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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (30/11/2021)

(Review of The Danish Collector: Delacroix to Gauguin from Exhibition on Screen)

Gallery shows might have been among the casualties of the pandemic, but the resourceful bods at Exhibition on Screen found a way to keep the series going by shuttling between the Royal Academy and Ordrupgaard in The Danish Collector: Delacroix to Gauguin. Something of a companion piece to The Impressionists and the Man Who Made Them (2015), Phil Grabsky's profile of dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, David Bickerstaff's film discovers the treasures amassed by Wilhelm Hansen and his wife Henny at their summer home outside Copenhagen.

Axel Rüger, the RA's secretary and chief executive, introduces Hansen as a man with enough wealth and wall space to support his ambition and his artistic judgement. Curator Anna Ferrari notes the importance of Paul Gauguin to Hansen's collection, as pictures like `The Little One Is Sleeping, Étude' (1881) were purchased directly from the artist's Danish wife, Mette. Ferrari also mentions that Hansen only started collecting the Impressionists in 1916, having made his fortune around the turn of the century from selling insurance.

His plan was to collect 12 works by the major painters to create mini-retrospectives that would chronicle the development of the style and reveal its influences and legacy. Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark, the director of the Ordrupgaard Art Museum, concurs that Hansen's selections demonstrate that Gauguin's art could never have existed in its distinctive form without the lessons learned from Eugène Delacroix or Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres. As we see the former's `Ugolino and His Sons' (1860), Fonsmark suggests that Edgar Degas provided the link between realism and Post-Impressionism. She also highlights the impact made by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Camille Pissarro in such items as `Country Road, Côte-d'Or' (c.1840-60) and `Plum Trees in Blossom (The Painter's Home), Éragny' (1894).

Exquisite details are shown in close-up from the latter and the same painter's `A Corner in the Garden, Éragny' (1897). But Ferrarri points out Hansen's penchant for Alfred Sisley, who might have been less successful than his contemporaries, but who caught the atmosphere of the River Seine in titles like `The Flood, Banks of the Seine, Bougival' (1873) and `September Morning near Saint-Mammès and the Veneux-Nadon Hills' (1884).

These canvases appear early in the RA show, alongside a 25 year-old Claude Monet's `The Chailly Road Through the Forest of Fontainebleu' (1865), which contrasts strikingly with the 1903 piece, `Waterloo Bridge, Overcast'. With choking chimneys smogging a view that Monet painted from his room at the Savoy Hotel, this was one of the first paintings that Hansen acquired.

He conducted his transactions with a new breed of dealer that included Paul Durand-Ruel, who would instantly have recognised the scene in Pissarro's `Rue Saint-Lazare, Paris' (1897). Frances Fowle, Senior Curator of French Art at the National Galleries of Scotland, notes how artists like Henri Fantin-Latour (`Studio At Batignolles, 1870) favoured the new method, as they were kicking against the salons by organising their own exhibitions. Consequently, works like Pissarro's `By St Anthony's Brook, The Hermitage, Pontoise' (1876) were sold via the dealer-critic system by which the likes of Durand-Ruel courted the most influential reviewers, such as Thédore Duret (shown in a 1912 portrait by Édouard Vuillard) and novelist Émile Zola.

Among the earliest collectors of the Impressionists were businessmen Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, whose respective liking for Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne formed the basis of the earliest museums of Modern Art in Russia. A key British collector was military tailor Henry Hill (shown in an 1880 portrait by Frank Holl), who had a shop close to Durand-Ruel's in Bond Street and bought several works by Degas, including `L'Absinthe' (c.1875-76).

Hansen sought works like Corot's `Dancing Nymphs' (c.1850), `The Bridge At Mantes' (c.1850-54) and `The Town of Isigny, Les Hagues, Manche' (c.1855). As he had painted en plein air in Rome in the 1820s and bore the influence of the realist Barbizon school of landscape painters, Corot proved a major inspiration for the Impressionists

These pictures found their way to Ordrupgaard after the Hansens asked architect Gotfred Tvede to add a special gallery to house their collection. As author Mirjam Gelfer-Jørgensen points out, however, the couple also patronised Danish furniture makers and their perfectly preserved home allows us to understand how manor houses operated in Denmark during the first decades of the last century.

There's certainly a wonderful sense of elegance and tranquility, as the camera drifts through the rooms and into the garden, which Henny planted to ensure a plentiful supply of blooms. A conservatory was also built to provide a link between the living quarters and the gallery. Rüger highlights the 2005 extension designed by Zaha Hadid and refers to the latest addition produced by the Norwegian company, Snøhetta.

Heading back in time, narrator David Rintoul provides some background information on Wilhelm Hansen, who met Henny through a shared fascination with the constructed language, Volapük. He believed that art could improve lives and opened his collection for one day a week from 1918. Indeed, Ferrari has used a photograph of Hansen to reproduce the room's hanging layout at the Royal Academy.

It was built around Charles-François Daubigny's `Seascape, Overcast' (1874) and Rüger finds this as intriguing as Gustave Courbet's `The Ruse, Roe Deer Hunting Episode' (1866), with the former's proto-Impressionist view of the landscape contrasting with the curious static nature of the fleeing deer.

While the camera lingers over Delacroix's `George Sand' (1838), Fonsmark reminds us that Hansen had started as a keen collector of contemporary Danish art and had only branched out into France after opening a branch of his company in Paris. Among the first pieces were Sisley's `The River Boat Garage' (1885) and Degas's `Courtyard of a House (New Orleans Sketch)' (1873). But Hansen wasn't alone in collecting in Copenhagen during the Belle Époque.

Fowle briefly outlines the history of art collecting and mentions monarchs and aristocrats picking up pieces on their grand tours before the nouveau riche started to corner the market, with mercantile-industrial tycoons like Samuel Courtauld and Albert Barnes being cited here. Hansen was smaller fry, but he was astute enough to raid Paris during the depths of the Great War when art prices had depreciated. Moreover, he formed a consortium with Herman Heilbuth and forged a link with the Winkel & Magnusson dealership.

As we see Cézanne's `Women Bathing' (c.1895), Fonsmark informs us that Hansen was now able to buy in bulk and he allowed pieces he didn't want personally to be sold around Scandinavia to increase awareness of French art.

In addition to acquiring works from the collection of dentist George Viau, they also landed a number of pieces from Degas's atelier following his death, including `Woman Arranging Her Hair' (1894). They also sought out works by female artists, such as Eva Gonzalès's `The Convalescent' (Portrait of Woman in White)' (1877-78) and Berthe Morisot's `Woman With a Fan (Portrait of Madame Marie Hubbard)' (1874). Ferrari compares the latter to Édouard Manet's `Olympia' (1863) and we see his 1873 portrait of his sister-in-law, whose `Young Girl on the Grass, the Red Bodice (Mlle Isabelle Lambert)' (1885) was also snapped up by Hansen.

He didn't manage to find anything by Mary Stevenson Cassatt, but we get to see Degas's portrait from c.1880-84. She was popular in America and Fowle highlights the importance of Welsh sisters Margaret and Gwendoline Davies, who were among the most prominent female collectors of Impressionist art. Among their pieces was Monet's `San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice' (1906). While they spent their inheritance, women like Lousine Havemeyer (see in an 1896 Cassatt portrait) and Bertha Palmer invested their spouse's cash. The latter was advised by curator Sarah Hallowell and left her collection, which included Monet's `On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt' (1868), to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Fonsmark is convinced that Henny played little part in her husband's collecting of works like Manet's `Woman With a Jug (Suzanne Leenhoff, later Manet)' (c.1858-60). However, in 1922, the collapse of the Landmandsbanken led to Hansen being forced to repay a loan and Ferrari reports that he had to sell around half of his 156-strong collection. As the Danish state refused his bequest, he had to sell to private collectors. Yet, Fonsmark claims that he started buying again within a year and he picked up paintings by Delacroix and Sisley, as well as pastels by Manet and Degas, albeit at inflated prices.

Four of his Gauguin pictures were lost in what Fonsmark suggests was a panic sale. But Ferrari and Rüger guide us through the remaining eight, which closed the RA show. Among them are `The Wine Harvest, Human Misery' and `Blue Trees (Your Turn Will Come, My Beauty)' (both 1888), with the latter bearing the influence of Japanese prints. The camera also roves over `Two Vases With Flowers' (c.1890-91) and `Tahitian Woman' (1898) before we digress to meet artist Tal R.

He is intrigued by the less polished pieces in the collection, like Degas's `Dancer Adjusting Her Slipper' (c.1879). But he is also enamoured of the folly of artists hoping to capture a moment in time in pictures like Manet's `Basket of Pears' (1882) and Monet's `Seascape, Le Havre' (c.1866), which look to Tal R as if they were done five minutes ago. Warming to his theme, over Gauguin's `Adam and Eve' (1902), he declares a love of painting that has nothing to do with religion or power and focusses instead on the intimate and the accessibly everyday. More poignantly, he makes the point that a viewer only has a short time communing with a picture before they move on and it belongs to somebody else.

We see snippets from his `Home Alone' show at Ordrupgaard, which centres on flowers in vases, birds in cages and building facades. Fonsmark and Fowle discuss the problem of presenting pictures to audiences with changing tastes and they agree that contemporary works can act as a bridge to the older pieces and vice versa. Ferrari commends Hansen for envisaging these shifts by collecting items from across a painter's career, so that Gauguin's `The Little One Is Dreaming, Étude' (1881) and `Portrait of a Young Woman (Vaïte `Jeanne' Goupil)' (1896) look so dramatically different. She contrasts the latter with Vincent Van Gogh's `La Berceuse (Woman Rocking in a Cradle: Augustine-Alix Pellicot Roulin, 1851-1930)' (1889).

Over Julius Paulsen's `Portrait of Wilhelm Hansen' (1926), we learn that he died in 1936 and left Ordrupgaard to Henny. She bequeathed it to the state in 1951 and Ferrari believes Hansen is owed a dual debt, as he not only preserved a France that was disappearing and might have been lost entirely if the war had turned, but he also shared it with his compatriots.

What a fine series Exhibition on Screen has turned into. Every art school in the country should have a complete collection. Not only do you learn something from the expert contributors, but you also learn how to look at paintings from the meticulously filmed canvas close-ups. And, this time, you get to do so to the accompaniment of Asa Bennett's most charming score to date.

Bickerstaff and co-writer/producer Phil Grabsky have one up on the audience here, as few will know much about the Danish insurance broker who faced criminal charges over the loans he took out to acquire his collection. In truth, we don't get to discover a great deal about him. But we come to realise that he had a first-rate eye and a shrewd head for business, as he played the market to his advantage.

To some, his 1916 excursion might feel like plundering, given the state of France after two years of slaughter on the Western Front. But Ferrari's argument that he was rescuing works when the sound of the guns would have been audible in Paris carries weight, as does the assertion that he had always intended to donate his lifetime's achievement to the state.

The insights offered about the changing profile of art collectors and the rise of dealers are also intriguing, although more might have been said about the critics and how they worked in tandem with dealers to promote certain painters. Equally noteworthy are the asides on Morisot and the role played by women collectors like the Davies sisters. But the unexpected highlight turns out to be Tal R's ruminations on the idiocy of trying to capture time, light and beauty. Thank heaven for all those reckless fools from the creator of the Venus of Hohle Fels onwards!

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