It was a great joy to be looking at paintings after weeks of our eyes being starved. Lin and I visited the National Gallery’s exhibition Painters’ Paintings, which shows how for at least some painters having a collection of paintings is important for their work. The exhibition has been criticised for comprising mainly paintings that are always in the National Gallery and seeming like an excuse for simply rehanging some pictures and adding a desultory commentary. But we enjoyed it, perhaps because we’ve been so starved—but mainly because the exhibition does include some wonderful paintings, many of which were not familiar.
The exhibition was inspired by Lucian Freud leaving to the gallery a Corot portrait that hung above the fireplace in his Kensington home. It’s a fine painting, and it’s easy to see how it inspired Freud with its psychological depth, slightly sinister feel, and bold painting with thick paint in the foreground.
Sometimes the link between the painter and the paintings he owned (they were all he’s) seemed tenuous, and the most direct link had only half made it into the exhibition. The half that had made it was Cezanne’s Afternoon in Naples, which was owned by Freud and shows a couple naked and tangled together on a bed with a maid bringing in tea. You can’t even quite make out the gender of one of the couple, but they might both be women. Freud described the painting as “funny and erotic” and painted his own version, which is in Australia and not in the exhibition. Freud called the two paintings “cousins.”
Van Dyck had almost 20 paintings by Titian, and you can see how Van Dyck learnt from him. Joshua Reynolds had a large collection of paintings that he used most for teaching. His hero was Michelangelo, and he had what he thought was a picture of Leda and the Swan painted by Michelangelo. We now know that it was “after Michelangelo,” and it’s hard to see why anybody would think it by Michelangelo with such wildly inaccurate anatomy. We both, however, thought it one of the most exciting pictures in the exhibition. With its absurd elongated anatomy it looks surprisingly modern. It was once owned by Lord Spencer, and when his daughter Georgiana, the future Duchess of Devonshire, asked “What is that goose doing to that woman?” the Spencers decided it was time to sell the painting.
Thomas Lawrence, the portraitist, owned some 5000 paintings and drawings—and had almost no money as a result. Degas, a rich man, also owned many paintings, treasuring especially paintings by Ingres, who inspired him with his drawing, and Delacroix, who inspired with his colour and swirling compositions. We agreed that a full length portrait by Delacroix was a terrible painting, but I liked his sketch of sky that hung beside a Degas sky, illustrating another very direct connection.
The connection between Ingres and Degas was less direct, but Degas owned a handsome small painting by Ingres showing Roger rescuing Angelica, who is chained to a rock and about to be eaten by a sea monster. Roger is riding a hippogriff (in case you are wondering), and the erotic content of the picture is obvious.
Matisse owned pictures by Picasso, Degas, and Cezanne, and the Cezanne picture of bathers was particularly inspirational for him, both in its colours and brushstrokes and in how it simplified the female form.
If you’re around the National Gallery I recommend a visit. Trafalgar Square was bursting, mainly with crowds of tourists following behind flags, but the gallery was much emptier than usual. Everybody’s gone to Tuscany, Provence, or Wiltshire, making this a great time to visit.