The National Gallery’s summer exhibition charts the progress of the artist from 18th-century lackey to 19th-century high priest, prophet and (with a bit of luck) demigod.

Granted, not all previous artists had been second-class citizens and virtual artisans: Velázquez was ennobled, while Rubens became an international diplomat. The University of Oxford gave Joshua Reynolds a doctorate in civil law, in which guise he dresses for the imposing self-portrait displayed in this exhibition’s first room – the point being that admission to the establishment was the best form of recognition that artists from Renaissance to Enlightenment could hope for. It brought heady satisfaction to the few who achieved it: the bust of Michelangelo that stands on a table beside Reynolds bows its head in deference to the president of the Royal Academy. This was hubris enough, you would think. But, within a single generation, artists’ aspirations were to jump to new levels.

It was all the fault of the convulsion of Romanticism and is a familiar enough story. Artists gradually rose above the concerns of the common herd, claiming for themselves that unique vision called “genius”, which alone could penetrate the mysteries of nature. They hovered clear of conventional morality, too, being charged, in Baudelaire’s phrase, only with “the burning need to create for oneself a personal originality”. No longer did these men (they were universally male) seek to hold up a mirror to humanity and nature, but rather to raise a lamp that lit up the pathways of agonising truth.

Following its brief statement of the pre-Romantic situation, the exhibition’s narrative kicks off with a group of self-portraits in this new mode, so very different from Joshua Reynolds’ smug upward mobility. As early as the 1780s James Barry and Henry Fuseli appear as depressed, misunderstood souls. The Hamburg artist Victor Emil Jansson, in about 1828, goes further, presenting a lonely, straitened individual in his cramped studio-
bedroom, stripped to the waist and thin almost to the point of emaciation. And a couple of decades further on, the young Gustave Courbet masquerades as “The Desperate Man” in a painful facial close-up. One anguished hand clutches his brow, while the other reaches out in a gesture of unrequited need.

The paintings in the rooms that follow trace various stages of the artist’s evolution towards the denizen of Bohemia, the flâneur, the priest in a quasi-
mystical cult of art and finally, in some cases at least, the very prophet and martyr of that cult.

The exhibition’s capacious time-frame means that a wide range of very different painters are on view, from late-18th-
century self-portraitists to the German Nazarene brotherhood in the early 19th century; from Ingres to Delacroix and Henry Wallis’s “Death of Chatterton”; from some brilliantly coloured and conceived “symbolist” work by Gustave Moreau, to Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Cézanne; from a glance at the circle of Beardsley and Whistler to some soul-baring works at the close by Munch, Schiele, Kokoscha and Lovis Corinth.

One highly significant canvas, appearing midway in the story, is Courbet’s celebrated “The Meeting” from 1854, which shows an encounter on the open road between the artist himself, a proud, lone pilgrim with prophet’s beard, rucksack and walking staff, and his wealthy patron Alfred Bruyas. The patron sweeps off his hat out of pure reverence. One critic sardonically retitled it “Fortune bowing to Genius” but it became universally known by another unofficial title, “Bonjour Monsieur Courbet!”

Courbet’s painting was seen by Paul Gauguin during his stay with Van Gogh in 1888. The two men had mounted a special expedition to the painting’s home, the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, and six months later Gauguin painted a riposte to Courbet in “Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin”. Here the artist is seen out for a walk with his dog. He is lonely and glum. The pathway ahead is almost barred by a fence on which leans an enigmatic peasant woman, who alone is there to greet him. Unlike Courbet, Gauguin does not appear liberated in his self-
making, but hemmed in and misunderstood.

On the same wall at the National Gallery another Gauguin hangs side by side with a Van Gogh, a pairing that will draw the eyes of many visitors. These canvases also belong to 1889, that decisive period in Gauguin’s life and less than a year before Van Gogh’s death by a self-inflicted gunshot. After the latter’s mental crisis the previous Christmas (the ear-slicing episode that ended the Arlesian experiment in communal artistic living), Gauguin had fled from Arles to the comparative safety of the mystical Nabis circle of artists, led by his protégé Paul Serusier.

Still reeling from his few weeks in the intense, combative company of Van Gogh, but now surrounded by a bevy of younger and more tractable admirers, Gauguin found his messianic fantasies given full rein. His “Agony in the Garden” is a self-portrait as Christ, contemplating his
own forthcoming crucifixion at Gethsemane. The night-time olive grove is rich in deep blues and greens backlit with reds, whites and yellows, all atmospherically painted in nervous, diagonal brushstrokes. The left foreground is dominated by the figure of a bowed and isolated Christ-artist.

Gauguin sent Van Gogh a sketch of this composition “which would suit you, I believe”. He was wrong. Vincent’s sensibilities were profoundly shocked by Gauguin’s adoption of Christ’s persona, but in his confused state he did not appreciate that, in fact, he had been doing the same sort of thing himself. A few weeks earlier, at the Saint-Rémy asylum, he
had made a copy in oils of a lithograph after Delacroix’s “Pietà”, and (unconsciously?) had given the dead Christ his own face.

Looking at the two pictures by these uneasy friends, one sees the different ways in which the Messiah complex could seize a 19th-century artist. With Gauguin it is palpably a pose, while for Van Gogh the death of himself in Christ is a powerfully felt internal transformation, so real that it remains unrationalised. If ever there were an artist for whom to paint nature was pure prayer it would be Van Gogh; and if there has ever been a martyr to art, he is the one.

‘Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the 19th Century’ is at the National Gallery,
London, until August 28.
Tel 20 7747 2885

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