From Agincourt and Waterloo to Chirac and Blair, Britain and France share a history of wars and rivalries. But the years following the defeat of Napoleon witnessed an extraordinary if barely recognised era of artistic cross-pollination. Sara Cochran discusses Tate Britain's new survey

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  • Eugène Delacroix Louis-August Schwiter circa 1862 oil on canvas 218.4 x 142.2 cm
    Eugène Delacroix
    Louis-August Schwiter
    circa 1862
    oil on canvas
    218.4 x 142.2 cm
  • Théodore Géricault Study for Raft of the Medusa 1818 oil on canvas
    Théodore Géricault
    Study for Raft of the Medusa 1818
    oil on canvas
  • John Constable The White Horse 1819
    John Constable
    The White Horse 1819
    Oil on canvas

France was undeniably the motor of European painting in the 19th century. There is little question of the primacy of the long lineage of artistic movements in Paris, from Jacques-Louis David to the Impressionists. British art, by contrast, has usually been cast as a poor relation. Some British artists, most notably J.M.W. Turner, were hugely successful and highly respected abroad, but most of their compatriots were seen as followers of French innovations.

But a major new exhibition at Tate Britain argues forcefully for a re-examination of the mechanisms of this bi-national relationship, and reconsiders a wide range of factors that influenced it. Featuring the works of Turner, Théodore Géricault, Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, John Constable and Camille Corot among others, its goal is to shed new light on the artistic exchanges between France and Britain during the period of High Romanticism, from 1816 to 1837.

One date resonates throughout this exhibition: 1819, the year in which Sir Walter Scott published his historical novel Ivanhoe, a bestseller throughout Europe that sparked a fashion for all things Scottish. This exhibition unravels a complex web of influence and fascination, and demonstrates the lasting impact of British culture, especially literary figures including Scott, Byron and Shakespeare, on French painting in the 19th century.

The cultural traffic ran both ways, and the exhibition includes a spectacular reconstruction of the 1820 showing of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. The infamous subject of this painting – the shipwreck four years earlier and the gruesome 13-day odyssey of its survivors, some of whom resorted to cannibalism – was a political scandal in France and a media sensation on both sides of the Channel. Géricault’s vast socially engaged painting of this event met with a decidedly cool reception from French critics, who saw it as too macabre and ostentatious, but was acclaimed in London.

These contrasting reactions show some of the differences between the two countries as they adjusted to each other and to their new circumstances after the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Britain was in full expansion as a developing industrial nation, while France, in the turbulent reigns of Louis XVIII, Charles X and Louis-Philippe, attempted to reconstruct its state apparatus after the Revolution and Napoleon’s imperial rule. For the French, Britain provided an interesting model of a parliamentary system under a limited monarchy.

Géricault and Delacroix visited London seperately. They both disliked the city at first, but were slowly seduced by its immensity, its light, luxury and politeness.

Beyond politics, the exhibition also draws attention to the technical influences that British art brought to French art at this time. Chief among these were the specifically British practices of watercolour and plein-air painting, which contrasted sharply with the French tradition of landscape painting, still heavily influenced by Claude Lorraine (1600–1682). When Constable’s work was shown in Paris, paintings such as The White Horse 1819 were a revelation for French artists and viewers because the clarity and skill of his representation differed so much from the vaporous excesses of Claude’s followers.

Central to the story are personal visits that individual artists made across the Channel. An important premise of the exhibition is that the easing of travel restrictions after the Napoleonic Wars, combined with the fuller reporting of Parisian salon exhibitions due to improved engraving techniques and the rise of the popular press, produced much closer relations between artists of both nations. The presence of British artists in Paris was far from passive. Indeed, such were the numbers and impact of British artists, including Turner and Constable, that the Salon of 1824 became known as the ‘English salon’.

Meanwhile, French artists visited Britain in the same decade, led by Géricault and Delacroix, who stayed in London on separate occasions. Both disliked the city at first; Delacroix wrote that he wanted to leave almost as soon as he arrived. However, the city slowly seduced them through its immensity, its light, luxury and politeness; Delacroix finally admitted in a letter to a friend that the longer he stayed, the more he wanted to stay. Their letters are full of description of trips to the theatre and praise for the work of English artists like David Wilke and Thomas Lawrence.

Traces of their visits to London can be found in both their work. A comparison of two portraits, one by Delacroix and the other by Ingres, illustrates this point. Delacroix’s portrait of Louis-August Schwiter and Ingres’ of the Marquis de Pastoret were both painted in France in about 1826. Ingres’ polished work follows in the great tradition of French portraiture, depicting the proud figure of this important civil servant turning towards the viewer, self-consciously aware of his authority, and posed against an anonymous background of drapery and interior architecture. By contrast, Delacroix’s portrait is stylistically broader in its references. It shows Schwiter, an aristocratic family friend mentioned in Delacroix’s letters, in a relatively relaxed and contemplative pose, standing on a terrace overlooking a landscape. By embracing the psychological complexities of the sitter and celebrating the natural setting, Delacroix’s work demonstrates his profound understanding of British portraiture, and especially the work of Gainsborough and Lawrence. The intimacy and informality counters the etiquette and poise of Ingres’ portrait.

What is interesting is not so much the respective Frenchness or Britishness of these paintings, but rather an appreciation of the breadth of Delacroix’s visual vocabulary, gained through international travel and careful observation of another culture, and expressed through his idiosyncratic inclusion of elements from British painting in addition to the French tradition.

Ultimately, Constable to Delacroix demonstrates how individual experience can be enhanced by context. Instead of trying to keep score in a contest of international influence, the exhibition makes a powerful claim for artistic relations between France and Britain to be understood in a more complex way. This is, after all, what the individual French and British artists wanted: richer personal expression and not the advancement of an abstract national agenda.

This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 3