Exhibition preview: Burrell's Masters of Impressionism, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow, until January 5 2013
At the peak of his collecting during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, William Burrell would buy dozens of artworks from around the world each month.
© CSG CIC
But his discerning eye allied quality with quantity: a magpie when it came to spotting underrated, often underpriced artists, the shipping merchant would have been as wise a curator as he was a collector.
“He was someone who was buying paintings from the 1890s right to the end of his life in the 1950s, when he was 90-odd years old,” says Vivian Hamilton, who has assembled this energetic redisplay of works ranging from the ballet dancers and racecourses of Degas – whose paintings the Burrell holds a stack of sterling examples of – to Cézanne, Manet and Gauguin.
The latter was one of several artists ultimately left unimpressed with Impressionism, although the Normandy coast he portrayed, with its wet greyness and horizon dotted by boats, would have instantly chimed with Burrell’s life.
“He was manic about conservation,” adds Hamilton. “These paintings haven’t been blasted with light. The colours sing from the paper.”
Many of these artists were selling their wares for a pittance. When Degas failed to flog one of his, at an 1884 auction, the notorious perfectionist painstakingly reworked it.
Burrell’s own feelings remain mysterious. “I always thought of him as preferring realist paintings,” says Hamilton, pointing the way of his better-known collections in the upstairs space.
“I tend to think he did not like pretty landscapes. But looking at the collection, I suddenly realised, ‘you know what, we have actually got a really good collection of impressionist works.’”
Ordered into sections setting Impressionism against its pre and post incarnations, it’s partly an attempt to gauge visitor feedback following the success of the Burrell’s exhibition of works by French artist Jean-François Mille last year. It’s also a chance to bring together a collection which is the subject of endless research.
“We never show most of our impressionist works together,” explains Hamilton.
“We’re trying to think through what should we be doing. I don’t want to just guess what to put on display.”
The uncovered vaults are almost certain to leave viewers wanting more. Among numerous highlights, Cézanne’s The Chateau de Medan, in which the artist showed his hand at post-impressionism, stands out for the supreme structuring of its brushstrokes.
Among Degas’ canvasses, Woman Drinking Beer caused a stir during the 1880s, being rather snootily viewed as unbecoming, and Jockeys in the Rain is notable for its slashing strokes of pastel at a time when the Industrial Revolution was making more colours available.
Of the post-impressionists, Henri Le Sidaner’s Rocky Inlets by Moonlight appears to be a straightforward work of impressionism, but reveals its ethereal mood upon a finer inspection of its twilight-covered music, poetry and distant lights.
And The Fair, by Lucien Simon, is a physically huge work by Burrell standards, diverting from the scenes of domesticity he more characteristically bought.
- Open 10am-5pm (11am-5pm Friday and Sunday). Admission free. Follow the Collection on Twitter @GlasgowMuseums.