by Roderick Conway Morris

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Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen/photo Anders Sune Berg
The Windmill by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, c. 1835-40

Wilhelm Hansen's eye for genius

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 7 October 2020


The Danish insurance magnate Wilhelm Hansen (1868-36) was a self-made man, whose Danish People's Insurance Institution, inspired by the English model of life-insurance for working men and women pioneered by the Prudential Insurance Company ('the Pru'), made him a wealthy man. His success enabled him to amass a considerable collection of 'Golden Age' Danish art from the first half of the 19th century.

But it was not until Hansen was in his late 40s that he ventured into buying foreign art. Denmark lost a large chunk of its southern territories and nearly half the population it had once ruled in a disastrous war with the German States in the 1860s. It remained neutral in the First World War and during this conflict Hansen decided also to collect 19th-century French art from Corot to Cézanne, with a dozen works by each major artist, a project greatly facilitated by a slump in the price of pictures due to the hostilities. By 1918 the collection was largely complete and has been regularly open to the public at Ordrupgaard, Hansen's country house just outside Copenhagen, ever since.

Hansen had an almost unfailing eye to acquire the best examples available of works of each artist, as visitors to Gauguin and the Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Ordrupgaard Collection, curated by Anna Ferrari, at the Royal Academy, can see for themselves. The exhibition's title underplays the wider tour d'horizon offered here, encompassing Corot's 'Windmill' from the 1830s, four decades before the first Impressionist Exhibition, to Matisse's 'Flowers and Fruits', painted six years after the death of Gauguin in 1903.

Monet hailed Corot (1796-1875) as 'the last of the classicists and the first of the moderns' and the debt that not only Monet but many other Impressionists owed to him, not least in following his practice of painting en plein air, is highlighted by Corot's works here. This is immediately striking in such lovely paintings as 'The Road to Chailly through the Forest of Fontainebleau' by Monet (one of four of his paintings here) and 'Line of Chestnut Trees at Celle-Saint-Cloud' by Sisley (one of half a dozen superb examples of this artist's canvases).

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was also a significant influence on the Impressionists, as is revealed by the room here partially recreating Hansen's own hang of forerunners of Impressionism, along with works by Daubigny, Delacroix and Ingres.

Hansen bought one of Manet's earliest works, 'Woman with a Jug', as well as one of his last, 'Basket of Pears', which Hansen liked to describe as 'an extra dessert after the ice-cream'. He also obtained outstanding pieces by the women Impressionists Eva Gonzalèz, Manet's only real pupil, and Berthe Morisot.

The collector acquired an impressive set of Gauguins, spanning the artist's entire career, from 'The Little One is Dreaming' (1881), painted when he was still working as a stockbroker, to one of his most famous Tahitian portraits, of Vaïte 'Jeanne' Goupil (1896), and his late 'Adam and Eve' (1902).

Gauguin and the Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Ordrupgaard Collection; the Royal Academy, London; 7 August - 18 October 2020 (with period of closure due to Covid)

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023