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September 10, 2007

Of the impressionists on display Christie Davies revels in Manet and Monet but is repelled by Renoir and Cassatt: Impressionists by the Sea at the Royal Academy

Posted by Christie Davies

Impressionists by the Sea
Royal Academy, London
7th July - 30th September 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays until 10pm)

Many visitors have complained that Impressionists by the Sea has fewer good paintings by Impressionists than might be reasonably expected. This is unfair. At the top of the list must come Edouard Manet's Low Tide at Berck 1873 and Women on the Beach 1873. The former has an almost Japanese elegance and simplicity with dark blobs of boats and clouds like flying ducks. The latter is disturbingly modern in its uncertainties.

Here too is Monet's Etretat Rainy Weather 1885 with sheets of rain on a choppy sea, a wonderfully wet and lonely view of the famous cliff, stack and arch. You would not want to be there in that weather but you are glad that Monet, that master of good light and bad light alike, has been there for you.

The great disappointment are the Renoirs. I had forgotten quite how bad Renoir at his worst could be. Renoir's By the Seashore 1883 appals. A foolish, over delicately rendered face sits on a woman who sits on a chair which sits before a blurred, randomly coloured cliff. As a portrait it is bad sentimentality, and as a landscape worthless. In either category it fails. Once the bottom falls out of Renoir there is not much left.

In fairness this picture is not quite as bad as Mary Cassatt's Children at the Seashore 1885 which is Mabel Lucy Attwell with spades …and buckets too.

The empty seaside landscapes in the exhibition are a delight, notably Whistler's Sea and Rain 1865 and Gustave Courbet's The Shore at Trouville: Sunset effect (1865/1869).

However, too many of the artists who took the train from Paris to the new seaside resorts, set up on the French side of the English Channel in imitation of Brighton, concentrate on the dreadful holiday makers. In the 20th century, as we know from H. E. Bateman's The Cad who was Improperly Dressed at the Lido, people at the seaside are ugly because they are under-dressed, but in the 19th century they were ugly because they were overdressed. The seaside became a place for wealthy Parisian show-offs to parade in elaborate and often rather formal clothes - ninnies with parasols and parapluies. Today they lie on the beach and tan themselves the fashionable mahogany of a Jaffna Tamil to prove to the clerks that they have the leisure for it. Then they protected with parasols and headgear the horrid pallor that proved you were not a peasant and never had to labour in the sun.

After seeing Eugène Boudin's The Beach at Trouville 1864, and The Empress Eugénie on the Beach at Trouville 1863 I shall never again be able to think of the seaside delights of Balbec with the same fresh pleasure I once did. Even Boudin himself came to despise the rottenness of the scenes he painted, the falseness and snobbery of the French haute bourgeoisie beside the sea.

Boudin, though, managed to escape these horrors in his Deauville 1893, a wonderful once wet beach with only a stalwart and cart-horses to the side, where the end of the beach is hemmed in by both land and sea, so that the viewer seems to be rushing down the hard sand like a racing driver setting a speed record at Pendine.

Yet the antithesis of The Beach at Trouville, the noble peasant of the much earlier (in style) A Spring by the Sea 1866 by Jules Breton, is just as false. Breton has stolen idealized images of a woman carrying a jug of water on her head and of a mother carrying her child from much earlier religious paintings. A woman of elegant simplicity at a well in Judaea, a Madonna and Child, have replaced the gnarled, squat, weather-marred, guileful fishermen's wives of Brittany and Celtic France. Clever but false, as are his inland gleaners and sicklers, a national-peasant realism equivalent of socialist realism. Boudin at Trouville accurately portrayed a rich but false society. Breton has falsely portrayed a very poor and battered one. The northern coast of France was where the dragonflies of Napoleon III's Paris migrated in summer, pushing aside those who made a tedious living from the sea. You can almost smell Sedan … after which many of the painters, already lurking well away from the war-zone, legged it to an England.

Yet why should this concern us? The paintings exist in and of themselves. That they also constitute and portray aspects of social history need not and should not detract from our enjoyment of them, though such knowledge may add to it. Art is a wonderful ratchet and you can't lose with a ratchet. Art is a great leveller that renders the ugly admirable whether it be a soup-can, a pachydermous grumus merdae or the French.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain and a great lover of the unspoiled bits of the French coast, particularly after the overnight ferry on English bank-holidays.

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