What do you mean by "Romantic" painting? Can you describe
the time period and painting style?
Patrick Noon: The Romantic movement in Europe, bracketed
chronologically by the French Revolution of 1789 and the socialist
uprisings of 1848, stressed liberalism and variety in subject
matter and formal concerns; a sympathy for the primitive, the
mystical and the medieval; individual stylistic invention over
absolute standards of taste. It was an age of utopian dreamers
and virtuoso performers. Charles Baudelaire defined Romantic painting
best by defining it vaguely: "To say the word Romanticism
is to say modern artthat is, intimacy, spirituality, color,
aspirations towards the infinite, expressed by every means available
to the arts."
Britain and France were warring nations between the late eighteenth
century and the nearly nineteenth century. How did this affect their
P.N.: Following the French Revolution and the rise of
Napoleon Bonaparte, France and Great Britain were belligerents.
With the exception of the brief Peace of Amiens in 180203
that enabled droves of British artists to visit Paris, few opportunities
existed for cultural exchanges prior to Bonapartes final
defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Pictorial communication was restricted
to reproductive engravings, which somehow filtered through the
trade embargoes imposed by each country. Paintings rarely traveled
across borders, which is why the substantial and unprecedented
British contributions to the 1824 and 1827 Paris Salonsthe
exhibitions of living artists in the Louvrerattled the French
establishment to its very foundations.
So this exhibition is about more than painting? Its also
about politics, history, literature, religion, and philosophy?
P.N.: With the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy following
Bonapartes final exile, French fascination with every aspect
of Anglo-Scottish civilization became feverish. We have attempted
to explore the many manifestations of this phenomenon, to the
extent that one can visually, through a judicious selection of
oil and watercolor paintings, many of which are iconic in stature.
Our objective in assembling them again for the first time in nearly
two centuries was to furnish comparative materials for a renewed
consideration of British Romanticism as a major influence in the
evolution of French art and culture. Why is this relevant? Well,
for starters, the art historical movements that audiences today
prize most highly, Impressionism for instance, owe their very
genesis to this liberating infusion of British theory and practice
a half-century earlier. The "Birth of the Modern," to
use Paul Johnsons apt phrase for the years we cover, 181530,
was an international enterprise, and its time we examined
this idea more candidly.
When did you first become interested in this subject and why?
P.N.: My interest in this subject dates almost to the
beginning of my professional career. While a curator at the Yale
Center for British Art in 1984, I was attracted to the work of
Richard Parkes Bonington, a British-born but Paris-trained painter,
who was the principal intermediary between the French and British
schools in the 1820s, and far more influential on French painting
than his more famous contemporary, John Constable. It was through
my research on Bonington, which culminated in a major retrospective
of his work in 1991, that I realized just how important, but little
appreciated or understood, was this Anglo-French artistic interaction.
An exhibition on this subject has never been attempted. It was
the success of the Bonington project that prompted Nick Serota,
director of the Tate Gallery, to invite me in 1994 to organize
something on the theme of Théodore Géricault in
England. I was able to persuade him that the more comprehensive
subject of cross-channel exchanges, including a strong Géricault
component, would be more revelatory and visually exciting.
How did you find all of the works lent to the exhibition?
P.N.: Much of the research for the show dates to a four-month
sabbatical in France in 1986, and another intense period of study
after my move from Yale to the Institute. Over the years Ive
maintained extensive files on all of the artists who participated
in these exchanges, either through their travels or their having
sent pictures abroad for exhibition and sale. Constable never
left England, but he exhibited four of his six-foot landscapes
in Paris in the 1820s. The two in our exhibition are extremely
well-known but have not been seen outside their respective museums
in nearly one hundred years. As for the more obscure artists,
I probably have a photo of almost every picture of relevance that
has passed through the sale-rooms and the commercial galleries
over the last two decades. Art dealers who share my interests
and whom I have known for years have been extremely helpful in
tracking works in private collections.
The show opened in London this winter. Can you tell us about
P.N.: The opening at Tate Britain in February was a black-tie
affair for lenders and special guests. Perhaps more entertaining
was an event that morning when nearly two hundred reporters representing
all media appeared for a press view and private tour.
What are the logistical challenges of mounting such an international
P.N.: The greatest challenge to mounting an exhibition
as ambitious as "Crossing the Channel" is securing the
loans. In a monographic show of one artists work, you can
always find a picture to replace one that has been refused, but
in a very specific thematic exercise, certain pictures are crucial
for arguing the thesis. Without them there cant be a show.
Also, my selection criteria were exceptionally demanding. I wanted
only paintings in an excellent state of preservation, that were
recognized at the time as radical, and that would have been seen
by the most number of artists in each country. If Constable, Bonington,
and Turner did alter the course of French landscape painting as
is often asserted, then what better way to study their impact
than by bringing together the pictures they exhibited in Paris
with French landscapes painted at that very moment. Similarly,
we have been able to compare in one room for the first time since
1827 Ingress Portrait of the Comte de Pastoret, Lawrences
Portrait of the Master Lambton, and Delacroixs Portrait
of Baron Schwiter, all masterpieces that triggered an extraordinary
dialogue between the artists and critics of the two schools.
In twenty years of working on this project, did you ever wonder
if it would come together at all?
P.N.: I never doubted the seductive appeal of the project
for anyone interested in the history of painting. However, there
are eighty-seven lenders to this show, and we have consistently
asked museums around the world to lend paintings that are among
the most prized objects in their collections, the equivalent of
the Institutes Lucretia by Rembrandt, for instance. Doubts
as to whether we could pull together enough chestnuts certainly
persisted until the last loan request was answered in the positive
around nine months ago. That we were largely successful in this
effort attests to the confidence our colleagues have in the scholarly
significance of the exhibition and to the Institutes generosity
over the years in lending its masterworks to comparable undertakings.
Do you consider "Crossing the Channel" to be your
top career achievement?
P.N.: Lets just say that I am very pleased to have
had the opportunity and the support needed to achieve this goal,
and that the public response has thus far been exceptionally positive.
What do you want viewers to keep in mind as they look at these
P.N.: This exhibition is concerned with the communication
of ideas between creative titans at a particularly exciting and
radical moment in the history of European art. It explores a wide
range of thematic and stylistic issues, but ultimately it is about
the art of painting. The quintessential Romantic William Hazlitt,
wrote, "There is a pleasure in painting which none but painters
know." He meant the primal struggle of a creative faculty
to define with the limited materials of his craft some elusive
truth of individual experience, some link in the chain of our
endless being. The genius of painting, moreover, was the ability
to communicate or share a portion of that pleasure and experience
with those of us less gifted or receptive. We should simply enjoy