In the 1920s, Samuel Courtauld, British industrialist and passionate art enthusiast, began to amass two collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. Courtauld’s private collection, which adorned the walls of his palatial mansion on Portman Square in London, included masterpieces such as Édouart Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère and are now displayed at The Courtauld Gallery. In addition to this in 1923 Courtauld set aside an acquisition Fund of £50,000 for the purchase of paintings by the National and Tate Galleries, forming the core of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in British public collections. Shunned by the establishment, such works were largely absent from museums and public galleries in Britain but, thanks to Courtauld, these masterpieces were made accessible to all.
The exhibition provides a clear introduction to the crucial developments in French painting from the 1860s to the early twentieth century, from Daumier to van Gogh, including some of the landmarks of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. It focuses on Courtauld’s vision, taste and motivation as he was shaping the two collections with equal tenacity and dedication.
The exhibition is split into sections on each artist, providing an interesting dialogue between the different collections. One of Courtauld’s most expensive acquisitions for his private collection is La Loge by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, purchased for a staggering £22,600, almost half of the total amount of the Courtauld Fund which purchased over 20 paintings. One of the first works that was purchased with the Fund was La Première Sortie, also by Renoir, a looser but equally exquisite work by the artist. As the exhibition progresses, it is clear to see how Courtauld’s taste channelled those artworks purchased by the Fund. A large part of the exhibition consists of mesmerising landscapes and still lifes by Paul Cézanne, an artist that was not appreciated in Britain before Courtauld’s time.
Courtauld, along with four other trustees, carefully selected the paintings that the Fund acquired. However, on occasion they were informed of available paintings but had no time or opportunity to view them prior to acquiring them. The National Gallery’s magnificent Bathers at Asnières by Georges Seurat was one such painting. Courtauld took a risk to purchase this work for the Fund without seeing it, a risk that certainly payed off as this monumental work is one of the great masterpieces of Post-Impressionism.
For me, as a student at the Courtauld, the Impressionist masterpieces on display in The Courtauld Gallery provided a pleasant distraction from the library, and it is wonderful to see these familiar paintings by Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh side by side with those in the National Gallery.
For those of you with an hour or so to spare, I urge you to watch this lecture given by Anne Robbins, the curator of the exhibition. It provides an insight into the nature of Courtauld’s collecting habits and the history of the artworks on display in the exhibition.