Monday, 8 August 2016

'Painters' Paintings' at the National Gallery

The current big exhibition at the National Gallery is 'Painters' Paintings' and that describes it perfectly, showing paintings owned by painters. So we see which paintings by famous artists Freud owned, Matisse owned, Degas owned (he had so many he gets two rooms), Reynolds owned and so on. Each famous painter has a room of his own to show some of the paintings he owned and, presumably, was influenced by.

There are some marvellous paintings in this exhibition - some, I'm sure, most people will have seen since they've been shown in recent exhibitions or are in the national collection but some were new to me and I'm pleased I've had the chance to find some new favourites. I'm very lucky because I could look at these paintings with fresh eyes after my recent course in the history of art at the National Gallery.

One of the paintings in Matisse's collection was 'Combing the Hair' by Degas. It's based on a black and white Japanese print but look at all that red and shades of orange and red. Degas never sold it and Matisse bought after his death, ownership followed by the National gallery. It's an oddly affecting painting with the woman holding onto her hair as a maid brushes it, red hair to match her boudoir.

Another painting that caught my eye was owned by Degas and painted by Georges Jeanniot, a painter I haven't come across before, called 'Conscripts'. It's hung next to Degas's own 'Young Spartans' and you can see the influence. The thing I like about this painting is the clear embarrassment and shame of the young men, stripping together and in front of a much older man as an officer. Heads bowed, hands covering themselves, you can almost feel the embarrassment. It's a very powerful painting.

One of my favourites was a surprisingly small painting by Raphael called 'An Allegory (Vision of a Knight)'. It was owned by Sir Thomas Lawrence (and his room is introduced by a self-portrait of him with baldy head) and I'd happily take it off his hands. It's really small which makes the detail even more marvellous.  Just look at that landscape, suggested by few brush strokes, setting the angels in place as the knight sleeps and dreams of virtues. It can't be a very peaceful slumber in that position but it seems to work for him. I'm not sure why the tree is positioned in the centre of the painting - it probably represents something but I don't know.

Another painting in the Degas rooms (his were separated into the moderns and the old masters) was this portrait of 'Monsieur de Norvins' by Ingres. He was the chief of police in Rome under Napoleon Bonaparte and. from the look of him, you wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley. It's an astonishingly realistic portrait and, in the real thing, you can see the layers of black cloth on his coat and the odd red curtain framing the portrait. He's obviously full of himself and that comes across so well in this portrait. It's life sized and highly finished, an expert portrait from an accomplished portraitist.

The final painting I've chosen in a huge Titian in the final room of the exhibition, 'The Vendramin Family, venerating a Relic of the True Cross'. This was in the Van Dyck collection and takes up a lot of wall space. The first time I saw it I was all ho hum, and then I saw it again and caught the old man's gaze... and he captured me, telling me to remember him and his family. It is an astonishingly powerful painting with three generations of the males in the family but it's the old man that looks straight out of the family portrait right at you, the observer. I will remember.

It's a lovely exhibition and doesn't get too crowded so I'd encourage you to go and see it if you're in London and have an hour or so to spare.

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