What do painters put up on their walls? Is it only their own work, or do they also collect other artists, to admire and inspire them? The National Gallery continues its series of instructive exhibitions with this intriguing question in Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck (until 4 Sept). Sweeping across five centuries, it exhibits largely from its own collection paintings which were once owned by other artists, and while the resulting show doesn’t have the glamour of some exhibitions, it details the waves of influence that certain artists have had on successive generations.
The recent exhibition on Delacroix revealed how he was revered by the Impressionists, so it is no surprise to find that a large selection of Delacroix’s paintings now in the National Gallery were once owned by Degas, who also collected the work of his peers. Degas was one of the few artists at that time who had financial means, and he used it to support his friends. Among the significant works he owned was Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximilian and it was Degas himself who collected the fragments to reconstruct it to the broken whole we see today. Among the Old Masters he owned were familiar portraits by Ingres and Delacroix. Also interesting was how his support of his friends resulted in a collection of landscapes by artists such as Sisley and Pissarro, although this was never a subject for Degas himself.
Historically, it is generally through swapping work that artists acquire anything in their possession, and here the rivalry between Picasso and Matisse is legendary. According to Gertrude Stein, these two giants reputedly acquired “what best showed the others’ mediocrity.” One can understand Matisse’s dismay at the disjointed features of Dora Maar that were a get-well gift from his Spanish rival. Matisse was a great collector of the work of others, and among what is shown here is Cézanne’s Three Bathers, which the artist kept for 37 years and described as a source of “faith and inspiration.”
Cézanne is one of the artists featured in the collection of Lucian Freud, a work that inspired Freud to explore his use of figures. The Cézannes shown here are mostly small sketchy works that one would overlook in an exhibition, but obviously his figure studies were something fellow artists wanted for closer study.
Lucian Freud gifted a large and colourful Corot to the nation and it is this gesture that inspired the show itself. Whether you follow the exhibition going back in time, or start with the enormous Titians that Van Dyck owned, through paintings from the collections of Reynolds, Lawrence, Leighton and Watts, this is an exhibition that helps to illustrate the connections that knit together the story of European art.