The Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery is, until September, hosting Painters' Paintings:From Freud to Van Dyck. It seems a bit of an odd premise, maybe even a weak one, to hang an exhibition on. Paintings that were once owned by other painters sounds like it's more of academic interest to curators than something that'll get the general public lining up into Trafalgar Square.
The remit seems to be that it's a way of seeing what makes artists tick. Our belongings revealing much about what we are. Though it also reveals what we can afford and what we can access.
The whole thing was inspired by, and starts with, Lucian Freud and his ownership of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's Italian Woman (1870). On Freud's death in 2011 this treasured possession was bequeathed to the National Gallery (so handily they don't need to get a loan out to show it). From here the exhibition travels back in time.
The bequeathment was to thank Britain for offering his Jewish family refuge from the Nazis in 1933. Obviously a kinder time in British, if not German, history. The Berlin born artist was drawn to works with similar qualities to those he imbued his own portraits with. From Cezanne's erotic post-impressionism to the skilful bronze work of Edgar Degas and stretching right back to John Constable and the Romantic era. There's even a sketch of Freud lunching in the City's Cock Tavern drawn by his contemporary, and dinner date, Frank Auerbach.
Matisse also had both Degas and Cezanne in his collection. In fact, he loved Cezanne's Three Bathers so much he spent about a year's pay on it when we was in relative penury and had two small kids to bring up. He'd wake before dawn to see the first rays of the morning sun illuminate it. He owned Gauguins and Picassos too. Along with rugs, fabrics, and exoticized African artefacts. Paul Signac swapped his Green House, Venice from 1905, below, with a Matisse work. It's a sun dappled pointillist thing of beauty.
In contrast to Matisse's penchant for explosions in a paint factory Degas, himself, appeared more attracted to muddier, earthier tones. Pissarro and Sisley's pastoral scenes complementing Gauguin's Tahitian flowers and Manet's Woman with a Cat. His Cezanne, Bather with Oustretched Arms, now belongs to Jasper Johns. Gotta have a Cezanne.
Most strikingly of all Degas actually owned Manet's notorious Execution of Maximilian (1867-68) depicting the Austrian archduke, imposed on Mexico by Napoleon III, meeting his bloody end after the French troops withdrew from Mexico.
Degas collected so much art that he's given two rooms in this show. He admired the line of Ingres and the expressive colours of Delacroix. Like Freud he was in possession of a Corot. He admired The Roman Campagna with the Claudian Aqueduct (1826) so much that it was hung in his bedroom.
Its modest majesty stands out amongst the affected Italian and Greek poets and the pompous poses of the French nobility.
Frederic (Lord) Leighton and George Frederic Watts have to share a dark room in the corner of the exhibition. Leighton, something of a Holland Park show off, seemed to really like trees. Looking at his collection of Corots (well, of course) is like going on a woodland walk. Pleasant though they are it seems like Degas nabbed the best stuff.
Watts was a Victorian moralist fond of allegories and a devoted Italophile. His philanthropic spirit seeming to be at odds with Leighton's rarefied air. Yet the two were close friends. Watts held Girolamo Macchietti's 1563 A Knight of San Stefano in 'high regard' and it too was bequeathed to the National Gallery.
Sir Thomas Lawrence was a compulsive, obsessive, collector. A hoarder even. He amassed his collection in the wake of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars when the market was flooded yet still spent much of his life in debt. On his death an inventory showed he owned 5,000 or so items of art. Old Masters were the portraitist's thing:- Raphael, Van Dyck, and Caracci adorn this room. The standout painting for me was Guido Reni's 1607 Coronation of the Virgin.
Sir Joshua Reynolds was, in the 18th century, Britain's most influential painter (though, in the past, he's left me cold). He was another fan, and collector of, the Old Masters. My eyes were drawn immediately to the great sandy expanses and troubled skies of Bellini's The Agony in the Garden (1465). Reynolds thought it was by Bellini's brother-in-law, Mantegna. Misleading and incorrect information as regards the artist behind the paintings in this exhibition something of a running theme.
A biblical Poussin, Rembrandt's lamentations for the dead Christ, and Gainsborough's piggs (sic) make Reynolds' collection an interesting and varied one. I may yet warm to him. His Van Dyck points the way to the final room. That of Van Dyck himself.
Born in Antwerp before travelling widely in Italy Van Dyck went on to become England's leading court painter of the 17th century. He picked up several artworks during his Italian travels. Titian was his favourite and when he returned to London he had a Titian cabinet installed in his Blackfriars house. Even Charles I came round to see it. Before he had his head chopped off.
Visitors must have venerated the art in (nearly) the same way that the Vendramin Family venerate a relic of the true cross in Titian's 1540-45 oil painting, below.
I can't say I venerated this show but I did rather enjoy it. I still maintain the premise is a little thin but it was an interesting, if somewhat prismatic, journey back in time and contained some rather stunning pieces. A success. If a qualified one.