Courtauld Impressionists

The World Renowned Courtauld Gallery, one of the leading university art museums in the UK, is currently closed for redevelopment, however, there is still an opportunity to view some of the collection. This autumn and winter, the National Gallery in collaboration with The Courtauld Gallery have selected over forty masterpieces from the  Impressionist and Post-Impressionist era to display in their spacious Wohl Galleries (rooms 42-46). Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne includes famous works from many French artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Monet, and Seurat.

The Courtauld Institute of Art was established in 1932 with the shared vision of two men, Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947) and Arthur Hamilton Lee, 1st Viscount Lee of Fareham (1868-1947). On its opening, Courtauld granted his impressive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artwork to the gallery. Since then, numerous gifts, bequests and donations have been provided from all art movements, including the early 14th century, the Renaissance and abstract. Today, the gallery contains around 530 paintings and over 26,000 drawings and prints.

This particular exhibition is focused on the collections of Samuel Courtauld rather than the art institution he formed. Not only is it an impressive collection, combined with paintings from the National Gallery, it tells the story of the development of modern French painting from the 1860s to the turn of the 20th century. Arranged into twelve sections, each one focusing on an individual artist, the exhibition chronologically explores the changing styles and themes over the many decades as well as Courtauld’s taste in art.

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Samuel Courtauld © By courtesy of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Samuel Courtauld’s career as an art collector began in 1922 after attending an exhibition of French art at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. He was one of the first collectors to take an interest in French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and quickly assembled a large collection. Along with his wife Elizabeth, the Courtauld’s private art collection rapidly grew to more than 70 paintings.

With Courtauld providing the majority of the funding from his family’s wealth in the textile business, the Courtauld Institute was able to secure and introduce numerous paintings to the UK public. Samuel Courtauld had a significant role in promoting and encouraging the British love of Impressionism.

The first artist to feature in the Courtauld Impressionists exhibition is Honoré-Victorin Daumier (1808-79) and is the earliest French artist in Samuel Courtauld’s collection. He was chiefly a draughtsman and printmaker, however, Daumier also produced caricatures for satirical journals.

Daumier’s career spanned five decades during which he produced numerous sculptures and paintings that revealed his witty observations and commentary about life. Initially he was known for his humourous Parisian street scenes, however, later in life, he turned to literary scenes, such as Miguel de Cervantes’ (c1547-1616) 17th-century comic tale Don Quixote. Samuel Courtauld was inspired by Daumier’s “tragic humour” in his unfinished painting Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (1868-72). The oil painting is full of fluid brushstrokes that make up an impression of two faceless men riding on horses through a rocky mountain gorge.

After Daumier, the exhibition moves on to Edouard Manet (1832-83), one of the most controversial painters of the Impressionist movement. Samuel Courtauld collected many of Manet’s works, including his final piece A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-2). Whilst being inspired by famous artists of the past, such as Velázquez (1599-1660) and Titian (1488-1576), Manet was also a radical influence on many of the painters in his close circle and successors. Mostly, he was admired for his approach to space and colour within his work.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was the purchase that established Samuel Courtauld as an ambitious collector. The Folies-Bergère was a fashionable place of entertainment popular in Paris in the 19th century. It was also popular for demi-monde or prostitutes who openly pursued their trade.  Although not entirely certain, it is likely the barmaids were also available to their clients, including Suzon, who Manet places behind a table full with bottles of alcohol. The mirror behind her shows a reflection of the hustle and bustle of the establishment and the presence of a customer at the bar. Unfortunately, this mirror has lead to much confusion and debate throughout the art world.

Critics have noted that the barmaid’s encounter with the customer shown in the mirror, does not match the lonely, isolated figure facing the spectators. Allegedly, x-rays have revealed that Manet initially painted a more accurate reflection but why he altered this remains unknown. These types of distortions and dislocations were common in Manet’s work, however, this is believed to be the most extreme.

Other works of Manet on display include Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862), Le Déjeurner sur l’herbe (1863-8) and Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874). The latter was painted whilst visiting another Impressionist painter, Monet, in the suburbs of Paris. Unlike Monet, Manet prefered to paint in his studio, however, this painting of his wife, Camille, and his son Jean is likely to have been produced en plein air.

Naturally, the exhibition follows Manet with Claude Monet (1840-1926), perhaps the most famous Impressionist painter. Monet was a master at plein-air painting, spending his lifetime producing paintings of his immediate surroundings. Originally, Monet was a keen painter of the French countryside, particularly where a body of water could be seen. Later in life, he turned his hand to areas in Paris and the suburbs, however, these failed to impress Samuel Courtauld.

In the 1920s and 30s, Courtauld made the purchase of four works by Monet for his private collection. These all came from the height of Monet’s career and Impressionist period. One was produced in the same place Manet had complete his plein-air painting, Argenteuil. In Monet’s landscape, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873), autumnal trees frame the River Seine, drawing attention to the handful of buildings on the opposite bank. Although Argenteuil was developing into an industrial town, Monet’s perspective captures it in a timeless manner.

The first Monet landscape Courtauld purchased was the much brighter Antibes (1888), which reveals a captivating expanse of the Mediterranean sea. Whilst in the north of France, Monet was focused on capturing cool light and colour, the strong sunshine in the south inspired him to intensify his palette. With only a simple tree in the foreground to break up the expanse of sea, Monet relied on a mix of blues and greens with touches of pink and red to suggest the effects of the bright sun on the water.

The Courtauld Impressionist exhibition is not only a showcase of a selection of artists, but it also explores the differences between those who fall under the Impressionism umbrella. Unlike previous and later art movements, Impressionism did not have particularly strong rules or regulations, and the artist opposite Monet in the gallery emphasises the differences in style within the group.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was one of the founding members of Impressionism, exhibiting in all but one of their art shows. Unlike Monet who was interested in landscapes, Degas focused upon his love of horseriding, ballet and showed women going about their everyday life. Coming from a wealthy background, Degas was also able to afford to experiment with different techniques, including pastels, sculpture and drawing.

By the time Samuel Courtauld began assembling a serious collection of art, Degas was already famous throughout France and Britain. During the 1920s, Courtauld purchased a total of eight works by Degas, five for his private collection and three for the nation. The most expensive painting by Degas in the Courtauld Gallery is Two Dancers on a Stage (1874), which shows two female figures in standard ballet poses. Degas either painted this while watching a play or a dance rehearsal, however, it is now believed that the ballerinas are dancing the Ballet des Roses, which features in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. This oil painting was already in possession of a British collector, however, in 1927, Courtauld bought it from him for a much higher price.

The first Degas painting to be purchased by the Courtauld fund was one of his earlier works, Young Spartans Exercising (1860). Although Degas is known for his depictions of everyday life, this is an example of his experimentation with history painting. Described by the ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch, the picture shows a group of boys and girls preparing for a wrestling contest, something that was encouraged by the Spartan legislator Lycurgus. This painting is almost unique in comparison to all Degas’ well-known works; in fact, Young Spartans Exercising was never shown to the public during the artist’s lifetime and was discovered after his death.

Another famous Impressionist painter Samuel Courtauld admired was Pierre-August Renoir (1841-1919) who produced more than 5000 paintings during his 60-year career. Primarily a painter of people, Renoir used small brushstrokes to build up the radiance and vibrancy of light and colour. One of Renoir’s most popular artwork, Le Loge (1874) is used on advertisements for the exhibition at the National Gallery.

Renoir painted many scenes of theatregoers, particularly those sitting in theatre boxes, which revealed the lifestyle of many Parisians. Le Loge shows Renoir’s brother Edmond and a model, Nini Lopez, seated in a box. Whilst Edmond looks upwards through a pair of binoculars, Lopez faces forward, opera glasses beside her, which she probably used to peer at members of the audience, rather than the action on stage. Dressed up as she is, Lopez was there to be noticed, suggesting an ambiguous social status.

Another theatre scene, also one of the first works purchased by the Courtauld FundLa Première Sortie (1876-7) reveals a different type of theatregoer. As the title suggests, the young woman leaning expectantly forward in her seat is on her first formal visit to the theatre. Unaware of the eyes of the audience on her from below, Renoir captures her eagerness to see the performance and experience theatre life.

It was not these theatre portraits, however, that initially attracted Samuel Courtauld’s attention. Instead, it was the intimate Woman tying her Shoe (1918), which he and his wife Elizabeth purchased in 1922, the first French work of art they bought.

Samuel Courtauld’s first purchase from the Post-Impressionist period was Jane Avril in the Entrance to Moulin Rouge (1892) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). The National Gallery quote Courtauld admiring the “fin-de-siècle atmosphere of Toulouse-Lautrec,” implying he believed it to attest to the end of Impressionism.

Jane Avril was a leading performer at the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris. She was also Lautrec’s favourite model and close personal friend and, as a result, appears in many of his works. It is said that Courtauld was so taken with this painting, he was annoyed when its delivery was delayed.

Whereas Lautrec was squeezed into a corner, it is impossible to miss Georges Seurat’s large canvas Bathers at Asniéres (1884) on the wall of the next room. Seurat was obsessed with light and colour but dissatisfied with the way the Impressionists’ had approached the idea. Employing a pointillist technique, Seurat placed dots of different colour paint to make up an entire recognisable scene. Bizarrely, this particular masterpiece of industrial workers resting on the banks of the Seine was rejected by the Paris Salon in 1884. Four decades later, long after Seurat’s untimely death at the age of 31, the Courtauld Fund bought the painting for Britain.

The Courtauld Gallery owns a couple of other works by Seurat, including Young Woman Powdering Herself, which is a portrait of Seurat’s mistress, Madeleine Knobloch. Seurat never explained the meaning behind this painting, however, he used his trademark pointillist technique to execute the rounded and angular forms in the scene.

A fan of Seurat’s pointillism was the French artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). Initially a founding member of the Impressionists, Pissarro adopted this new technique later in his career. Of his many paintings, Courtauld only selected town scenes, such as The Boulevard Montmartre at Night (1897) – a contrast to his preference of Monet’s works.

The final room of the exhibition features Samuel Courtauld’s favourite artist, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), of whom he purchased an incredible eleven works as well as drawings and personal letters. Courtauld’s fascination with the artist is clear with the purchase of Hillside in Provence (1890-2), which he purchased with his own money for the nation because the Courtauld Fund was almost exhausted.

At the time of purchase, the British public was sceptical about Cézanne’s work, often sparking intense debates. It appears Courtauld took a risk by purchasing so many of his paintings, however, it was a risk that paid off. The first Cézanne Courtauld purchased was one of his most daring compositions, Still life with Plaster Cupid (1894), which went against traditional laws of composition and perspective. Nevertheless, it was a painting Courtauld treasured his whole life.

One of the most expensive of Cézanne’s works purchased by Courtauld was The Card Players (1892-6); it is also one of Cézanne’s most iconic works. It is a scene of two men, probably farm labourers, playing a game of cards whilst seated at a small table. True to Cézanne’s style, the perspective is inaccurate, a feature that critics believe was not deliberate. Despite these distortions, Courtauld coveted the painting so much that he considered trading in another of Cézanne’s works in order to pay for it.

With Cézanne’s work taking up half the room, the final three artists in the exhibition are squeezed into the remaining space. This includes Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) who developed an outmoded Impressionist approach to painting in his later years. This can be seen in Blue Balcony (1910), which Samuel Courtauld purchased to fit in with his collection of Impressionist art.

A rather surprising fact appears in the description of Paul Gauguin’s (1848-1903) Te Rerioa or The Dream (1897). Painted while in Tahiti, two women watch over a sleeping child, whilst the Tahitian goddess Hina looks on from a painting on the wall.

“Te Rerioa (The Dream), that is the title. Everything is a dream in this canvas; is it the child? is it the mother? is it the horseman on the path? or even is it the dream of the painter!!! All that is incidental to painting, some will say. Who knows. Maybe it isn’t.”
– Gauguin in a letter to Daniel de Monfreid

The theme of the painting is a stark contrast to all the other paintings in Samuel Courtauld’s collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, however, that is not the most intriguing thing about it. According to the description, Courtauld sold one of his Cézannes in order to afford to buy it. Judging by his infatuation with Cézanne, Courtauld must have truly believed Te Rerioa to be something special to go to such lengths to purchase it.

The last painter to mention is Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). Most of his work belongs to the Vincent van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, however, the Courtauld Fund was able to secure four paintings, including a version of his famous Sunflowers, Chair and A Wheatfield with Cypresses (1889), the only van Gogh to feature in this particular exhibition.

From Daumier to van Gogh, Courtauld Impressionists takes spectators on a journey through the art of the 19th and early 20th century. It is interesting to see the differing style and method of each painter, particularly as they all worked at similar times. It is difficult to put into words the changes that occur over those years; the best way to understand the shifts in style is to see the paintings for yourself.

Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne is open to the public until 20th January 2019. Tickets are a reasonable £7.50 and can be booked online in advance or purchased on the day from the ticket desk. Under twelves may view the exhibition free when accompanied by a paying adult.

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7 thoughts on “Courtauld Impressionists

  1. Once again you share your remarkable talent with us, thank you. What a fascinating exhibition which you bring to light in an interesting, fascinating and most enjoyable way. I learn so much from you as a regular reader of your blog. You have never let me down.
    Thank you again for putting so much work into your articles. You are a genius.

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