Painters’ Paintings is a highly unusual exhibition in that it imposes a context onto its collection that many visitors may never have considered before; it is surprising to learn that the National Gallery possesses some 70 paintings that were owned by the other painters it displays.
It takes as a starting point Corot’s portrait of an Italian Woman, owned by Lucian Freud and bequeathed to its collection upon his death in 2011, working backwards in time through other pieces bought by well known and celebrated painters.
The criteria for choosing the works and the owners appears to rest on the distinction of being ‘painterly’: after Freud we have the behemoths recognised for painterly skill in their time; Matisse; Degas; Reynolds; Van Dyck.
There is nothing more concrete running through proceedings. To argue that one influenced another in such a disparate group is inherently impossible without over-analysis.
Instead it is best to take each example individually, with the result that painters bought paintings for many different and intriguing purposes.
Utterly delightful is a birthday card given by Frank Auerbach to Lucien Freud showing the two old geezers cackling in swift, brilliant caricature.
Lord Leighton’s ownership of Corot’s ‘Four Times of Day’ sequence obviously looked fabulous displayed on his walls. Lawrence and Reynolds bought works by the studios of Rembrandt and Michaelangelo respectively, thinking they were by the masters themselves, either motivated by the prestige of ownership, or even equating themselves to past artists of renowned genius, or both.
Rembrandt’s incredibly pompous self-portrait nearby in which he poses with a bust of Michelangelo makes his feelings on the situation clear in any case.
Intriguing and surprising is the presence of an early Northern Renaissance panel by the studio of Hugo van der Goes, ca.1500, in the collection of supreme Victorian Symbolist painter George Frederic Watts. These are the best examples to ponder: the ones that are surprising, not predictable.
The exhibition’s opening caption declares these paintings key to understanding the art of their owners, yet it goes on to demonstrate that, far from being a ‘key’ as if to unlock a secret, they instead open up innumerable pathways of enquiry that ask more questions than they answer.