A little over a century ago, Wilhelm Hansen – a Danish insurance magnate – went the whole hog collecting French art. He was 48 when he made his first purchases (two Sisleys, a Pissarro, a Monet and a Renoir) and he bought doggedly. Two years later, a rival pronounced it the “best Impressionist collection in all the world!”
That, bien sûr, was an exaggeration. The curators of Gauguin and the Impressionists, an exhibition of Hansen’s spoils at the Royal Academy, have plumped for “the most important collection of 19th-century paintings outside France”, which is actually pretty accurate, though what’s on show is a later iteration of Hansen’s original buying spree, because he had to sell and replace several paintings along the way.
I should start by saying that the show’s title does a disservice to its plum contents, which extend far beyond Impressionism to works of the Romantic, Realist, Barbizon, Symbolist and Fauve schools. It is well stocked with Gauguins though. Hansen had a soft spot for him perhaps because the artist’s wife, Mette, was Danish. The earliest Gauguin here, a charming painting of his daughter Aline asleep from 1881, was even acquired directly from Mette.
Hansen neither came from artistic stock nor had any artistic education (other than a few drawing lessons), but golly, he bought well. Among the works here are some of the finest paintings to have been produced during that rich, radical era, when Paris, above any other city in the world, was crackling with strident voices. Bubbling away underneath that visual bait, though, is another, arguably more fascinating story concerning the role that events far removed from the actual daubing of paint on canvas – war, politics, commerce, collecting – play in shaping the way that art is understood by later generations.
What’s in the exhibition, then? Date-wise, we begin in the mid 1830s with Corot’s Windmill on the Côte de Picardie and end in 1909 with a zippy still life by Matisse, but these are outliers: the bulk of the works date from the 1840s to the 1890s. They include a flavourful, addictive spread, not least of which is my favourite Gauguin (his 1896 portrait of Vaite “Jean” Goupil), and a tangerine-hued still life by Odilon Redon (1901) that it felt a crime to walk away from.