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July 22, 2005

French win in straight sets, American women collect Frenchmen - Impressionism Abroad at the Royal Academy

Posted by Christie Davies

Impressionism Abroad: Boston and French Painting
Royal Academy, London
2nd July - 11th September 2005
Daily 10am - 6pm (Friday until 10pm)

The exhibition of Impressionist paintings from Boston at the Royal Academy will prove a joy for chauvinistic Frenchmen and rich American women - and for English people generally. It will please the French because the French impressionist paintings here by Sisley, Renoir, Pissarro and especially Monet so outshine their American imitators as to confirm that otherwise - frankly speaking - unwarranted sense of Gallic cultural superiority. I doubt if the French have ever heard of William Morris Hunt, J. Foxcroft Cole, John Leslie Breck, Lilla Cabot Perry, Dennis Miller Bunker or Edmund Tarbell who remarkably enough does not use his middle name. There is no reason why they should. Hanging them alongside the French painters they imitated merely reveals what second rate provincials these Bostonians were. The American impressionists are to the French impressionists as American coffee is to French coffee. American coffee has rightly been described as like sex in a canoe fucking close to water. American Impressionism does not even come close to representing water.

Yet Americans can feel pride that the duds and dudes of Boston had the good taste to buy or to advise other Bostonians to buy French Impressionists and particularly Monet at a relatively early stage. Once the Royal Academy exhibition is over you will have to go to Boston if you want to see Monet's Argenteuil Winter, 1875, Camille Monet and Child in the Artist's Garden at Argenteuil, 1875, Antibes seen from the Plateau Notre Dame, 1888 or Grand Canal at Venice, 1908. Go now quickly and see them in London. It is cheaper than flying to Boston and the food is better in London. On the universally accepted Chirac culinary scale the food in Boston ranks somewhat below Turku, though the service is faster than in Tampere.

Monet indeed complained that all his work was going to the "land of the Yankees". But then they had money to pay and could see the value of what they were paying for, rather like Lord Elgin and his marbles. There is a wonderful photograph of Monet in the exhibition by Lilla Cabot Perry who was a better photographer than a painter like most women artists she was best with machines Claude Monet and Mr Perry at Giverny, 1895. Monet looks like a jobbing gardener, which is close to the truth. He shows a vast expanse of tum under his white shirt as he holds back his dark coat with his hands on his hips. The darkness of his face, black hat and black beard are broken only by a white cigarette and a white button on his coat. He seems to be saying to Perry the French equivalent of, "Well I can knock it down to $500 for yer or I can throw another one in".

Many of the collectors or advisers to collectors such as Sarah Choate Sears or Annette Rogers were, like Mrs Perry, failed but well-heeled female painters from good families. Unlike French women the American women had control of their own money and minds of their own. Unlike their French counterparts they were not frivolous chattels whose only hobby in life was adultery but serious and discerning collectors of works of art. Even if it was hubby's money, it was they who told him what to buy.

In fairness there are some excellent American paintings here notably John Singer Sargent Fishing for Oysters at Cancale, 1878, Frederic Porter Vinton La Blanchisseuse, 1890 and Childe Hassam, Charles River and Beacon Hill, 1892. Perhaps it is because the first two were painted in France under the inspiration of that most cultured country. Childe Hassan even manages to make Boston look French. Revel in the trees of Monet, Frenchmen. Delight in the trees of France. Aux arbres, citoyens.

By contrast the bad American impressionist paintings are very bad indeed. Their artists knew what Impressionism was but they never got the hang of how to do it. Edmund Charles Tarbell's Mother and Child in a Boat, 1892 and Frank Weston Benson's Calm Morning, 1904 are both by Americans who did not know how to paint water, almost the first requirement of an Impressionist. It is forgivable that the Americans do not understand coffee, but water? Benson and Tarbell try to integrate strong figures into Impressionist landscapes and produce pictures that succeed as neither. They seem to think it is enough to have blurred faces, oily wet shadows and a great lump of boat. They have no idea of either composition or colour. Why are these dreadful pictures here at all? Could the artists have learned nothing about the sea from Monet's Antibes, effet d'apres midi, 1888? Could they really have learned nothing about figures from Monet's Camille Monet and a Child in the Artist's Garden at Argenteuil, 1875? What was the point of all those Monets going to Boston or all those Americans going to France?

Professor Christie Davies has recently returned from a tour of exhibitions and galleries glowing with Impressionists in Pittsburgh, Columbus and Cincinnati and goes to America to see what they bought so skilfully from old Europe in the years before they overtook it. He is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, New Brunswick NJ, Transaction, 2004.


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Regarding all those Frenchmen 'collected' by American ladies, an Indian friend sends a joke making the rounds in Delhi. Heaven for an Indian, he says, is an American house, a Japanese salary and an Indian wife -- hell is a Japanese house, an Indian salary and an American wife.

Posted by: s masty at July 23, 2005 09:58 AM
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