Art Collecting

Edinburgh Art Festival Review: A Taste for Impressionism, Scottish National Gallery | Pro Club Bd

La Luzerne, Saint Denis, by Georges Seurat PIC: National Galleries of Scotland

A Taste for Impressionism: Modern French Art from Millet to Matisse, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh ****

In 1960, Alexander Maitland donated 21 artworks to the National Galleries of Scotland. On his death in 1965 he bequeathed five others. All 26 were paintings or sculptures created in France during the exciting years when Impressionism flourished in the 1860s and then Picasso, Matisse and others developed radically new styles in the early 20th century. The National Galleries’ wannabe blockbuster for this summer, A Taste for Impressionism: Modern French Art from Millet to Matisse, tells the story not just of the art but of the Maitlands, the other collectors whose generosity has enriched the national collection and the curators who have steered its development both through the promotion of charity and through sensible purchases.

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Alexander Maitland – he was later knighted and is therefore remembered as Sir Alexander – made his generous gift in 1960 in memory of his wife Rosalind, who had died the year before. The couple had been collecting since the 1930s and their notable acquisitions included Monet’s Haystack, Van Gogh’s Blooming Orchard and Gauguin’s Three Tahitians, purchased in 1936. However, Cézanne’s Mont St Victoire was bought by Maitland in 1959 and so it went almost straight into the Landes collection. He bought Matisse’s The Painting Lesson in 1960. It came to the gallery after his death in 1965 and his purchase may have been prompted by the opening of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 1960 and certainly Matisse is one of its greatest ornaments .

The idea of ​​a gallery dedicated to modern art was first put forward in the 1930s by the galleries’ owner, Stanley Curister. Appointed in 1925, he is one of the most important figures in gallery history. During his first year in office, the gallery acquired both Monet’s Poplars on the Epte and Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon. If Monet had become respectable by then, the Vision after the Sermon, though a key image in the history of modern art, was a very bold purchase. So was everything by Van Gogh, but in 1934 Cursiter bought his Olive Trees, another true masterpiece.

In addition, however, it was Cursiter who advised the Maitlands on collecting. He is such an important character in this story that it is a pity that there is no portrait of him here. A fine portrait of James Guthrie by Rosalind Maitland, in whose name the Maitland gift was given, is not here either. A few digressions of that sort might have livened the show up, but there aren’t any. It is solely the national collection of French art from these critical years and follows the conventional history of Impressionism and its legacy. However, to round out this story there are also half a dozen loans, mostly from other Scottish public collections.

There are also one or two pictures missing, but they should be here. The most notable is Cézanne’s magnificent The Big Trees. Bequeathed by Anne Kessler and dated c. 1902-4, it’s a really great example of Cézanne’s late style. It’s signaled on the walls, but won’t appear there until September. The exhibition was originally planned for 2020, which would have been the 60th anniversary of the Maitland gift, but history intervened and by the time it became possible to put it up, loans had been arranged, meaning several paintings are elsewhere .

Roughly following the chronology, the first room is dedicated to the Barbizon painters, although Corot, one of the outstanding painters here, was not strictly speaking one of them. Its beautiful Ville d’Avray – Entrance to the Forest is a star. Purchased in 1927, it is another notable Cursiter purchase. This also applies to Pissarro’s early but very rich painting The Marne in Chennèvieres, which also hangs here. Inclusion in this room underscores the continuity between the Barbizon painters and the Impressionists. This group also includes some of the earliest acquisitions of relatively modern French painting, for in 1911 the bequest of Hugh A. Laird brought Daubigny’s beautiful twilight view of Herblay into the national collection, along with pictures by Constant Troyon and Charles Emile Jacque.

Montagne Sainte Victoire by Paul Cezanne PIC: National Galleries of Scotland

The main room is dominated at one end by the gallery’s three Gauguins, the three Tahitians, the Martinique landscape, also a Maitland picture, and Cursiter’s seminal purchase, The Vision after the Sermon. At the other end is Degas’ portrait of Diego Martelli. Purchased in 1932, it is another major Cursiter acquisition. The Maitlands’ four Degas pictures hang here, while their several Degas bronzes are on display on the floor. Monet’s boats in the harbour, his haystacks and poplars on the Epte hang alongside. In this company, however, Alfred Sisley’s Molesey Weir, Hampton Court, 1874, part of the Maitland Gift, and Pissarro’s Kitchen Garden of the same year, a gift from Mrs Isabel Trail, stand out as fine examples of early Impressionism. (Mrs Trail also donated Monet’s Church at Vétheiul and Vuillard’s Still Life with a Candlestick.)

Cézanne’s Mont St Victoire is a star in this space, but so is Seurat’s pretty La Luzerne, Saint-Denis, which was bought in 1973 by Maitland’s Van Gogh, Head of a Peasant Woman. It shows a shadowy self-portrait painted on the back of the canvas that was hidden under glue and cardboard 100 years ago. Its restoration will be difficult but certainly doable, but who knows what exactly it will reveal.

One of the back rooms is devoted to works on paper, including a striking Matisse woodcut, a beautiful Seurat drawing and a beautiful Monet pastel, recently acquired. The other back room contains a group of works by Boudin and several by Fantin Latour, but the standout picture in this room is an early Monet painting, Seascape, Shipping by Moonlight, an inspired purchase in 1980.

Matisse’s Painting Lesson, Derain’s stunning 1905 Coullioure, Braque’s 1911 Cubist The Candlestick, and small paintings by Vuillard, Bonnard, Picasso, and others make for a bit of a mix in one of the front rooms, and the wall color doesn’t help. It is a shrill yellow that sucks the life out of the paintings like blotting paper sucks liquid. Some of the other room colors are painfully harsh, but this is terrible. Matisse’s exquisite painting lesson shrank out of water like a cut flower. Can we request a repaint? It’s a relief to walk into the last room where Matisse’s entire Jazz Suite is hung in white frames on a black wall. it sings

Olive Trees, by Vincent van Gogh PIC: Graeme Yule / National Galleries of Scotland

The catalog published parallel to the exhibition is entitled “The Impressionist Era: The Story of Scotland’s French Masterpieces”. Gauguin’s Three Tahitians, Van Gogh’s Olive Trees, the Two Cézannes and a few others are true masterpieces, and many of them we also owe to Stanley Cursiter’s foresight and undoubtedly his convincing intuition. However, French paintings from this period are not necessarily all masterpieces and in fact some of these paintings are quite boring but among them you must spot the fake. One was hung on purpose to test your judgement.

A Taste for Impressionism: Modern French Art from Millet to Matisse, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, until November 13

Poplars on the Epte, by Claude Monet

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