London Exhibitions: Painters’ Paintings: A painter’s review

As a painter, I have been very impressed by a number of recent exhibitions in major London art institutions which, rather than presenting the work of an artist or a movement in isolation, as is the usual formula, have attempted to cast light on a specific aspect of artistic practice, or to investigate the relationships between artists and/or artistic currents, often with spectacular results. Making Colour (National Gallery, 2014) was a landmark exhibition tracing the history of the pigments used by Western painters since the Renaissance as the basis for their paints (and illustrated with beautiful examples like Sassoferrato’s The Virgin in Prayer, the ultramarine blue of which looks even more gorgeous once the viewer learns how rare and costly the material, imported from Central Asia, was at the time, and the details of its elaboration). Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse (Royal Academy, 2016) was another great success featuring the work of painters an audience may already be familiar with (Pissarro, Monet, Sorolla…) but whose particular vision and working methods was thrown into relief by their approach to a common (and restricted) subject (I had never been more aware of Camille Pissarro’s nuanced treatment of colour than when looking at his Jeanne Pissarro sitting in the Garden, Pontoise, in which every shade of soil and vegetation is beautifully explored). Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art (National Gallery, 2016) traced not just Eugène Delacroix’s life and output but, crucially, the decisive influence his free handling of paint had on contemporary or later painters like Cézanne.

Sassoferrato, The Virgin in Prayer (1640–50), National Gallery

In the same vein, The National Gallery’s current major exhibition, Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck (23/06–04/09/2016), sheds light on the fascinating history of the (often frenzied) collecting activity of major artistic figures like Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas, Sir Joshua Reynolds, or Lucian Freud, a seldom examined (but, as it turns out, often jaw-dropping) side of artistic life, and hugely relevant when it comes to understanding an artist’s influences (particularly, perhaps, in the centuries before the invention of photography and modern travel). The National Gallery collection itself (with a few outside additions) forms the basis for the exhibition, and the convoluted ownership history of some of these pieces (which we now take for granted belong in a public institution, available for all to see) is a riveting tale in itself.
The exhibition opens with the room devoted to Lucian Freud (1922–2011), presided by Camille Corot’s arresting L’Italienne (The Italian Woman, or Woman with a Yellow Sleeve), a personal discovery for me and a painting the masterful corporeity of which must have provided inexhaustible inspiration to Freud (the painting used to hang above Freud’s mantelpiece and was bequeathed to the British Government in lieu of tax upon his death). Equally fascinating is the section devoted to Henri Matisse (1869–1954), who variously acquired and sold paintings and other artworks according to his need for new sources of inspiration, being left at the end of his life solely with pieces by his arch-rival Pablo Picasso like his Portrait of Dora Maar (1942). Paul Cézanne turns out to have been a major influence on Matisse, who owned and referred constantly to the relatively modest Three Bathers (c 1880). Besides Paul Signac’s La Maison Verte, Venise (1905), perhaps the most spellbinding painting to gaze at in the room is Edgar Degas’s La Coiffure (c 1896, bought by Matisse in the 1920s and sold to the National Gallery in 1937), much admired in its usual place in the section of the Gallery devoted to French impressionists and post-impressionists, but which, seen in this context, acquires a new relevance as a direct influence on Matisse’s development.

Edgar Degas, La Coiffure (c 1896), National Gallery

As it happens, the two rooms devoted to the collecting activity of Edgar Degas (1834–1917) himself constitute one of the high points of the exhibition. Degas (a difficult personality by all accounts but, as an artist, a personal favourite of mine) was a man of means and obsessive art buyer who owned as many as twenty-two major artworks by Ingres and sixteen by Delacroix (the two painters, one for his mastery of line, and the other for his bold use of paint and colour, being major influences on the eclectic synthesiser that Degas was), not counting around two hundred Delacroix studies. Gauguins, Corots, Pissarros and Sisleys had their place in Degas’s collection, highlights of which include Delacroix’s massive-format Portrait of Louis-Auguste Schwiter (1826–30), Ingres’s Monsieur de Norvins (1811–12, usually on prominent display at the National Gallery), and the surviving sections of Édouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (1867–68), which Degas obsessively chased and reassembled. On a personal level, out of the many master works displayed in these rooms, I was particularly touched by Manet’s freely executed but exquisite Woman with a Cat (1880–82), Degas’s imposing Portrait de l’Artiste en 1855, and his beautiful Portrait of Elena Carafa (1875, the sitter being the artist’s Neapolitan cousin). It is interesting to note that Degas gained ownership of many of these pieces by other artists not by outright purchase but by exchange for his own work, and that it was on the occasion of Degas’s collection being sold after his death that the National Gallery acquired many of these paintings (which, perhaps shockingly for a modern audience, were kept and displayed in the artist’s private home throughout his life and shown to friends and acquaintances entirely at Degas’s discretion).

Édouard Manet, Woman with a Cat (1880–82), Tate collection

Perhaps less imposing by comparison are the smaller sections devoted to the collections of Victorian artists Frederic Lord Leighton (1830–1896, made president of the Royal Academy in 1878, who owned Camille Corot’s 1858 series of four paintings The Four Times of Day) and George Frederick Watts (1817–1904). Very impressive, by contrast, is the section devoted to earlier portraitist and obsessive collector Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), who took full advantage of the chaos inflicted on Europe by the Napoleonic Wars to seek out excellent buying opportunities. Lawrence’s collection numbered as many as five thousand items, over four thousand of which were Old Master drawings, including hundreds of Raphaels. A spectacular example of this aspect of his collecting is Agostino Carracci’s massive cartone (preparatory sketch in charcoal, c 1599) for a ceiling painting at Palazzo Farnese in Rome, an exquisite piece of draughtsmanship which is a true privilege to be able to observe up close. Besides Lawrence’s arresting (and unfinished) self-portrait from around 1825, I was also impressed by his family portrait Sir Francis Baring, 1st Baronet, John Baring and Charles Wall (1806–07), executed in a conventional style but with tremendous skill and dynamism and great compositional sense.

Sharing the room with the works from Lawrence’s collection are pieces from that of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792, founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts), another lifelong purchaser who succeeded in amassing one of the largest art collections in the whole of the United Kingdom in the 1700s. Reynolds used the artworks he collected as examples in his lectures and teaching; Additionally (and perhaps hairraisingly for a modern audience), Reynolds was reportedly in the habit of trying his hand at ‘improving’ his Old Master paintings, which, if nothing else, shows the extent to which attitudes towards art and artwork conservation have shifted over time. Reynolds’s focus was on the Western painting tradition as he knew it and the room features impressive pieces like Giovanni Bellini’s The Agony in the Garden (c 1465) and Jacopo Bassano’s The Good Samaritan (c 1562–63), both now in the National Gallery collection, as well as Reynolds’s well-known but still arresting self-portrait of around 1780.

Jacopo Bassano, The Good Samaritan (1562–63), National Gallery

The exhibition closes with the thoughtful section devoted to Anthony (Antoon in Flemish) Van Dyck (1599–1641), a definite immigration success story who knew 16th century painting intimately and gathered a sizeable personal collection including works by Raphael, Tintoretto, Bassano and Paris Bordone as well as no fewer than 19 Titians, all of which Van Dyck exhibited at his Blackfriars home after 1632 (by which time he had become leading painter to King Charles I). Impressive examples of Van Dyck’s acquisitions from the National Gallery collection are Titian’s beautiful Portrait of a Member of the Barbarigo Family (c 1510) and Tintoretto’s massive The Vendramin Family venerating a Relic of the True Cross (1540–45), both of which, as shown by the contents of the room, probably influenced Van Dyck’s own compositional choices.

Titian, Portrait of a member of the Barbarigo family (c 1510), National Gallery

Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck is a truly thought-provoking journey through Western art history and a genuine eye-opener on a number of levels related to the inheritance and the influences passed on through successive generations of artists. Not to be missed.