The idea behind ‘Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck’ is an exciting one, if a little difficult to communicate in a title. The exhibition explores the relationship between artists and the paintings which they owned: how they came to possess them, why they wanted them and the influence they had on their own art.
I wandered into the gallery from Trafalgar Square, so the subject wasn’t clear to me until I entered the first room in the S Wing and found that it had been laid out in a way that resembled an architect’s sketch of someone’s front room, with a portrait hanging over a shape that gestured at being a mantelpiece.
The front room was Lucian Freud’s and the portrait was Italian Woman by Corot, which Freud had gifted to the National Gallery in 2014 and which was the inspiration for the exhibition. Certainly, the portrait is worth building an exhibition around. In Corot’s hand this romantic, often saccharine genre becomes a stunning exercise in colour and shade. You can see how it appealed to Freud too, both in the ambivalence of the sitter’s expression and the physicality of her skin.
Freud’s room is rather sparse. We get a little illustration of his real room, which was also rather sparse. There is an ‘erotic’ Cézanne, a few other fleshy items and a stunning little Degas bust of a ballet dancer with her head pressed to one shoulder.
The exhibition then moves back in time through a number of masters until we get to Van Dyck. The curators have made sure that we are in the artists hands as much as theirs, which is inevitably a good thing. Matisse’s room is dominated by Degas’ vast, pulsating red La Coiffure, one of the galleries own pieces. Other highlights include two portraits by Picasso, one very funny, one grey and alienating, as well as more Cézanne. Everybody liked Cézanne. Matisse had long, personal connection with Cézanne’s Three Bathers – he used to wake up early in the morning to watch the light hit it.
The painters here acquired their works for a wide variety of reasons: artistic, personal, financial. At its best the exhibition is a fascinating insight into the artists’ lives and characters. Degas was such an obsessive collector that he gets two rooms worth of paintings. He bought more than he could afford. He swapped his own works to get his hands on other peoples. He gave the careers of struggling friends a little push by buying their paintings. He is very hard not to like. As for himself, he liked Ingres and his exacting neoclassicism, although there is plenty of Delacroix here too.
Degas also had brilliant taste in landscapes, despite not being known for them himself. Alfred Sisley’s The Flood, Banks of the Siene, with its simple French farmhouse wobbling in the distinctly unthreatening floodwaters is wonderfully wet. There is also a dreamy, violet valley by Theodor Rousseau, which Degas bought on mistaking it for a Corot: a happy accident, it turned out.
The curators were right to let the paintings speak for themselves. All the same, I did want to hear more from the artists. Had they made notes on their favourite pieces? Did they make records, lists? Even a purchase order or two would have been interesting. All we get is a photograph of the catalogue used when Degas’ collection was sold off posthumously.
More might have been said, too, about the way in which the artists displayed the works. Several of the rooms gestured towards recreating how the paintings would have been hung. I found myself wanting a room completely made up. Larger pictures of the rooms would have been nice in any case.
Exhibitions have to work with what the gallery holds but it remains a fact that these masters were all European men. The fact that they were men felt particularly urgently in need of addressing, given that one thing that almost all of these artists liked to collect was pictures of women, often in various stages of undress.
The question of the representation of women in art is hardly a new one and it is a shame it was not engaged with here in some way: the context of collection is especially illuminating. Corot’s Italian woman stares silently out from the posters and promotional material.
The reverse chronology means that the exhibition will be top-heavy for anyone who is not a dedicated fan of Reynolds and Lawrence, which I suspect is most people. Still, there is enough in the first few rooms to justify the entrance fee. The question of money lingers over the whole thing. The more modern artists appeared to have less of it, which I suspect is important.
Personally I was disappointed that the National Gallery is now charging £1 for exhibition postcards.
By Jeremy Wikeley
‘Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck’, National Gallery, 23 June – 4 September