The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Crossing the Channel -- Related Events

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

About the Exhibition

Historical Background

Selected Paintings


Related Events

Interview with the Curator

Paintings Curator: Patrick Noon
Patrick Noon
Curator of Paintings

The following is an excerpt from the June 2003 issue of ArtsMagazine.


The museum’s exciting new exhibition has been twenty years in the making for Curator Patrick Noon. In this exclusive interview with Noon, we learn how it all came together—across the channel, across the ocean, and across America.

By Jodie L. Ahern

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 art—that 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 artistic exchange?

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 1802–03 that enabled droves of British artists to visit Paris, few opportunities existed for cultural exchanges prior to Bonaparte’s 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 Salons—the exhibitions of living artists in the Louvre—rattled the French establishment to its very foundations.

So this exhibition is about more than painting? It’s also about politics, history, literature, religion, and philosophy?

P.N.: With the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy following Bonaparte’s 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 Johnson’s apt phrase for the years we cover, 1815–30, was an international enterprise, and it’s 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 I’ve 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 the opening?

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 exhibition?

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 artist’s 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 can’t 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 Ingres’s Portrait of the Comte de Pastoret, Lawrence’s Portrait of the Master Lambton, and Delacroix’s 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 Institute’s 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 Institute’s 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.: Let’s 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 remarkable paintings?

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 the ride.

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