The old masters travel to Canberra

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Gallery curators, like the rest of us, know they won’t be travelling internationally for some time; so having treasures from one of the world’s finest collections come to us instead is very welcome, and a matter of good fortune.

National Gallery of Australia curator Sally Foster says the exhibition Botticelli to Van Gogh was on its way here via Japan when the pandemic struck in force. Showing in Tokyo and Osaka, it got stuck there, but improved conditions in Australia eventually meant it could travel onwards. Had the collection, housed at the National Gallery in London, not left Britain when it first did, the chances of it showing in Australia would have been slim.

Sandro Botticelli, Four Scenes from the Early Life of Saint Zenobius c 1500, National Gallery, London, Image courtesy the National Gallery, London.

While the show’s title may be conventional, it’s also spot on: the exhibition comprises the gallery’s greatest treasures, including works by Rembrandt, Goya, Turner, Renoir and Cézanne. Tracing significant themes that reflect the history of the gallery, it begins with the Renaissance, which was a matter of great public interest when the London gallery opened in 1824. From there the show covers the Dutch golden age, Baroque painter Anthony van Dyck and his influence on British portraiture, and the Grand Tour of Europeans visiting the continent, a 17th and 18th century tradition for the upper classes.

Botticelli to Van Gogh further traces a love affair with Spanish painting, when the British and French began to ‘discover’ Velazquez and El Greco, followed by a section on landscape and the picturesque. The last grouping covers the rise of modern art in the late 19th century. “That is when the National Gallery stopped collecting and the Tate took over,” Foster says. As she notes, the show makes clear that the National Gallery collection was very carefully acquired as a means to teaching art history. “Each painting is considered incredibly important in its own right.”

Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London
National Gallery of Australia
5 March—14 June

This article was originally published in the March/April 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Andrew Stephens