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Painters’ Paintings from the Wallace Collection

The National Gallery’s current exhibition, Painters’ Paintings, offers a fascinating insight into the works that great artists bought and why they bought them. In this blog by Lucy Davis, Curator of Paintings at the Wallace Collection, explores works in our Collection which have passed through the hands of great artists.

The exhibition Painters’ Paintings perfectly illustrates how great artists have at different times bought works by other great artists for a variety of reasons, both commercial and creative. Perhaps the most intriguing cases are where the buyer acquires a work from which he/she derives something of particular significance to his/her own artistic purpose and begins a dialogue or conversation with the acquisition. The exhibition reminds us of the interconnectedness of artists through their engagement with the art of the present and past.

At the Wallace Collection, we have a number of paintings that once belonged to artists, including such renowned ‘celebrity’ painters as Van Dyck and Reynolds, who are both represented in the Painters’ Paintings exhibition, as well as lesser known artists such as Cornelis de Wael, who was a friend of Van Dyck and is best known today as an agent and dealer. We also have small copy after Titian’s Rape of Europa that once belonged to the Scottish painter Gavin Hamilton.

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Our greatest painter’s painting is Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda, formerly in the possession of Van Dyck, an artist well represented at the Wallace Collection (see his portraits of Marie de Raet and Philippe Le Roy and a mythological painting, Paris.

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Titian’s works were immensely influential for generations of painters after his lifetime, and were highly sought after by artists who formed their own collections, including not only Van Dyck but also his former master, Rubens.

The Perseus and Andromeda was the third in a mythological series painted for Philip II of Spain (when regent). Titian called this series his Poesie, because he saw them as the pictorial equivalent of poetry. The Perseus and Andromeda is arguably the most dramatic of the Poesie and demonstrates Titian’s ability to convey intense emotion in his work.

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The painting was brought to Madrid by Philip following his accession although it is unclear where it hung while it remained in the royal collection. It is likely to have been displayed with the other Poesie. By the time Rubens visited court in 1628 (when he allegedly copied all the Titians in the royal collection) the original, now in the Wallace Collection, had been replaced with a copy, however.

It is unclear how Van Dyck came to acquire the Perseus and Andromeda. All we know for certain is that it was documented in his estate inventory of 1644, drawn up three years after his death in London. Our former Director, the late John Ingamells, proposed that Van Dyck acquired the work in Milan from the heirs of Pompeo Leoni, sculptor to the Spanish Habsburgs. Leoni may have received the painting from the Spanish crown as a gift, or in satisfaction of royal debts. In any event, Leoni had an impressive art collection in Madrid, which included some exceptionally beautiful mythological paintings by the Italian painter Correggio; Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda would have complemented these paintings very well. Please see Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio’s publications on the Leoni collection for further information.

Against Pompeo Leoni’s wishes, his heirs began selling off his collection after his death in 1608. Works from the collection were sent back to the family home in Milan and sold. It was possible that Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda was among them and was acquired by Van Dyck during his visit to Italy between 1621 and 1627. As a young man in his twenties, Van Dyck was already a passionate admirer of Titian and spent six years in Italy closely studying the master’s paintings, and it seems, even acquiring some very significant works by him. If Van Dyck did indeed acquire the painting from the heirs of Pompeo Leoni, then the painting should be described as not only a painter’s painting but also a sculptor’s painting.

Van Dyck came to London in 1632 to become court painter to Charles I of England. His collection followed him shortly afterwards. So renowned was his collection that Marie de Medici (the exiled Queen of France) had come to view it on a visit to Antwerp in 1631. The Titians were at that time described as housed in a ‘cabinet’, suggesting that they were displayed together separately from the rest of his collection. It is likely that King Charles would have visited Van Dyck’s studio in Blackfriars not only to sit for his portrait but also to view the painter’s celebrated collection. To give some idea of the size of that collection and the space likely to have been required to house it, we can look to the inventory of his estate drawn up 3 years after his death in 1641. Listed in the inventory are no fewer than 19 paintings by Titian. The largest is the Vendramin Family, a monumental canvas measuring 2 by almost 3 meters, which now hangs in the National Gallery. It is listed first of the 19 Titians and Perseus and Andromeda is second (slightly smaller at 175 x c. 190 cm), followed by the remainder which are portraits and one religious subject, which suggests that they were listed in descending order, by size.

Following Van Dyck’s death, the Perseus and Andromeda continued to travel extensively around Europe. By 1655, it was recorded in Paris in the Hotel de la Vrilliere, where it was described as ‘The Andromeda which Titian painted for the King of Spain, which was once admired by Van Dyck and was the marvel of his cabinet.’ This proves that Van Dyck’s association with the painting further added to its cachet among connoisseurs.

By Lucy Davis

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