A Harvard Collection at the National Gallery

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

A Harvard Collection at the National Gallery


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


THE latest exhibition at the National Gallery is called A Private Passion: Harvard's Winthrop Collection, although one would not readily call the collector, Grenville Winthrop (1864-1943) passionate. A rich Manhattan lawyer, introverted and austere, he retired early to live on wealth inherited from his ancestors, who stemmed from the first Governor of Massachusetts. Like many of his eminent forefathers, as a young man he attended Harvard University, a venerable but innovatory institution, which offered one of the earliest courses in the History of Art. Captivated by that course, he formed an interest in nineteenth-century pictures which would sweeten his future years of loneliness.

The early loss of his wife left him to bring up his daughters, whom he kept in a state of puritan, vegetarian near-purdah that they escaped as soon as they could. They both eloped on the same day, one with his gardener and the other with his electrician. After that, since he did not like travel, he shared his seclusion only with his pictures, his gardenful of peacocks and pheasants, and rare visiting academics and art-dealers. The least friendly display of his wealth was to snap up a portrait of the Abbe Sieyes by Jacques-Louis David by outbidding Kenneth Clark, who was negotiating its purchase for the National Gallery in London. No popularist, Winthrop left his collection to Harvard University rather than to the Metropolitan Museum, since at Harvard it would be seen mainly by well-educated youths: perhaps his surrogate sons.

His proviso that his pictures should never be lent was fortunately legally flawed, and now for a while part of the collection is at the National Gallery. The loan exhibition includes none of Winthrop's Italian Primitives, but we can hardly complain when we are given access to four finished paintings by Ingres (as well as 26 sketches, studies and drawings) and three by Moreau (plus his intricately finished watercolour, The Sirens). Add to that two fine pictures by Burne-Jones and a scatter of sketches by his Pre-Raphaelite predecessors and himself; a small sample of Blake's biblical watercolours; and a few dextrous original drawings, which have often been reproduced, by Beardsley. Winthrop's assemblage of works by Ingres, the largest outside France, is in itself a good reason to visit the exhibition.

At one time Ingres vaguely planned several paintings of events in the life of his hero Raphael. Over time the project dwindled to just two events, although Ingres devised variations of each painting. Raphael and la Fornarina depicts the legend of Raphael's conquest of his model, the fornarina, or baker's daughter, whilst painting frescoes in the Vatican. In fact, the deminude portrait, La Fornarina (Gallery Borghese, Rome) was almost certainly painted by Raphael's pupil, Giulio Romano.

In each version the libertine Raphael has pulled her down from her dias and placed her on his red-hosed knees, but even with his arms around her, distracted between Nature and Art he glances, crayon in hand, at the underdrawing on his canvas. Raphael's face is based on the self-portraits in the Uffizi Gallery and the Vatican fresco of The School of Athens. Raphael and the baker's daughter have both chosen hair parted in the exact centre, as in most of Ingres's female portraits.

The Harvard version is a delectable glossy arrangement of red, lemon and rose (including rosy complexions) on predominant jet. A half-open curtain reveals the top floor of the Vatican as it was before Michelangelo reconstructed it. Raphael's Madonna with the Chair, supposedly modelled upon the baker's daughter, is propped against a wall. The baker's daughter herself coyly draws up her lowered robe, as if aware of the admirers of the picture, at whom she directly looks. Infatuated with Raphael in the version of sixteen years later (Columbus Gallery, Ohio) the softer model is more ardent as she straddles Raphael's leg and presses him to her bare bosom. …

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