the thing that had so dominated his later years: the water lily. For an author who has taken on those titans of the Renaissance, Leonardo and Michelangelo,

First impressions | 21 July 2016

The last boat I saw in the galleries on the Mound was a canoe that the Scottish painter Jock McFadyen had been using to explore viewpoints around the waterways of London. Now another vessel has sailed in, a full-scale recreation of the studio boat built in 1857 by the French painter Charles-François Daubigny, from the bow of which he ushered in the movement that would come to be known as impressionism. Daubigny, a now sorely neglected artist, established an entirely novel approach to landscape painting that was to influence Monet, Pissarro and Cézanne and also, quite explicitly, Van Gogh. Inspiring Impressionism has an admirably clear narrative and it places Daubigny

Show me the Monet

Philip Larkin once remarked that Art Tatum, a jazz musician given to ornate, multi-noted flourishes on the keyboard, reminded him of ‘a dressmaker, who having seen how pretty one frill looks, makes a dress bearing ninety-nine’. If you substitute paintings of flower-beds and dappled sunlight for chromatic keyboard runs, something similar is true of the new blockbuster at the Royal Academy, Painting the Modern Garden. That, however, is only half the verdict on this curious affair. It is a show that feels a bit overblown — like a visit to an enormous Victorian conservatory — but contained inside it is another, triumphantly successful exhibition that is inspiring, exalting and almost