Susan Jenkins relishes the opportunity to glimpse into the private world of artists who acquired paintings and were inspired by their fellow painters
Susan Jenkins explores the works that inspired the great artists
ACcording to the great 18th-century artist and founding president of the royal Academy Sir Joshua reynolds: ‘Works of art are models you are to imitate, and at the same time rivals you are to combat.’ The national gallery’s fascinating exhibition ‘Painters’ Paintings’ uses eight artist ‘case studies’ and some 80 works of art to uncover how artist-collectors have been influenced by the canvases of their fellow painters.
inspired by Lucian Freud’s gift to the gallery of Corot’s Italian Woman (about 1870) in 2012, and featuring loans from public and private collections, the show penetrates the private world of painters to demonstrate how artists have been inspiring each other through their work for centuries.
Although Freud didn’t consider himself to be a collector, he was notable for his interest in the paintings of other artists and surrounded himself with their canvases at home, com- menting: ‘i go and see pictures rather like going to the doctor. To get some help.’
Fellow painters ranging from Sir Anthony van dyck and Sir Joshua reynolds to Henri Matisse and Hilaire-germain-edgar degas shared Freud’s point of view. By juxtaposing the work of these great masters with pictures they owned, this exhibition explores their motivation for collecting art and shows how this influenced their own practice.
The curator Anne robbins suggests that ‘looking at an artist’s collection can be compared to entering a mind’. She points out the diversity of reasons that explain why one artist acquired work from another. Sometimes, the motivation was to offer patronage and encouragement; at others, to benefit from speculation or financial gain.
Some works were acquired as gifts or tokens of friendship, others as sources of inspiration. Matisse, who bought Cézanne’s Three Bathers in 1899, described
the influence it had on him: ‘In the thirty-seven years I have owned this canvas… it has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance.’ In every case, such purchases reflected the owner’s respect and admiration for the creative process of a fellow painter.
Both Matisse and Degas were compulsive collectors. Matisse reportedly pawned his wife’s wedding ring in 1900 to secure Paul Gauguin’s Young Man with a Flower behind his Ear (1891). The wealthier Degas frequently used his money to support fellow artists. In so doing, he often exceeded his budget, according to a friend, as he carried on ‘buying, buying: in the evening he asks himself how he will pay for what he bought that day and the next morning he starts again’.
During these spending sprees, Degas acquired nine paintings from his dear friend Edouard Manet, including Woman with a Cat (1880–2) and the reassembled pieces of The Execution of Maximilian (about 1867– 8).
‘Painters’ Paintings’ explores not only the works purchased, but also the inspiration derived by artists from their collections. Lucian Freud’s After Cézanne, for instance, was clearly influenced by Cézanne’s Afternoon in Naples (1876–7), acquired by him in 1999.
Similarly, van Dyck’s luxurious use of colour and compositional devices indicate his close study of the work of Titian. By the time of his death in 1641, van Dyck owned 19 works by Titian, including two in the National Gallery: The Vendramin Family (1540– 5) and Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo (about 1510).
Successive generations of British artist-collectors influenced each other, both in terms of their collecting and their artistic technique. Reynolds purchased works by van Dyck, notably his Portrait of George Gage with Two Attendants, (probably 1622– 3). Reynolds, in his turn, influenced his pupil, Thomas Lawrence, for whom acquiring works of art was both creatively important and evidence of gentlemanly status.
Some of Lawrence’s most important purchases found their way into the National Gallery, including Raphael’s An Allegory (about 1504) and Agostino Carracci’s cartoon A Woman borne off by a Sea God (about 1599), now returning to public display after 20 years in storage.
Despite the undoubted rivalry between artists, the exhibition highlights their mutual respect demonstrated through the exchange of gifts. One such example is the 80th-birthday card that Frank Auerbach made in 2002 for his friend Lucian Freud. Matisse and Picasso’s fierce competitiveness encouraged their regular exchange of pictures and Matisse kept the two portraits that Picasso gave him of his mistress, Dora Maar, in an attempt to learn from his rival’s work.
By exploring a simple theme, this is a delightful show that can be enjoyed on many levels. Its main focus offers insight into an unknown aspect of artistic activity, the creative process and painterly inspiration, but the selection of wonderful pictures provides an enjoyable aesthetic experience, enriched with fresh information on their provenance. ‘Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck’ is at the National Gallery, London WC2, until September 4 (020–7747 2885; www.nationalgallery.org.uk) Next week: Kate Malone at Waddesdon Manor
‘In the thirty-seven years I have owned this canvas... it has sustained me morally,’ said Matisse of Cézanne’s Three Bathers
Titian’s The Vendramin Family, venerating a Relic of the True Cross (1540– 5)
‘Picasso shatters forms,’ declared Matisse, who was given this and another portrait of Dora Maar by his fellow artist. ‘I am their servant’