British Art  

English painting in France before 1802

To speak of English painting as part of the French scene before the nineteenth century may seem rash; and to name a single work by an English painter in a pre-Revolutionary collection here might be considered quite a challenge. Yet these venerable preconceptions are wide of the mark. English paintings, often of a high standard, were very much present in France, and not merely via the engraved versions already in vogue before the mid-eighteenth century: British painting did not make its début in France with Benjamin West's famous Death on a Pale Horse at the Salon in 1802, for it was widely established well before that date.
This should not surprise us unduly. In the eight hundred years since William the Conqueror, the enduring relationship, sometimes fraternal, sometimes conflictual, between the two countries meant that artistic crossover was inevitable. All sorts of links, each deserving of study in its own right, kept this relationship extremely productive: the role of the ambassadors, which will be discussed below, was the most visible and most official of them, while ties maintained by old aristocratic French families after the Norman conquest were just as decisive.
Paradoxically, traditionally anti-English bonds also contributed to an closer acquaintance with British painting, in particular the Franco-Scottish relations embodied in the Auld Alliance and an Irish connection based on a common religion: it should not be forgotten that eighteenth-century France was home to Scottish and Irish regiments totaling at least four thousand men and officers. There were institutions, too, that served as focal points for a British presence, especially the English, Scottish and Irish colleges in Paris—some of them centuries old—and the hundreds of British religious establishments in the capital's University and Saint-Sulpice quarters, as well as in Douai, Rouen and Toulouse. In addition, Jacobite families provided France with numerous luminaries, while French Huguenots who had taken refuge across the Channel after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes kept in touch with their families or formed ties with compatriots and coreligionists who had remained in France.
There were, too, the Francophiles and Anglophiles who played their part in this cultural osmosis. Sometimes private individuals who had moved from England to Paris would contribute by showing visitors the paintings they had brought with them. And certain Frenchmen communicated their Anglophilia within France, in a first step towards stimulating interest in art from across the Channel: famous names that spring to mind are Montesquieu, Voltaire, the Abbé Prévost, the Duc de Liancourt, who was an industrialist and philanthropist, and the Comte de Lauraguais, with his passion for horses.
The collections the English aristocracy has built up since the Revolution often lead the French to conclude that the level of interest across the Channel has always been high. This is another old chestnut, however, as few French pictures were in English hands before 1793. For the British Poussin, Claude, and Vernet were above all Italian painters of French origin, and their works were acquired mainly in Italy. Apart from this trio, only Watteau and his followers enjoyed any real success. Van Loo had merely been a visitor to France, and Philippe Mercier and Dominique Serres, in spite of their French roots, were consigned directly to the category of English painters. So rather than dropping one preconception in favor of another, we should perhaps seek a more balanced view of reciprocal French-English tastes.
French painting has always received more critical attention in England than conversely, and its impact has been more accurately evaluated. This essay, however, sets out to show that English painting has had a greater influence in France than has so far been thought.

Olivier Meslay

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