Your Collection: Recent European Arrivals at the NGC

 

Gustave Doré, Souvenir of Loch Lomond (1875), oil on canvas, 131 x 196 cm. National Gallery of Canada. Photo © NGC

If you have recently visited the European galleries at the National Gallery of Canada, you might have noticed some rather spectacular additions, including Gustave Doré’s large painting, Souvenir of Loch Lomond (1875), which now hangs with other 19th-century landscapes. It is a sublime work, showing the famous Scottish lake and surrounding highlands beneath ominous clouds, with only one tiny human in sight. The painting was a highlight of last summer’s exhibition, Gustave Doré (1832–1883): Master of Imagination and, until recently, was in the collection of a prominent French aristocrat whose family had purchased it directly from the artist. 

In an adjacent room, Jules Dalou’s life-sized terracotta sculpture, A Young Mother from Boulogne Feeding her Child (1876), has been installed among the Impressionist paintings, within sight of both Auguste Rodin’s famous Age of Bronze (1876), and a pair of sculptures by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, currently on loan to the Gallery. Reminiscent of a Renaissance Madonna and child, Dalou’s statue is graceful and tender, and is rendered in meticulous detail — from the woman’s textured bonnet to her pleated cloak, delicately molded clasp, and neat shoelaces.

Jules Dalou, A Young Mother from Boulogne Feeding her Child (1876), painted terracotta, 137 cm. National Gallery of Canada. Photo © NGC

These two recent acquisitions are part of a determined effort by curators to bridge some gaps in the Gallery’s collection of 19th-century French art. While it already boasted works by such banner names as Cézanne, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Rodin and Van Gogh, as well as Constable, Courbet, Daumier, and Millet, missing were works by other equally important, but perhaps less familiar artists.

Chief Curator Paul Lang, who organized the summer Doré exhibition, put forward the proposal to acquire Souvenir of Loch Lomond. In an interview, Lang explained the importance of the painting: “A Doré landscape from the 1870s was the missing link in the collection, given that it represents the synthesis of the British School — in particular, Constable — and the French School — in particular, Courbet. Both Constable and Courbet were already well represented in the collection.”

Gustave Doré is considered one of the greatest illustrators of all time, endowed with an extraordinary, exuberant imagination, as well as virtuoso technical skill and outsized ambition. He started working as a satirical cartoonist at age 15, and went on to become a professional illustrator, creating some 10,000 pictures for the greatest books in Western literature, including the Bible, and works by Dante, Rabelais, La Fontaine, Cervantes, Milton, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Hugo and others. Doré’s illustrations had a profound influence on 20th- and 21st-century visual culture, from cinema and animation to comic-book art.

Doré was also a highly accomplished painter, sculptor, printmaker and watercolourist, however, whose landscape paintings are among the most important of the late 19th century. Many of his works in these media possesses a strong literary or historical association. Souvenir of Loch Lomond, for instance, portrays the area that was the setting for Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem, The Lady of the Lake.

As for Jules Dalou (1838–1902), he is considered one of the greatest and most influential sculptors of the 19th century, on a par with Rodin and Carpeaux. After first studying drawing, Dalou trained in sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1871, during the Franco-Prussian War, he and his family fled to England, where he joined the expatriate community of other exiled French artists and benefited from a wealthy base of aristocratic collectors.

Jules Dalou, A Young Mother from Boulogne Feeding her Child (detail) [1876], painted terracotta, 137 cm. National Gallery of Canada. Photo © NGC

 

Dalou’s A Young Mother from Boulogne Feeding her Child, made during his time in London, reveals his extraordinary aptitude for sculpting with clay. Anabelle Kienle Ponka, the Gallery’s Associate Curator of European and American Art, seized the opportunity to acquire the work for Canada’s national collection when it came up for auction at Sotheby’s London. “It was a major find,” she said in an interview with NGC Magazine. “It was one of the last of Dalou’s life-sized terracottas that had not yet entered a public collection.”

What struck Ponka was not only Dalou’s great technical mastery and attention to detail, but also the fascinating dichotomy expressed in his mother-and-child composition. “It is a noble-faced figure,” she says, “a classical woman, her features reminiscent of Italian Renaissance paintings; but at the same time she is depicted in a heavy coat and worn-out shoes, and the baby is really realistic and cherubic  in contrast to her mother’s refined features.” The mother’s gesture also has a 19th-century realism, adds Ponka: “The baby’s about to latch on and she’s cupping her breast.”

The enduring theme of motherhood was one of Dalou’s favourite motifs, possibly because he had a close, intimate family life himself. His wife, Irma Vuillier, was strong and highly supportive, and his daughter had a disability that required constant care. “He was invested in the subject,” says Ponka, “and he approached it from different angles, and in different sizes.”

Like Doré’s painting, A Young Mother from Boulogne has prestigious provenance. It was purchased directly from the artist in 1876 by an aristocratic Irish family, exhibited the following year for the first and last time, then kept in the family house near Westport, County Mayo, for 140 years.

Jules Dalou, A Young Mother from Boulogne Feeding her Child (detail) [1876], painted terracotta, 137 cm. National Gallery of Canada. Photo © NGC

Having been housed in a private setting for so long added to the allure of the Dalou work, but also made for some interesting conservation challenges. As part of the Gallery’s acquisition process, Senior Conservator Doris Couture-Rigert flew to London in the spring of 2014 to examine the sculpture while it was on display at Sotheby’s. Although structurally sound, it had suffered some surface wear, and the original paint covering the terracotta was dirty, worn and pockmarked in places, even spattered with house paint.

Couture-Rigert made a detailed report, including recommendations for careful packing and shipping. “Crating, of course, is beyond important in order to get something safely from A to B,” said Couture-Rigert in an interview with NGC magazine, “and terracotta is more fragile than some other materials.” Once it had safely arrived in the Gallery’s lab in Ottawa, she spent five weeks carefully cleaning the sculpture, retouching the missing paint areas, and even re-attaching a small piece of terracotta that had broken off at some point and fallen into the mother’s hood. “The sculpture is now here to stay,” she adds.

Souvenir of Loch Lomond and A Young Mother from Boulogne are just two of the many European works acquired by the Gallery in 2014. Hanging across from Doré’s landscape is Thomas Couture’s cheeky Supper at the Maison d’Or (1855), on long-term loan from the Vancouver Art Gallery. It was the subject of last year’s fascinating Masterpiece in Focus exhibition. And in an adjoining room stands Doré’s one-metre-high bronze sculpture, Fate and Love (La Parque et l’Amour) (1877), a gift to the National Gallery from collectors Alfred and Ingrid Lenz Harrison, who lent the work to the Gallery for the summer exhibition.

These additions to the European galleries are very exciting. “Now,” says Paul Lang, “we have a much more complex and complete approach to the second half of the 19th century.”

Gustave Doré’s Souvenir of Loch Lomond and Jules Dalou's A Young Mother from Boulogne are now on view at the National Gallery of Canada.

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