Chester Beatty's French connection
Known for his world-class collection and gifts of oriental art and manuscripts, Chester Beatty also donated many of his 19th-century French paintings to the National Gallery of Ireland. Now they are on show at the library that bears his name
IT’S INCREASINGLY well known that the Chester Beatty Library is home to one of the finest collections of books and manuscripts in the world, extraordinary for its breadth and quality. Rather less well known is the fact that Sir Alfred Chester Beatty also collected paintings, mostly 19th-century French paintings, and donated more than 100 of them, along with more than 200 drawings, miniatures and sculptures, to the National Gallery of Ireland. Even though they might fade into relative insignificance when set against the richness of the library’s holdings, his total donations to the gallery rank him as one of its most generous and important benefactors.
It’s coming up to two years since Fionnuala Croke moved from her position as head curator at the National Gallery of Ireland to become director of the Chester Beatty Library. During her years at the gallery, she was for a time curator of the French collection and was well aware of the importance of the Beatty paintings. Once in the library, it occurred to her that these two aspects of Beatty’s collecting had never been brought together. With much of the National Gallery’s exhibition space out of action due to extensive refurbishment work, what better opportunity to raid the storerooms and bring the pick of the Beatty paintings to the library?
Hence Chester Beatty: The Paintings from the National Gallery of Ireland, an exhibition that will run at the Chester Beatty Library for the next six months. What’s immediately striking is that, although some of the included works are familiar, seeing them in a new context is like seeing them for the first time. Their enhanced and reinvigorated air is partly due to scale. The rooms in the library are much more domestic in size so the work feels up close and personal.
Croke agrees. “Even in pictures I know well, I’ve noticed things I never have before.” She has divided the show into three groups. “Beatty concentrated on painters of the Barbizon School, and they come first.” The term is used in a more general sense, but, strictly speaking, the Barbizon School consisted of a mid-19th-century group of artists who, following in the footsteps of Camille Corot, pioneered working in the open air in and around the village of Barbizon, in the Forest of Fontainbleau, southeast of Paris. They are too often dismissively referred to as precursors of Impressionism, as though that was their only significance.
The Impressionists are the superstars of 19th-century French painting, but, although he did acquire some Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, for the most part Beatty steered clear of them. “However, his wife Edith bought Impressionist paintings,” says Croke, who feels there may have been a friendly rivalry between husband and wife.