"Crossing the Channel" in New York

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Back on September 8, 2003, we posted a report from Andrew Elfenbein on an exhibit in Minneapolis, Crossing the Channel. The exhibit has since moved to New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and we’re pleased to have received this firsthand review of the exhibit by Karl Kroeber of Columbia University.

Any Romanticists passing through New York en route to Bayonne or New London would be well rewarded by taking time to visit the Metropolitan Museum exhibition CROSSING THE CHANNEL: BRITISH AND FRENCH PAINTING IN THE AGE OF ROMANTICISM. No blockbuster, this exhibition even lacks sharp focus, but the blurriness is appropriate to the strange fashion in which Britain and France in the visual arts (as in other cultural areas) in the first years of the nineteenth century intersected and even interacted in a manner that only dramatized their differences--caught with deadly satiric accuracy in Carle Vernet's watercolor of English visitors in Paris after Waterloo.

One enters the exhibit to be smashed in the face by Gericault's huge RAFT OF THE MEDUSA, studding even in the form of this Victorianized 1859 copy by Guillermet and Ronjat. Alongside is Turner's DISASTER AT SEA and Danby's striking but less celebrated SUNSET AT SEA AFTER SNOWSTORM)—which epitomizes the distinctive national styles--Gericault all people suffering, Turner all waves in action. One of the best thing in the show is the variety of works by Gericault, including studies of truncated limbs and severed heads, and two of his terrific MONOMANIA portraits, as well as examples of his LONDON lithographs, with wonderful rendering not of race horses but working Clydesdales. A variety of splendid Boningtons, both oils and watercolors, may be the prize on the British side. But Turner is well represented (once dramatized by juxtaposition with John Martin's darkness-invisible DELUGE), most notably by CROSSING THE BROOK (but what the hell is the dog carrying in its mouth?), as is Constable by the lovely ON THE STOUR and the WHITE HORSE, each worth the price of admission for those who don't live near the Frick Museum. Among the French whom Constable directly influenced, Huet is the best (his HARVEST distinguished by a top-hatted scarecrow and an intrusive smoke stack signaling the advent of industrialism)--especially his watercolor CANNES.

French artists' unreciprocated illustrations of British literature are represented by three Giaours and a raft of scenes from Scott--including a weird Delacroix LUCY ASHTON'S BRIDAL NIGHT. Deservedly more famous is his GREECE ON THE RUINS OF MISSOLONGHI here with Greece's cleavage splendidly highlighted. But for many Romanticists much of the show's interest will lie in the variety of less celebrated works, among which I note only Wilkie's VILLAGE HOLIDAY, the first painting purchased for the National Gallery from a living artist, but here outclassed by the sharper-sighted and more dramatic French MOVING DAY alongside by Louis Boilly. Even more stunning is Ingres’ ENTRY OF THE DAUPHIN, a superbly painted archaizing of the troubadour style, the kind of thing only a true master can casually toss off. Something of the same virtuosity in reverse appears in Varley's amazing SUBURBS OF AN ANCIENT CITY--Poussin in watercolor, by God!

Karl Kroeber