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Book Review : Painters’ Paintings by Anne Robbins (National Gallery)

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This book accompanies the exhibition, Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck at the National Gallery which opens in June and closes in September 2016. The simple premise of the exhibition and the book is why do artists acquire the work of other painters? The author of the book, Anne Robbins in the first section, Possession explores some of the ways that owning paintings may have influenced the artist’s own creative process. Robbins considers that ‘ Painters have always owned paintings ; artists naturally see and are exposed to more art than anyone else , and the pictures frequently reflect the development of their own artistic search.’

The National Gallery has been the recipient of a number of painters collections since its creation and the book and the exhibition investigate eight artists collections which include 80 paintings. In the section before the more detailed look at the collections, the author considers some of the reasons that artists may acquire paintings. Perhaps one of the main reasons is that painters frequently receive pictures as gifts or exchanges with other artists. Another reason is tied into availability and motivations, financial security may lead to surplus money spent on collecting and availability may depend on the general and political climate. Other reasons suggested by the author are Collecting as homage, The desire to possess, Teaching tools, Legacy, Painters’ paintings at home, Emulation or rivalry and finally Stimulation and inspiration. All these valid reasons provide a starting point but it is within the collections themselves that provide some of the evidence to unpick some of the connections.

Looking at Lucien Freud’s collection, his painting Afternoon in Naples by Paul Cezanne 1876-77 acquired in 1999 provided inspiration for Freud to embark on a series of Cezanne type paintings including After Cezanne 1999-2000 and  After Breakfast 2001 that replicates the way Cezanne painted his nudes in the original painting. Cezanne also provides a focus in the next collection, Matisse acquired the artist’s Three Bathers 1879-82 at considerable financial cost and became gradually obsessed with what he considered was a talisman for his own career, he wrote in 1936 ‘ In the thirty-seven years I have owned this canvas… It has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance.’

The next collection of Edgar Degas illustrates how the artist was inspired by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Jean Baptiste Camille Corot and Eugene Delacroix and collected a number of their works, however he collected a number of contemporaries paintings including Pissarro, Sisley, Manet, Gauguin and Cezanne.

Whereas the French artists seemed to be content to collect from contemporaries, British artist collectors seemed to more concerned with  the past.  The collection of Frederic, Lord Leighton also features works by Delacroix and Corot together with a number of Old Master paintings. Leighton’s collecting influenced his friend and neighbour, George Frederic Watts  who acquired his Knight of S. Stefano (after 1563)  when Watts was learning his artistic trade in Italy. Sir Thomas Lawrence was another British painter who looked to the past, however his independent wealth did mean he could build up a vast collection that included many drawings that was the envy of many institutions.

Joshua Reynolds reputation as an artist and as the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts led him to consider his collection as a reflection of his standing and a useful resource for his teaching. Works by Bellini, Bassano, Rembrandt, Anthony Van Dyck and Poussin reflect Reynolds status, however it is the painting of  Girls with Pigs 1781-82 by Thomas Gainsborough that suggests Reynolds may have acquired his rivals painting for less than honourable reasons.

One of the oldest collections is that owned by Anthony Van Dyck which features a number of works by Titian, whilst this is clearly an homage to the Venetian master, there were suggestions that Van Dyck displayed his work with the Titians which suggested to future patrons that he considered himself as one of the great painters of his age.

This fascinating and entertaining book with a large number of attractive illustrations explores the many motivations behind artists collecting habits, no artist works in a vacuum and are exposed to a number of influences both from the past and the present. The author explores some of the multi-layered connections between works owned and works painted, these connections often provide real insights into the various artists creative process and how various factors related to the paintings can have a considerable effect on their own artistic development.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information, visit the National Gallery website here

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