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“The Execution of Maximilien”, 1867-68, by Edouard Manet, reassembled by Degas (©The National Gallery, London)

Artists have always had a tangled relationship with the work of their predecessors and peers: the paintings of others have been an inspiration, an educative tool, a challenge and a threat. Not all painters worked their way through each of these stages but Picasso and Matisse did. As tyros in Paris they used to swap paintings, each recognising the other as significant among their contemporaries. Then, as they became established and aspiration turned to outright rivalry, they stopped before, late in life, restarting the picture exchange when they had realised that the world was indeed big enough for both of them.

Joshua Reynolds, on the other hand, was happy to pay homage to his heroes. When he first became successful, “Instead of beginning to save money, I laid it out faster than I got it, in purchasing the best examples of art that could be procured: for I even borrowed money for this purpose. The possessing portraits by Titian, Vandyke, Rembrandt, &c, I considered as the best kind of wealth.” Collecting was a matter of great seriousness: to own a “really fine picture by Titian”, he once said, “I would be content to ruin myself.” He built a great collection but he worked it too. He used pieces to illustrate his lectures to the students of the Royal Academy and, in a dialogue with the past, he would retouch other works to “improve” them. With an artist such as Reynolds there is a tangible sense that in owning pictures by the old masters he was allying himself with them too in an unbroken genealogy.

Artist-collectors are the subject of the National Gallery’s new exhibition, Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck (June 23-September 4). The gallery’s early directors such as Charles Eastlake and Edward Poynter were themselves painters and there have long been practitioners among the trustees. Many of the National’s early holdings were the gift of painters and this show is based round pictures once owned by Freud, Matisse, Degas, Leighton, Watts, Lawrence, Reynolds and Van Dyck.

The collecting bug was more virulent in some than in others. Degas, for example, confessed, almost in pain: “I buy! I buy! I can’t stop myself.” It was no exaggeration. A friend recalled: “Degas carries on . . . buying, buying; in the evening he asks himself how he will pay for what he bought that day, and the next morning he starts again.” Among paintings owned by Degas in the exhibition are works by Pissarro, Sisley, Gauguin, Cézanne and four of the fragments of Manet’s The Execution of Maximilien that he painstakingly tracked down to reconstitute the destroyed picture. Degas was not only interested in his contemporaries though, he also owned works by El Greco, Ingres and Delacroix. Indeed his admiration for Delacroix was such that he bought the painter’s palettes too.

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