Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck

National Gallery, London

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Sainsbury Wing
June 23, September 4, 2016

The inspiration for this show was the National Gallery’s acquisition of a painting by Camille Corot, “the Italian Woman”, from the estate of Lucian Freud after the artist’s death in 2011. It turns out that over 70 works in the gallery were previously owned by artists. The organisers have selected 35 of these, together with loans from other collections, to explore the phenomenon of “painters’ paintings”.

Why do artists collect other artists’ work? Fundamentally, one supposes, for the same reasons other people do: there’s no doubt that Freud dearly loved his Corot, which was prominently displayed over the fireplace in the drawing room of his house. Being an artist himself, though, of course, there was more to it than that.

“I go and see pictures rather like going to the doctor”, Freud once said: “to get some help”. Often, the paintings artists owned directly influenced their art. Another of Freud’s prized possessions was a small Cézanne, “Afternoon in Naples”, a bawdy brothel scene. It inspired a painting by Freud called “After Cézanne”, which he described as a “cousin” of the earlier work.

Cézanne was also a huge influence on Henri Matisse, the next artist-collector to be considered here. Matisse bought Cézanne’s “Three Bathers” while he was still a struggling artist, pawning his wife’s engagement ring to do so, so the story goes. The painting served as a sort of talisman for Matisse: he called it “his greatest treasure”, which had “sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist”.

The Impressionist painter Edgar Degas amassed so many works of art that his collection occupied an entire floor of his Paris apartment, and he gets two rooms in this show. Degas was particularly attracted to Ingres and Delacroix, the two biggest influences on his development as a painter.

Another strand in the story is the long-established practice of artists exchanging their own work with other artists. Freud often swapped paintings with Frank Auerbach, and their friendship is demonstrated here by an amusing birthday card which Auerbach sent Freud, depicting the two of them carousing in a pub. Matisse enjoyed a similar relationship with Picasso, once saying: “Only one person has the right to criticise me: Picasso”. Picasso’s portrait of his muse Dora Maar is said to have inspired the pathos of Matisse’s last great work, the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence. Degas swapped paintings with artists such as Manet and Blanche, although, being Degas, he sometimes returned them after arguments. He bought works by potential rivals, such as Jean-Louis Forain (“he paints with his hands in my pockets”). To his credit, Degas also patronised hard-up artists, including Sisley and Pissarro, before they were successful.

Unfortunately, the exhibition rather loses its way in its later stages, as the organisers try to cram in works owned by four British artists – Lord Leighton, G. F. Watts, Sir Thomas Lawrence and Sir Joshua Reynolds. They’d have done better to concentrate on just one of them. Consider, for example, Reynolds, who wrote: “Works of art are models you are to imitate, and at the same time rivals you are to combat”. Reynolds’ complicated relationship with his bitter rival Thomas Gainsborough is worthy of an exhibition in its own right. In 1782 Reynolds bought Gainsborough’s “Girl with Pigs” for 100 guineas, saying it was the best thing he’d ever done. Shortly afterwards, it was rumoured that he was trying to exchange it for a Titian.

Titian crops up in the last room, too, where there’s a wonderful juxtaposition. Two of the gallery’s Titians were owned by the Flemish artist Sir Anthony Van Dyck (in all, he owned 19 paintings by the great Venetian master). They are displayed alongside a pair of Van Dyck’s double portraits, the gallery’s own “Lords John and Bernard Stuart” and “Thomas KIlligrew and William, Lord Crofts(?)”, from the Royal Collection. Just four paintings, but what a fabulous interplay of colours, converging and diverging lines, gestures and glances. It’s a classic dialogue across the centuries by two great artists.

Nicholas Marlowe

Nick studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art and History at Cambridge University. After working for thirty years in the book trade he is now a freelance writer and artist. His interests include breadmaking, touring historic battlefields, and trying to get above D4 on the flute (maybe it's time for the piccolo). He lives in Teddington, England.