Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne

Actualizado: 19 de ene de 2019

05/10/2018, National Gallery, London

One of the most incredible collections of art in London is at the Courtauld Institute, a space that still remains widely unknown to the majority of tourists. As well as one of the best art institutes in the city, it has a fantastic array of works of art from all periods of history. The size of the exhibition space is not too big, not too small, and very easy to navigate. Also, it is rarely as busy as the National Gallery or Tate Modern and you can see all the works at your leisure without having five to ten people crowding around you. Ever managed to comfortably walk through the Rubens room at the National Gallery and not have to scrape some sweaty tourist taking photos in the summer? I haven't. And I have been in London for ten years.

That does NOT happen at the Courtauld. And I've been on a Saturday in July! But don't underestimate its simplicity. When I first visited, I saw it as a mini, comprehensive, visual history of the development of art, like everything you need to know about how art has developed since the 12th century is there. Sadly, the Courtauld Institute is going through a period of refurbishment that began last September. The project is called Courtauld Connects, an exciting program that will improve the institute's visitor engagement and educational outreach.

So what happens to this fantastic array of works I'm so excited about? The answer to this is at the National Gallery. Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne is a fantastic exhibition that displays the highlights of the Impressionists works from the Courtauld Institute.

The collection of Impressionist works at the Institute began with a man called Samuel Courtauld, an English business man who took over his family's textile business in 1908. He began collecting art between 1920 and 1931, a year before the foundation of the institute in 1932. While the Impressionists were shunned from exhibitions in Paris during their time, the Courtauld Fund of £50,000 allowed the purchase of the works and made them accessible to the audience. The works were then bequeathed to the Institute by Courtauld upon his death, in 1947.

The galleries are divided into twelve, dedicated, open spaces to each artist featured in the collection. It is easy to navigate in any preferred order without losing track and there are large light boxes of black and white photographs of the works themselves on display at Courtauld's residence. It is not an exhibition that narrates a story, but rather displays several stories separately; each artist has a laminated panel with his name, and a selection of the works.

Honoré-Victorin Daumier (1808 - 1879), Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, c. 1855, Oil on oak, 40.3 x 64.1 cm, Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917. National Gallery of London.

Honoré-Victorin Daumier: One of the earliest Impressionists and the first 19th century painter to enter the Courtauld Collection. The space for Daumier is very small, only featuring two of his works. But these works are very special for me because they are portraits of Don Quixote, the famous character from the Spanish author, Miguel de Cervantes. It turns out Daumier was hugely passionate about this unique old man. The painting, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, 1855, was featured at the National Gallery in 1917 and purchased by Courtauld shortly after. This is a wonderful opportunity to view this art work as it is usually not on display.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas: I must admit Degas is one of my ultimate favourite painters; I practically memorized his Catalogue Raisonné while I was interning for Christie's back in 2013. A founding member of the Impressionists, Degas had a traditional, academic training as an artist. His wealth and style set him apart from the rest of the group, but also earned him the recognition he earned well before becoming an Impressionist. His reputation preceded him, and Courtauld was familiar with his work well before he began collecting his paintings.

The space for Degas in the exhibition is a little bigger, perhaps around five to six paintings but the two that standout the most to me are works that I had seen before:

Edouard Degas (1834-1917), Two Dancers on Stage, 1874, Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 46 cm. Courtauld Institute.

Two Dancers on Stage, 1874, was the most expensive Degas in the collection at the time of purchase. The name of the ballet performed in this piece is the Ballet des Roses, a piece performed as a part of the opera Don Giovanni, by Mozart, of that same year in Paris. This work featured at the Degas exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2011, Degas and the Ballet, which I fell absolutely in love with. I love the position of the dancers and the gestures, the fleeting brushstrokes that make up the backdrop of the stage, the texture of the tutu's and the shape of the roses in the dancers' hair.

A completely different style of painting, yet no less powerful, Young Spartans Exercising, 1860, is one of Degas's earliest works. It is part of the permanent collection at the National Gallery, but it was one of the first Degas acquired by Courtald for his collection. It is a beautiful example of his academic training and very different to the later works of the 1850's and 70's. The figures are laid out in the classical style, and it reminds me a bit of the Egyptian compositions. There are three different planes, which shows a clear exploration of perspective and, though the figures are relatively flat, the position of the shoulders and the bodies of the group of men remind me of Velazquez's Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan, where Velazquez demonstrates how paint can show all sides of a figure, just as much as sculpture.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834 - 1917), Young Spartans Exercising, 1860, Oil on canvas, 109.5 x 155 cm. Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1924.

Edouard Manet: Manet was a special character. He was rebellious, radical and misunderstood by his society. Although he was part of the Impressionists, he never actually exhibited with them. Manet produced a series of paintings that were scandalous for the conservative public of his time. His famous Olympia, from 1863, caused an uproar but it demonstrates a huge respect and admiration for the nudes by the greatest artists of the past.

Édouard Manet (1862–1863), Déjeuner sur l'herbe, c. 1863-68, Oil on canvas, 89.5 x 116.5cm. Gifted by Samuel Courtauld in 1932. Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London.

I recognized Déjeuner sur l'herbe, instantly. It is a well known work by Manet, but I did have to squint to make sure I was seeing correctly. "Blonde? Since when", I thought. Indeed, the final version of this work, painted between 1862-63 and held at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, features two gentlemen in the finest attire with a beautiful, dark haired woman enjoying a picnic on the grass. It is a brilliant work, not only because of it's daring central figures, a naked woman and the young man staring straight at the viewer. It also shows the figure in the background of a woman, who can easily be a less defined version of Rosetti's Proserpine. The contrasting colours of the shades cast by the tress give the whole painting of sense of peace and tranquility.

The version at the Courtauld is smaller and is more difficult to date, roughly between 1863 and 1868. It has raised questions of authenticity as well. But wether it was a preparatory sketch by Manet himself or a version by a follower, it is a fantastic piece of work that deserves recognition in its own right.

Edouard Manet (1832 - 1883), Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil, 1874, Oil on canvas, 62.3 x 103 cm. Copyright: © Private Collection. On long-term loan to The Courtauld Gallery, London.

Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil, 1874, is a work of a completely different nature. Is depicts Claude Monet's wife, Camille, and his little son John. This is perhaps the most personal of the works because it it is an example the close relation between the artists at a time of leisure and pleasure. Furthermore, it was the first Manet work purchased for the collection and seems to have been a favourite of Courtauld's; as you can see in the light box at the gallery space, it was hung just above the fireplace of one of his homes, well in view for all to appreciate.

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Antibes, 1888, Oil on canvas, 85 x 11cm. Bequest of Samuel Courtauld, 1948. Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London.

Claude Monet: A fantastic observer of his surroundings, Monet spent most of his life in the coast of Normandy, also the hometown of his friend and mentor, Camille Pissarro, and Degas. They began showing their work in 1874 and gradually gained fame.

Courtauld only purchased four Monet's between 1920 and 1930 and Antibes, 1888, was the very first of the collection.

Camille Pissarro: A founding member of the Impressionist movement, he was a very loyal and committed friend and patron. He was responsible for the funding of the group despite suffering from his own financial situation. He served as a mentor to the younger generation of artists and actually adopted the rather complex form of painting, Pointillism.

Camille Pissarro (1830 - 1903), The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, 1897, Oil on canvas, 53.3 x 64.8 cm. Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1925.

I think there were a few other works by Pissarro in the gallery, but my eye went straight to what has to be my absolute favorite work of art, Boulevard Montmartre at Night, 1897. First of all, you can see an influence of the pointillist technique adopted Pissarro in 1885. I used this work in my dissertation back in 2012, and I actually already had noticed the pointillist affect without having known he actually adopted and perfected the technique during his career. But the reason why I love it so much is because it is the only work in the entire collection that takes place at night and outdoors. In fact, I can bet you cannot think about an Impressionist painting right now of a night view. It was easier to paint outdoors with natural light, and it is possible that this work was made from memory. But it takes a great artist to reflect a memory of a night scene.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 - 1919), At the Theatre (La Première Sortie), 1876-7, Oil on canvas, 65 x 49.5 cm. Bought by Courtauld Fund, 1923.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Out of all the Impressionists, Renoir has had the longest career as an artist, spanning for sixty years of his life. Over this course of time, he produced over 5000 paintings, drawings and sketches. He began his career as a porcelain painter until he began to train as an artist, studying alongside Monet and Alfred Sisley. The very first work purchased by Courtauld was At the theatre, 1876-7, along with Manet´s Café Concerto.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge, putting on her Gloves, c. 1892, Oil and pastel on millboard, laid on panel, 55.1 x 102cm. Gifted by Samuel Courtauld in 1932. Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Toulouse Lautrec: Lautrec has always fascinated me, both as an artist and as a personality. He was born into an aristocratic family but never quite seemed to fit in. He was held back from society due to his poor health anyway, but gradually turned his life toward the bohemian lifestyle of Paris when he settled in Montmartre. He gained a reputation for his portraits of prostitutes and cabaret dancers and began to earn a living as a poster artist. His works are now iconic and cherished for their revolutionary designs and slogans. The exhibition features a beautiful, yet slightly haunting portrait, Jane Avril at the entrance to the Moulin Rouge, 1892. A dancer at the celebrated Moulin Rouge, Avril became extremely famous thanks to Lautrec's posters, which portray a lively young woman. In this painting, the figure of Avril is lithe and extremely elegant, yet there is a almost a ghostly presence in the sunken cheekbones at a time when the model was actually only 24 years old.

Georges Seurat (1859-1891), Young Woman Powdering Herself, 1888-90, Oil on canvas, 79.5 x 95.5 cm. Gifted by Samuel Courtauld in 1932. Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London.

Georges Seurat: Having lived a very short, but extremely successful career before his death in 1891, Seurat was a crucial figure for the development of the color theory and the relationship between science and perception. Under the tutelage of a former pupil of Ingres, he caused a sensation as a one of the pioneers of Pointillism, an attempt to rationalise the previous Impressionist technique by juxtaposing different colored dots of paint. His untimely death led to the division of his artistic vision, and the emerging group of the Neo-Impressionists. Bathers in Asnières,1884, was a notorious investment in the day of Courtauld's purchase because it was actually rejected by the Salon des Artistes in that same year. It is now one of the best known works of the Pointillist style. Courtauld also bought the beautiful Young Woman Powdering Herself, from 1890, which was displayed in the same room as Manet's Banks of the Seine Argenteuil.

Paul Cézanne (1839 - 1906), Hillside in Provence, c. 1890-2, Oil of canvas, 63.5 x 79.4 cm. Bought by the Courtauld Fund in 1926.

Paul Cézanne: Cézanne must have been something of a shock to his contemporaries; he gave up an excellent career as a trained lawyer to become a full time painter. The high volume of works by Cézanne in the Courtauld collection demonstrates that Cézanne was one of Courtauld's most praised artists. He amassed a total of eleven works in addition to various letters and drawings by the artist himself. In fact, Courtauld was so fascinated by Cézanne that, when the funds of the Courtauld foundation were exhausted, he bought Hillside in Provence, 1890-92, with his own money after it was exhibited in London in 1925.

Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890), A Wheatfield, with Cypresses, 1889, Oil on canvas, 72.1 × 90.9 cm. Bought by the Courtauld Fund in 1923.

Vincent Van Gogh: The works by Van Gogh in this collection are small but powerful. The vibrancy of the colors reflects the strong and compelling personality of the man behind the brush. In fact, if you are familiar with his works, you can identify a change of the darker tones of his first paintings to the bright and moving figures in his later pieces. Van Gogh worked as an art dealer in Holland, London and Paris before moving to Paris permanently in 1886. He sought mental treatment two years later in the south of France. This particular piece, A Wheatfield with Cypresses, 1889, is one of three of the same scenes painted from his asylum in Arles. It was one of the first of Van Gogh's works to enter a public collection in Britain.

Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), The Table, 1925, Oil on canvas, 102.9 x 74.3 cm. Presented by the Courtauld Fund Trustees in 1926.

Pierre Bonnard: A founder of the avant-garde artists, the Nabis, he started out with a career as a lawyer and barrister. He was greatly influenced by Japanese art and developed a unique style and a wonderful attention to color and detail. The Table, was purchased by Courtauld shortly after it's completion in 1925. The flatness of the depth in the composition reminds me a bit of Cézanne's Still life with plaster cast, also featured in the exhibition, and yet it is such a bright and colorful piece that it radiates the gentleness and peace of such a customary scene.

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Te Rerioa (The Dream), 1897, Oil on canvas, 95.1 x 130.2 cm. Gifted by Samuel Courtauld in 1932. Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London.

Paul Gauguin: Gauguin is probably one of the best of examples of a bohemian lifestyle. He quit his job and his family in Paris to go travelling around the globe. Having spent part of his childhood in Peru, he became heavily influenced by the pre-Columbian style, which is evident in works like Te Rerioa (The Dream), 1897, not only in the central figure themselves, but in the figures on the walls and the wooden sculptures on the bottom right corner.

You can really see all the different styles that make each artist unique, influenced by all sorts of backgrounds, training and influences. These are very cherished works and I can only make my best attempt to persuade you to visit this amazing collection. The venue is fantastic and it is a wonderful opportunity to see where these works were originally displayed in Courtauld's beautiful, English home. The exhibition cleverly leads you back to Impressionist works in the permanent collection of the National Gallery. Make sure you check out the new magnificent work by Matisse, The Forest at Fontaine Bleuau, 1909, on loan by a private collector, and works by Ambroise Vollard, Berthe Morisot and other spectacular artists of this period.

Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne is on view now at the National Gallery until January 2019.

Accessibility Information:

  • The exhibition is held in the The Wohl Galleries, Rooms 42–66, on the second floor. Please refer to National Gallery's floor plan.

  • The exhibition is 100% accessible for visitors with mobility issues. A lift will take you from the ground floor to the second.

  • Smooth, wooden floors for easy navigation.

  • Large print books available.

  • A free audio guide is included with your ticket, available at the main entrance to the exhibition.

Photo credits:

  1. Honoré-Victorin Daumier, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, c. 1855, National Gallery, London.

  2. Edouard Degas, Two Dancers on Stage, 1874, Courtauld Institute, London.

  3. Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Young Spartans Exercising, 1860, Courtauld Fund, 1924.

  4. Édouard Manet, Déjeuner sur l'herbe, c. 1863-68, The Courtauld Gallery, London.

  5. Edouard Manet, Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil, 1874, The Courtauld Gallery, London.

  6. Claude Monet, Antibes, 1888, The Courtauld Gallery, London.

  7. Camille Pissarro, The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, 1897, National Gallery, London.

  8. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, At the Theatre (La Première Sortie), 1876-7, Courtauld Fund, 1923.

  9. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge, c. 1892, The Courtauld Gallery, London.

  10. Georges Seurat, Young Woman Powdering Herself, 1888-90, The Courtauld Gallery, London.

  11. Paul Cézanne, Hillside in Provence, c. 1890-2, National Gallery.

  12. Vincent van Gogh, A Wheatfield, with Cypresses, 1889, National Gallery, London.

  13. Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), The Table, 1925, Oil on canvas. Presented by the Courtauld Fund Trustees in 1926.

  14. Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Te Rerioa (The Dream), 1897, Oil on canvas, The Courtauld Gallery, London.

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