Impressionism was a strongly international movement in art. From its beginnings in the 1860s in France, it attracted the attention of artists throughout Europe, and as far afield as Australia and Japan. While we celebrate the Skagen colony in Denmark and other Nordic countries, the Australian Impressionists, and several brilliant Americans, when it comes to British Impressionists most of us draw a blank.
According to the received history of British landscape painting, when JMW Turner died in 1851 he left a void. There were some attempts by painters like John Brett (1831-1902) to establish the genre among the Pre-Raphaelites, but aesthetic demands for finely-detailed and faithful depictions painted in front of the motif proved impossible. You then have to look to the twentieth century before British landscape painting really recovered.
My aim in this series is to discover whether there was any coherent Impressionist movement in Britain, in the period from the death of Turner to the First World War. As an introduction, I here aim to convince you that some artists in Britain did paint in Impressionist style, before looking at each in more detail in subsequent articles.
Although James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was an American who worked for some of his career in France, and is best-known for his figurative paintings, from 1858 he lived and painted mainly in London, and was a prolific landscape painter.
His early landscapes painted in London, such as The Thames in Ice from 1860, are atmospheric oil sketches which differ from later Impressionist works primarily in his emphasis on browns and black.
Whistler maintained strong contact with French artists, including Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet. He returned to see them and paint, in this case on the Normandy coast, in Crepuscule in Opal: Trouville, painted in 1865.
In Symphony in White and Red, from about 1868, his colours have become brighter, and his brushwork even looser.
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) is the painting at the heart of Whistler and Ruskin’s notorious court case, in which the artist claimed successfully that the critic had libelled him. The court case bankrupted Whistler, but the painting itself is one of the best examples of his depicting transient light effects.
Walter Sickert (1860–1942) was another British artist who had been born overseas, this time in Germany, and migrated to Britain at the age of eight. In 1882 he left the Slade School prematurely to work as an assistant and pupil to Whistler. In 1883 he met Edgar Degas in Paris, and two years later he started to spend much of his time in Dieppe, where his mistress lived.
Sickert’s landscapes such as Mont de Neuville, Dieppe – Blue Sky, from 1887, are mostly small and sketchy, although like Whistler his earth colours weren’t typical of Impressionism. The following year, he joined the New English Art Club, which had been formed two years earlier by young artists who had studied in Paris, including John Singer Sargent, Philip Wilson Steer and George Clausen. That club became a crucible for British Impressionism.
Sickert’s later Dieppe, the Arcades and the Darse, from 1898, is another example of his Impressionist landscapes.
Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942) was one of the few British-born artists who are today recognised as Impressionists. He returned to Britain in 1884 after training in Paris, where he became influenced by the paintings of the French Impressionists.
His Portrait of Miss Rose Pettigrew (1887) shows his very sketchy style just a year after the formation of the New English Art Club.
Steer’s coastal and beach views are among the most Impressionist works painted in England in the late nineteenth century: this is Summer at Cowes (on the Isle of Wight) from 1888. The following year, Steer and other British artists formed a breakaway group of London Impressionists which exhibited in the Goupil Gallery in the city.
Another friend of Whistler and Sickert was Elizabeth Adela Forbes (1859–1912), a Canadian painter who trained in London and with William Merritt Chase in New York. She married the British painter Stanhope Forbes, and they settled in Newlyn, Cornwall, an artist’s colony in which they ran a painting school.
She exhibited Here We Are Gathering Nuts in May at the Leicester Galleries in London in 1904. She has used mixed media including black chalk, watercolor and gouache in her distinctive style.
Her undated oil painting of The Village Lane is also Impressionist in style.
Wynford Dewhurst (1864-1941) was another migrant artist, but this time in the opposite direction. Born in Manchester, England, he trained under Jean-Léon Gérôme in Paris, then was mentored by Claude Monet. In 1904, he published his influential book on the development of Impressionist painting, in which he controversially proposed that its antecedents had been the paintings of John Constable and JMW Turner.
Dewhurst’s undated Apple-Blossom Time in Arc-la-Bataille shows the obvious influence of Monet.
Another founding member of the New English Art Club was Sir George Clausen (1852–1944), who was born in London, trained there and in Paris at the Académie Julian, and painted in Impressionist style mainly in the early twentieth century, when he was Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy Schools in London.
When he was living at Widdington in Essex, he painted some of his finest works, including A Frosty March Morning (1904), which is sometimes known as The Allotment Garden, Winter. It shows influence from Pissarro’s paintings of early winter morning frost and mist, but its style is distinctively Clausen’s.
The Gleaners Returning (1908) is a marvellous contre-jour (into the light) view, again with swirling brushstrokes imparting movement in the women’s clothes.
I hope that you’ll join me in this series, exploring some fine paintings which will give insight into Impressionist painting in Britain over this period.