The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Crossing the Channel -- Historical Background

"Exemplary in its conception and presentation.: -Le Monde, Paris

About the Exhibition

Historical Background

Selected Paintings


Related Events

Interview with the Curator

The Rise of Watercolor

The British excelled in the art of watercolor. Often dubbed the "British medium," watercolor was practiced in France during the first two decades of the nineteenth century with some regularity, but little genius. Two-thirds of the British entries at the 1824 Paris Salon were watercolors. Technically sophisticated and imposing in scale, they shocked French critics, who generally considered watercolor painting a frivolous pastime. However, such opposition could not suppress the groundswell of interest in watercolors among French collectors.

Watercolor appealed to French Romantic painters as a means to help liberate technique. So rapidly did the fashion take hold in Paris that by 1830 French critics were claiming that watercolor had rescued the visual arts from the shallowness of monumental history painting and was contributing daily to the artistic liberation of the people.

The more sympathetic commentators in France and Britain credited the technical rejuvenation of watercolor to the prodigious originality of the Anglo-French trained Richard Parkes Bonington, whose watercolors Delacroix aptly described as "diamonds that flatter and ravish the eye." Between 1826 and 1828, when Bonington and Delacroix were virtually sharing studios, they and the artists of their entourage—Huet, Colin, Roqueplan, Decamps, Barye, Boys, and Isabey—defined a new relationship between watercolor and oil painting that would ultimately lead to Impressionism.

The Poetry of Landscape Painting

The Fallen Branch, Fountainebleau,Few observers on either side of the Channel disputed the originality of the British landscape school. However, the aims of British and French landscape painters diverged markedly.

French artists, like their British contemporaries, sketched in the open air to encourage spontaneity and careful
observation of natural light and color. But these qualities often vanished in the final painting when prescribed rules of
composition intruded —when planar recession replaced atmospheric, minute details crammed every inch, and skies were painted according to for-mulae. Finished landscapes were meant to accommodate an elevated subject from mythology or literature, set in Italy because of its associations with an idealized classical past.

By contrast, British painters offered finished works that retained the freshness of the original sketch, with a poetic sentiment derived from the immediate experience of nature. Paul Huet vividly recalled his initial sight of Constable’s View on the Stour in 1824: "It was the first time that one felt the freshness, that one saw a luxuriant, verdant nature, without blackness, crudity or mannerisms." It was the "sincerity" of Bonington’s vision that inspired Camille Corot to become
an artist.

Through the influence of these British artists, the coastal towns of Normandy, the countryside around Paris, and northern Italy sites steeped in medieval romance (such as Venice) gradually replaced Rome as destinations for the serious pursuit of landscape painting. Later in the century, they became favorite subjects of the Impressionists.

Art on View: Salons and Exhibitions

Outside the grand galleries of the Louvre itself, there is nothing comparable to this exhibition’s final gallery in scale and dazzling content. The concluding section of "Crossing the Channel" evokes the visual drama and diversity of public art exhibitions in the 1820s and 1830s, when artists and paintings traveled as never before between London and Paris.
Virtually all the paintings in this section were shown at one of the major exhibition venues. These included the Paris Salon, held in the Louvre, and the annual exhibitions at the Royal Academy and British Institution in London. These events served as public forums for a creative dialogue between French and British artists.

anatics of Tangier, Masterworks such as Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Delacroix’s Fanatics of Tangier and John Martin’s The Deluge are hung together for the first time in nearly two centuries. Constable’s two six-foot landscapes, View on the Stour and The White Horse, have not previously been loaned for exhibition outside of their respective museums.

British paintings constituted a fraction of the art shown in France during this period. Nevertheless, these paintings had tremendous influence, especially those featured at the so-called "British Salons" of 1824 and 1827. They ignited heated comparisons of the two cultures and served as a rallying point for a French school of painting both divided and in transition. These icons of Romanticism defined the critical debate on modernism for future generations of artists in both countries.

Timeline 1827-1840

Images: J. M. W. Turner, Margate from the Sea: Whiting Fishing, Watercolor, Private Collection
Achille Etna Michallon,The Fallen Branch, Fountainebleau, c. 1816, Oil on canvas, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Margaret G. Deal Fund and Gift of the Paintings Council, 98.34
Eugène Delacroix, Fanatics of Tangier, 1837-38, Oil on canvas, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Bequest of J. Jerome Hill, 73.42.3


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