Painters’ Paintings

Three Bathers

Cézanne, Three Bathers

This article first appeared in The TLS, issue number 5912, 22 July 2016

The timely moral centrepiece of this apparently hotchpotch show in the cellarage of the Sainsbury Wing is a modest but typically robust portrait by Corot. It was allocated to the National Gallery by the late Lucian Freud expressing his thanks to the nation for the haven given to his Jewish family as refugees from persecution in 1933. Freud was not a collector in the obsessive sense though he also owned, as a Dionysiac foil to the calm Corot, a figure group by Cézanne, a scene of limb-strewn mayhem from the artist’s fiery youth. Serving as a perfect companion to these is a head painted by Constable, of whose essays in portraiture Freud was a pioneering advocate. All three paintings are without artifice, sharing in their different visual dialects a quality of directness that can be seen again, hard won, in the searching confrontation of Freud’s portrait of himself in old age, an image that appropriately commands the cover of the catalogue.

The assembly of pictures limits itself entirely to Western painting, owned by Western artists. This excuses the sad omission of Freud’s large and eccentrically shaped transcription, now in National Gallery of Australia, of his small Cézanne which would in the context have been a revelation of influence and challenge. ‘Works of art’, as Joshua Reynolds suggested, ‘are models you are to imitate and at the same time rivals you are to combat.’

Some of the artists represented here had collections which ranged far beyond the material on display. Thomas Lawrence’s antique sculptures were as important to him as the exquisite Raphael and Rembrandt that he owned (the latter now not considered authentic though I found it pretty impressive). There is no glimpse of the orientalist trappings of Leighton’s Holland Park House nor of the array of textiles from so many cultures (including his much loved group of severely abstract Kuba cloths) which appear so often in Matisse’s work, or any of the rich trove of prints by the Japanese masters admired by Degas. But the National Gallery is the guardian of Western painting and sees its role as definer of that tradition. It is also the Third Man in the present plot since for long periods it was run by painters who thereby became collectors at one remove. The very limitations imposed however focus our attention on some illuminating connections and intriguing comparisons.

Chronologically the exhibition starts with Van Dyck whose nine Titians contained two of the great masterpieces of the National collection including that exemplar of portraits, the unidentified bearded man with the blue sleeve. This, painted in 1510, was much older to Van Dyck than was the Cézanne to Lucian Freud. Providing some perspective that fact also explains why so many later artists did not have a Titian or two on the landing.

Well over a century separates Van Dyck from the next artist whose choice possessions are on view. As obsessive collectors go Joshua Reynolds was the real thing. Indeed he said towards the end of his career that collecting had been ‘the business of his life’. He was not a secretive hoarder like Degas but claimed lofty motives for bringing together as fine a group of examples of high art as possible. He was an indefatigable educator as the Discourses prove: indeed these lectures were intended to be given in front of the self portrait (complete with bust of Michelangelo) in what can only be called the Very Grand Manner. Such vanity aside and the use he made of his collection to impress his clients, the strongest motive Reynolds had for his acquisitions was to absorb the lessons of the masters he revered in their physical presence, occasionally even adding touches of his own to their work. Reynolds wished the world to be able to distinguish, as he put it, ‘between the peculiar and the admirable’. The ensemble itself ranged from Bellini, Poussin and Van Dyck (all on top form) to contemporaries such as Gainsborough. In that he advised fellow collectors and occasionally bought and sold there was a touch of the Bernard Berenson about him. Critics however were not always kind to the occasional element of wish fulfilment in his attributions, a special case being the powerful representation of Leda and the Swan he credited to Michelangelo. Certainly Michelangelo was the direct source of this ikon, an image that has always haunted me. Improbable biology here meets brilliantly inventive anatomy in a composition of abstract lyricism. Only Yeats’ poem celebrating that mythical copulation matches its sensuality.

Were there a prize for suspect attribution it should surely go to the mawkish confection ascribed by Lord Leighton to Tintoretto depicting another Ovidian encounter, that of Jupiter and Semele. Where Leighton, however, does score is in the set of tall imaginary landscapes, The Four Times of Day made by Corot around 1858. Although he was known to work at speed, producing in his career almost as many paintings as are attributed to him, it is difficult to believe that these summations of his pastoral vision were produced, as we are told, within a week. It is almost a signature tune for Corot to include in his landscapes, as here in all four cases, a person in a red hat. Even in his plein air views an obliging red hatted figure usually manages to pass by. But in these compositions it is the trees that capture the attention. If Cézanne had collected paintings he would certainly have acquired a Corot. Cézanne used those same trees not only to give him the architecture of his series of bathers but transposed their same rugged materiality into the figures they frame.

To the credit of its curator Anne Robbins it is the continuum asserted by the exhibits rather than their disparities that gives the most pleasure. The story of art is often told as a string of revolutions and lurches in fashion as they appear to one generation after another. However, just as in my lifetime the music of Schoenberg has come to sound more and more like Brahms, time inevitably resolves the conflicts of the past. Ingres and Delacroix were regarded as opposing figures in their day yet in Degas’ collection they hang comfortably side by side. Degas worshipped Ingres whom he always regarded as his teacher and among the many of his works that he hunted down over the years were twenty one studies for The Apotheosis of Homer. This is what museums now call ‘collecting in depth’. On the other hand, one of the oil sketches by Delacroix is a lunette design of Hercules Rescuing Hesione which could be shown next to Freud’s Cézanne as a work if not by the same hand then by the same spirit.

Degas also owned seven Corots including a liquid Roman landscape of the eighteen twenties which here reveals another facet of this underrated artist’s output and continues the cunning theme of Corot’s presence which haunts the gallery rooms. Degas assiduously supported even the most radical of his contemporaries. In addition to those of his friend Manet his purchase of paintings by Gauguin and Cézanne offered encouraging seals of approval.

Cézanne is inevitably the figure who emerges as the lodestar that guided serious artists throughout the twentieth century. Matisse while not being a compulsive collector was willing to stretch a limited family budget to its utmost in order to buy in 1899 the Three Bathers. Thirty seven years later he wrote, ‘This canvas has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist. I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverence’. Those students who were privileged to visit Matisse’s home were always shown this painting last and it would be clear that a few minutes silence was expected before it.

Cézanne provides the most powerful link in a chain that extends from Degas, Matisse and Freud to Jasper Johns who, we learn, is the most recent owner of the Bather with Outstretched Arm which Degas purchased at the first solo exhibition of Cézanne in 1895.

It is intriguing to think what a project such as Painters’ Paintings would look like if mounted again in fifty years time. Perhaps Damien Hirst with his warehouse full of other artists’ art might emerge as the Lord Leighton of our age.