“Boutique Gallery without Museum Fatigue”
The Courtauld Gallery is a museum in Somerset House, on the Strand in London. It houses the collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art. Famous for its French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, of which you can see my favourites hereunder.
The Courtauld was founded in 1932 by the industrialist and art collector Samuel Courtauld, who in the same year presented an extensive collection of paintings, mainly the French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works on view now. Further bequests were added even up to these days, from Old Master paintings and drawings to modern English abstract works. The gallery reopened in 2021 after a major redevelopment. It’s a treasure-house, on 3 gallery levels, and certainly no museum fatigue! It’s a very pleasant place to visit.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Loge (The Theatre Box) is celebrated as one of the most important paintings of the Impressionist movement. The heart of the painting is a play of gazes enacted by these two figures seated in a theatre box. The elegantly dressed woman lowers her opera glasses, revealing herself to admirers in the theatre and looking towards us viewers, whilst her male companion trains his gaze elsewhere in the audience, trying to spot who are seating in the other boxes. Renoir focuses upon the theatre as a social stage where status and relationships were on public display. This scene was staged in Renoir’s studio. His brother Edmond and Nini Lopez, a model from Montmartre, posed as the couple.
George Seurat painted this view on The Bridge at Courbevoie at the river Seine near Paris. The scene shows an island called the Grande Jatte, which Seurat often painted, but now the mood is unusually sombre and silent. The socially distanced human figures add to the sense of melancholy. The grass, sailing boats and the fisherman contradict with the smokey factory chimney. These images signify the adverse effects industrialisation has brought on the environment that was formerly calm and unpolluted. Courbevoie was a riverside town but became an industrial suburb of Paris.
Seurat is using a technique he had recently created, called “pointillism”. It means painting with lots of tiny dots or points of colour. If you look closely at this painting you will see that everything in the picture is made up of tiny dots. Seurat wanted colours painted side by side to mix in our eye when we look at the pictures, this is called Optical Mixing. Seurat believed that this would make his pictures brighter and more vibrant. Although here he created a picture full of sadness.
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (above on the left) by Vincent van Gogh and painted in January 1889, is one of the highlights of the Courtauld Gallery collection. It’s one of the two self-portraits painted by Van Gogh in January 1889, a week after leaving hospital. He had received treatment there after cutting off most of his left ear (shown here as the bandaged right ear because he painted himself in a mirror). This self-mutilation was a desperate act committed a few weeks earlier, following a heated argument with his fellow painter Paul Gauguin.
Van Gogh had moved from Paris to Arles in the south of France, in hopes of creating a community for artists. He invited Paul Gauguin, an artist whom he had befriended in Paris, to come stay with him. They proved to be a disagreeable pair. The evening of December 23, 1888 during one of their arguments, Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor, but then injured himself, severing part of his left ear. Van Gogh lost a lot of blood and had to be taken to the hospital. Van Gogh returned to his house at the beginning of January. He wrote to Gauguin, apologizing for the incident and assuring him of their continued friendship. He was keen to start painting again and worked on two self portraits during the weeks following his return home. The second self-portrait (above on the right) is the other self-portrait with bandaged ear, wearing same coat and hat, and also painted in January 1889. Vincent van Gogh died on July 29, 1890.
The Montagne Sainte-Victoire dominates the countryside surrounding Paul Cézanne’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence in southern France. For Cézanne, the mountain embodied the rugged landscape and people of Provence. Cézanne painted and drew the mountain from different vantage points throughout his career, each time finding a new mood or atmosphere. The timeless quality of the setting is interrupted only by the modern railway viaduct on the right and the trail of steam left by a passing train. The sweeping pine branches in the foregrounded of this painting are like a curtain and follow the contours of the mountain. The pine tree acts as a “repoussoir” (French for “pushing back”), a painting technique by which an object acts as a frame along the foreground and directs the viewer’s eye into the depth of the composition and emphasizes distance, like here the contrast between the pine tree and the faraway mountain. A highly advisable trick for nowadays instagrammers, getting more depth and effect in their insta-pics.
Cézanne lived in Aix-en-Provence for most of his life. He inherited his family estate and was free of financial worries, making him able to focus on art and painting. The Montagne Sainte-Victoire became the subject of about forty of Cézanne’s oil paintings and twenty of his water colors.
This celebrated work A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is the last major painting by Édouard Manet, completed a year before he died. The central figure is a barmaid in front of a mirror, engaged with a customer we can see in the reflection on the right. In the mirror behind her, we see the world she surveys in front of her. In the top left corner a pair of green feet, which belong to a trapeze artist who is performing above the restaurant’s patrons. Amidst the bottles are two brown ones with a red triangle on its label, from the UK’s Bass Brewery Beer, still existing today. And the wine label on the red bottle on the left has the artist’s signature, “Manet 1882“.
TheFolies-Bergère was the first music hall in Paris; a nightclub where every one spoke the language of pleasure. The barmaids were vendors of drink and love. Manet knew the Folies-Bergère well. He made preparatory sketches for A Bar at the Folies-Be on site, but the final painting was executed in his studio. He set up a bar and employed Suzon, one of the barmaids of the Folies-Bergère, to pose behind it. In 1882 when this painting made its début at the Paris Salon, the yearly French art fair, Édouard Manet’s health was fading as he struggled to complete this painting. Manet died at the age of 51 the following year.
This Pot of Flowers and Fruit is such a simple still life, and at the same time there is so much to see. It’s not about the objects, but it’s all about the colors and the forms. Paul Cézanne contrasts the roundness of the fruits with the flat leaves of the plant and the rectangular forms at the reverse of the stretched canvas in the background. The colors are in great balance, yellow on the two sides of the green leaves of the plant, with the green-yellow leaves connecting everything. The white flower is a modest – but also triumphant – touch in the centre. We read the image as a balanced play of shapes and colours.
The Courtauld Gallery and Courtauld Institute of Art