Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne @ the National Gallery

Samuel Courtauld (1876 – 1947) was rich. He was born into the Courtauld family, which, over several generations, had built up a successful fabric company based in Essex. After a good education and trips abroad to study the business, Courtauld took over as general manager in 1908, and then served as chairman from 1921 to 1946. Under his guidance the firm developed and marketed rayon, an artificial fibre and inexpensive silk substitute, growing into a major international company.

Courtauld became interested in art after seeing the Hugh Lane collection on exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1917. However, his career as a collector only started in 1922 following an exhibition of French art at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. He was particularly taken with the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, which were still viewed with suspicion in Britain, even in the art establishment. On seeing a Cézanne, he said:

At that moment I felt the magic, and I have felt it in Cézanne’s work ever since.

He decided to become a full time collector and, during the 1920s Courtauld created two collections in parallel:

  1. in 1923 he created a fund, the Courtauld Fund, of £50,000 to acquire modern French paintings for the National Gallery, which worked through a board of trustees and a network of dealers
  2. at the same time, he also bought works for his own private collection which eventually grew to more than seventy works

This latter set, he displayed at the London house he rented for the purpose, Home House, 20 Portman Square.

Courtauld had always shared his passion with his wife, Elizabeth and when she died in 1931, his interest in collecting waned. However, the experience had shown him that there was a need for sophisticated modern art scholarship, and so he worked with other sponsors and partners to found the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1932.

The Courtauld, as it is generally referred to, went from strength to strength. It is now among the most prestigious institutions in the world for the study of the history of art and conservation, and well known for the disproportionate number of directors of major museums drawn from its small body of alumni.

The Institute houses the Courtauld Gallery which is like a miniature version of the National Gallery, showcasing masterpieces of Western art from medieval times until the turn of the 20th century. Ever since its inception the Gallery has been renowned for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings which Samuel Courtauld gave to it 85 years ago.

In autumn 2018 the Courtauld Gallery closed for a major refurbishment. What to do with its priceless art works? It occurred to someone to reunite the French paintings Courtauld gave to his Institute, with the works by the same masters which his trust acquired for the National Gallery back in the 1920s.

Hence this exhibition. Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne brings together the 26 French masterpieces from the Courtauld Gallery and reunites them with the paintings acquired for the National Trust by the Courtauld Trust back in the 1920s.

The result is three large gallery rooms displaying forty three paintings by twelve master of the period in straightforward chronological order. The artists are:

  1. Daumier
  2. Manet
  3. Monet
  4. Renoir
  5. Pissarro
  6. Seurat
  7. Cézanne
  8. Bonnard
  9. Toulouse-Lautrec
  10. Gauguin
  11. Van Gogh

The exhibition tells two stories at the same time. On the surface this is yet another excuse (or opportunity) to trace the epoch-defining development of French painting from the 1860s to the 1900s, with lengthy wall labels about each of the twelve artists, and how they contributed to Impressionism and what became known, rather unsatisfactorily, as post-Impressionism – and then a wall label for each painting, telling us about the subject matter and treatment.

But each of the wall labels, and the audioguide, also give the stories behind Courtauld’s purchases of each of the paintings. These are sometimes convoluted, often expensive, and sometimes funny. It was intriguing to learn that Vollard, the famous art collector and dealer, who had had his portrait done by Renoir, Pissarro and others, actively wished a representation of himself to be displayed in Britain and so encouraged Courtauld to buy Renoir’s portrait of him. It cost Courtauld a whopping 800,000 francs.

Other anecdotes include the fact that the sketch of Manet’s famous Dejeuner sur l’herbe set him back £10,000, and that Courtauld bought van Gogh’s searing painting of a wheatfield for a mere £3,300, a lot of money at the time – but think what it would fetch now!

Money and philistinism

Although the curators prefer to think of this as a story about Cortauld’s ‘visionary and extraordinarily generous’ approach to art, it is also a story about money. The power of money, the necessity of money, the unavoidable imbrecation of art and money.

And peeping through the chinks in this mostly positive account of one man’s taste, drive and generosity – there is another story about the staggering philistinism of the British. It really is worth reflecting that, in the 1920s and into the 1930s, major British art institutes chose not to buy Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art because they didn’t think it was proper painting.

What barbarism! What philistinism! (That, in case you didn’t realise it, is why so much Modern French art ended up in America; rich Yanks snapped up works which the hoity-toity Brits turned their noses up at).

It is shaming to learn that the National Gallery refused, twice, to buy Degas’s masterpiece Young Spartans Exercising. Courtauld bought it and only 15 years later was it bequested to the National who had, at last, grasped its importance.

Similarly, it is appalling to learn that when the Cézanne self-portrait which Courtauld had acquired was first publicly displayed, in 1934, it had to be glazed to protect it from any attempts to deface and vandalise it!

Greatest hits

The exhibition includes some of the absolute all-time high points of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, including La Loge by Renoir, Young Spartans Exercising by Degas, Seurat’s immense Bathers at Asnières, Cézanne’s Card PlayersTe Rerioa by Paul Gauguin

Personal favourites

From this treasury, I emerged liking four paintings in particular. This Degas painting of a woman at a window has always been tucked away in a corner when I’ve seen it at the Courtauld Gallery. This has added to its sense of mystery. But what I mainly like about it is the unfinished, dark obscurity of the image. In general, like strong defining black lines, disegno, outlines – and here you can feel Degas’s draughtsmanship performing an piece of magic – caught in the act of making a woman of flesh appear from a sequence of lines and dark colours. Next to it is a classic painting of two ballet dancers on stage, prettier, more finished. But for me, Woman at a window has always had atmosphere.

Woman at a Window (1871-72) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Woman at a Window (1871-72) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Talking of pairs, take the corner of the room where the Manet section ends and the Monet section begins. The Monets include a wonderfully light luminescent view of the River Seine titled Autumn Effect at Argenteuil. (Like most Monets it looks far better seen from across the room; the further away the more luminous it becomes.)

Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873) by Claude Monet © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873) by Claude Monet © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Famous though they are, I didn’t like the handful of other Manets on show here. They confirmed my feeling that I don’t like Manet that much, I really do find his paintings scrappy and unfinished, often with errors of draughtsmanship and perspective which annoy me.

Except for this view of the Seine which he painted around the time he got to know Monet and had gone to stay with him at his Seine-side house. Here you can see Manet copying Monet’s use of broken brushstrokes and light, airy palette. But what I like Manet’s river study, why I prefer it to Monet’s, is the intensity of the black – in the ribbon round the woman’s hat, in the shadow of the boats – and the deepness and richness of the blue tone he’s used for the river water, darker, fuller, richer than the light frolicsome Monet. For me, this makes the picture much more biting, punchy, virile.

Which one do you prefer?

Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874) by Edouard Manet, on loan to The Courtauld Gallery from a private collection © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874) by Edouard Manet, on loan to The Courtauld Gallery from a private collection © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Having established that I like strong blacks, it was no surprise to me that I kept returning to Renoir’s La Loge i.e. the box at the theatre.

In reviews of other Impressionist exhibitions, and books, I’ve already pointed out that it seems to me Renoir established a ‘look’, a style, a brand, early on and stuck to it for most of his career (until, admittedly, he drastically changed in the last decade of his life).

The commentary gives a sophisticated analysis of the picture. It explains that a Paris theatre box was a place to see and be seen. It explains that the woman is on show, knows she is on show, is looking straight at us, putting us right there, maybe in a box opposite, an effect subtly reinforced by the way a) her male companion is busy scanning the crowd with opera glasses, maybe looking for another beautiful woman to ogle at (as we, it is implied, as observing this one) and b) the way the details at the periphery (her hands, the edge of the box) are blurred as if we are looking at her through opera glasses, which blur the edge of vision.

All this is true, but I just like the pattern of her dress, the strong black and white lines – and above all, the porcelain beauty of the woman’s face, pale and perfect. It took me a while to realise that this is because her face is the only part of the composition which is painted smoothly and with great finish – everything else is blurred and unsettling to look at. Whichever detail you zero in on, you end up being pushed back to her perfect face as a point of rest. I find it hypnotic.

The Theatre Box (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

The Theatre Box (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

The three Gauguin paintings on display are important but don’t quite do it for me. I like Gauguin but, for all the talk of the exotic South Seas, the selection here was surprisingly drab, dominated by a worn out brown colour. (Poor Bonnard had a little section next to Gauguin and van Gogh; his two works were knocked completely into the shade by them).

No, the masterpiece of the final room is A Wheatfield, with Cypresses by Vincent van Gogh. Whereas reproductions tend to improve Monet’s Impressionist works (often a bit scrappy when seen close-up), no reproduction can convey the extraordinary turmoil and rhythm and energy of this van Gogh.

It is a revelation, a masterpiece which, for me, towers above all the other masterpieces on show. Being able to go right up to the surface and investigate the complex technique of whirls and splashes of thick oil van Gogh used to create the impression of tumult and dynamism is worth the price of admission by itself. It really is. The closer you get, the more you can see the gaps in the swirling brushstrokes and the raw canvas beneath, can see the way the red blodges at the bottom have been added to the already thick layers of paint to convey poppies. But the extravagance of the impasto, the thick layers of paint used, only adds to the tremendous emotionality of the picture. Viewed in a smoother-out reproduction (as below) it is great, but viewed in the flesh, close-up, it is like being struck by lightning.

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses (1889) by Vincent van Gogh by the Courtauld Fund, 1923 © The National Gallery, London

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses (1889) by Vincent van Gogh by the Courtauld Fund, 1923
© The National Gallery, London

A mystery

You exit the three big gallery rooms which contain these masterpieces into the shop (fridge magnets, books, tote bags etc) and then into room 41, another big National gallery room. This one follows on naturally from the subject matter of the previous exhibition with works by Monet and van Gogh among other turn of the century French artists and then….

You notice that no fewer than eight of the paintings in this room have a label next to them indicating that they, too, were collected by the Courtauld Trust and donated to the National Gallery. They should, in other words, be included in the exhibition. Why aren’t they?

Lack of space? But surely the existing 40 or so paintings could have been shuffled up a bit… or display panels could have been erected in the middle of the rooms, as I’ve seen done at countless exhibitions.

The paintings which are part of the Courtauld bequest but are not included in the Courtauld exhibition include a Monet waterlilies, a view of the St Lazare station in Paris, and van Gogh’s Sunflowers (bought by the Courtauld Fund, 1924) and van Gogh’s chair (bought by the Courtauld Fund, 1924).

If the exhibition aims to bring together all the Courtauld’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works in one place… these should without doubt have been included in the exhibition.

Maybe… maybe they’re too famous. Over six million people visit the National Gallery every year. These paintings are among the most popular attractions. Maybe the National Gallery is forbidden to make people pay to see them. Or maybe it was just discretion on the part of the curators, knowing that many people might make the pilgrimage down to London, or from abroad, many to see these treasures… and then be pretty disgruntled to discover they had to pay to see them.

Maybe displaying eight painting which Courtauld bought for the nation outside an exhibition about paintings which Courtauld bought for the nation, was the only solution.

Van Gogh's chair by Vincent van Gogh. Not in the Courtauld Impressionist exhibition, but free to see at the National gallery

Van Gogh’s chair by Vincent van Gogh. Not in the Courtauld Impressionist exhibition, but free to see anytime at the National Gallery

Video

Exhibition curator Anne Robbins talks us through two pivotal works bought by Courtauld, including Manet’s last great masterpiece, ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’.


Related links

Press reviews

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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