The Artist As Connoisseur

Van Dyck, Reynolds and Degas had more than talent in common: they also collected other painters’ work

Michael Prodger

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.

For Van Dyck, as for Reynolds, Titian was the painter who really set the pulse racing. He had worked amid the collection acquired by his master Rubens in Antwerp and set about creating one for himself. When he moved to England in 1632 he brought with him pictures by Raphael, Tintoretto and Jacopo Bassano. Among the 18 Titians he owned was the Portrait of Gerolamo Barbarigo, popularly known as The Man with a Blue Sleeve, now in the National’s own collection.

If Van Dyck looked to Rubens for his collecting model, Thomas Lawrence looked to his own master Reynolds. Lawrence’s portrait practice made him very successful very quickly and he embarked on what amounted to a collecting arms race. Where Reynolds possessed works by Van Dyck, Giovanni Bellini, Michelangelo (Leda and the Swan), Poussin and Rubens, Lawrence added an Agostino Carracci, Raphael and Rembrandt. His holdings of paintings, prints and sculpture were vast: he owned some 4,300 drawings alone.

One modern heir (there are plenty of others, such as Jeff Koons, Chuck Close and Damien Hirst) was Lucian Freud, and the National’s display includes not just works he was given by friends such as Frank Auerbach but those he bought from long-dead artists who mattered to him — Constable, Corot and Cézanne. Looking at them — largely portraits or figure ensembles — one can’t help asking of Freud, and the other collectors, how much did the pictures shape their own work or were they bought because they already reflected it?

One painter-collector not in the exhibition is Howard Hodgkin who, since the 1940s, has been an indefatigable buyer of Mughal miniatures. And an artist he strongly influenced, Bhupen Khakhar, is the subject of a monographical show at Tate Modern (June 1-November 6), part of that gallery’s ongoing mission to show global art. Khakhar (1934-2003) was a central figure in modern Indian painting, combining a variety of influences — from Pop Art and Indian miniatures to 14th-century Siennese painting — with a palette of rich, saturated colours. A figurative painter, his themes include class, proverbs and religion as well as his own cancer and homosexuality. It was time spent with Hodgkin in both India and England that helped Khakhar come out as gay (David Hockney was another friend), a decision marked by the picture You Can’t Please All of 1981. The painting, a naked self-portrait, shows the artist on a balcony surveying a scene from one of Aesop’s Fables; his distance from the activity on the street beneath him being a sign of Khakhar’s outsider status in Indian society. When first exhibited the painting helped move modern Indian art away from symbolism and abstraction towards more personal subjects.

The exhibition surveys work from five decades of Khakhar’s career (he trained initially as an accountant) and is a reflection of one man’s changing life in a rapidly changing nation. His work is strangely traditional too, not necessarily in the nature of its Western influences — from Rousseau to Hockney — but in the fact that, like much of older Indian art, it is a hybrid formed of incoming styles.

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