John Mcewen comments on La Rue St Denis
Thomas Girtin was born in Great Bandy Leg Walk, southwark (sadly long gone). his father was a brushmaker. this artisan background was common among his artistic contemporaries, not least his friend turner, also a Londoner and two months his junior.
their careers entwined. they probably met as boys when colouring prints for the publisher John raphael smith. Both were apprenticed to topographical watercolorists/engravers—edward Dayes (Girtin), thomas malton (turner)— and both were early commissioned by ‘Beau’ Lascelles to paint at harewood.
however, considering Girtin, as a cornerstone of the British school and leading innovator of watercolour and romantic landscape painting, is regarded as the equal of turner, details of his life, even taking into account his death at 27 from asthma, are surprisingly thin. only two letters survive and not a single oil painting, despite this becoming his preferred medium.
two major post-1800 projects were the 18ft by 108ft Eidometropolis (since lost), a panoramic oil painting of London opened as a spectacle for the fee-paying public shortly before he died, and some watercolours of Paris, which he was one of the first to visit after the peace of amiens, published as a set of aquatint etchings, titled Twenty Views of Paris and the Environs, shortly after his death. Both projects were intended to free the artist from traditional dependence on private patrons.
the engraving of this watercolour lacks its stark grandeur—girtin has filled the street with people, ‘stories’ to encourage sales. ‘if tom had lived, i should have starved,’ said turner, who attended Girtin’s funeral. the compliment is hearsay, but its generosity has the ring of truth, especially in the majestic context of a masterpiece like this.
La Rue St Denis, Paris, 1801–2, by Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), 9in by 19in, Private Collection