Oh no, not another Impressionism show!  Gauguin again? Is this to pull in the punters with a bankable display of old favourites? Recycling the reliable?

Well, actually no.  The first major London show to open since the pandemic is not a spectacular blockbuster. Instead it’s an intimate and moving experience. Beautifully displayed in the Royal Academy’s new spaces in the former Museum of Mankind, there’s so much to enjoy and mull over.

George Sand by Eugène Delacroix, 1838

Thanks to the vision and deep pockets of an eccentric Danish life-insurance magnate, an astonishing group of paintings were brought together in a Danish country mansion by Wilhelm Hansen and his wife Henny who were passionate about 19th century and contemporary French art. And now, for the first time, their collection has reached the walls of the Royal Academy.

Captured by the great Romantic colourist, Eugène Delacroix, we discover the novelist Amantine Dupin, better known as George Sand. She seems to be in a reverie, listening to her lover Frederic Chopin playing the piano. Sand’s profile emerges from shadows, eyes cast down. Chopin’s unbearably sad music – was it a barcarolle? – is somehow expressed through her dreamy features.

But Chopin’s half of the painting is strangely missing.  For reasons unknown it was cut away and now hangs in the Louvre. No matter, we sense his presence.

Hamlet and the Gravedigger (detail)
Camille Corot , 1870-75

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Hamlet and the Gravedigger has the artist’s singular delicacy of touch and colour. Scattered pink and white clouds enliven the blue sky. The trio in the foreground melt into the gloaming.

We can appreciate how Impressionism became possible. Works by Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet (who became a leading Communard in 1870), Jean Dupré Karl Daubigny and Eugene Boudin to our eyes may seem quite low-key, but don’t forget, they came in for mockery and abuse in their day.

Inspired by Constable, a group of artists left the Paris and devoted themselves to working outdoors in the village of Barbizon, immersing themselves in the effects of sunlight and shade. Their scenes were unadorned by the mythological themes – de rigueur for any “serious” painter in those days. With them came a breakthrough to the monumental style of plein-air painting to be found in Claude Monet’s bright swathe of the Chailly road cutting through the forest of Fontainbleau, painted in 1865.  

Young Girl on the Grass, the Red Bodice by Berthe Morisot, 1885

Six landscapes by Alfred Sisley reveal his transition from dark forest to the brightest of river bank scenes, reflections shining and clouds billowing. An astonishing sketch for Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s famous Le Moulin de la Galette is defined by a virtually abstract frenzy of figures that looks forward to 20th century Futurism and even Abstract Expressionism.

This is also true of Berthe Morisot, one of the few women artists in the Impressionist movement who almost steals the show with her depictions of women, one out doors, the other lounging on a sofa. Leaves, flowers and grass, whirl around Morisot’s Mademoiselle Isabelle Lambert Young Girl on the Grass in a sunlit garden. Here is innocence and clarity taken into new dimensions. Space becomes movement suffused with mood and light.

Monet’s atmospheric Waterloo Bridge Overcast from 1903 takes the show into the 20th century, being purchased by Hansen in 1916, when he took advantage of the war to buy at low prices.

Waterloo Bridge, Overcast by Claude Monet, 1903

After these sunlit and misty splendours we reach Gauguin. His daughter sleeping, called The Little One is Dreaming, Etude, is vulnerable and slightly haunted.  Here is an unsettling world of symbols and looming menace. Finally, still lives by Odilon Redon and Henri Matisse herald the 20th century. The heyday of Impressionism was over.

And, now, in these dog days of the pandemic, seeing these works is soul food that can lift you over the bad times. Book yourself in for a treat.

A footnote: Wilhelm Hansen fell in love with French painting thanks to his business trips to Paris in the 1890s. In 1902 he founded La Populaire , a “people’s insurance company”. And in the midst of World War I he began to fulfil his plan to buy French Romantic and Impressionist art, aware that after the war prices would shoot up.

Hansen offered his collection to the Danish state around 1923:  “. . . all the pictures for a total amount of only one million kroner. But he was promptly turned down. He remembered bitterly that he was met with an almost hostile coolness”, a Danish newspaper recorded later. 

Thus, he left the paintings to his wife Henny, who after her husband’s death  bequeathed it to the state of Denmark. When the collection first opened to the public on Mondays only it was free to visit. Today it is still housed in Ordrupgaard, the couple’s villa outside Copenhagen, along with an extension by Zaha Hadid. The building of new underground exhibition spaces means that the museum is currently closed and thus we have the pleasure of seeing this selection in London. Ordrupgaard will re-open early in 2021.

The show is heavily booked, but meanwhile you can enjoy images online or by purchasing the attractive exhibition book.

Gauguin and the Impressionists is at the Royal Academy until 18 October.