Sunday 23 August 2020

Exhibition: Gauguin and the Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Ordrupgaard Collection

Berthe Morisot, Young Girl on the Grass (Mademoiselle Isabelle Lambert), 1885
Oil on canvas, 74 x 60 cm © Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

The Royal Academy of Arts’ 
Gauguin and the Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Ordrupgaard Collection is the first major show to open in London after the four-month lockdown due to Covid-19.  Many of the works have never been exhibited in the United Kingdom, including masterpieces from Manet and Monet to Corot and Courbet, writes Jeanne-Marie Cilento

Paul Gauguin, Portrait of a Young Girl, Vaïte 
(Jeanne) Goupil, 1896
Oil on canvas, 75 x 65 cm
© Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. 
Photo: Anders Sune Berg
The singular Ordrupgaard Collection was created at the beginning of the twentieth century by Wilhelm and Henny Hansen. The Danish couple amassed an exceptional group of Impressionist paintings that are still displayed at their country estate, located eight kilometres from the centre of Copenhagen. They began to open their house to the public in 1919, showing the striking artworks they had collected, many avant-garde at the time.

The exhibition of the Hansen's collection in London, Gauguin and the Impressionists at the Royal Academy of Arts, was originally scheduled to open in March but was delayed until August by the Covid-19 restrictions. Anna Ferrari, the curator of the show, says: "Nearly half of the works in this exhibition have never been exhibited in the UK before so it is really exciting to be able to show them.

"Wilhelm Hansen was one of the most successful businessmen in Denmark in the early 20th century. He and his wife Henny first started collecting Danish art but Wilhelm discovered French impressionism when he travelled to Paris for work and in 1916 he started buying and building a collection of French impressionist art. He had a great eye for quality and he picked some extraordinary works." Many of the painters in the collection are the 19th-century masters who reshaped Western art. It includes French painting from Eugène Delacroix to Paul Cézanne and is considered one of the most comprehensive collections outside of France.

Paul Gauguin's Portrait of a Young Girl, Vaïte (Jeanne) Goupil (see above) was painted in Tahiti, showing the French child, who lived with her family on a plantation near Papeete. Vaïte was her Tahitian name, and her lawyer father commissioned the portrait from Gauguin. The works in the new exhibition span his career from Brittany to the South of France where he painted with Van Gogh and then to his life in Polynesia.

"In the exhibition, Gauguin has an important place because there are eight works by him and that reflects Gauguin's importance as an artist in the early 20th century when the Hansens were collecting," explains Ferrari. While the painter was influenced by Impressionism in his early years, his work became more Symbolist with the strong colours and a dreamlike atmosphere of this work.
The portrait of Jeanne Goupil is one of Anna Ferrari's favourites of the exhibition: "I think it's a really arresting and mesmerizing portrait, particularly because of  the contrast between the bright, vivid background and the brown dress and pale face of the little girl."

Many of the painters included in the collection are the 19th century masters who reshaped Western art

Alfred Sisley, Unloading Barges at Billancourt, 1877
Oil on canvas, 50 x 65 cm
© Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. 
Photo: Anders Sune Berg
Wilhelm Hansen’s interest in art began during his time at school. Here he met his friend and classmate Peter Hansen, who later became a painter and introduced him to his artistic circle. He first started collecting by buying these young, local artists' paintings and then other more well-known Danish contemporary artists.  

Wilhelm Hansen was an industrious man and had a remarkable business career. He funded the Danish companies Dansk Folkeforsikringsanstalt and Mundus and was the managing director of Hafnia, from1905 until 1936.

Alongside his business career, Hansen enjoyed collecting artworks not only for himself but also to bring French art to a wider audience in Scandinavia. Hansen learnt more about French Impressionist painting during business trips to Paris. From 1916 to 1918, he was collecting works by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Sisley and Gauguin. He wanted to build a collection with up to twelve works by each of the most important French artists, from Corot to Cézanne, providing an overview of early modernist art.

Waterloo Bridge, Overcast, 1903, by Claude Monet, 
on display in ‘Gauguin and the Impressionists: 
Masterpieces from the Ordrupgaard Collection’,  
at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. 
Photo: © David Parry
Wilhelm Hansen kept collecting up until the late 1920s, advised by French writer and art critic, Théodore Duret, who was a friend of Manet, and an early champion of Impressionism. Hansen also collected works by the predecessors of Impressionism. Advised by Duret, Hansen bought paintings by important earlier nineteenth-century painters including Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Delacroix, Corot and Courbet. 

During the First World War, Denmark remained neutral and was quite prosperous and this gave Hansen the opportunity to buy important works from the most prestigious Parisian galleries including the Galerie Durand-Ruel and the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. However, Hansen had a brief hiatus when he was forced to sell part of his collection to pay his debts when the Danish Landmandsbank collapsed in 1922. But he kept his Gauguins and managed to make his fortune back within a year ~ and then kept collecting. This exhibition even reproduces one of Hansen’s original hangs based on archival photographs.

In 1951, Hansen's widow, Henny, bequeathed their home and collection to the Danish state, which turned it into a museum in 1953. A fluid and sinuous extension to the building was designed by architect Zaha Hadid in 2005 and the museum has gained a strong architectural profile. Today, the museum houses one of the finest collections of Impressionist paintings in northern Europe. Currently the Ordrupgaard is closed for the construction of another new wing designed by Norwegian architects Snøhettaand, this has provided the opportunity for the Royal Academy of Arts to hold the exhibition of the collection in London.

The museum houses one of the finest collections of Impressionist paintings in northern Europe.

Camille Pissarro, Plum Trees in Blossom, 
Éragny, 1894
Oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm
© Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. 
Photo: Anders Sune Berg 
The exhibition also includes paintings by Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley.

The three works by Pissarro represent the landscape around his home in Eragny, This delightful picture, Plum tress in Blossom, Eragny (see at right) captures the dappled spring light, vibrant colours and immediacy of  painting in outside. You can almost feel the sun and smell the scent of the blossoms and the fresh green grass.

In 1884, Pissarro and his family moved to Éragny, north-west of Paris. This painting shows the garden of his house with his wife walking up the path evincing his interest in depicting everyday life at home, in his village or in the fields. Camille Pissarro was the oldest of the group of Impressionist painters and he exhibited at all eight Impressionist Exhibitions and came to play the role of an artistic father figure to other painters, including Gauguin.

The exhibition also features precursors of Impressionism such as Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Jules Dupré and Charles-François Daubigny, and some Post-Impressionist works such as the special group of eight paintings by Paul Gauguin. The exhibition opens with landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes mostly painted in and around Paris, the Normandy coast and London, showing how the Impressionists broke away from the classical Italianate landscapes. There are paintings of the forest of Fontainebleau where, in the 1860s, a new generation of painters such as Monet, Sisley and Renoir, went to paint en plein air.

The exhibition opens with landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes mostly painted in and around Paris, the Normandy coast and London,

Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, Overcast, 1903
Oil on canvas, 65.5 x 100.5 cm
© Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. 
Photo: Anders Sune Berg
Brilliant blue skies with scudding clouds and bobbing boats on the water are highlights of Sisley’s scenes of the banks of the Seine. There are also cityscapes of London and Paris by Monet and Pissarro who were inspired by the light and atmosphere of these modern cities.

Claude Monet's Waterloo Bridge, Overcast of 1903 (see at right) shows both the beauty of the foggy light and crowds of people crossing plus smokestacks lining the horizon of the city, above the choppy, brown waters of the Thames. Hansen bought the painting on a trip to Paris in 1916, when the painting must have still have seemed experimental and was painted just over a decade earlier.

Monet painted this picture from his hotel room at the Savoy in London and it is one of a series he began at the start of the 20th century, studying the same view under different weather conditions and at various times of the day. While this painting shows the Waterloo Bridge, the Thames and the factories on the opposite bank, it also captures the atmospheric conditions: the rippling of the water, chimney smoke in the background and the fog that envelops the scene. The painting was not a spontaneous work done on the spot but was the result of a long process, where Monet began the painting in London but later finished it at length in his studio in Giverny.

Young Girl on the Grass, the Red Bodice 
(Mademoiselle Isabelle Lambert), 
1885, by Berthe Morisot, on display in 
‘Gauguin and the Impressionists: 
Masterpieces from the Ordrupgaard Collection’, 
at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. 
Photo: © David Parry
The exhibition also has a section about women that were part of the Impressionist movement and there are also portraits of women painted by Degas and Renoir, In the late 1910s, the Hansens acquired paintings by Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzalès, whose work was less widely recognised, despite their importance. The works show intimate and domestic scenes which reflect the constraints they faced as women artists at the time.

"Excitingly we have works by Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzales, it's really interesting that Wilhelm Hansen collected works by women Impressionists because at the time they weren't as well known as their male counterparts," says Anna Ferrari. Key portraits include Morisot’s Young Girl on the Grass, the Red Bodice (Mademoiselle Isabelle Lambert), 1885 (see main picture above).

The picture shows a young girl who posed for Morisot several times. The painter wanted to capture the youthful energy of Mademoiselle Lambert with an impressionistic approach, working in the open air and and experimenting with different brushwork. Morisot often painted at her house and in her garden, inspired by her home like many other Impressionists. She worked in oil, watercolor and pastel, drawing quickly but making countless sketches and studies of her subjects, which were drawn from life.

Berthe Morisot showed two landscape paintings at the Salon de Paris in 1864, when she was twenty-three years old. She continued to show at the Salon, to favorable reviews, until 1873, the year before the first Impressionist exhibition. She exhibited with the Impressionists from 1874 onwards, only missing the exhibition in 1878 when her daughter was born. The art dealer Durand-Ruel bought twenty-two of her paintings. She always exhibited under her maiden name instead of using a pseudonym or her married name (she was married to Édouard Manet's brother Eugène). By 1880, when she exhibited her work, many reviews judged Morisot's work to be among the best of the Impressionist painters.

"It's really interesting that Wilhelm Hansen collected works by women Impressionists because at the time they weren't as well known as their male counterparts"

Paul Cézanne, Women Bathing, c. 1895
Oil on canvas, 47 x 77 cm
© Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. 
Photo: Anders Sune Berg
The exhibition ends with Gauguin and Post-Impressionism. There are works by artists who, at the turn of the century, reacted against Impressionism: Gauguin, Cézanne and Henri Matisse. Gauguin is one of the best represented artists in the collection with the display of paintings that evoke the arc of his career.

Completing the show is Cézanne’s Women Bathing, c. 1895, a dynamic composition of nude figures set in vivid blue and green Arcadian bower of trees and grass. "Cezanne's bathers is one of my favourite works of the exhibition because I love the colours and you can really see Cezanne working out the poses of the figures and thinking about structure and form in this frieze-like painting," comments Anna Ferrari.

The work shows Cézanne’s experimental method of painting with small, parallel strokes and using sketches and other pictures for the inspiration for the figures rather than drawing them directly from life. The painting doesn't show a particular situation or moment, as an Impressionist work would, but instead uses themes often explored in Cézanne's work and points towards the abstract movement in modern art.

Gauguin and the Impressionistsis: Masterpieces from the Ordrupgaard Collection,  is at the Royal Academy, London, until 18 October.

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