The Courtauld Gallery’s prized collection of Impressionist paintings and the man who purchased them are celebrated in the National Gallery’s current show.
The remarkable story told by the National Gallery’s current exhibition Cortauld Impressionists: Manet to Cézanne is the triumphant tale of a man who revolutionised the British public attitude toward French Impressionist art. Ask almost anyone on the streets today and the names Cézanne, Monet, and Seurat will be mentioned when discussing the Impressionists and their now famous painting styles; planes of colour in small, repetitive brushstrokes; luminously hazy water lilies and haystacks; pointillist depictions of bathers plunging into the waters at Asnières. Back in the 1910s, however, as the exhibition highlights, attitudes were extremely different. What was once considered shocking, both in terms of aesthetics and content, is now enshrined as high art, and Cortauld Impressionists is a testament both to the enduring expressivity of French Impressionistic art and to the determination of Samuel Cortauld, the man whose funds helped purchase and disseminate Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in British public institutes.
The exhibition celebrates the artistry of Honoré Daumier, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh. It displays choice selections of those artists’ finest pieces and lets the art speak for itself. There are not many paintings by each individual artist, but the selections speak to the depth and breadth of emotion captured in the artists’ unique styles. Viewers are first greeted by Daumier’s dark humour, as a skeletally thin but nobly upright Don Quixote merges into one with his stately and overworked horse, while the dutiful (and better fed) Sancho Panza accompanies him, on his disconsolate (if better fed) steed. It is something else to then be confronted by Manet’s masterful Bar at the Folies-Bergère, an image that has entered the popular consciousness, but the scale of which is difficult to imagine until one is faced with the original itself (see feature image above). When one stands directly in front of the painting, we are met by the bar maid’s walled-off-gaze, and it is only then that we realise that we would be occupying the position of the man in the reflection. Suddenly we, the viewer, are the intruder; we are the man in the top hat, leaning threateningly close to the defiant bar maid. Adjacent to Manet’s work is another piece that interrogates concepts of perception. Degas’s playful portrait of Carlo Pellegrini presents Pellegrini’s profile, drawing viewers’ attention both to the cartoonist’s hidden hat and his outstretched right hand, mid-smoke; a gentle suggestion of a relationship between cartoons and duplicity.
A recurring theme throughout many of the paintings is the beauty of the mundane. The streetlights in Pissaro’s Boulevard Montmartre at Night (1897) are incandescent, elevating the practically dreary reality of a soggy night into an evocative transient delight. Pierre Bonnard’s The Table, ostensibly a study in white (though I personally found yellow to be a more recurring colour), captures an unromantic moment as a girl scoops up her breakfast; and yet the painting is a delight in composition and colour. Seurat’s bathers at Asnières protest the idea that figures in large landscapes ought to be coded in formal or classical apparel. Indeed, the selection of Seurat’s paintings deserves a note of mention. At times, I find Seurat’s pointillist style uninspiring, but Cortauld Impressionists highlights the playfulness and the precision of his art. The precision of The Bridge at Courbevoie is arresting; angles, motionless figures, and a still lake, all caught in the breath of a moment. As is expected, bodies of water recur throughout: alongside Seurat’s paintings, Monet’s Japanese print-inspired Antibes, Renoir’s The Skiff, and Cézanne’s Lac d’Annecy depict the reflective, unyielding depths of the sea and the lakes, respectively.
The exhibition reflects and delights in Cortauld’s love of Cézanne’s paintings. The selection of Cézanne’s work is by far the largest, and it demonstrates the range of his intellectual and emotional palette. Still Life with Plaster Cupid is a deconstruction of still life art and perspective. Although Cupid’s statue is central, the scene is so cluttered by fruit and paintings. And an apple that appears to rest on a wall, defying the pull of gravity, raises the question of what deserves our focus, and what is worthy of being painted. The Card Players are dappled in light, celebrating the liveliness of the men, but the painting does not shy away from acknowledging their dingy surroundings, or the right player’s misshapen hat.
Nevertheless, the exhibition finishes on a different note to Cézanne’s sweeping landscapes, and with a different colour palette. A series of Gauguin paintings that constitute a study in the shades and effects of yellow are juxtaposed with Van Gogh’s Wheat Fields with Cypresses. The repetition and accumulation of the shades of yellow suggest the movement of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art into the light of the present day. Gauguin’s The Haystacks celebrate the vibrancy and dignity of simplistic rural life, while Polynesian flowers burst with life, replacing traditional western European flowers as the centrepiece of a floral still life in A Vase of Flowers. It is Te Rereioa, however, that leaves the longest impression. Light touches the wall murals, as figures embrace, but never make eye contact. Two figures sit in the centre, lost in thought, avoiding the viewer’s gaze. A child sleeps in an elaborate cot in the left foreground; in the background, a worker rides off into the sun-touched hills. It is a dream-like work of great ambiguity, where the touches of yellow tease a glimpse of understanding and light.
In some senses, the arrangement of paintings in Cortauld Impressionists lacks a narrative. Yet this scarcely matters. The exhibition allows one to plunge into a world of feeling and interpretation; a space where the humour and folly of the world is enhanced by visionary glimpses of the beauty and profundity of life itself. Moreover, there is a narrative binding these paintings, a narrative bound up in the exhibition’s title: Cortauld Impressionists. The collective concept of French Impressionist art in Britain is and has been defined and shaped largely by the passion of one man. The exhibition is a testament to the power an individual may hold in effecting cultural change; the artistic potential of the everyday; the strangeness of art; and the vitality of painting as a medium that parses and reinterprets life anew.
Courtauld Impressionists: from Manet to Cézanne is on at the National Gallery, London, until the 20th January. See here for more information.