At the National Gallery: The idiosyncratic Ordrupgaard Collection goes way beyond Impressionism

There was a time, mayhap 25 years ago, when the news of an exhibition of great impressionists was thrilling, but today, after so many impressionist exhibitions in Ottawa, Toronto, New York, etc., the thought of another can elicit an artful meh.

I thought of this recently as I walked into the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. I’d already been next door to the much larger Philadelphia Museum of Art, with its much larger collection of impressionist paintings, and I wondered if the Barnes collection might seem just more of the same, a sort of artistic anti-climax. It wasn’t.

What made the Barnes collection worth seeing was its idiosyncrasy. It had all been collected by one man, Albert Barnes, and to this day they’re hung exactly as he wanted. Despite my long-incubating case of impressionist fatigue, this was a surprisingly fresh perspective, as I was effectively seeing the art through the eyes of a man who had no curatorial motivation beyond his own taste in art.

Paul Cezanne. Women Bathing, c. 1895. oil on canvas, 47 x 77 cm. Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

A similar idiosyncrasy enlivens the National Gallery’s new exhibition Impressionist Treasures: The Ordrupgaard Collection. It includes 76 paintings collected by the Danish couple Wilhelm and Henny Hansen between 1892 and 1931, and kept in the family home, Ordrupgaard, near Copenhagen. After Wilhelm’s death, Henny gave the house and the collection to Denmark.

By any measure it’s an impressive gift, one that is, according to the gallery’s notes, “a collection regarded as one of the most beautiful in Europe.”

Beautiful? Indisputably, particularly in Charles-François Daubigny’s Seascape, Overcast, with its restless energy, or Camille Corot’s The Windmill, with its invigorating light, or Claude Monet’s Chailly Road through the Forest of Fontainebleau, with its enduring trees and its empty road leading to, perhaps, “the artist’s growing interest in coloured surfaces.” There are beautiful stories too. Eva Gonzalés painted a portrait of her sister, “a woman in white,” and kept it with her until she died only a few years later, aged 34.

What about these paintings captured the imagination of the Hansens? There’s no answer, really, for it’s beyond any of us to adequately explain our own personal tastes. Why does a person prefer chocolate ice cream over vanilla? Why prefer, say, landscapes over portraits, expressionism over impressionism? At some point, taste just is what it is.

Eugène Delacroix. George Sand, 1838, oil on canvas, 78 x 56.5 cm. Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

The exhibition establishes the personal nature of the Ordrupgaard Collection at the beginning, with a photographic mural of an interior of the Hansens’ original museum. There’s a timeline of the Hansens’ lives as collectors, and occasional wall texts about their general tastes and motives. My only criticism is that I wished for more about the Hansens in the wall texts accompanying individual paintings — why they chose this painting, what they felt about it, what they may have said about it, anything to illuminate their personal links to specific works.

Overall, the show is well designed and user friendly. It’s arranged more or less chronologically, to demonstrate how what came before influenced what became later. First comes Ingres’ close-cropped portrait of Dante offering the Divine Comedy to Homer, and then Delacroix’s portrait of the writer George Sand (half of what originally was a double portrait with her lover Chopin, though at some point they separated, on canvas and in real life).

Gustave Courbet. The Ruse, Roe Deer Hunting Episode (Franche-Comté), 1866, oil on canvas, 97 x 130 cm. Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

The presence of Ingres and Delacroix makes it clear from the start that the exhibition is more than impressionism, as does the realism in Gustave Courbet’s deer fleeing a hunter, or in Jules Dupré’s Clearing in the Forest, with its dramatically varied light and soaring, bare tree trunks, which, perhaps fantastically, made me think of the interior columns of the Sagrada familia in Barcelona.

When the impressionists come they are impressive. Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, Overcast was painted in 1903, the same year as the gallery’s own painting of the same bridge with “the sun in the fog.” Each painting is another of Monet’s efforts to “capture the complexity of the light.”

Édouard Manet. Basket of Pears, 1882, oil on canvas, 35 x 41 cm. Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

In the same room is Manet’s simple basket of pears, which testifies to the veracity of Manet’s words stencilled on the wall above, “A painter can say all he wants to with fruit or flowers or even clouds.”

The aesthetic language these painters choose to speak with is impressionism, and we see which artists spoke most irresistibly to the Hansens, including Pissarro, Renoir, Matisse, Cézanne, and Gauguin. (As curator Erika Dolphin said, “we have eight pretty fantastic Gauguins here.”)

The great surprise comes at the end, with paintings from Denmark’s “Golden Age,” including several by Vilhelm Hammershøi, whom I wrote about a year or so ago when the gallery acquired its first and only painting by the artist. That painting, Sunshine in the Drawing Room, hangs here with other interior scenes that are similarly infused with a brooding light. They are both complement and contrast to the chill gloaming of Laurits Andersen Ring’s Clear Winter’s Day in Late Afternoon, or the warm light of  Peter Christian Thamsen Skovgaard’s View from Frederiksborg Castle.

It’s easy to see how the Hansens fell in love with all these paintings, and that allows the rest of us to see them in a novel and refreshing way.

The exhibitions continues to Sept. 9.

Peter Christian Thamsen Skovgaard. View from Frederiksborg Castle, 1842, oil on canvas, 140 x 150 cm. Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.