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Masterpieces from the Louvre: The Collection of Louis La Caze

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

MASTERPIECES from the greatest bequest of paintings ever received by France’s premier museum, the Louvre – The Collection of Louis La Caze – will be on display at the Wallace Collection from February 14 to May 18, 2008. It will be the Wallace Collection’s first collaboration with the great French museum.

Louis La Caze (1798-1869) was a Paris doctor who left more than five hundred pictures to the Louvre on his death. Canvases from the collection by artists such as Watteau, Boucher, Chardin and Fragonard and an outstanding example of 17th-century Spanish painting, Ribera’s Le Pied-Bot (The Boy with the Club Foot) will be shown in Britain for the first time.

The exhibition will also provide an intriguing insight into the history of taste and collecting, focusing on an almost exact contemporary of the 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800-70), the father of the Sir Richard Wallace, and the man who acquired the great majority of the paintings now in the Wallace Collection.

La Caze’s taste contrasted with much of the recognised taste of his time. Many 18th-century French paintings, which he particularly admired, were comparatively cheap when he began collecting, being seen as synonymous with the perceived decadence and frivolity of the Ancien Régime. Spanish painting (excluding Murillo), was also little recognized in France. As a result, his collection became a kind of alternative museum, home to some of the great artists missing from the Louvre’s collection.

As a wealthy doctor, but with more limited resources than collectors like Lord Hertford, he chose carefully. He had trained as an artist and an excellent self portrait will hang in the show. He collected paintings he genuinely liked, buying his first work by Chardin reputedly from a Parisian flea market for 15 francs. This resulted in the varied and eclectic collection we see today. The quality of his collection was also remarkably high because he took a close interest in the provenance of his works and maintained good relations with leading dealers.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, La Caze was a genuine philanthropist, keen to spread awareness and appreciation of art. He held regular Sunday morning salons, hosted by himself. He mixed with many contemporary artists, including Degas, Manet and Bonvin, and let them copy whatever they were interested in.

His bequest of 583 paintings was not only the greatest ever received by the Louvre, but had remarkably few restrictions. He was also motivated to redress perceptions of French painting, lending some of his finest works to an exhibition organised in 1860 by the Martinet Gallery. The significant critical and public success of this exhibition helped change perceptions of 18th-century French art, perhaps even influencing public institutions.

The Martinet exhibition was displayed in premises owned by Lord Hertford in Paris and also contained many pieces owned by Lord Hertford himself. The two men also began their collections at almost the same time. Each chose from a mix of schools and adored the paintings of 18th-century France. Neither married and both referred to their paintings as their children.

There were differences, however, and La Caze, with much more limited means was known to have deferred to much wealthier Lord Hertford in the auction room. Their different social backgrounds also led to some differences. While both loved Dutch painting, Lord Hertford’s taste ran more to the aristocratic, embracing landscapes and hunting scenes. He preferred more ‘finished’ paintings, whereas La Caze was happy to buy works painted more sketchily.

While appreciating beauty, La Caze was repeatedly drawn to pictures of the obscure, the solitary and the underdog. Lord Hertford would never have bought a painting like Ribera’s The Boy with the Club Foot. Perhaps La Caze was in some part motivated by his medical interests. What is certain is that Ribera’s masterpiece will make a fascinating comparison to the Spanish paintings by Velázquez, Murillo and Alonso Cano now in the Wallace Collection.

The French 18th-century paintings also complement beautifully the Wallace Collection’s own works. While the Wallace Collection is incomparable, the La Caze exhibition will enrich it with examples of complementary works: a scene from classical mythology by Watteau, for example, and two of Fragonard’s figures de fantasie, in a loosely brushed manner different from the Fragonards in the Wallace Collection.

Chardin, one of the great French 18th-century artists not represented in the Wallace Collection, will play a key role in the exhibition with three works. This will be a marvellous opportunity to see important works by Fragonard and Chardin who are inadequately represented in English collections.

Admission: Free.

Opening Times: Monday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm.

The Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London, W1U 3BN.