Painters of modern life
When he was in London in 1821, Géricault was impressed by the ‘portraits … genres, and animals’ he saw in the Royal Academy exhibition. These scenes of everyday, modern life challenged the traditional hierarchy of subject matter. The British and French academies had taught that historical subjects were the most admirable form of art. Now, painters were producing modern subjects which appealed directly to private collectors.
Even as his Raft of the Medusa hung in the Egyptian Hall, Géricault renounced history painting, and began instead to paint animals, especially horses and horse-racing, and scenes of working life. Like Delacroix, Géricault admired the emotive power that British artists like James Ward or Edwin Landseer gave to animals. They also valued the subtle human characterisation and expression in the paintings of David Wilkie, the most innovative genre painter of his generation.
It was widely acknowledged that the influence of British painters encouraged the proliferation of ‘lesser’ genres in French exhibitions in the 1820s. Distinctly contemporary in style and subject, they were encouraged by the Comte de Forbin, director of the Royal museums – at some risk to his reputation.
French portrait painting was transformed by the example of Thomas Lawrence, the leading London portraitist. Lawrence’s international reputation had been secured by his portraits of the Allied sovereigns and diplomats who defeated Napoleon. His brilliant characterisation - especially of children - and free, apparently casual brushwork was widely admired, but horrified conservative tastes. No painter so epitomised what was thought to be the British style, or provoked such conflicting outcomes in French painting. While artists like Gros or Ingres upheld French discipline, Delacroix painted his portrait of Baron Schwiter (shown in room 3) under Lawrence’s spell, and saw it rejected from the Salon.
Lawrence exhibited in France, painted the king and other prominent figures, and sent work to Paris for engraving. The Comte de Forbin, director of the Royal museums, considered Lawrence the leader of the British school, and secured his appointment as a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur as both a symbolic and a personal compliment.