Born and brought up in London, repeatedly visiting this gallery with my father since before I could even walk, it’s safe to say I’m a hardcore National Gallery devotee. Unfortunately, this is precisely the same reason this exhibition left me feeling a sense of unfamiliar disappointment as I left the building, for the first time in my life.
Don’t get me wrong – the exhibition itself includes a mesmerising set of paintings, the unification of Samuel Courtauld’s historically split up collection (between the National Gallery and the Courtauld Gallery); it would be absurd of anyone to deny the mastery of Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnières’, or Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’.
Perhaps I just had overly high expectations, or I hyped the exhibition up too much in my own head – a glorious, ground-breaking union of all the greatest Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pieces London, or indeed the UK, had to offer. Or perhaps I was hoping for something a little bit different, or some sort of examination of the pieces in a new or different way – I’m not really sure. Instead what we get is the Courtauld collection coupled with select pieces from the National Gallery, and an admission charge stuck on it. Many of the painting descriptions for National Gallery pieces were essentially the same as they usually are in the free collection, so I felt a bit robbed. Equally, I imagine those on holiday who came to visit the regular free National Gallery Impressionism collection, only to find half of the pieces taken away and put in a paid exhibition, must also be feeling robbed.
Whilst I liked the way it was split up by artist, with each section titled using emboldened prints of their signature, it meant that it was difficult to cross-examine themes and techniques between artists. Further, with only a few paintings by each artist, there also weren’t enough paintings to see development in their own styles. However, there was sufficient relevant and interesting information about every artist and each painting, making it ideal for those who haven’t experienced much Impressionism, or really love it and haven’t yet seen London’s collection before, with the decent price tag of £7.50 in such a case.
The way you’ll feel about this exhibition really just depends on who you are and your circumstances. If you’ve been to the National Gallery countless times, and have either been to the Courtauld before or have time to spare until it reopens in 2 years, I’m not sure if this exhibition is worth it. Considering the £8 admission for the Courtauld, with access to 3 times as much art as this exhibition (including 2 other art periods along with this Impressionism collection), and the fact that the Courtauld itself is only a 10 minute walk away on the other end of Strand, it would be easily doable in one day when the collections are both back in their respective normal locations.
But if you have limited time in London and can’t afford to wait 2 years, or are simply eager to feast your eyes on this astounding collection, then £7.50 is still a pretty good deal.