Magazine article The Spectator

Amateur Delights

Magazine article The Spectator

Amateur Delights

Article excerpt

A Private Passion: Harvard's Winthrop Collection

National Gallery until 14 September

Grenville L. Winthrop (1864-1943), a New Yorker of established family and wealth and a Harvard graduate, began collecting art in the last decade of the 19th century. As he gained in confidence, he began to focus and define his interests, concentrating by the 1920s and 1930s on French, British and American artists of the previous century. On his death, his remarkable and little-known collection of some 4,000 objects, from ancient Chinese jades and bronzes to French neo-classical paintings and drawings, was bequeathed, along with his library, to Harvard. Now a selection of the finest paintings and drawings, ranging from Blake to Ingres, and from Delacroix to Renoir, is on show in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, the first time Harvard has consented to lend the collection abroad.

Not everyone has time to revisit an exhibition or linger in the galleries, and thus first impressions can be of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, the contents of the first room of this display don't really give the full flavour of the collection's strengths. I should have liked to see something more dramatic and eye-catching than the low-key Flaxman drawings, and the very strange Gothic Blake, in tempera on canvas, of Christ blessing the world. I cannot think that many will pause for long in this room - it's not surprising or exciting enough. Nor docs it prepare you for the real quality of so many of the other exhibits. For instance, the fabulous Ingres drawings and paintings in the very next gallery.

Grenville Winthrop evidently had a soft spot for the linear and neo-classical, and he indulged it to great effect in his pursuit of Ingres. His collection includes what is generally held to be the finest group of works by Ingres outside France. There are more than 30 examples of all aspects of his art on show: superb pencil portraits, a watercolour copy of the famous image of the bather seen from the rear, an extraordinary drawing of the fall of light in graphite and white chalk depicting 'Virgil Reading The Aeneid to Augustus', a ravishing oil study of a standing nude next to a deeply sensual odalisque, a dour self-portrait and much, much more. If occasionally Ingres seems to distort a limb or mis-place a sleeve, it's hardly worth a quibble, especially in the face of the breathtaking and masterly naturalism of the standing nude. This is an exceptionally good representation of Ingres's genius, and alone justifies the admission charge.

However, there are dozens of other reasons to visit this enjoyable exhibition. …

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