The Courtauld is one of the smaller and lesser known galleries in London; it’s also one of the few with an entrance fee. But within the art world and to those who know it, The Courtauld Institute is one of the most impressive art centres in the World. It’s a leading art institution that has trained many of the world’s top curators and experts; it houses one of the great art libraries found anywhere and has a leading research and restoration department. Equally importantly, it houses one of the greatest, and most important, collections of Impressionist art amassed by an individual at any time.
As The Courtauld closes for refurbishment, it has teamed up with the National Gallery to stage a show of both galleries’ works by the leading lights of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. Uniting all the pieces in the exhibition is that they were purchased or funded by the industrialist Samuel Courtauld in the 1920s. It is Samuel Courtauld who is responsible single handily for bringing Impressionist works, and the names of Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Cezanne, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh and many more, to the British public in a time when the UK art establishment refused to countenance them.
The exhibition takes you through some of the best works in both galleries’ collections, artist by artist. This is a nice approach; by placing the artists in the order they have and grouping their works together, it lays bare the different styles and favoured subjects of each artist and how the movement developed from Impressionist to Post-Impressionist.
Every work in the exhibition speaks to the quality of the artist and the collector. It opens with Degas’ shadowy Woman at a Window and from there moves from one great work to another. There is Cezanne’s The Card Players – one of five editions, the only one in private hands held the record for the most valuable painting ever, until Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi – buttressed up against Manet’s masterpieces: Music in the Tuileries Gardens and A Bar at the Folies-Bergere.
As you go round reading the blurb to each work, the story of Samuel Courtauld and the journey of the art work is outlined, creating an intriguing narrative. Courtauld bought works for himself (these form The Courtauld Gallery collection) and set up a £50,000 fund for the National Gallery to purchase Impressionist works for itself.
This fund drew up a list of some 35 artists, dead and living, to try and purchase works from, and was mostly administered by Courtauld. It was this fund and his journey to meet the sister of, by then dead, Van Gogh that was responsible for the National Gallery acquiring Van Gogh’s Sun Flowers and others of the artist’s now most famous works. It was also this approach that has led to the National Gallery’s impressive and world famous collection of Impressionist works; even as the fund ran out, Samuel Courtauld personally stepped in to help purchase works.
This is an opportunity to see two collections built simultaneously and irrevocably linked. It doesn’t seek to educate about the artists and their works, though there are elements of this, rather it explores a collection and the man behind it. It does this superbly and in a hugely engaging way. Even if you don’t care about this, it’s still a superb exhibition simply thanks to the works shown and the way they are displayed. Make sure you see it.
Score – ★★★★★
Courtauld Impressionists – From Manet to Cezanne
The National Gallery
On until 20th January 2019
Tickets available here.
Feature image –
Oil on canvas
76.2 × 118.1 cm
Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917
© The National Gallery, London