'Strange Beauty' at the National Gallery (ctd.)

February 18 2014

Image of 'Strange Beauty' at the National Gallery (ctd.)

Picture: Telegraph

I reported earlier on the National Gallery's new exhibition of German 16th Century art, which hasn't gone down terrifically with some critics. But in the Guardian, Mark Brown relates a fascinating snippet about the National's rushed sale of similar works in the 19th century, when they were considered quite, quite ghastly:

One of the most extraordinary and excruciating episodes in the National Gallery's history is laid bare in an exhibition opening to the public on Wednesday: the state-sanctioned sale of paintings because they were German.

Susan Foister, co-curator of the show, Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance, described the disposal of 37 works in 1856 as a "surprising" and little-known story. "It was the first and only time that the gallery had an act of parliament passed in order to rid itself of excessive German paintings," she said.

The main issue was that for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, German art was considered ugly and certainly hugely inferior to anything produced in Italy. Sir Charles Eastlake, director of the National Gallery from 1855-65, once said he found the work of Matthias Grünewald "repulsive".

In 1854, William Gladstone, then chancellor of the exchequer, bought 64 German Renaissance paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries for the gallery. It was considered a scandal. One newspaper called them "frightful" and a parliamentarian said the purchase was the "worst ever" – what was the National Gallery thinking of?

Foister said that "there was an idea of what should be collected and what should be admired". And German paintings did not fit the idea.

Within just two years the gallery's trustees felt they had to get rid of them. That resulted in an act of parliament permitting their deaccession and 37 were sold, including most of an altarpiece from the Benedictine abbey of Liesborn in Germany.

The story is a reminder how fashion can change, even for Old Masters. Think of this next time a 17th Century religious picture appears in an Old Master sale near you, with a derisory estimate. Like the giant and well-painted Luca Giordano Crucifixion of St Peter sold at Sotheby's New York in January for just $25,000 - bargain!

Also, on a related theme, can 'brown furniture' get any cheaper? The Antiques Trade Gazette reports that its value is still declining, even though you can now furnish your house with good 18th Century antiques for less than a trip to Ikea.

Update - a reader tells us that two of the pictures have ended up at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, see here and here.

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