Impressionism, Scotland and the art market


Innovative art history research stimulated a renewed interest in Impressionism beyond France and enhanced Scotland’s art market by increasing interest in Scottish art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

What was the problem? 

Impressionism is typically understood as a French art movement. However, Impressionism was a dynamic art movement, with artists from across Europe influencing one another beyond borders.

Dr Frances Fowle wished to expand contemporary understanding of Impressionism to include work by hitherto neglected Scottish artists.

What did we do? 

Fowle worked with the National Galleries of Scotland to produce the Impressionism and Scotland exhibition and associated conference, in 2008, opened by the Scottish Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture.

In 2010 she also published Van Gogh’s Twin, a book about the Glasgow art dealer Alex Reid. These activities examined the Scottish taste for French Impressionism in the period 1870-1935. They also reviewed Scottish art in relation to the wider European context in the period 1880-1914.

The exhibition, conference papers and book showed how Scottish industrialists were important as patrons and collectors of the arts. They also showed how this Scottish taste for art influenced cultural development not only in Scotland but also across the UK and Europe. It also successfully placed the Glasgow Boys’ work, previously neglected outside Scotland, alongside the Scottish Colourists within the wider European tradition.

The complex arguments mustered by Impressionism and Scotland are academically important, and the underlying social history is riveting.
Moira Jeffrey, Scotland on Sunday (27 July 2008)
What happened next? 

Fowle’s exhibition sparked active debate on the topic of Scottish national and cultural identity. This and follow-on exhibitions attracted high numbers of visitors, which spoke to the public’s engagement with this aspect of Scotland’s cultural history. The range of responses in the media demonstrated how Impressionism and Scotland challenged some strongly held ideas about this period in art history.

Reception and debate

Impressionism and Scotland received a mostly positive response from the public and critics alike in 2008. Visitors enjoyed the innovative pairing of Scottish paintings with French paintings, commenting on how enlightening the comparisons were. Criticism. from The Telegraph’s reviewer over the exhibition’s reinterpretation of ‘Impressionism’ and ‘Scotland’, enlivened the debate and drew strong objections from art professionals and the public alike.

Museums sector engagement and economic impact

80,000 people visited the Impressionism and Scotland exhibition in Edinburgh, bringing significant revenue to the gallery from tickets and catalogue sales, and £150,000 in sponsorship from a Global Investment company.

In 2010 Kelvingrove Art Gallery held the exhibition Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880-1900. This drew on many of the themes of Impression and Scotland, and exhibited some of the same artworks. Attendance broke the box office records at Kelvingrove, a record previously set by a Vincent Van Gogh exhibition in 1948.

Art collecting and the art market

Fowle’s research into the influence of Scottish collectors and art dealers opened new avenues of enquiry. Later exhibition catalogues in other galleries, such as Tate Britain’s 2012 Picasso and Modern British Art, also followed this approach. Impressionism and Scotland improved awareness of The Glasgow Boys also contributed to a steep rise in their pictures’ market value. For example, George Henry’s Playmates sold at Sotheby’s for £400,000 (eight times its estimate).

About the researcher(s)

Reader, Senior Curator at the Scottish National Gallery

Research unit

Subject area:
  • History of Art

Related study programmes