IN 2002, the National Gallery of Scotland organised an exhibition, “Rubens Drawing on Italy”. After it was seen in Edinburgh, it transferred to Nottingham. The exhibition demonstrated a previously ignored aspect of how the Flemish artist worked.
Rubens was in Italy from 1600 to 1608, in the service of the Gonzagas in Mantua for whom he travelled extensively, and he ended working in Rome for them. It was while he was in Italy that he not only copied many works by earlier Italian artists, notably Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian, but extensively acquired Old Master drawings.
He collected works by Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, and Taddeo Zuccaro, as well as by his near contemporary Annibale Carracci. In addition, he owned prints after Leonardo.
These drawings were in his working studio, kept by way of inspiration and often retouched as Rubens worked up his own compositions. He reused many and, as a result, was able to advise Charles I to purchase the Gonzaga collection when it was put up for sale in 1627.
That artists draw on each other’s works is widely recognised, but the exhibition now in London is the first to concentrate on how painters collected to increase their own repertoire. Slightly oddly, it does not include Sir Peter Paul Rubens, for whom the case is more than readily made. Rather, it showcases three other knights of the realm: Van Dyck, Reynolds, and Lawrence, alongside Lord Leighton and Frederic Watts, and two French artists, Matisse and Degas, who emerges as a compulsive shopaholic.
The impetus for the exhibition has come from the recent gift (in lieu of inheritance tax) of a portrait by J.-B.-C. Corot (1796-1875). The Italian Woman was purchased by Lucian Freud early in the century, and his will specified that it should be left to the National Gallery. Freud wanted to leave the painting to the nation as a thank-you for welcoming him and his family as Nazi refugees.
Unusually for Freud, who was noted for painting and bedding his naked models, the girl in the Corot painting is clad. Her hair is braided with a red ribbon, and, even though her left hand suggests an invitation, there is no hint that she is a lady of the night. In this painting from towards the end of the artist’s life, when he was in his seventies, the sitter with her yellow sleeve is made out to be dignified.
The organisers include a self-portrait of each of the artists, and at least one example of other artists’ work which they owned, while showing work that was inspired by it. This programmatic way of mounting the exhibition, which, it is perversely suggested, should be viewed in reverse chronological order, brings together some masterpieces, but falters too often to be successful.
The most demonstrable failing is in considering Freud. Reportedly at the behest of friends who were keen to discourage the artist’s reckless gambling habit, Freud bought the small oil-painting of Cézanne’s Afternoon in Naples in November 1999 at auction. This is one of at least 21 drawings, sketches, and oils painted on this theme between 1862 and 1879, and has been loaned from a private collection.
Within months, Freud had begun his own version, a celebrated irregularly shaped painting, After Cézanne. That is now in Canberra, bought for $A7.2 million; at the time of painting it, Freud had no idea that the National Gallery of Australia owned one of the other versions. Although illustrated in the catalogue, this canvas has not been borrowed for the show.
If it had been, it might have surprised us. If anything, it suggests an awkward quotation. Freud simply did not know what to do with the 19th-century subject-matter, and makes all too obvious what Cézanne contrived to suggest. All the originals, whatever the media, evoke the interior of a bordello in Naples in a way that is exotic rather than erotic. But with Freud’s reworking there is no mistaking the post-coital tension played out on the artist’s bare studio floor.
Another artist who invested well was Rubens’s most celebrated pupil, Antoon Van Dyck. When the dowager Queen of France Marie de Medici visited his studio in Antwerp, she had marvelled at “le cabinet de Titien; Je veux dire tous les Chefs d’oeuvres de ce grand Maistre”. To gain some idea of what Van Dyck owned, we have the 1644 inventory of his estate (which is in Vienna, in the Austrian National Library).
In a list of 37 paintings, no fewer than 19 are recorded as original works by the Venetian artist, although the first listed, The Vendramin Family Venerating a Relic of the True Cross, was not available for purchase before 1636, and therefore the Queen of France would not have seen it. We can, as it has been in the National Gallery since 1929. Did it inspire Van Dyck to paint Lord John Stuart and Lord Bernard Stuart standing on dissimilar steps? I rather doubt it.
The portrait listed in his collection at no. 18 is that of a Man with a Quilted Sleeve (c.1510), which was then thought to be a portrait of the poet Ariosto, but is now thought to depict Girolamo Barbarigo.
It is hung next to a striking self-portrait (c.1633) from a private collection, which is one of several versions of the successful artist used to determine his self-image for the series of engravings in his Iconologie. The painter tugs at his cloak as if to draw it out, whereas Titian’s sitter leans on the parapet with indifference.
In 2014, the National Gallery, with the assistance of the Art Fund, bought the 1858 Corot panels The Four Times of Day, which had once belonged to Lord Leighton, and had hung in his Holland Park home. They readily outstrip anything that we see of Leighton’s own work.
Selecting Watts for the show (why?) offers a rare outing from the storerooms of the National Gallery for the full-length portrait of a knight of the newly established Order of San Stefano (c.1563), founded in 1561 by Cosimo de Medici. Watts had given it to the gallery in 1861 as a work by the Florentine Mannerist painter Pontormo. Here, it is assigned to Girolamo Macchietti; quite. Since independent full-length portraits are said to be rare in 16th-century Tuscan art, this is worth seeing.
Even if the exhibition does not quite make the case that it sets out to, it does bring together some highly prized and wonderful works: I shall go back for the Picasso head of Dora Maar in 1942 (The Elkon Gallery, New York), which he gave to Matisse, and the Thomas Lawrence 1806/7 group portrait of Sir Francis Baring, his brother John Baring, and his son-in-law Charles Wall. The celebrated banking trio had provided the funds for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Last exhibited in London in 2010 at the National Portrait Gallery next door, it is surely the apogee of English conversation painting?
“Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 4 September. Phone 020 7747 2885.