Courtauld Impressionists from Monet to Cézanne

The highlights from two great collections impress John Westbrooke

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Galleries putting on exhibitions sometimes scour the world for appropriate artistic works to display… and sometimes they just go down the road.

The Courtauld Gallery, one of London’s little gems, has just closed for a two-year refurbishment programme, so it’s sent a load of its finest Impressionist works a few hundred yards along the Strand for the National Gallery show Courtauld Impressionists, which also includes some of the National Gallery’s own collection. Three rooms, 12 artists, 43 paintings, and all for £7.50 – the bargain of the winter.

Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Degas – they’re all here, thanks to Samuel Courtauld, who was hooked when he visited an exhibition in London in 1917 and began collecting them in the 1920s when few others were interested.

He’d got rich as head of the family textile firm, which developed rayon as a silk substitute, and he was a believer in giving back to the country, so he built up two collections. One was his own, now the Courtauld Gallery’s. But he also set up the Courtauld Fund, £50,000 for the purchase of modern French paintings, the ones now at the heart of the National Gallery’s own Impressionist collection. (The latter had been a late starter: when a newspaper offered to raise a subscription to buy them a Monet back at the start of the century, they said they didn’t want it.)

As it happens, Daumier, the first painter on show, wasn’t an Impressionist at all, though his two oils of Don Quixote are nothing like traditional salon-approved art. But from there, the story of Impressionism is told much as it’s always been but brilliantly illustrated; the curators aren’t trying to plug a new theory or revive interest in forgotten names.

Edouard Manet is represented by an early version of one of his most controversial paintings, “Déjeuner sur l’herbe”, in which two decorously clad men and a naked woman have a picnic: it would have been acceptable if they’d been portrayed as classical gods but Parisians were unsettled to see the men in modern dress.

Nearby is perhaps his greatest work, “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”. This is modern too: the impressionists, though best known for outdoor work in town and country, often portrayed life in contemporary Paris, with its bars, music halls and railways stations. The bar even has bottles of Bass.

Here, a barmaid, with a look that might be weary, confrontational or just blank, stares at the viewer; behind her a mirror runs the width of the picture, reflecting not only her back but the face of a man apparently talking to her; he in turn looks quizzical, threatening or just blank. Barmaids there sometimes followed a second, older profession, so maybe he’s arranging an assignation; we don’t know, the work remains enigmatic. There are websites that explain how the reflections come to be oddly offset and at an angle; but the simplest explanation is just artistic licence, perhaps intended to hint that the man is in fact you, ogling the barmaid.

“Two Dancers on a Stage” is one of eight Degas works Courtauld purchased – five for his own collection, three for the nation – but much the most expensive because, unusually, it had been bought by a British collector soon after it was painted. It’s an archetypal Degas: two ballerinas in performance, caught as if in a hasty snapshot, one with her arm cut off at the frame, and half the image consisting of bare stage.

With other artists, though, he was a pioneer. Renoir’s “La loge” had been exhibited in London in 1874, the year it was painted, but found no buyer; it was 50 years before Courtauld purchased it. He also bought the first work by Cézanne to enter a national collection, and the first Van Gogh – “A Wheatfield with Cypresses”, painted at an asylum near Arles, with roiling white and blue clouds, blue mountains and sturdy green cypresses behind golden fields. He bought Pissarros (all town scenes) and Monets (but not his later garden paintings). In addition, the exhibition features Toulouse-Lautrecs, Bonnards and Gauguins, including his mysterious, Poe-inspired “Nevermore”.

The biggest splash of the show is Seurat’s “Bathers at Asnières”, a hefty 10ft or so by 6ft. Artists by now were trying to advance Impressionism, and Seurat’s response was founded in part in theory and studio work rather than on-the-spot attempts to capture the moment. The young workers relaxing on the riverbank (the central one with a bad case of hat hair) while factory chimneys smoke in the background have a solidity at odds with, say, the way Monet dissolved Rouen cathedral in light and shade.

The “hero” of Courtauld’s collecting, however, was Cézanne, another Post-Impressionist who tried to restore old-school monumentality to his canvas; the collector bought 21 of the painter’s works (though he sold one to buy a Gauguin). The men in “The Card Players” look as if they’re carved out of the same rock as Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain he often painted. Even the trees in “Tall Trees at the Jas de Bouffan” are firmly anchored to the soil, whereas a Renoir might have dappled them with highlights to replicate the fleeting effects of sunshine.

It’s strange that little more than a century ago, decades after they’d revolutionised art, nobody in Britain wanted to know these artists and their works; now everyone does. This country came late to the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, but it’s largely down to Courtauld that there are many of their works here at all.

Courtauld Impressionists runs at the National Gallery until 20 January 2019; tickets £7.50.