John House (1945-2012) was many things: an internationally respected authority on Impressionism, a curator of landmark exhibitions including Post-Impressionism at the Royal Academy (1979), Renoir (1985) and Landscapes of France (1995) at the Hayward Gallery, and an eloquent, inspiring and generous teacher to generations of students at the University of East Anglia, University College London and, for more than twenty-five years, at The Courtauld Institute of Art.
While John is best known and remembered as a scholar of Impressionism and especially of the work of Monet, one of the hallmarks of his scholarship and his teaching was his embrace of nineteenth-century art in its entirety, in all its dazzling and occasionally bewildering variety. He insisted that the innovations of the avant-garde could only truly be understood in the context in which they arose, and his students will recall lectures and museum visits introducing scores of once-acclaimed, now-forgotten stars of the Salon; tours of Paris churches and public buildings to view contemporary frescoes; and insights into the arcane practices and systems that governed the exhibition and reception of art, alongside the making and breaking of artistic reputations.
I was one of those fortunate students, and I selected the current Print Room display of nineteenth-century French prints to honour John’s memory and pay tribute to his wide-ranging interests. One of these enduring interests was the evolution of the official art world in Paris, centred on the annual Salon. Exhibiting there could make or break an artist’s reputation, but it was noted for its conservatism, and as the century progressed artists began to against its strictures. An etching by Léon Bonnat after his own painting of Jacob Wrestling the Angel (1876) illustrates the sort of grand history painting that had long been deemed acceptable at the Salon, while a later etching by Léon Lhermitte of a fish market at Saint-Malo shows the inroads scenes of everyday life had made into the Salon by the 1890s. Two pages of Adolphe Martial-Potémont’s extraordinary Illustrated Letter on the Salon of 1865 offer a glimpse into the way paintings were displayed there: cheek by jowl, the polar opposite of today’s spacious hangs.
A selection of etched artists’ portraits highlights a more intimate, less formal but no less important aspect of the Paris art world: the friendships that sprang up among artists and bound them together. Adolphe Lalauze’s portrait of the renowned printmaker Félix Bracquemond shows the artist in middle age, at the height of his success. Bracquemond’s own portrait of Alphonse Legros was made three decades earlier, when both men were closely involved in the resurgence of etching as an art form. Legros himself later moved to London and taught drawing and etching at the Slade School of Art. His sensitive portrait of fellow artist George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) was made during one of his classes as a demonstration for his students; the time constraints of the class dictated his focus on Watts’s face, with the outlines of his clothing barely sketched in.
The display, along with rest of collection of works on paper, can be viewed by visitors to the print room. As well as offering visits by appointment the Print Room is open for drop-in session every Wednesday during term time from 13.30-16.00.