Rewriting the story of first impressions

ARTS review



I ONCE curated an exhibition of work by an elderly artist who had been in Paris just after the Second World War. Somebody invited the top pundit on that bit of art history up from London to give a lecture. The lecture finished to due applause and the speaker, a lady, turned to the artist for his approval. She was somewhat deflated by his response: "It was not like that at all," he said quietly. Perhaps it never is.

Nevertheless we need stories. History is just the modern version of that age-old need. Stories help us make sense of the world. We just have to make them as true as possible, with art as with any other branch of our experience. The stories we get told inevitably reflect the point of view of the teller, however, and in art the perspective is that of London or Paris. In consequence, the narrative we mostly carry around in our heads is a bit like a railway with one or two main lines between the big cities and a tangle of branch and cross country lines for everybody else – the provincials. There are even some little country lines that wander off and get lost in the hills.

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Scottish art was until recently widely regarded as one of the latter. Indeed, the last director general of the National Galeries of Scotland, like Dr Beeching, was all for cutting any connection of Scottish art with the main network. In this imaginary railway system, there is a strict hierarchy: the main lines are reserved for the big French or Italian express trains. No little Scottish puffer train has any business cluttering them up. But the real network of art is more complex, less centralised and hierarchical.

All sorts of journeys have been possible and all sorts of unexpected connections made. So if the story of Scottish art is properly told, the map has to be redrawn. How welcome then that Impressionism and Scotland is a major exhibition that does just that. It redraws the map and, doing so, shows us a little of its true complexity. The exhibition, curated by Frances Fowle, does not make wild claims for the primacy of Scottish art, but it creates a context for it and describes how artists and collectors in Scotland shared as equals in the excitement of the last decades of the 19th Century and the first of the 20th.

The exhibition has several layers. Especially in Glasgow, but in Aberdeen and Dundee too, fortunes had been made by modern-minded entrepreneurs. They were outward looking. They wanted modern paintings and one part of this exhibition is the story of their collecting. Their predominant taste was initially for the Barbizon school and especially Corot. Glasgow's great Corot, Pastorale – Souvenir d'Italie, for instance, was bought in Paris in 1874 by the Aberdeen collector John Forbes White. White also introduced modern Dutch painters to this country, the Maris brothers, for instance, Anton Mauve and Gerrit Mollinger, all represented here.

The dealers who served collectors like White, William Cargill, William Coats or William Burrell and many others are part of the story too. Alexander Reid, who shared a flat with Van Gogh, was showing Monet, Manet, Degas and all the Impressionists from an early date. Degas's great painting, L'Absinthe, was one of his pictures, for instance. In a scruffy bar, a woman sits gazing into space with a glass in front of her.

It is a study in urban loneliness, alienation even. Such a graphic account of the realities of life was not generally to the taste of Scottish collectors. Nevertheless, led by men like Reid, or Daniel Cottier and a number of others, their taste evolved and they started buying Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pictures.

French and Dutch pictures form about half of the show. A good many have been in Scottish collections at some point; others were exhibited in Scotland. The first true Impressionist painting to be bought by a Scottish collector was Renoir's Bay of Naples, acquired in 1882, just a year after it was painted, by sugar merchant James Duncan. Monet's Seascape: Shipping by Night was bought early by Glasgow steel magnate Duncan McCorkindale. Dark and powerful, it is not really a characteristic Impressionist picture, however.

In contrast, Monet's gloriously colourful Vetheuil, bought by William McInnes considerably later, is a true Impressionist masterpiece. There are paintings by Manet, Pissarro and Sisley, too. Degas was popular and was represented in several Scottish collections before the end of the century. Gauguin's Vision after the Sermon comes late in the story, but was nevertheless a bold purchase for a public collection when the National Gallery bought it in 1925.

It was recognised at the time that Scottish taste was far more in tune with Continental ideas than contemporary English taste. This was also true of Scottish artists and another layer of the story is about them and how they responded to what they saw in private collections and major exhibitions of modern painting held in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

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In the 1870s, Scottish artists also started going to Paris to study, but like the collectors, their interest in Continental art had begun before that with the Dutch and their Barbizon contemporaries. There was an interesting exchange between William McTaggart and his Dutch contemporaries, for instance. George Reid, a protg of John Forbes White, studied in Holland in the 1860s and his magnificent Montrose of 1888 suggests the Scots and the Dutch shared the interest in weather and wide landscapes that was so much McTaggart's speciality too.

Many of the Glasgow Boys painted in Grz-sur-Loing where there was a colony of expatriate artists. Bastien Lepage was a French painter much admired by them. Lavery painted some of his best pictures at Grz in a manner influenced by Lepage. Under the Cherry Tree, for instance, is a wonderful painting of two countrywomen relaxing with the river Loing behind them. Lavery's Bridge at Grz is especially beautiful and shows two women in a boat between sunshine and shadow by the bridge.

Like Corot, Bastien Lepage was a tonal painter, more inclined to grey and green than to the vivid colours of the Impressionists. Whistler, also represented here, was an American who linked England and France and had a big following in Scotland. Many of the Scottish paintings here reflect his example. Whistler too was a tonal painter, however. It was in the next generation that the Colourists discovered Czanne and Matisse and turned to pure colour. Even so, French influence was not the whole story.

The Colourists had the example of McTaggart, but also of Arthur Melville to set them on the course they took. Melville is almost missing here, however. He is represented by two amazing but tiny sketches of dancers. Hung alongside Degas's Dancers in the National Gallery, you would say clearly Degas influenced Melville, but the Melville predates the Degas by several years. That is a bit of the story that needs telling here, but the only other Melville is an uncharacteristically low-key painting of a peasant girl. Nevertheless, it was Melville who introduced pure colour to Scottish painting. When Guthrie's The Hind's Daughter is seen alongside Bastien Lepage's Pas Mche, as it is here, it is clear that Guthrie's picture is not simply grey and tonal like the Frenchman's. It is richly coloured. The difference is Melville.

Throughout the exhibition, Scottish artists are hung alongside their European contemporaries and they can stand the comparison. They seem confident and assured and at ease. This is nowhere clearer than in a wall with just three paintings on it, all of trees – a Van Gogh, a Czanne and a Peploe. Peploe certainly learnt from the other two, and other pictures by him here suggest he was one of the earliest artists to do so, but his work does not look derivative in this company. It makes its own powerful statement in its own terms. That really is redrawing the map.

• From tomorrow, until 12 October

• For more on Impressionism and Scotland, and to claim your free Monet print, see Critique magazine tomorrow.