sat 20/07/2019

Painters' Paintings, National Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

Painters' Paintings, National Gallery

Painters' Paintings, National Gallery

A glimpse inside artists' collections offers fresh insight into their own work

Titian, 'The Vendramin Family Venerating a Relic of the True Cross', c.1540 -c.1560 Oil on canvas © The National Gallery, London

The huge and gorgeous Titian, The Vendramin Family, c.1540-c.1560, displays a frieze of males of all ages, three or four generations – and an adorable lap dog held close by the youngest boy – in marvellously sumptuous costume. The painting is surrounded with portraits by an ardent admirer of Titian's, Anthony van Dyck, our interest in the Titian deepened by the fact that Van Dyck once owned it. It is but one of the stars of this fascinating sampling of the collecting habits of artists themselves.

These consummate portrait painters are separated by nearly a century but we are told that Van Dyck revered his Venetian predecessor. We can see how the Flemish painter translated and transposed into his own portraiture echoes of his close study of Titian, whose paintings he had owned in such number that his collection was referred to as a cabinet of Titian.

Anthony Van Dyck, Thomas Killigrew and William, Lord Crofts (?), 1638, The Royal Collection Trust /HM QUEEN ELIZABETH II A rarely-seen Van Dyck self-portrait from a private collection is reminiscent of Titian’s Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, c.1510. Now one of the National Gallery’s superb group of Titians, Van Dyck may well have owned either the painting or an engraving after the image. 

There is also Van Dyck’s own double portrait of the melancholy poet Thomas Killigrew, in mourning for his wife, next to an aristocratic friend, its extraordinary sense of life profoundly lived by these two young intellectuals, captured in all its sadnesses and joys. Wrenching this group of Titians and Van Dycks from several collections and putting them together somehow throws light on both artists: seeing what Van Dyck saw in Titian enables us in turn to see more in Van Dyck (pictured above right: Anthony Van Dyck, Thomas Killigrew and William, Lord Crofts[?],1638).

Degas was notorious as a collector, continually buying and selling to acquire better things; he was absorbed with the art of his contemporaries from Manet to Cézanne, Sisley and Pissarro, and wished to support them, while also infatuated with his French predecessors, Delacroix and Ingres. There are examples here, and the comparison with Degas himself amplifies his own preoccupation with portraying the human: on view are two introspective self-portraits. In his own landscapes and those he collected we are aware of an interest in framing devices, vistas and horizons. 

An intense admiration for Manet led Degas to perform a real service to his work, by assembling as many fragments as he could of the dismembered and politically contentious The Execution of Maximilian, c. 1867-8, a subject Manet had turned to several times. Cézanne’s small study Bather with Outstretched Arm, 1883-1885, the young boy both tentative and appealing, is now owned by Jasper Johns, passed from artist to artist.  

Matisse too nearly bankrupted himself buying art, writing of Cézanne’s small Three Bathers, 1879-1882, which he owned for decades, that it had sustained him morally, providing him with both strength and perseverance. Picasso’s ghost is here, too, in the form of two canvases that been owned by Matisse.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Italian Woman, or Woman with Yellow Sleeve (L'Italienne), about 1870, Oil on canvas, © The National Gallery, LondonDid these artists acquire for pleasure or for instruction or both? Sir Joshua Reynolds thought owning paintings by Titian, Van Dyck and Rembrandt was the best kind of wealth. And he was not above investigating the physical properties of the paintings he owned, and sometimes even adding to them. Works of art are “models you are to imitate, and at the same time rivals you are to combat”, said Reynolds, an artist who was master of his own publicity. Lucian Freud said that he looked to certain works of art for help, just as though he were visiting a doctor.

Freud is the catalyst for this powerful show; he had bought Corot’s striking Italian Woman, c.1870 (pictured left), at the turn of the century, and left this affecting and emotional portrait to the National Gallery in gratitude for his family’s escape from Nazi Germany to London. And here too is a Cézanne, a brothel scene, its composition and perhaps even some emotion, woven almost seamlessly into a large Freud group portrait, After Cézanne, 1999-2000, resident now in Australia’s National Gallery. Freud, who had studied art as a boy in Suffolk, had a long and evolving appreciation for Constable, acting indeed as a curator for a large exhibition in Paris in 2002: and here is a slightly naïve but touchingly luminous Constable portrait. His own self-portrait, painted when he was 79, echoing something of the Corot which he already owned, is called Reflection, and is a searing no-holds-barred look at the artist as an old man.

This show, welcome as it is, is but a tiny sample of artists’ obsessions with art. Wandering through the centuries we do get a sense of how art into art does go; we see more in both the works they collected, and in their own work. Every picture here tells a story not only about its creator, but about the art of its collector. It is a series of painless and wholly enjoyable lessons about how to look, through our own eyes and those of an artist. Whenever there has been money to spare, and often when there wasn’t, artists have acquired. The intensity with which an artist can absorb what he admires in a work of art he owns makes for a fascinating, intimate relationship.  

Sir Joshua Reynolds thought owning paintings by Titian, Van Dyck and Rembrandt was the best kind of wealth

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