In Focus: The French collection of the extraordinary Wilhelm Hansen, Monet and Manet to ‘a wall-full of Pissarros’

Caroline Bugler finds much to enjoy at the Royal Academy’s show of 19th-century French art on loan from Wilhelm Hansen's collection in Copenhagen.

In 1916, when the best French Modern art was being snapped up by American, Russian and European industrialists with seemingly bottomless pockets, Wilhelm Hansen (1868–1936), a successful Danish insurance agent and Esperanto enthusiast, began buying up French paintings with quiet determination.

He already had a collection of Danish Golden Age paintings, but business trips to Paris had fanned the flames of a new passion for French art and top dealers and leading art critics were only too willing to offer advice. Having decided to buy a dozen examples of work by 19th-century French masters, from Corot to Cézanne, Hansen created a temple of art at his house in Ordrup on the leafy outskirts of Copenhagen for his burgeoning collection, which he intended to share with the public.

Things didn’t quite work out as expected: bank failure in 1922 meant he had to sell many of his prized canvases to pay debts, but, once he was solvent again, he set about re-creating what he had lost. Hansen’s dream of leaving his pictures to the Danish nation encountered a few hiccups along the way, but the Ordrupsgaard Sammlung eventually became a national museum in 1953.

Now, while it is closed for the building of a new underground extension, 60 of its paintings have been lent to this gem of a show at the Royal Academy. The exhibition opens, true to the promise of its title, with a selection of Impressionist canvases. There’s a wall full of Pissarros — a rural snowscape, springtime gardens in full bloom, bustling Parisian boulevards in early morning sunlight — and some calm Sisley riverscapes, all serenity and watery reflection. There are also three watery Monets — a hazy view of Waterloo Bridge, a Normandy beach scene and an empty expanse of sea and sky in which the viewer is cast adrift like the boat bobbing on the horizon.

Corot’s ‘The Windmill. Courtesy of the Royal Academy’s exhibition, ‘Gauguin and the Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Ordrupgaard Collection’.

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This is only one of a number of seascapes in the collection that focus solely on waves and clouds — Hansen evidently had a penchant for moody marines. Other standout canvases are Degas’s sketch of an interior scene in New Orleans, pleasing with its off-kilter composition, and Manet’s painting of his wife holding a jug — surely a nod to Vermeer.

The second room, densely hung to give an idea of the original display in Hansen’s home, is dominated by the Impressionists’ predecessors. The Courbets are large, encrusted and a touch bombastic. The Corots, by contrast, give a quieter pleasure with their small-scale intimacy. The third room introduces paintings by female Impressionists — Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzalès — as well as paintings of women.

But then it all shifts a gear as we encounter the star of the show. Eight paintings by Gauguin hang together like a mini biography, taking us from his early years in Paris as an amateur artist through his time in Brittany as a leader of the avant-garde to his brief stay in the south of France painting alongside van Gogh and, finally, to his last years in French Polynesia.

On the wall behind Morisot’s delicate feathery Young Girl on the Grass (Mademoiselle Isabelle Lambert) is Gauguin’s confrontational portrait of Jeanne Goupil seated uncomfortably in her brown school dress against a vivid pink and blue background. It’s a disquieting picture, not least because Jeanne, the daughter of one of Gauguin’s rare French patrons in Tahiti, was nine years old when it was painted, but, with a pale mask-like face and painted lips, she looks more like a hardened seductress in her twenties.

Gaugin’s ‘Portrait of a Young Girl‘ (1896). Courtesy of the Royal Academy’s exhibition, ‘Gauguin and the Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Ordrupgaard Collection’.

The Wine Harvest, Human Misery is equally odd. Painted during Gauguin’s ill-fated stay with van Gogh in the Yellow House in Arles, it’s an assembly of motifs from southern France and Brittany, with women in Breton costume amid a mountain of red grapes and a disconsolate foreground figure whose pose is based on a Peruvian mummy Gauguin had seen in the Ethnographic Museum in Paris.

Van Gogh described it as ‘very fine and very strange’ when he saw it in progress, but the artistic admiration was not one-sided. Blue Trees (Your Turn Will Come, My Beauty!), a haunting landscape in which cobalt tree trunks soar up towards a yellow sky, was also painted when Gauguin was staying in Arles and it owes something to his experimental colours and love of Japanese prints.

The most tender work is Gauguin’s early portrait of his young daughter Aline sleeping, her dreams suggested by the birds on the wallpaper beside her and the menacing doll in a jester’s costume beside her bed. Hansen bought the painting from Gauguin’s long-suffering Danish wife, Mette, who was an indefatigable champion of her husband’s work.

It is a counterpoint to his late depiction of Adam and Eve, painted the year before his death. A European Adam, whose features bear a passing resemblance to Gauguin’s, seems to be turning his back on the Tahitian Eve and walking away, taking his leave from a tropical paradise.

‘Gauguin and the Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Ordrupgaard Collection’ is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1, until October 18