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When in June last year some rediscovered watercolours by William Blake were auctioned in New York, the Louvre in Paris acquired the finest of them, “The Death of the Strong Wicked Man”, for $1.4m – an auction record for a Blake watercolour, and the first Blake to enter a French national collection.
The Louvre bought two other British works last year: “Pandemonium” by the 19th-century visionary artist John Martin, and a seascape by 18th-century watercolourist Alexander Cozens.
Why is the Louvre buying so much British art? The answer is that the museum is preparing to open a permanent gallery dedicated to British art in the spring of 2008, for which conversion work is under way. The 300 sq m gallery will display 70 pictures at a time, on an upper floor with natural light.
“We are only now giving the space to British art that it deserves,” says Olivier Meslay, the (French) curator of British art at the museum. The current situation is unsatisfactory; as few as 20 British pictures are hung on a temporary basis and are often moved around.
Moreover, the Louvre’s British collection, which was built up passively and without a strategy in the 19th century by the occasional bequest, had too many gaps and inferior works – hence the recent acquisitions. Meslay points out that the Louvre’s collection, with its paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Constable and Lawrence, is nevertheless better than that od any European counterpart.
“Continental European art historians took a long time to consider British art as a proper school,” Meslay admits.
Robin Simon, editor of the British Art Journal and author of a new book, Hogarth, France and British Art, says: “There is an in-built arrogance, or a weird insularity but it is has been changing.” He compares France’s tendency to ignore New World wines.
The reasons for the French indifference to British art can be traced back to the 17th century, according to Simon. The French could not take seriously a country that did not have an Academy (the Royal Academy in London was not founded until 1768), and did not regulate the arts. They have always seen British artists as “gifted but slightly barbaric”.
As tempting as it might be to conclude that the low profile thus far of British art in the Louvre is merely a matter of French arrogance, the new gallery is actually part of a much wider change in the art world, by which Britain’s art is coming to be seen as integral to the development of Europe’s. British scholars have been at least as guilty as anyone else in failing to perceive the interconnection.
“British art historians felt that British art is different, and could not be compared. They thought that no else could understand it,” Meslay says. It was not a milieu that encouraged the participation of foreigners.
Simon agrees: “If the French ignored the British, the British ignored the French. We have not understood our own artists in an international context.”
This division is written into Britain’s public life: London’s National Gallery does not collect any British art; that is left to Tate.
The situation in Britain, France and elsewhere is changing. It began in the 1970s with Paul Mellon’s creation of the Yale Center for British Art, which encouraged the appraisal of its subject from an international standpoint, and collected many types of art rather than merely the society portraits for which Britain was famous.
This reappraisal accelerated in the 1990s with new research to suggest that 19th-century France saw a considerable amount of British art. Meslay and his colleagues have found that between 1800 and 1939 more than 2,000 British artists showed a total of 15,000 works at the French salons, some of which work entered the Louvre.
Meslay adds, perhaps more importantly, that “we are discovering more and more that British art is a pioneer in terms of genre and style”. Meanwhile, Simon and other scholars have noticed other interactions. There may be other reasons for curiosity about British art. Simon says that the popularity in France of contemporary British art may have encouraged people to wonder what came before.
It is in the context of these re-evaluation that in 2001 the Louvre obtained, thanks to a patron, the funds to create a British gallery.
Meslay has three aims for the gallery. “We hope people realise that the Louvre has, first, a very good collection of British art, and second, that British art is beautiful.”
Third, he wants “to convince the French public that British art since the 18th century has often been in advance of other art”. Britain’s influence on European art should become clear as visitors walk through the gallery, having just seen European rooms. Meslay gives as examples the influence of Constable’s and Bonnington’s landscapes on Corot, Dupré and Théodore Rousseau, and the anticipation in John Martin and others of some themes of Delacroix.
For the gallery to be a success, however, the Louvre must continue to plug gaps in its collection. Meslay says, “We would like to have a better Reynolds, although we have a beautiful young girl” and the Turner is unfinished. Most significantly, there is no painting by Hogarth, who is not only a great artist but also an influence on French art. “Without Hogarth, there would be no Greuze,” Simon says. There is still much work to be done.