February 12, 2016

A Visit to the Courtauld Institute

One of the lesser known gems of the London museum scene is the wonderful Courtauld Gallery.  Founded by Samuel Courtauld and two partners in 1932 as The Courtauld Institute of Art, it quickly became recognized as a world class facility for the study of art history at the postgraduate level.  Over time, and after several important bequests, the focus expanded to include an art gallery and research and conservation facilities and the institute moved to its current location at The Strand entrance of Somerset House.

Today, a degree in art history or conservation from The Courtauld Institute is the gold standard of the field, and a visit to see the extraordinary collection held by The Courtauld Gallery is nirvana for enthusiasts of fine art from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

The collection of The Courtauld Gallery is not huge, but it is perfect.  Beginning on the ground floor with Medieval and Renaissance paintings and devotional objects, visitors will discover magnificent Flemish and Italian altarpieces, intricate Islamic metalwork pieces, and beautiful Gothic ivory carvings.
"Passion diptych" French, c. 1350

Upstairs on the Mezzanine level is the Drawings Gallery where a special exhibition entitled "Bruegel, Not Bruegel" presents a group of 16th and early 17th century drawings from The Courtauld's own collection that either were or still are attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  Known primarily for his large genre scenes depicting peasants in village activities, the Flemish artist was so exceedingly popular that his works, especially his drawings, were often copied.  Some of these copies were so skillfully executed that they were virtually indistinguishable from the real Bruegels and collectors, even knowledgeable ones, were sometimes fooled.  To the untrained eye, like mine, even side by side it is difficult to tell which is the copy!

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
"Kermis at Hoboken", 1559

Continuing up the circular staircase to the First Floor visitors enter the first of seven elegantly appointed galleries where some of the finest examples of Western art from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries are hanging.  Works by Botticelli, Rubens, Gainsborough and Cranach are displayed alongside fabulous silver, porcelains and massive gilded wedding chests.
Lucas Cranach the Elder
"Adam and Eve", 1526
Lovers of Impressionism will be overwhelmed by the plethora of iconic works by Manet, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin, not to mention a whole room of Cézanne's masterpieces.

Edouard Manet
"A Bar at the Folies-Bergere", 1882

Paul Cezanne
"Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine", c. 1887

But wait, it's not over yet!  There is still one more floor filled with with visual delights, this time from the twentieth century.  From the Fauves to the German Expressionists, here we find canvases by Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Modigliani, Kokoschka and a large group of works by the Bloomsbury Group.  

The top floor also features a small gallery reserved for special exhibitions.  Newly opened and running until May is "Bruegel in Black & White" a very special presentation of the three surviving works the master painted in grisaille.  While Pieter Bruegel the Elder is considered the most important Netherlandish painter of the sixteenth century, he only painted about forty works and almost all of these are housed in major museums.  Of these forty, three examples are painted only in shades of grey, a very difficult technique to execute successfully.  For the first time, the three grisaille paintings "Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery" (see below), "The Death of the Virgin" and "Three Soldiers" are reunited along with several copies, or replicas, painted by Bruegel's sons to meet the high demand for these works.

I had visited The Courtauld once before, about fifteen years ago, and remembered it as very special.  Going back last week reminded me that it is truly one of the great collections, presented in magnificent surroundings, and I should never have waited so long between visits!

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