The French Drawings in the Collection of His Majesty the King at Windsor Castle

The French Drawings in the Collection of His Majesty the King at Windsor Castle

The French Drawings in the Collection of His Majesty the King at Windsor Castle

The French Drawings in the Collection of His Majesty the King at Windsor Castle

Excerpt

The series of drawings of the French school in the Royal Library at Windsor is in many respects unique. In size it does not compare with the collection of the same school in the Louvre, nor probably even with that in the Hermitage; but in certain respects it is richer than either of these. Nowhere in the world is it possible to see a group of drawings by Nicolas Poussin, the greatest of all French classical draughtsmen, comparable in quality, range, preservation and associative interest with those at Windsor; and with the exception of the splendid series in the British Museum, the work of his great contemporary in landscape, Claude Gellée, is perhaps more beautifully represented in the Royal Library than in any other collection.

On the other hand in certain periods and styles the Windsor collection is remarkably weak. The sixteenth century is poorly represented; there are hardly any examples of the great draughtsmen of the eighteenth century, and the nineteenth century is to all intents and purposes limited to a series of official water-colours illustrating events connected with the life of the Court, none of which is by an artist of the first rank.

Both the strength and the weakness of the collection can be accounted for by the manner in which it was formed. If we ignore for the moment the nineteenth-century drawings, the greater part was acquired by two collectors, Frederick Prince of Wales and his son, George III. Naturally their choice was governed by the official English taste of the period, which is best defined in the Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds. For him European art consisted of the classical tradition as it was founded by Raphael and Michelangelo--both nobly represented at Windsor--revived by the Carracci at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and carried on by certain members of the Roman school of the next generations. The work of these artists--Domenichino, Andrea Sacchi and Carlo Maratta, together with Guido Reni, and Guercino, who continued the tradition of the Carracci in Bologna-- bulks largest in the Royal Library, and indeed fills half of the shelves devoted to the Italian school. With this group of painters are closely associated the two most purely classical artists of the time, French by birth but Roman by adoption, namely Poussin and Claude, the former of whom was regarded by Reynolds as almost the equal of the great Renaissance masters. It is therefore natural that the two founders of the Royal collection should have paid particular attention to the acquisition of works by these artists.

The same rigid taste accounts for the gaps in the French drawings at Windsor. To Reynolds and his contemporaries the work of sixteenth-century French artists would have seemed 'Gothic', and it could have had at most a purely historical significance. It was no doubt this interest that led to the acquisition of the portrait drawings representing ladies and gentlemen of the court of France which form more than half of the sixteenth-century section. In the same way French art of the eighteenth century had little to offer to those who thought like Reynolds. The Rococo was too frivolous, and the naturalism of painters like Chardin lacked idealism and classicism. It is therefore natural that the drawings of this period at Windsor should be somewhat insignificant, and most of them have . . .

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