Importing the new painting to Britain

The 1870s

The paintings in this room show the dynamic new approach to the human figure and modern city life introduced to Britain by French artists in the 1870s.

This was a period of rapid change and innovation in society and politics, technology and the arts. Britain was in her imperial pomp, and London had become the world’s greatest metropolis. The spectacle of the contemporary city attracted British writers and painters, but it was French artists who first developed the means to represent the excitement of modernity. When their vibrant, startling images became known in Britain, some people were shocked – but others were inspired.

There were many points of contact between the British and French art worlds. Several influential French artists, like the painter James Tissot, moved to London. Significantly, it was in the 1870s that Degas first gained an appreciative critical following in Britain. He often exhibited in London and sold a number of important works. The friendships he formed helped to cement his reputation among the critics, artists and collectors of the next generation.

[London] pleases by accident, by contrast, and by the immensity of its scale. It is an enormous, opulent society expanding to the enjoyment of the privileges and responsibilities of wealth and power.
Henry James, 1877

James Tissot London Visitors about 1874, oil painting people on steps

James Tissot
London Visitors about 1874
Oil on canvas
Milwaukee Art Museum

Tissot shows two tourists scrutinising a guidebook on the steps of the National Gallery. The church of St Martin in the Fields is visible through the columns. The expression on the woman’s face suggests she is bored of her companion.

The unusual composition of the painting, such as the off-centre figures and large areas of stonework, concerned the critics. The reviewer of the Art Journal thought ‘the picture [was] without distinct and intelligible meaning’.

A young officer and two fashionable women look out towards the grimy docks of Portsmouth. The officer wears a wedding ring, but his thoughts are clearly directed towards the woman hiding her face behind a fan.

James Tissot, ‘The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth)’ c.1876
James Tissot
The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth) c.1876
James Tissot, ‘The Ball on Shipboard’ c.1874
James Tissot
The Ball on Shipboard c.1874

Tissot was born in France but settled in London in 1871. He became known for his highly-finished paintings of fashionable society, exhibited to critical acclaim at the Royal Academy and the Grosvenor Gallery. This painting was bought by a Scottish artist, John Robertson Reid.

Tissot shows a group of fashionable men and women on a warship beneath a canopy of flags. The ladies are gossiping or dancing, oblivious to the military presence in the background. Several of them, unusually, wear identical dresses.

Tissot formed a close friendship with Degas and the two artists regularly advised each other about their work. The cut-off edges and cropped figures in this painting were pictorial devices Degas often used in his ballet scenes.

Edgar Degas The Rehearsal 1871, oil on canvas of ballet dancers

Edgar Degas
The Rehearsal 1871
Oil on canvas
© Glasgow Museums: The Burrell Collection

From a young age, Degas was fascinated with the working life of ballet dancers. He often haunted the corridors of ballet schools and the backstage area at the Opéra in Paris. This is one of a number of paintings he made of young girls doing exercises and relaxing, unconscious of our watchful gaze.

The Rehearsal was owned by a French artist named Jacques-Emile Blanche. It would have been familiar to several British artists, including Sickert, who often visited Blanche’s home.

Edgar Degas Two Dancers on the Stage 1874 Oil on canvas

Edgar Degas
Two Dancers on the Stage 1874
Oil on canvas
The Samuel Cortauld Trust, Cortauld Institute of Art Gallery, London

Degas often used the theatrical stage to experiment with pictorial space. He frames this painting in like a snapshot, cutting off the left arm of the dancer on the right and showing only part of the tutu of a dancer in the background.

Degas’s pictures appeared so realistic that one critic thought ‘After having seen these pastels, you will never have to go to the Opéra again’. This painting was the first work by Degas to enter Captain Henry Hill’s collection.

The growth of the capital is suggested here by the group of labourers resurfacing a road in Camden, to allow for the increasing number of road vehicles travelling across London. In the foreground a fashionably dressed woman walks down the street. She holds some flowers she has just bought from the flower-seller behind her.

George Clausen A Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill 1881, painting of people along the street

George Clausen
A Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill 1881
Oil on canvas
Estate of George Clausen. Bury Art Gallery & Museum, Lancashire

The unusual cropping of the figures suggests that Clausen was familiar with the work of the French artist, Tissot, and de Nittis.

Cicely Alexander was the eight-year-old daughter of a London banker. Whistler exerted considerable control over the picture, buying fine white muslin for her dress and painting the flowers and butterflies in the background in intricate detail.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, ‘Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander’ 1872–4
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander 1872–4
Edgar Degas, ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’ 1880–1, cast c.1922
Edgar Degas
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen 1880–1, cast c.1922

The critics in 1874 saw Whistler’s portrait as ‘a disagreeable presentment of a disagreeable young lady’. But it was later praised by the critic, George Moore, who thought it ‘enchants with the harmony of colour, with the melody of composition’.

The model for this work (above right) was the only sculpture Degas exhibited publicly during his lifetime. The girl was a ballet student at the Paris Opéra, where he often drew and painted. Contemporaries were shocked by the unprecedented realism of the piece, but some critics were moved by his representation of the pain and stress of ballet training endured by a barely adolescent girl.

The dancer’s pose and expression are strikingly similar to Whistler’s portrait of Cicely Alexander, which Degas may have seen.

Degas shows the Italian artist, Pellegrini, in a comic attitude, holding a cigarette in one hand and a bowler hat in the other. Pellegrini came to England in 1864 and quickly became known for his caricatures in Vanity Fair. Degas’s humorous image echoes Pellegrini’s work.

The portrait matches a contemporary description of him as ‘hardly more than five feet two in height, squat and stout, with a face like a masque of Socrates, and always curiously ill-dressed’.

Edgar Degas Carlo Pellegrini about 1876-7 Oil on paper mounted on board

Edgar Degas
Carlo Pellegrini about 1876-7
Oil on paper mounted on board
Tate, London

Henri Fantin-Latour, ‘Mr and Mrs Edwin Edwards’ 1875
Henri Fantin-Latour
Mr and Mrs Edwin Edwards 1875

Fantin-Latour subverts conventional gender roles by showing Ruth Edwards as the dominant figure, her lofty figure overshadowing her husband.

Latour met Edwin and Ruth in the early 1860s through Whistler. They became his most important patrons in England, making a living by selling the still-life paintings for which Latour is best known to their British friends.

This painting (above right) shows a momentary exchange between the artist’s wife and their son. Orchardson’s admiration for Degas’s work is suggested by the unusual pose of the woman, whose black dress takes up most of the picture space.

The intimate subject matter is unusual for Orchardson. He more often painted narrative subjects and Regency costume pieces. Master Baby reflects a movement towards more domestic subjects which also preoccupied the French sculptor, Jules Dalou, during the 1870s.

William Quiller Orchardson Master Baby 1886 Oil on canvas

William Quiller Orchardson
Master Baby 1886
Oil on canvas
© National Galleries of Scotland. Photo: Antonia Reeve