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14th February 2024

Across the Channel: Impressionism in Manchester

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the French Impressionist movement, The Mancunion delves into Manchester’s connections with the movement.
Across the Channel: Impressionism in Manchester
Old Cab at All Saints’ – P. Adolphe Valette @ Wikimedia Commons

2024 marks the 150th anniversary of Impressionism. Galleries around the world are celebrating the movement and its pioneering artists. Although beginning in Paris, impressionist art made its way to Manchester, and the legacy of Impressionism lives on in the city today.

The hazy landscapes of the impressionists have found a firm place in the artistic canon, but the style began as a radical rebellion against Paris’ prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts. In the late 1800s, a loose collective of artists, who named themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers etc., started meeting in a North Paris café, to discuss life and art. Discontent with the customs of the Parisian art world, they decided to launch their own group show, a counter exhibition to the Académie’s annual salon.

The show, which became known as the first impressionist exhibition, was held in an unused photography studio. Despite differences in their artistic styles, the members of the Anonymous Society were united in their rejection of the annual salon and their desire to establish new styles and methods. The exhibition was supposed to remove the limits which the Académie placed on artists. There were only three rules, the exhibition would have no state involvement, no jury and no hierarchy of subject matter.

Critical reception of the exhibition was poor. The term ‘Impressionist’ was coined by a disapproving critic, Louis Leroy, who commented that Monet’s painting, Impression, Soleil Levant, was a rushed and unfinished work. But the group was not deterred, and continued exhibiting together for several years and the impressionist movement went on to have an enduring impact.

Impression, Soleil Levant – Claude Monet @ Wikimedia Commons

But how did this Parisian art movement find its way to Manchester? Manchester’s most famous impressionist is Pierre Adolphe Valette, a Frenchman who moved to Manchester and cast the city’s landscapes in the impressionist style.

Valette first moved to London in 1904 to study art at the Birkbeck Institute, before making a home in Manchester in 1906. He became a tutor at the Manchester School of Art, where he passed on his knowledge of the shifting tides in painting practice. He took his students into Manchester city centre, materials in tow, encouraging them to paint en plein air and capture city life as it unfolded before them.

Valette is now mostly known for the influence he had on L.S. Lowry’s work, but during his time in Manchester, he created a vast body of work, which truly captured the impressionist spirit. At first, Manchester’s landscape might seem like a departure from the pretty, pastel works that the French impressionists produced, but the rapidly changing cityscape encapsulated the impressionists’ fascination with modernity and the relationship between individuals and the world’s emerging urban centres.

The French impressionists didn’t just want to experiment with new painting techniques, they also rejected the art world’s preference for historic or mythological subjects. At the time of their first exhibition, life in Paris was changing rapidly, and members of the Anonymous Society were keen to document the changes they were living through. The move from agricultural to industrial life was keenly felt by everyday people, and the urban and suburban scenes which the impressionists encountered daily, provided a new context for their artworks.

Similarly, across the channel, Manchester was experiencing vast changes. By 1900, it had transformed from a market town to one of the ten largest cities in the world and is considered to be one of the places at the forefront of the industrial revolution. Growth in industry had a long-lasting impact on the city’s landscape, and Valette’s work captures the essence of what life was like in a new metropolis.

He painted scenes of bustling areas of the city like Oxford Road and Albert Square, as well as several works picturing the canals and rivers that made the first steps to industrialisation possible.

Oxford Road, Manchester, 1910 – P. Adolphe Valette @ Wikimedia Commons

Like Valette, Monet had found inspiration in the UK’s smoggy cities. He made several trips to London, where he became fascinated by the effect of fog on the landscape and painted many scenes of the Thames in various states of fogginess. Similarly, Valette made a habit of painting the same locations, showing the different effects of the weather and industrial by-products on them.

Under Windsor Bridge on the Irwell – P. Adolphe Valette @ Wikimedia Commons

Valette wasn’t the only Manchester painter to be drawn in by the Impressionist movement. A lesser-known painter is Wynford Dewhurst, whose work saw him hailed as ‘Manchester’s Monet’. Dewhurst originally trained as a lawyer, but at 27 moved to Paris to study painting there. After learning the craft, Dewhurst frequently returned to France to paint landscapes in a distinctly impressionist style. His work was praised for its shimmering quality, depicting the natural world as though it had been lit from within.

Evening Shadows – Wynford Dewhurst @ Wikimedia Commons

Despite his artistic talent, Dewhurst was a controversial figure in the art world, and his ideas were less than appreciated by the French Impressionists. Alongside his practice, Dewhurst was an art historian, and in 1904 he penned his treatise on Impressionism, Impressionist Painting, Its Genesis and Development.

This was the first study of impressionism to be written in English, and the central argument of the book was that Impressionism was in fact a British rather than a French conception. He posited that the work of British painters such as J.M.W. Turner and John Constable were the source of inspiration for French impressionism.

The members of the Anonymous Society resented Dewhurst’s claims and responded with some damning remarks about his painting. Indeed, Camille Pissaro complained that Dewhurst knew nothing about Impressionism.

Although Dewhurst had a rocky relationship with the French impressionists, and Valette eventually returned to France in 1924, Impressionism in Manchester didn’t end there. Manchester Art Gallery is now home to several of Valette and Dewhurst’s works, as well as paintings by other impressionists such as Sickert and Renoir, while the work of Degas and Pissarro can also be found in the Whitworth’s collection.

Manchester’s contemporary artists have also continued the legacy of the impressionists. The city is home to The Northern Boys, a small collective of artists with a passion for painting en plein air. Echoes of the impressionist movement can be found in many of their paintings which capture fleeting moments, and just like Valette, they find inspiration in the hustle and bustle of the city centre.

So, whether it’s taking an impressionist tour around Manchester’s galleries, flicking through Dewhurst’s tome, or keeping your eyes peeled for an outdoor painter, there are plenty of ways you can celebrate Impressionism’s 150th anniversary, without heading to Paris.

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