At Tate Britain

Peter Campbell

By a happy chance I am reading The Count of Monte Cristo. It acclimatises one to the dramas and Oriental dreams which figure in the exhibition Constable to Delacroix: British Art and the French Romantics (at Tate Britain until 11 May). It makes it easier to relish the dramatics of Horace Vernet’s Mazeppa, to see that there is more than nice observation of weather in Paul Huet’s picture of a lonely rider, Storm at the End of the Day.

Dumas’s novel mixes operatic themes with the odd sourly realistic vignette. The exhibition shows how two different visual cultures produced what lives side by side in the novel: scenes of romantic action and scenes of contemporary life. As the century progressed, the former became impossible to paint with conviction; storytelling and painting went their separate ways, and neither was ever so emotionally florid or romantically picturesque again.

The exhibition is excellent in its conception and, taken picture by picture, highly pleasurable. The theme is not new, but juxtapositions here give a vivid sense of French official art shuddering as the need for finish was denied, and ancient history and classical myth were discarded as subject matter. The English had a lot to answer for. In France, where the state bought large paintings for the Luxembourg, and for provincial museums and churches, it had always been reasonable to paint big pictures. In England – but more and more in France too – size and subject matter were determined by the needs of private buyers.

More important, the end of the Napoleonic Wars made travel easier, and encouraged entrepreneurial partnerships such as Géricault’s with the English showman Bullock – who arranged for the highly successful English exhibition of the Raft of the Medusa – as well as friendships such as that between Delacroix and Bonington. Portraits by Lawrence and his contemporaries, painted with broad, generalised strokes, and pictures of everyday life – Ward’s sporting scenes and Wilkie’s fairs and cottages – suggested new techniques and subject matter.

Dumas’s novel was published in 1844; the action takes place in the years after Waterloo: roughly the period covered by the exhibition, which begins with the restoration of the French monarchy in 1815 and ends with the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. These years, the catalogue explains, saw ‘a profound engagement between two previously unsympathetic schools of painting’ and from that came ‘innovations that would radically affect the course of modern art in Western Europe’.[*]

Literature fills out what images suggest. It isn’t surprising that characters and scenes in Dumas’s fiction can be matched to pictures – many of which are, anyway, illustrations to scenes from Byron, Scott, Shakespeare or French and British history. Looking at Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (there is a sketch for it here) requires as great a tolerance of Byronic melodrama as reading Dumas’s chapters about death and betrayal in Tangiers. But if you think of pictures merely as line, colour and a record of things seen, you cannot hope to get a notion of how they affected people when new.

Which is where Dumas helps. You want to know what his hard men who had done well out of Napoleon and the Bourbon Restoration might look like? Turn to Ingres’s portrait of Amédée-David, Comte de Pastorait – ‘a promising bureaucrat’ under Napoleon who, by 1826, when the portrait was painted, had become Conseiller d’Etat Extraordinaire. His black uniform, brilliantly set off by the red ribbon and white enamel star of the Légion d’Honneur is tight, severe and exquisite; his thin-lipped face smug, perhaps, or arrogant. He represents political conservatism. Another man in black – Delacroix’s Louis-Auguste Schwiter – is the romantic opposition. His face open, his neck-cloth a little more casual, the flash of red in this case the lining of his hat. One imagines Dumas’s young men about town affecting the same dandified, Anglophile pose.

It isn’t easy to transpose into modern Europe their appetite for duelling and honour. Their love affair with the horse is a different matter. The Count’s black carriage horses are things of power and speed to match a later hero’s supercharged Bentley. Géricault, in the last years of his short life, turned away from the dramatics of the Raft. His pictures of racehorses and draught horses, Ward’s portrait of Napoleon’s white charger Marengo, the mounts in Combat between the Giaour and Hassan – Delacroix’s illustration of Byron’s poem (its first owner was Dumas himself, who bought it in 1827, shortly after it was painted) – are potent symbols of vitality. You understand why young men would be entranced by such beasts.

But the exhibition’s central narrative has to do with styles: borrowed and jointly developed, on the one hand, becoming old-fashioned, on the other. The brightness, matched by fresh colour and handling, in Constable’s White Horse made Salon studio landscapes look laboured. Bonington’s talent for the economical transcription of flat landscapes, high skies and water was an advance in technique which brought something of the directness, and the pale palette, of watercolour to oil painting. His Lerici (c.1828) is shown here. This directness, allied to the mundane subject matter which it suited – Bonington’s coasts and fishing boats, Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps’s hunting scenes – could seem a betrayal of the pursuit of beauty (a conservative critic said he would prefer a badly painted Bay of Naples to a pile of pike, no matter how finely done). But imagined places and events and high themes were on the way out.

Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa is represented here by one study and a full scale copy, made when the original began to show the effects of Géricault’s experiments with materials. But among the studies are those of severed heads and limbs – made in the studio in pursuit of the true quality of the dead flesh which surrounded the survivors of the shipwreck. These and his portraits of the insane – two of the surviving five are in the exhibition – are a bridge between the old world of battle pieces and the new one of atrocity photographs. The replica of the Raft is displayed much as it would have been in Bullock’s museum, the bottom of the canvas resting on the floor, lit from the side. The effect is tremendous – theatrical, terrible even. But it marks an end, not a beginning.

Turner’s pictures here of wrecks and disasters distance the spectator from the dead and drowning, while the topographic watercolours of Thomas Shotter Boys and Bonington take us even further from human engagement. Hindsight lets you back winners, and you can see in Shotter Boys hints of Boudin and then Impressionism, and in Turner abstraction. Not that academic painting disappeared, but, in their retreat from gallery to drawing room, pictures became smaller. Moderns in fancy dress – Meissonier’s musketeers, Gérôme’s slave girls, Alma-Tadema’s Roman virgins – replaced gods, kings and heroes.

[*] Constable to Delacroix, edited by Patrick Noon (Tate, 296 pp., £29.99, February, 1 85437 459 1).