In Britain, Impressionism took root among a small group of progressive artists keen to make their own mark on the style born across the Channel. Yet these artists never considered themselves one homogenous group, says Brandon Lindberg, British Impressionism specialist at Christie’s in London. Rather, the artists we consider British Impressionists today include those who rebelled against the academic teaching of London’s Royal Academy.
‘These artists filled the gap between Victorian painting and Modernism,’ says Lindberg. ‘It's high time they were more well-known.’
‘They are breathing fresh air, I feel, into the stuffy drawing rooms of the Victorian age,’ adds an appreciative Burton-Hill.
In the summer of 1893 Sir George Clausen painted Evening Song (above), one year after moving from London to the Essex countryside. When it was exhibited in the Royal Academy, commentators remarked on the similarity of Clausen’s pastel palette and soft light to the work of Monet and Renoir. ‘It’s got this incredible surface with this vibrancy and wonderful broken brushwork. It’s just a joy to behold,’ Lindberg enthuses. ‘Every time I look at it I think of music and birdsong.’
‘The colours really sing,’ adds Burton-Hill. ‘I couldn't help but think of the more famous Impressionists.’
With its crisply modelled figures, Walter Frederick Osborne’s 1884 work A Tale of the Sea, above, highlights the influence of French Impressionism on a group of young British and American painters who congregated in the coastal villages of Suffolk.
Philip Wilson Steer first imported French Impressionism to Suffolk, having studied at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. By the the time Osborne made A Tale of the Sea, in the village of Walberswick near Southwold, the Suffolk coast was known as the crucible of British Impressionism.
‘Osborne was captivated by the work of the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage and his square-brush technique,’ Lindberg explains. ‘If you look at the detail you see how he’s built up these blocks of colour and light. It really gives a freshness — you get that wonderful sea air in this.’
In the wake of the scandal surrounding John Singer Sargent's Madame X, a painting of the young socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau that caused a stir when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884, Sargent left Paris for Britain. There he completed Girl Reading by a Stream, a work that celebrates English country life in a newly adopted Impressionistic style.
In Girl Reading by a Stream, Sargent adopts not only the fluidity characteristic of Impressionism but something of an Impressionistic approach to painting itself. ‘The work is full of spontaneity. Sargent would have put it on his easel and he would have painted it in one sitting,’ Lindberg says.
‘These avant-garde artists were really stamping their colours to the mast, responding to the world around them,’ the specialist continues. ‘Painting en plein air, painting rural scenes, and painting in a very naturalistic, fresh, bright way.’