Quiet revolution - Scottish Impressionism
Impressionism is one of the best-loved art movements of modern times – all those blockbuster exhibitions and ‘Water Lilies’ biscuit tins can’t be wrong – but in populism’s wake, the revolutionary nature of the artworks can be lost.
‘When Degas’ “L’Absinthe” was first exhibited it caused complete consternation,’ says Frances Fowle, curator of Impressionism & Scotland, which features over 100 paintings, pastels and watercolours from national and overseas collections. ‘People reacted to both the painting’s subject and execution with shock.’ While Degas’ works may not cause today’s gallery visitors to recoil in horror, the arrival of Impressionism was a dramatic break from virtually every artistic precedent.
The National Gallery’s new exhibition aims to remind us of that shock factor, by examining the legacy of the Impressionist works collected in Scotland, and the impact of Impressionist artists on the nation’s painters. As anyone with a passing acquaintance with Scotland’s public art collections will be aware, Scots collectors were not afraid to purchase Impressionist art, as Fowle confirms: ‘People were very suspicious of Impressionism at the end of the 19th century, but, Scotland was comparatively open to this new, modern art.’
Many wealthy Scots, particularly those who had built their fortunes as industrialists and wished their art collections to be as forward looking as their businesses, considered Impressionist art an appropriate acquisition, as Fowle points out. ‘Important and influential collectors such as Alexander Reid in Glasgow bought works by the painters of the Barbizon group and Hague School.’
Scottish collectors were also less concerned that art represent an edifying moral message, as much English art of the period did. However, this did not mean that all the French Impressionists’ subjects of daily modern life were transferred to Scottish art. ‘Scottish painters tended not to set works in bars or cafés, which were features of French Impressionism,’ says Fowle. ‘This was largely due to the powerful influence of the Temperance movement in Scotland. Very few wealthy collectors with interests in industry wanted to risk collecting art that could be seen as encouraging their workforce to drink.’ This was a particular risk, as, after their purchase, collectors showed their new works in public exhibitions.
Exposure to the work of this revolutionary new art movement had a definite impact upon Scottish artists, which the exhibition demonstrates, hanging French and Scottish paintings side by side, thus enabling visitors to compare them. Yet, as Fowle is keen to highlight, ‘Scottish artists were responding to art coming from Europe. They did not simply soak up European influences and produce derivative works, but used it as an inspiration for the creation of art that tended to be more decorative and symbolic. We often forget that Scottish artists were very international in their outlook, and their work was admired and collected around the world.’
Impressionism & Scotland, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, Sat 19 Jul–Sun 12 Oct.