0628 GMT September 29, 2022
That people fall in love with paintings is no exaggeration. Consider the Manet still life in this exultantly beautiful show that was painted in the final summer of his life. It depicts five green pears in a basket. Each is singular and unique, five vital beings turning towards each other in companionable conversation, united in the golden circle of the basket.
The man who loved this painting was its owner, Danish collector Wilhelm Hansen (1868-1936), who used to show it to his dinner guests “as an extra dessert after the ice cream”. If this sounds like a plutocrat’s party trick, the feeling was completely sincere. Hansen loved and lost more than one Manet during the Danish banking crash of 1922, selling most of his French art to prop up his insurance company. But this Manet he kept, for its amazingly free brushstrokes, its greens running all the way from emerald to sultry viridian, its unshadowed joy in looking at the world even as life ebbs away. “A painter can say all he wants,” Manet once remarked, “with fruit or flowers or even clouds.”
This selection of 60 works from the Ordrupgaard Collection – named after Hansen’s stately villa on the outskirts of Copenhagen – is the first major new show to open in this country since lockdown. It feels like a museum of French painting in miniature. But Hansen’s passions weren’t conventional; they reveal a taste for originality, for the humane, the unexpected and the atypical among artists of the French avant-garde.
Hansen bought what appear to be classic Corots, for instance, but look closely and you will see Hamlet and the gravedigger in the glade of silvery willows. He bought paintings by Courbet that include a startling scene of roe deer hurtling through a winter forest, their sleek dark shapes so incisive against the blurry snow you might be looking at a surrealist collage.
He collected Degas’s paintings, it is true, but look at the enthralling frieze of figures in the nearly monochrome ‘Courtyard of a House in New Orleans’. A white dog stands like a portent in the hot dust, a child turns suddenly, as if noticing a camera, while uneasy shadows spread through the darkness inside; and all is pinned together with the graphic precision of Degas’s burning black lines. This early oil sketch seems to presage all of his pictorial audacity.
The show opens with a spectacular invitation to enter the scented woods of Fontainebleau. Monet takes the eye sweeping through the wide avenue of trees, summer sifting through their leaves. The painting fairly glitters with sunlight. But there is a hint of autumn on the forest floor, and the image seems to present a freedom of nature that we cannot reach just now, exhilarating yet also poignant.
Pissarro, alongside all the Monets, seems almost garrulously sociable. Figures appear in every scene. A mother and child sit by a brook as harvest fields meet to the water, crops turning golden-orange in the warm air. Beneath a cloud of efflorescent spring blossom, Madame Pissarro is seen arriving safely home, as if the picture (and the life) were not complete without his wife.
In winter, against instinct, Pissarro finds the most abundant color. The glow of an evening sky above winter fields is almost upstaged by the snow below, twinkling with blue, purple, lavender, pink and orange strokes. It is as if he alone can see all the frequencies of light itself in a frozen landscape.
On his first trip to Paris, in 1916, Hansen bought Monet’s view of Waterloo Bridge dissolving in a pearly haze of blue-grey smog, a daringly modern painting then only 13 years old. Back home, he approached Gauguin’s Danish widow Mette for the purchase of ‘The Little One Is Dreaming’. This unnerving portrait of their young daughter would pass for 19th-century realism, were it not for the alarming toy Punch tucked into the bed, one pertinacious eye on the viewer, and the harbinger birds taking flight from the wallpaper above. What is dream, and what is reality?
More sinister still is Gauguin’s ‘Blue Trees’, a quartet of cobalt verticals against a yellow sky patched with scarlet clouds. It is a dazzling image, predating the wild colors of fauvism, painted while Gauguin was staying with Van Gogh at Arles in 1888. Van Gogh’s influence is everywhere apparent, but he has nothing to do with Gauguin’s strange couple, half visible beneath the trees, the man with his hands thrust deep into his pockets, threatening and aggressive.
It is not clear why Gauguin gets pole position in the exhibition’s title. There are masterpieces here by many other painters, including Courbet, Matisse, Cézanne and Renoir.
And there is a superb section of impressionist women, artists as well as sitters. Eva Gonzalès, Manet’s only student, paints a luminous white-on-white portrait of a convalescent that perfectly conveys that fragile but hopeful state. Among the works by Berthe Morisot is a wonderful portrait of a girl in a red bodice, something of its hue reflected in her complexion, and in the comical faces of the pansies straggling around her.
Hansen and his wife, Henny, formed one of the greatest private collections in Scandinavia. But their offer to sell the art to the state for a modest fee was met with “hostile coolness” by the Danish government. The Hansens were hurt and no longer opened Ordrupgaard to the public. It was only when Henny died in 1951 that Denmark was bequeathed this treasury of art.
This group of paintings is abroad while Ordrupgaard is closed for rebuilding. The Royal Academy is the final stop on a tour that began in Paris with a different title: ‘The Hansens’ Secret Garden’. This is more apt for the intimate scale and character of these pictures, so unusual, intriguing and unfamiliar.
Here is the other half of a double portrait by Delacroix that shows the writer George Sand in some kind of inner rapture. And who has ever seen Courbet’s fantastically outlandish painting of wire-makers’ workshops near Ornans, where the buildings huddle far below a cliff as vast as a fortress, lording it over the workers. You sense Courbet’s subconscious at work with his revolutionary zeal encapsulated in this small but vociferous work.
Best of all is a painting so rarely shown you would normally have to travel to Denmark to see it. This is Manet’s portrait of his young wife, Suzanne, holding a jug.
* Laura Cumming is a British art critic and author.
This article was first published by theguardian.com.