Tuesday, 9 December 2014

French Impressionism and London Suburbia

Pissarro's painting of St Stephen's Church in 1870. Looming in the background is the flank of the Crystal Palace.
Not only Emile Zola fled to the suburbs of London near Crystal Palace at a moment of crisis in France but also Camille Pissarro who came with his family a generation earlier in 1870 at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War.  At a space of nearly thirty years apart the two men walked the same ground and enjoyed the same views as I realised when I looked again at Zola’s photographs and compared them with Pissarro’s paintings – in particular the scene of St Stephen’s Church in College Road.

Emile Zola's photograph of St Stephen's in 1899.
Pissarro recalled those times years later in a letter to his English painter friend Wynford Dewhurst in 1902. ‘In l870 I found myself in London with Monet, and we met Daubigny and Bonvin. Monet and I were very enthusiastic over the London landscapes. Monet worked in the park, whilst I, living in Lower Norwood, at that time a charming suburb, studied the effects of fog, snow and springtime.’  The ‘park’ where Claude Monet worked was Hyde Park, the original site of the Crystal Palace.

Pissarro, Upper Norwood, Landscape Under Snow 1871.
While in London Pissarro and Monet viewed the works of the Romantic landscape painters Constable and J M W Turner, those great masters of colour and the drama of English skies, which confirmed their belief that to truly capture light and atmosphere it was necessary to abandon the French habit of sitting in a studio and instead get out into the open air. 

Pissarro, Lordshhip Lane Station 1871.
Pissarro’s paintings of this time, twelve in all, record Sydenham and the Norwoods when they were only recently connected by railways and before they were enveloped by suburbia.   

Pissarro, All Saints Church, Upper Norwood.
One of the largest of these, a view of St Bartholomew’s Church at Lawrie Park Avenue, is in the collection of the National Gallery in London.  Others include views of the Crystal Palace which had been relocated from Hyde Park, Norwood Under the Snow, Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich College, Sydenham Hill, All Saints Church Upper Norwood and two paintings of St Stephen's Church, one of which is lost.

Pissarro, Fox Hill, Upper Norwood 1870.
Monet lived in town at the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames which explains the genesis of some of his most famous paintings, for example his repeated studies of light on the Houses of Parliament which he continued when he returned to London again in 1901.

Monet, Houses of Parliament 1871.

Monet, Houses of Parliament 1901-2.
Their experience of the London outdoors contributed to Pissarro and Monet becoming more relaxed, more lively and spontaneous in their brushwork.   

Not that it seemed to help their careers at first; back in France they found no favour with the artistic establishment and turning their backs on the Paris Salon they and like-minded friends arranged the first Impressionist Exhibition in 1874.  Thanks to Upper and Lower Norwood, to Crystal Palace and the Houses of Parliament, and to Turner and Constable Impressionism was born.

Pissarro, Crystal Palace 1871.