Study Visit: Degas to Picasso, Creating Modernism in France

29th April 2017 Ashmolean Museum, Oxford with OCA tutor Clare Wilson

This was a unique exhibition in that it brought together works on paper not seen before in Britain from the Ursula and R. Stanley Johnson Family Collection. In Britain in the early 20th Century argues the Director of the Ashmolean Museum and Art gallery, Alexander Sturgis:

Modern Art in order to be acceptable, had to appear traditional, decorative and easy to understand. Thus, no-one collected Fauve or Cubist pictures; very occasionally single pictures by Picasso, Braque or Juan Gris might be bought by a collector, virtually never by a museum; and significantly not even one representative collection of Matisse was formed between the wars. (Foreword to Catalogue)

Ursula and Stanley Johnson, as well as American galleries and museums, were clearly not as tenuous as their British counterparts. Their remarkable collection is a rare survey and  opportunity to view together works which were the foundation of Modernism as it centred on Paris. The Johnsons collected art produced in France from the late 18th  to the mid 20th century  whilst they were students in Parish in the late 1950s and 1960s. The exhibition of 100+ works by 40 artists thus ranged from works by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) to those by André Masson (1896-1987) though the stars of the show were inevitably Degas, Cézanne, Manet, Monet, Braque and Picasso. The show told the reasonably well known  story of this period extraordinary artistic invention and experiment but told it through works which are hardly known at all.

I really enjoyed this show although it was rather crowded and I have already mentioned in my posting on Assignment 2 the impact on me of seeing some of the Cubist paintings, especially the work of Albert Gleizes who I had not encountered before. Here are a few edited highlights from the exhibition of works that struck me (among many) and what I felt I took away with me.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard Bireno Leaving the Island 1780s


I had not come across Fragonard before the exhibition but I liked this drawing. It is from a suite of drawings he did to illustrate the story of the trials and tribulations of Roland, Charlmagne’s knight as described in the poem by 17th century Italian Ludovico Ariosto. The drawing illustrates the point where one, Birenoleaves his lover Olympia to return to a previous lover .  It is done in black chalk with brown and grey wash on paper and I love the simple fluid  strokes and marks, for example in the ship’s pennant, fluttering in the breeze as well as the gestures of the men steeling away. These marks have underlying washes in grey and brown which flow freely around the image. I would like to develop this technique for use in my work. I think it gives life and energy to the drawing

Édouard Manet Mirabelle Plum c.1880

The image in the exhibition is the one on the left, the other is one done at the same time now in the Louvre in Paris entitled  Lettre à Isabelle Lemonnier décorée d’une mirabelle



Between July and October 1880 Manet was convalescing in Belleiew, a Paris suburb. During this time , as well as painting  portraits and landscapes he sent drawings with notes to various friends. The painting in the exhibition (on the left) he sent to Isabelle Lemmonier the daughter of a jeweller to the court and whom he painted on a number of occasions. The small drawing is inscribed ” A Isabelle cette mirabelle et la plus belle, c’est Isabelle“. It is a first draft of the more polished version on the right in which the letter is in ink rather than pencil.

I like the fact that this is an earlier draft sketch, that Manet took the trouble to do a draft even for a letter. It is done in single strokes of the complementary red and green leaving highlights of the off-white paper. It is a little example  of Manet’s distinctive and, for his day, revolutionary style of alla prima painting.  This was a technique where colours applied in one attempt rather than built up in layers as in classical painting. Although the Louvre painting is more polished and is a better representation of light on the shiny surface of the plum, nevertheless I like the immediacy and energy that comes from the lively strokes of the version in the Ashmolean Exhibition.

Claude Monet Sailing Boat Beached on the Shore at Sainte-Adresse 1864-5

The image on the right was one of two sketches I did in the Exhibition. I still find it hard to identify what drew me to this sketch by Monet and, indeed, what drew him back on six occasions to capture the gradual disintegration of this fishing boat, as described in the Exhibition notes. It may be that the sea has an abiding attraction for me as my


paternal grandfather was a fisherman in Devon. Both he and his father were lifeboat men.

14-Lifeboat crew 1907
Teignmouth Lifeboat Crew 1907 – my great grandfather back row 5th from right

More directly I was drawn to the very pleasing division of the picture plane. The horizon is just below one third of the space and the outer edge of the cliff to the left roughly meanders down the vertical third. the whole plane is cut in two  along  a diagonal from bottom right to top left corners separating the lighter negative sky/sea space from the darker positive land mass. Each half is then cut into with the whiter sand and rock tones on the beach and the darker ship, masks and rigging cutting into the lighter sea and sky. All this leads to a beautifully balanced composition contributing to a feeling of stillness and peace. On the horizon can be seen a steamship which seems to underline the fate of the small sailing craft.

I drew my sketch with a 6b carbon stick which is versatile for tone and line. It was a good exercise in observational drawing. I did not correctly re-create the line of Monet’s cliff edge nor some of the rocks in the foreground but otherwise I was pleased with the result, especially standing in a busy gallery.

Fernande Léger Study for ‘The City’ 1919

This study (on the left)  in gouache is a study for the right hand side of Léger’s famous painting La Ville (on the right) in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is one of a series of paintings that Leger did after WW1 exploring the modern city. This preparatory painting shows Léger experimenting with and further developing Synthetic Cubism.


I like this preparatory sketch because it shows Léger working to express the dynamism of the modern urban space. Nearly one hundred years on we may not share his excitement with and enthusiasm for all aspects of city life but he does capture the unending and fast-paced flow of images and and shapes that is also our experience of cities. He achieves this with an interplay of shape and colour. As he himself remarked, “Color rushes in like a torrent. It swallows up the walls, the streets … When one opens a window, a piece of shrill publicity blows in the wind … Exuberance of color and noise.”  There is a repeated pattern of white windows on a black building shape in the drawing in the exhibition which is developed  in to advertisement style  letters in the final painting. This black and white rhythm is also developed in the stairs.

This as well as Gleizes’ still life painting were two of the works from the exhibition that got me excited about the possibility of a Cubist-style piece for Assignment 2. I like how both Léger and Gleizes play with subject matter and hover between something that represents though does not copy reality, and something entirely abstract, a thing in itself evoking experience.

Pablo Picasso Female Nude 1968

I wanted to do another sketch in the exhibition but, as i have indicated, it was very busy. Towards the end of the exhibition I manged to find the end of a bench and to sit down close to this graphite and pastel drawing by Picasso. It is one of 19 similar drawings that he did between 10-12 August 1968 and is a drawing of his then wife, Jacqueline Roque.


I love Picasso’s drawing,particularly his use of line. It is encouraging for me as a wouldbe artist that, however skillful, he also corrects. Here he has change the shape of the model’s right arm and covered the change with the dark hatching of the inside of her hair.

Sometimes Picasso has been portrayed as a prurient and impotent old man in his rather brutish portrayal of the female nude which seemed to obsess him in the latter stages of his life. Other commentators have seen his work as a precursor of Neo-Expressionism led by George Bassilitz in the 1970s. We can see in this image some of the features of Neo-Expressionism, for example the return to sensuousness that is a reaction to Minimalism and Conceptualism so well expressed in Picasso’s beautiful and sensuous lines.

I greatly enjoyed this exhibition. This was my first study visit and I really valued conversations with other students. I think the opportunity to compare so many preparatory drawings with their final stage via the internet has been so valuable in seeing the vital use of preparatory drawing which i want to develop in my own work. It was also exciting in seeing the energy in the work of these artists in their continued experimentation and exploration of new ways of representing the world around them.

Thankyou Clare Wilson for your guidance and support on the day.



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