Issue Number: 93
Emma Crichton-Miller examines the history of patronage and collecting through three compact but compelling exhibitions at Dulwich Picture Gallery
Small Wonders Portrait of Mona Lisa after Leonardo da Vinci, c. early 17th century, French School Portrait of Mona Lisa after Leonardo da Vinci, c. early 17th century, French School. Over the next few months, Dulwich Picture Gallery is staging a trio of small exhibitions that sum up its delightful purpose. England’s first dedicated public art gallery was the bequest of two London-based, eighteenth-century art dealers, the Frenchman Noel Desenfans and the Swiss painter, Sir Francis Bourgeois RA. Instructed by the King of Poland in 1790 to create a royal Polish art collection, they were left holding this magnificent baby when, in 1795, Poland disappeared from the map.
Reflecting the taste and market opportunities of those times, Dulwich holds one of the world’s finest small collections of European painting of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its complementary collection of English painting is owed to additional bequests. In its purpose-built, Soane-designed galleries, Dulwich exemplifies the spirit of its period, one of turbulent contrasts between the progress of the Enlightenment and its wild offspring, Revolution, and between Classicism and Romanticism in art.
‘Sir Joshua’s Mona Lisa’ crystallises a moment in the legacy of Leonardo da Vinci. Sir Joshua Reynolds owned a fine early seventeenth-century copy of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, which he treasured as the real thing. This is displayed alongside other works he owned to illustrate Reynolds’ profound influence on the art world of his time.
In ‘Highlights from the Brinsley Ford Collection: Richard Wilson and the Grand Tour’, which is running concurrently, we are invited to reconsider the eighteenth-century Welsh artist’s reputation in the context of the European art that chiefly inspired him. This is a rare chance to see works lent from the splendid private collection of the late Sir Richard Brinsley Ford, a connoisseur who was a great admirer of Wilson.
In 1746, Canaletto visited England for what would become a nine-year stay. ‘Canaletto in England’ brings together over 50 paintings and 30 drawings, many from rarely accessible private collections, to dramatise his vision of London bathed in Venetian light and perspective.
Together, these three exhibitions illuminate a significant moment in the history of art – one that complements the RA’s own ‘Citizens and Kings’ exhibition and sheds light on a period that still shapes the way we see art today.
Sir Joshua’s Mona Lisa and Highlights from the Brinsley Ford Collection: Richard Wilson and the Grand Tour, both until 11 Feb; Canaletto in England: A Venetian Artist Abroad 1746–1755’, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (020 8693 5254), 24 Jan–5 April
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