Art Review: Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cezanne, National Gallery ‘Not as Good as It Could Have Been’


So, the beautiful Courtauld Gallery has now closed its doors for a few years for a major refurbishment. But what to do with its unrivalled collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces? No doubt many will be sent on loan the world over but what a fantastic opportunity this exhibition was to bring together the Courtauld’s dazzling collection of Cezannes, Gauguins, Pissarros and Van Goghs with the National Gallery’s own impressive haul of Monets, Renoirs and the rest.

Only something got lost a bit along the way. Perhaps I had hoped that this would be a ground-breaking moment when two houses would bring together their mighty collections; perhaps I thought the National Gallery would grab this rare opportunity to profoundly examine this popular genre of art in a new way. But this hasn’t happened.

Instead what we have is extracts from both collections, based around the original Mr Courtauld who bought most of these pieces, put behind a restricted entrance so that an admission charge can be levied. Which would be fine if there was something new to be seen and learnt, and I do appreciate that the admission charge has been kept the same as it would have been for the Courtauld, but some of these works could have been seen for free on the walls of the National Gallery and the Tate only a few weeks before, and the rest marks only a fraction of the Courtauld’s artworks.

Simply, too much is missing to make this the show that I had been hoping for.

Yes, Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is there – and the bartender is still as jaded and emotionally numb as she always has been – and there’s Gauguin’s Nevermore – a painting that unnerves further the more I understand it (apparently it may be a picture of the artist’s 14-year-old ‘mistress’ just after she had miscarried). But where is Van Gogh’s Portrait with Bandaged Ear? And I couldn’t find either Cezanne’s Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine, or barely any of the Pissarros from the Courtauld. 

Then there’s the national Gallery’s side of the bargain… It must have been tricky to decide which of ther star attractions to put behind the admission fee. Obviously, Sunflowers has been kept in the public free-to-view galleries; as has Cezanne’s Bathers. As has Pissarro’s Louvre Under the Snow and all of Monet’s waterlilies.

So, the final display is a strange hybrid. Van Gogh’s vivid and wondrous Wheatfield with Cypresses is in the display – its thick yellow brush strokes still an uplifting wonder – and Manet’s Music in the Tuilleries sits nicely alongside Dejuner sur l’herbe (this painting still upsets me, no matter how many times I see it!) and the Folies Bergere barmaid.

But there’s only a couple of Pissarros on display, a couple from Bonnard (including the beautiful The Table, which I saw recently – for free – at the Tate Modern), and only a couple from Toulouse-Lautrec (not including a couple of nice portraits of his from the National’s permanent display).

There’re about forty paintings in this display, which has been carved up by artist, which really doesn’t leave much opportunity to examine cross-influences, common subject matter and themes. There’s also probably a bit too much from Renoir on display who’ve always seen as a weak link in this era of art and having a quarter of the display comprised of Cezannes does make this feel a bit lopsided.

Basically, it’s a nice collection of paintings – more than few of them pretty well known – behind a relatively low admission fee. But, for me, not as good as it could have been. A bit of an opportunity missed.

National Gallery, London, to January 20, 2019
Admission charge: £7.50

Image Credits:
1. Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882, oil on canvas © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London.
2. Paul Gaugin, Nevermore, 1897, oil on canvas © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London.
3. Vincent van Gogh, A Wheatfield , with Cypresses, 1889, oil on canvas © The National Gallery, London

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