Painter's Paintings

The National Gallery's exhibition explores the artworks owned by artists such as Freud

I imagine it can be difficult for large galleries to find unique ways to show off their collection. Sometimes the links can be tenuous (this was one of the main criticisms of Tate Britain’s Fighting History exhibition last year). Yet, the National Gallery has found a really fascinating link between many works in its possession: the artworks owned by famous artists, who were often inspired by the pieces on their walls. The exhibition displays key pieces in the private collections of eight artists: Freud; Matisse; Degas; Leighton; Watts; Lawrence; Reynolds; and Van Dyck.

Loving the sunshine outside the National Gallery 

Starting with Freud, the exhibition draws a link between the items he possessed and the work he went on to create. He was clearly drawn to realism in the portraiture of the likes of Constable, Corot and Cezanne. A comparison was drawn between Cezanne’s Afternoon in Naples (1875) and Freud’s After Cezanne (2000). Although the difference in styles is obvious, it is clear that Freud was influenced by the post-impressionist. On face value, it seems the composition and subject matter is the main thing the paintings have in common, but when observing the paint strokes, it is clear Freud was interested in Cezanne’s expression conveyed with thick and fast layers of paint. However, the issues dealt with in the pieces are quite different.  Cezanne’s intimate piece shows a loving couple who could be in brothel whilst Freud has turned the narrative more sour by exploring a more contemporary theme of isolation and sexual dependence. This is perhaps why Freud referred to the two pieces as “cousins”.

Cezanne's Afternoon in Naples (1875)
Freud's After Cezanne (2000)

 Another piece in Freud’s collection was the main catalyst for the exhibition. Corot’s Italian Woman (1870) was given to the nation by Freud and is interesting in the fact that Corot was far better known for his landscapes. Freud clearly preferred portraiture, as he also owned a portrait by Constable, another famous landscape artist.  Freud was fascinated with the way Corot’s woman emerged from darkness and the emotion etched into her face with thick, expressive brushstrokes. This piece hung above Freud’s mantelpiece underneath which was Degas’ Head of a Woman Resting on One Hand (1834), another portrait which explores a similar psychological complexity which is seen in many of Freud’s works.

Corot's Italian Woman (1870)
Degas' Head of a Woman Resting on One Hand (1834)

I found this tangible relationship between painter and the paintings he possessed fascinating. However, occasionally there seems to be looser connections in the exhibition. For instance, the link drawn between Cezanne’s Three Bathers (1882) and Matisse’s Back III (1916). The exhibition states a Matisse was inspired by Cezanne to reduce the body to its essential elements and emphasise a stylised bulk. I felt that although the subject matter is the same, the final artworks created are very different. Cezanne’s fluid brushstrokes make his bathers seem more comfortable and smooth whereas Matisse’s sharp angles and choice of dark bronze as the medium portrays a darker emotion. I think in this instance the relationship is more of an inspiration rather than a copy or tribute.

Cezanne's Three Bathers (1882)

Matisse's Back III (1916)

One of the most successful elements of the exhibition was the way it also explored the personal relationships the artists had to each other. For instance, Degas supported young impressionists by buying their paintings but would often return their pieces after quarrels. Gauguin in particular benefited from Degas’ generosity: he had 11 of the artist’s painting. Degas felt Forain imitated him and once said “he paints with his hands in my pockets.’ Quotes about Degas’ compulsive art collecting were printed on the walls. My favourites include “I buy! I buy! I can’t stop myself!” and Albert Bartholome’s analysis of the artist: “and the next morning he starts again: still Ingres, some Delacroix… and then he takes a certain pride in announcing he can no longer afford to clothe himself.” (1896). Similarly, Reynolds spoke of art collecting: “The possessing of portraits by Titian, Van Dyke, Rembrandt… I considered the best kind of wealth.” It really provided a fascinating insight into the men as both artists and collectors.

A Personal Insight: Reynolds had tried to exchange Gainsborough's Girl With Pigs (1782) for a Titian

This exhibition was successful in the links it created between the vastly different works in the collections, whilst also creating an intimate viewpoint into the relationships between all of the artists and their most personal works.

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