From The Wall Street Journal
By MARY TOMPKINS LEWIS
Aug. 1, 2016 5:16 p.m. ET
The English figure painter Lucian Freud (1922-2011) enjoyed a special relationship with the National Gallery, London. Upon his death and in gratitude to the nation that had welcomed his family as refugees in 1933, the German-born painter bequeathed to the museum a canvas he had recently acquired, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s “Italian Woman” (c. 1870). An imposing, lushly painted image of a figure in rustic costume, it is often likened to Freud’s portraits, which exhibit a similar monumentality and technique.
Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck
The National Gallery
Through Sept. 4
The acquisition of Corot’s canvas by the museum in 2012 was the inspiration behind “Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck,” a large and ingenious show that gazes backward in time at the museum’s generous holdings of paintings previously in the possession of artists. They are joined in the exhibition by additional works borrowed from public and private collections that illuminate the collecting impulses of their distinguished former owners. Curated by the Gallery’s Anne Robbins, the show comprises 88 paintings and a handful of works in other media.
Countless artists have collected the work of their peers or masters of the past. As the exhibition shows, their motivations for doing so—which can include emulation, kindred pictorial ambitions, rivalry, prestige of ownership, or even investment—offer intriguing insights into their own artistic makeup. For example, in 1999 Freud purchased Paul Cézanne’s “Afternoon in Naples” (1876-77), a coarsely painted, rarely exhibited picture of lovers sprawled in a studio setting. When the work is seen here with Freud’s own “After Breakfast” (2001), one of the artist’s so-called “naked portraits,” it becomes clear the painter was drawn to it as a telling precedent for his own art. The awkward eroticism of “After Breakfast,” analogous to that of the Cézanne, is matched by a similarly gritty and tactile style.
The acquisitive habits of Henri Matisse likewise celebrated the artists he revered. Again, Cézanne was one of them. In 1899, when he was a struggling young painter, Matisse had purchased the artist’s “Three Bathers” (1879-82). Decades later, he would describe how the talismanic work sustained him in critical moments of his career. On a stunning wall here, Cézanne’s canvas, a paean of pictorial order, and a flattened, primitivist portrait of a young Tahitian man (1891) by Paul Gauguin—also once owned by Matisse—frame and elucidate Matisse’s bronze “Back III” of 1916-17: The sculpture reflects both the primal awkwardness and plasticity of Cézanne’s figures and Gauguin’s eloquently simplified forms.
Degas, whose buying habits bordered on addiction, briefly considered establishing a museum of his own. The staggering scale of his collection was revealed by the 1918 sale of his estate, from which the National Gallery purchased 13 paintings and numerous works on paper. We get a sense of it in two spectacular galleries that mirror the dual modern and academic strands of his own art. The first room, filled with works by fellow artists, includes fragments Degas found and reassembled of Edouard Manet’s immense and incendiary modern history painting “The Execution of Maximilian” (c. 1867-68); an exuberant still life of 1896 by Gauguin, one of many young artists to benefit from his support; and Cézanne’s small but superb “Bather With Outstretched Arm” (1883-85), a canvas now in the collection of still another artist, the contemporary painter Jasper Johns.
The second gallery is devoted to the early 19th-century masters Degas collected. Here his work sits comfortably in the midst of that of the era’s two titanic figures, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Eugène Delacroix. For example, Degas’s accomplished “Self Portrait” (1855), in which the young artist poses as a draftsman in his studio, reveals his debt to Ingres’s sober, academic style, as proven by its pairing with Ingres’s surprisingly similar “Monsieur de Norvins” (1811-12). Degas had purchased that work in 1898, and it may well have confirmed for the artist the direction his own painting had taken.
The show’s final rooms trace the buying practices of such esteemed, earlier British artists as Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), who considered his collection “the best kind of wealth.” His “Self Portrait” (c. 1780), in which he proudly poses with a sculpted portrait he owned of Michelangelo, establishes Reynolds’s stature as both an artist and connoisseur. Likewise, we can see in the theatrical pose, sumptuous fabric and luxuriant painterly style of Anthony van Dyck’s “Self Portrait” (c. 1629) his clear debt to the portraits he knew and owned by the Venetian Renaissance painter Titian, a fact that speaks both to his artistic lineage and collecting prowess. Like many of the painters’ collections so splendidly evoked here, Van Dyck’s was a work of art in itself.
Ms. Lewis teaches art history at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.