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.

“In terms of books and manuscripts his collections are quite extraordinary for their quality and rarity, and if there was something he really wanted he was prepared to pay a great deal for it. Perhaps that’s not quite true when it came to paintings. And he liked a bargain. When he said he could buy 10 decent French landscapes for the price of one Renoir, it may have been a gentle dig at his wife, but it’s usually and wrongly interpreted as implying that he didn’t like the Impressionists.”

One of the paintings that comes into its own in the library setting is Eugène Boudin’s big, airy, watery view of the Meuse at Dordrecht, which Croke places with the Barbizon works. There’s a splendid painting of a stag by Rosa Bonheur, “the only female artist” in the show, as Croke observes. The stag was one of Bonheur’s own. She made a lot of money as an animal painter and bought a chateau near Fontainbleau, stocking its extensive grounds with a menagerie of suitable subjects. A nice Corot and a serene Jean-François Millet also stand out among the Barbizon works.

GIVEN THE EMPHASISof the library’s collections, it’s appropriate that Croke devotes the second part of the exhibition to orientalist artists, including Jean-Léon Gérôme, Eugène Fromentin and Narcisse Berchère. The orientalists worked in the Levant, from Lebanon right along the north African coast. One drawback of their work is its orientalising tendency. They were, as Croke puts it, “producing what were essentially western images of the East, which were often riddled with cliches and stereotypes”.

Still, there are some impressive paintings that fit the orientalist label, including Gérôme’s view of a caravan on the Gulf of Aqaba, mistitled, Croke notes, on the original gallery label. Gérôme’s high-octane, theatrical realism made him celebrated and wealthy, but with the advent of Impressionism the tide began to turn, and by the time of his death, in 1904, his reputation, and auction prices, were in decline. Fromentin, Croke points out, wearied of being classed as an orientalist and tried to change his image, to no avail. His Falcon Hunt and other paintings of his on view offer accurate accounts of the landscape.

THE THIRD PARTconsists of works by academically trained artists who developed along various paths. Beatty seems to have been especially fond of Ernest Meissonier, best known as a military artist, and two striking paintings by him feature. One, Group of Cavalry in the Snow: Moreau and Dessoles before Hohenlinden, is an exceptionally atmospheric little scene, rightly popular in postcard reproductions. The other, less well known, is a wonderful little work, A Man Reading at a Table, a study of a bibliophile that memorably evokes the quiet pleasure of working in a sunlit, book-lined room. Understandably, it’s a picture that Beatty kept close to him.

The depiction of peasant life is led by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte and Jules Breton. Breton’s The Gleaners is shown to great advantage, as is his heroically statuesque female figure, Girl with a Rake. The Henri-Joseph Harpignies landscape A River Scene is a beautiful painting that recalls Corot at his most classical. As with so much else included, it is given enhanced clarity by the change of scene.

Beatty moved from London to Ireland in 1950, and his collections came with him. The story of his acquistion of a site on Shrewsbury Road, and its development as the first location of the Chester Beatty Library, is well known. Less well known, Croke points out, is that before his move to Ireland, when he lived at Baroda House in Kensington Palace Gardens in London, he built a gallery to accomodate his and Edith’s growing art collection.

It was completed some time in 1937. Large photographs of the handsome, L-shaped gallery, with many of the paintings hanging on its walls, are included in the exhibition. With the outbreak of war, Beatty offered Baroda House for use as a hospital – it had served that purpose during the first World War – so they scarcely had much time to enjoy their gallery. In Ireland, Beatty gave many of his paintings to the National Gallery of Ireland, stipulating that some would be lent to galleries around the country until 1978, when they would take up their permanent home.

He added significantly to this initial gift over time. But, Croke, points out, he intended to give even more to Ireland. Edith died in 1952, and Beatty intimated to the then director of the gallery, Thomas MacGreevy, that he would give her collection of Impressionist paintings to the gallery. She had died intestate, however, and her estate was liable for death duties. Croke is philosophical about this loss. “She had suggested that she would leave her paintings to the Tate, so who knows?” What’s important, she points out, is that Ireland benefited in more ways than we might realise from Beatty’s decision to move here in 1950, and this exhibition provides a chance to see exactly how.

Chester Beatty: The Paintings from the National Gallery of Ireland is at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle, until March 24th, 2013

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