Laura Cumming reviews Courtauld Impressionists at the National Gallery
Samuel Courtauld’s matchless collection of impressionist masterpieces spark off each other in this enthralling show
Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne
National Gallery, London WC2; tomorrow until 20 Jan The National Gallery is evolving: a museum in vivid transition. This autumn it will offer not one but four special exhibitions, spanning more than half a millennium, from Mantegna and Bellini in the 1400s to the satirical nightmares of contemporary film-maker Rachel Maclean. The permanent collection is being ingeniously rearranged in dialogue with these shows, which include Britain’s first survey of that most enigmatic and piercing of portraitists, Lorenzo Lotto. The season opens this week with the enthralling Courtauld Impressionists.
The Sunflowers, The Bathers,
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère: all were set before the British public by the textile magnate Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947). It is no understatement to say that our experience of art would not be so rich without him. Courtauld began buying impressionist paintings in the early 1920s – Cézanne’s apples, Monet’s waterlilies, a late self-portrait by Van Gogh, alone and wintry with his poor bandaged ear. The private collection he amassed was mostly given to the institute that bears his name, but Courtauld also established a fund for the purchase of paintings by the National and Tate Galleries.
This is how we come to have Manet’s deathless portrait of the barmaid leaning impassively on the counter, in-turned, distracted, the disparity between her public and private selves echoed in the famously mismatched reflections of the mirror behind her. It is how we have Seurat’s monumental vision of Parisians arranged along the Seine like chess pieces in the luminous light of Asnières. And with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Courtauld effectively gave the National Gallery its most popular modern painting; which is presumably why it hangs in the main galleries outside this show, honourably free to the public.
With the closure of the Courtauld Gallery for a grand refurbishment, many of its masterpieces have been shipped along the Strand to the National Gallery. Forty of Courtauld’s gifts from both collections are brought together in the Wohl Galleries on the first floor. They tell a story of art, from Daumier’s dark and knotted painting of Don Quixote in 1855, to Renoir’s sumptuous strawberry blonde in chemise and stockings from around 1918; the luxury end of impressionism. And they tell a tale of Courtauld – when and where and what he bought.
Courtauld lived in Home House in Portman Square, a spectacular Robert Adam building that is now a private club. Period photographs show Gauguin’s The Haystacks, with its wildly elevated viewpoint and radical pattern of trees, hats and cattle, hanging below a stately chandelier in the 18th-century salon; Toulouse Lautrec’s sharp and nervy portrait of Jane Avril outside the Moulin Rouge, in arsenical green, positioned above a Ming vase. The house was so vast, Courtauld could easily have found wall space for The Bathers, but he clearly understood its public address. Instead he kept the small oil sketches by Seurat which are among the jewels of the Courtauld Gallery.
To see them here, out of their modest rooms at Somerset House and in the context of this large and spacious survey, is to appreciate them more slowly and closely – at low tide, as it were, like his beautiful image of the port of Gravelines, crystal-bright in the early morning. And Seurat’s meticulous technique seems even more mysterious opposite Renoir’s overblown opulence, or next to a garrulous and muzzy boulevard by Pissarro.
The paintings talk to each other, and so do the painters. Look at Toulouse-Lautrec, smart as a whip, and you see his graphic line inflected somewhat by the tremendous example of Degas. Early Cézanne looks back to Manet, and practically everyone else looks back to Cézanne. And here he is, not just in the scintillating greens of the Jas de Bouffan, or the slow-building images of Provencal hills, but in person, in that uniquely withdrawn self-portrait where his balding head appears no more, or less, interesting to him than one of his own weightily certain apples.
There are some revelatory groupings here. One room might be a meditation on the infinite potential of yellow – the colour of hope, as Van Gogh has it in the blazing exhilaration of his A Wheat Field, With Cypresses; or the colour of strangeness, like the eerie pillow lighting the sepulchral darkness of Gauguin’s Nevermore, with its Tahitian odalisque. Yellow steals through Bonnard’s The Table, gilding the white dinner plates, searching the interior of a basket or igniting the lemons in their bowl. But the table is ultimately a spreading lake of whiteness; Bonnard was fascinated by the colours of white, the secret of which he said he struggled to understand.
The National Gallery has up to 20 times as many visitors as the smaller Courtauld Gallery each year. Obviously the present collaboration, like the refurbishment itself, aims to change that by showing off the sheer glory of the Courtauld’s collection. But the interpolation of works from one within the other effectively turns this show into one concise impressionist gallery of the sort you might come across in Paris or New York.
And what strikes, above all, is the extraordinary variety of picturemaking during this revolution in art. The tip of Seurat’s patient brush, dotting its way across the surface, staying time as it goes; Monet’s soft brushstrokes dissolving form in light; the puzzling hide-andseek visions of Bonnard. What is presented here is not just the invention of a new movement for a new era – hardly a fresh approach to impressionism – but a show with a very pure and simple focus: the spectacle of all these radical new ways of making art.
Early Cézanne looks back to Manet, and practically everyone else looks back to Cézanne
Clockwise from left: The Haystacks, 1889 by Paul Gauguin, with its ‘wildly elevated viewpoint’; Paul Cézanne’s ‘uniquely withdrawn’ SelfPortrait, 1880-1; and the ‘blazing exhilaration’ of Van Gogh’s A Wheat Field, With Cypresses, 1889.
© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, the Courtauld Gallery, London; the National Gallery, London