Room 2: The Idea of Modern Life

Banner for the Tate Britain exhibition on Lowry

Ever since 1845, and the poet Charles Baudelaire’s first call for painters to show ‘how great and poetic we are in our neckties and patent-leather boots’, a central strand of art in France had taken as its subject the strange beauty and ugliness of the nineteenth century. Lowry, learning from his master Valette, fed on that modern-life tradition. He looked, in art books and exhibitions, at Impressionist renderings of the new city – its working edges and half-formed suburbs as well as its bustling hub – and worked to adapt French drawing and colour to contemporary English urban life. This room shows works by Lowry alongside these points of reference in order to measure what is distinctive about his work, and what it shares with its time.

At the outset of his career, Lowry showed earlier and more consistently in Paris than in London. From 1928 to 1933 his work was accepted yearly at the spring and autumn Salons, and got sympathetic notices. Parisian critics seem to have understood straight away the links of Lowry’s art to their own modern tradition. His painting reminded them of Pissarro in its unassuming openness to the detail of everyday life, of Utrillo in its calculated simplicity, and of the earlier French Realists (and their great inheritor van Gogh) in its grim compassion for the common man.