Just the name alone – Painters’ Paintings – excites and intrigues, so it’s unsurprising that the press went wild for the idea as soon as it was revealed by the National Gallery. Just opened in the Sainsbury Wing over seven rooms, curator Anne Robbins shows us how eight artists – Freud, Matisse, Degas, Leighton, Watts, Lawrence, Reynolds and Van Dyck – were inspired by the works they collected. It’s an exhibition that can only be described as triumphant.
While, as the new director of the gallery, Gabriele Finaldi, points out, the exhibition is palindromic, running chronologically from Freud to Van Dyke, or vice versa, they prefer you to start with Freud. This preference of the curatorial team is due to the inspiration for the exhibition. As thanks for accepting and taking in his family when they fled Nazi Germany, Lucien Freud willed Corot’s Italian Woman to the nation, with the stipulation that it hang in the National Gallery.
When this gift was announced, the fact that the great painter had owned the painting, rather than the work in its own right, received the lion’s share of the press coverage. This got the team at the Gallery thinking. As Anne Robbins tells it, they discovered that notable artists had formerly owned some seventy works in their collection. From this and the recent purchase of another Corot, a series entitled The Four Times of Day, once owned by Lord Leighton, the exhibition was brought together. There is also another reason for Freud providing the starting point and viewers working backwards in time: the show is not comprehensive – how could it be – and is not meant to be a new way of looking at art history. Instead, it is meant to remind us of how existing artists’ works play a role in shaping other artists, no matter how great they are, and that they are inspired by what they have around them, and see every day. So it asks why these eight collected as they did and how they lived with the works, whether bought or acquired through swaps with contemporaries, as most artists’ collections begin.
The tone of the exhibit is set from the moment of entering the Freud room, where you are greeted with the Italian Woman straight in front of you, with that yellow sleeve walloping you round the head. Freud used to say that he wanted his art to be an intensification of reality, and you can see why he was drawn to this portrait, which is set with a birthday card drawing by Frank Auerbach to the left, and a small sculpture of a woman by Degas to the right, just as they were displayed in Freud’s studio. His own works, of course, fill the room and continue to draw you in, no matter how often you have seen them – no reproduction can ever do them justice. Interestingly absent is the work of Francis Bacon and that of contemporaries owned by Freud; the paintings are earlier, and also include a stunning little Cézanne bought in 1999 at Christie’s, which in turn inspired a piece now in Australia. The surprise appearance is a portrait by the great British landscape painter Constable, an artist Freud had always admired, once curating an exhibition of his work in Paris.
The Matisse room cannot fail to have you swooning. At its centre is the imposing Degas, La Coiffure, from the gallery’s own collection, joined on the wall by works by Gaugin, Signac and Cézanne and, of course, by his friend and competitor, Pablo Picasso. Among Matisse’s own works is a room-height sculpture, a mesmerising self portrait, and his Inattentive Reader. He is known to have owned four Cézannes, two being of Madame Cézanne, one of which is on display. And yet, despite their contemporaneous activity and this personal connection through paint, the two artists never met. The real star in the room is Picasso’s Portrait of Dora Maar, a greyscale and blue cubist portrait given by the artist to Matisse when he was ill; as it did him, it will suck you in, even if it’s not to your normal taste. So taken with it was Matisse that he used the expression on the face as inspiration for faces of anguish when working on the four stations of the cross for the the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence.
The rest of the exhibition continues in much the same vein. Degas was such a collector that he has two rooms dedicated to him, the first full of impressionist works, a number by Manet, including The Execution of Maximilian which was left unfinished by the artist at the time of his death, then painstakingly pieced together by Degas. Also included is a work by Georges Jeanniot entitled Conscripts that is known to have been in Degas’s possession, but was thought lost until it recently turned up at auction. It is displayed next to Degas’s Young Spartans Exercising; the naked male forms mirror one another. Also in the room is a small Cézanne that is seldom seen as its current owner, the artist Jasper Johns, rarely parts with it. The message of Cézanne as a favourite of artists comes through strongly given his frequency in the rooms of his contemporaries and later artists.
Degas’s art collection was vast – he started young due to his wealthy background. The second of the rooms dedicated to him deals with the works he collected by Ingres and Delacroix, amongst others. All are works from the more traditional French school he was trained in. Indeed, we can see how his style changed from that of his classic training to his more famous impressionistic style between two portraits hanging in the room – a self-portrait from 1855, and the 1875 Portrait of Elena Carafa.
From Degas you move to the Victorian artists Watts and Leighton, both great collectors. The former donated works to the National Gallery, including A Knight of S. Stefano, when he was just a poor artist. Sir Thomas Lawrence collected over five thousand works, of which almost four and a half thousand are drawings. Many of these are rare surviving cartoons, including the huge cartoon by Carracci for a fresco of Palazzo Farnese in Rome. He also had a Raphael and even a Van Dyck, just as Joshua Reynolds, who shares the room, did. Reynolds, the first president of the RA, was famous for his strong views and lectures on art and art history, based on his collection. This was a collection which included many of the great masters of old, as evidenced by the works by Michelangelo, Bellini, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Gainsborough. Reynolds wasn’t just inspired by his collection but had an intimate relationship with it, and was known to remove, add to, and inspect elements of the works he owned in an attempt to learn from and improve them.
Van Dyck and his beloved Titians fill the final room of this exquisite and illuminating exhibition. I haven’t enjoyed or found an exhibition so interesting in a long time, and it is by far the best the Gallery has put on, possibly since the Da Vinci show in 2011-2012. It’s insightful and, I ask you – when was the last time you were in such an intimate space alongside works by so many greats from the expanse of the last nine hundred years? I would imagine that the answer would be never. It is the best show this summer.
The Execution of Maximilian
Oil on canvas
193 x 284 cm
© The National Gallery, London
Birthday card from Frank Auerbach to Lucian Freud
The Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art. Photo Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge