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'Americans in Paris 1860 - 1900'  at the National Gallery 22 February - 21 May 2006

From: Simeon
Category: Exhibitions
Date: 14 February 2006


The National Gallery has a new exhibition coming shortly called ‘Americans in Paris’. The title of the exhibition is somewhat misleading as you don’t see a cross spectrum of American society. This show is rather like watching a nineteenth century version of ‘The Great Gatsby’ or more recently ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’. The people in these paintings appear to exist in a twilight world of refined pleasure and languishing beauty, in which even children (seen but not heard) and their nannies are but props in an Eden enclosed by a white picketed fence. Where are the whores, the crack-dens and social misfits? Toulouse Lautrec wouldn’t have been invited to this particular garden party.

Hopper, an American artist of a different kind, doesn’t feature in this exhibition which is a shame. He went to Paris following the well worn path of American artists for whom Paris represented the religious equivalent of Mecca. Philip Guston is another, maybe the last American artists to view Europe in such a self-conscious, but deeply respectful way.

An artist whom I enjoy very much is Winslow Homer. Two of his paintings feature in this show. One is of a woman against a ragging sea while the other is a highly rendered, almost classically academic painting of a group of dishevelled, battle worn American soldiers. Homer sits comfortably amongst the other artists in this show- but only just.

Technically the painters on display are all more than capable in their handling of paint. There’s something missing though despite this. What this might be isn’t easy to identify. From the moment you see the first paintings in this show you can spot the influences in the minds and brushes of the artists on show. Monet and Degas loom large and you find yourself, perhaps unjustifiably, comparing the two. It doesn’t follow that a painting, just because it’s in the style of another artist, deserves less respect and attention. Mary Cassatt for example manages to produce aesthetically interesting images despite her huge debt to Degas.

That the painters in this show were, without exception technically equal to their European counterparts goes without saying. What they lacked, faith in their own country and the necessity to find a way of painting appropriate to that would only emerge much later the work of painters like De Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Warhol perhaps is the end of the line; when America really found its voice and had unashamedly shaken off the weight of European art history- even if it did throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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