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What Do Painters' Personal Art Collections Say About Their Owners?

Artistic expression means finding the right muse for your art—maybe even a rival’s creation.
June 25, 2016, 12:05pm
Three Bathers, 1879–1882, Paul Cezanne, oil on canvas, 55 x 52cm. Petit Palais Musee des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, © Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet. All images courtesy of © The National Gallery, London

Did you know Henri Matisse was a well-studied fan of Asian art and frequented exhibits of the genre? Yup. The Post-Impressionist master also traveled to South Africa extensively to observe the country's Islamic influences and its unique sculpture approaches. To that tune, the National Gallery in London presents Painters' Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck. The exhibit takes a comprehensive look at a handful of Master painters (Matisse, Degas, Watts, Leighton, and others) by concentrating on the art they owned and the signifance of one great artist influencing another.

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At the forefront of the exhibit is the Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's painting, Italian Woman. The 1870 depiction of a Renaissance noblewoman is one of the landscape painter’s most venerated works, but its later acquisition by Lucian Freud is what brings it to the foray. The painting was donated through Freud’s estate to the UK and eventually to the National Gallery. Freud's storied ownership of the Corot is part of the exhibit’s many interesting biographical narratives: the artist bought the Corot piece at an auction in 2011 and situated his purchase right over his fireplace at his Kensington home, presumably viewing the painting until his death. According to the National Gallery, the painting was more than just commonplace, as Freud often “selected works that had a deep personal or emotional significance for him, or that resonated with his own work.”

Italian Woman, or Woman with Yellow Sleeve (L'Italienne), about 1870, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, oil on canvas, 73 x 59cm, © The National Gallery, London

Woman with a Cat, about 1880–1882, Edouard Manet, oil on canvas, 92.1 x 73cm, © Tate, London, purchased 1918

Landscape at Pontoise, 1872, Camille Pissarro, oil on canvas, 46 x 55cm, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Bequeathed by Montague Shearman through the Contemporary Art Society, 1940, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Portrait of Dora Maar, 1942, Pablo Picasso, oil on canvas, 61.6 x 50.5cm. Courtesy The Elkon Gallery, New York City, © Succession Picasso/DACS 2016. Image courtesy of owner

The question for many as they view the multiple layers of talent brought together through art-collecting is, What was the motivation? An official release of Painters’ Paintings states, “Painters’ collections tend to evolve as their careers develop and their resources increase. They are also shaped by the availability of works." Other times, a desire to support their peers factors into collecting, as well as an escalating obsession with amassing as much art as possible.

In an official statement, the Director of the National Gallery, Dr. Gabriele Finaldi, describes the exhibit as sitting at the crux of legacy and inspiration: “Artists by definition live with their own pictures, but what motivates them to possess works by other painters, be they contemporaries—friends or rivals—or older masters?"

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The exhibit at the National Gallery covers more than 80 different works from the personal collections of Matisse, Degas, Leighton, Watts, Lawrence, Reynolds, Van Dyck, and Freud, with a few of the collectors/collectees, in fact, overlapping into each others' belongings. The entire series spans close to an astonishing 550 years of art history.

Self Portrait, 1857-1858, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, oil on paper, 47 x 32cm, The Tia Collection. Image courtesy © James Hart Photography, Santa Fe, New Mexico

L’Après-Midi à Naples, 1876–1877, Paul Cézanne, oil on canvas, 30 x 40cm, private collection. Image courtesy the owner

Self Portrait in a Red Robe, about 1853, George Frederic Watts, oil on canvas, 154.9 x 74.9cm, frame: 179 x 100.5 x 9.5cm, © Watts Gallery 

Thomas Killigrew and William, Lord Crofts (?), 1638, Anthony van Dyck, oil on canvas, 132.9 x 144.1cm. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

Young Man with a Flower behind his Ear, 1891, Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 45.7 x 33.3cm, private collection. Image courtesy of © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images

To find more works that the greats once lived with, and see the full interconnected web of artists and their works, visit Painters’ Paintings webpage here.

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