Fine art: Marvellous paintings in a confused show

The Thames below Westminster (1871) by Claude Monet

Impressionists in London
Tate Britain, London, until May 7

My morning commute takes me across the Thames via Charing Cross Bridge and through Trafalgar Square towards St James’s. Going around Impressionists in London at Tate Britain, I might have been retracing my footsteps, only Monet and Pissarro found beauty and stillness where too often I find myself surrounded by scaffolding and chaos.

Pissarro’s Charing Cross Bridge of 1890 has all the serenity of the Pont Neuf. It had opened as a railway bridge a quarter of a century earlier, but here trains pass as if in silence over the Thames towards Cleopatra’s Needle and Victoria Embankment.

A magnificent barge heaving with pleasure seekers glides over the river with such grace that it sends little more than a ripple over the water. You see in this painting Pissarro’s interest in pointillism, a technique that lent itself perfectly to urban as well as rural landscapes. The vibrant colours of the boat’s crew pop against the powdery sky. The hubbub of the Houses of Parliament in the distance is thoroughly blanketed in mist.

Despite the difficulty it caused him when he sat down in the murkiness to write letters home, Monet found this mist “exquisite”. Like Pissarro, he came to London in 1870 to avoid conscription during the Franco-Prussian War and used his exile to study our “extraordinary country” in paint.

The changeability of the British climate proved as much an inspiration to him as it was initially a shock. He painted The Thames Below Westminster, a work of immense depth, with the architecture vanishing behind a boldly executed jetty. The canvas anticipated his Houses of Parliament series, which he painted on subsequent visits to London almost three decades later.

Monet’s Parliament sequence, displayed in the final room, celebrates the mists, sun, rain and fog which set over the Thames, and is the true highlight of this exhibition. The British weather is captured with such sensitivity that the buildings serve as mere backdrops to the exploration of light. Houses of Parliament, Sunlight Effect (1903) could have been done in pastel, it is so softly rendered, shafts of gold breaking through the purple skies and imbuing the entire canvas with warmth. Come sunset, the clouds have formed foreboding spools over Central Tower.

One of the rare thrills of my morning walk comes when I reach Trafalgar Square and glance down Whitehall to find Big Ben re-emerging on the skyline. The best view is from the portico of the National Gallery, which was only decades old when James Tissot made it the setting for his London Visitors in 1873. In this work we get to eavesdrop on an elegant couple, who stand at the top of the stairs with St Martin-in-the-Fields behind them, while boys dressed in the unmistakeable uniform of Christ’s Hospital School wait to lead a tour of the paintings inside.

London Visitors is a splendid painting, but one cannot help but ask oneself, what is Tissot doing in this exhibition? You’d be hard-pressed to describe him as an Impressionist. In fact, when Degas and Manet invited him to exhibit in what would be the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris, he refused. His National Gallery scene has none of the qualities of brushstroke and light which helped define Monet’s Impression Sunrise as the title work of the Impressionist movement.

The problem with this exhibition is that it doesn’t know what it is. It’s not an Impressionism show, or an exhibition of art made in exile, or wholly of art inspired by London. It’s two parts Frenchman in England to one part Impressionism, almost “French artists who painted London and England, some of them in the midst of the Franco-Prussian War”.

I longed for more detail on the way the war shaped the artists’ work. Manet, Degas and Renoir all enlisted. So too did the gifted young Impressionist Frédéric Bazille, who died in a skirmish during the war aged 28, and truly deserves a retrospective of his own (there have been exhibitions in Paris and Washington DC in the last few years but so far none here). What was their experience? It’s easy to look at Pissarro’s enchanting paintings of Kew Green and English cricket, or Sisley’s of Molesey Weir, and consider them escapist, but if they were then, how? The division drawn in this show between wartime and exile in England sometimes feels artificial.

The paintings, though, are marvellous, many of them comforting in the familiarity of their subjects. Enjoy tracing the changes in London’s skyline and English suburbia.

Daisy Dunn is the author of Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus: A New Translation (William Collins)