A Van Gogh exhibition has reunited two of the artist’s self-portraits for the first time in 130 years, helping the host gallery frame itself as more than just a “hidden treasure” on London’s cultural map.
The Courtauld Gallery’s curatorial coup comes after its £57 million renovation, and signals its ambitions to establish itself alongside the Tate and National Gallery as a must-visit destination on the capital’s well-trodden tourist trail.
It is the first ever exhibition devoted to self-portraits from throughout Vincent Van Gogh’s career, and comes as the Courtauld seeks to offer more “bespoke” shows highlighting specific elements of an artist’s work.
Two self-portraits which have not been seen together since they were painted in the French asylum where he was treated in 1889 will be displayed, along with 14 other self-portraits assembled by curators through rare loan deals with galleries around the world.
Ernst Vegelin, the head of the Courtauld Gallery, told the Telegraph: “Following the success of our re-opening, the Courtauld is a hidden treasure no more.
“With our world class collection and exhibitions, it is very much our ambition to be on the cultural trail of every visitor to London.
“The Van Gogh exhibition is our first major step towards realising that aim.
“It is also the case that the Courtauld’s shows have a very different character from those in our great national institutions.”
Mr Vegelin said that the gallery saw itself “as enriching the exhibition landscape” in London, rather than seeking to compete.
Van Gogh created 35 surviving self-portraits in under four years, including two painted in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in the south of France: one in the grip of a severe mental health crisis, and the other a week later while he was recovering.
The two self-portraits were secured in rare loan deals – never achieved to date by any other gallery – with the National Museum of Art in Oslo and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
‘Moving’ insight into Van Gogh’s mental state
Dr Karen Serres, a Courtauld curator, said that seeing the works side by side at last will give visitors a “moving” insight into Van Gogh’s unstable mental state, which contributed to his suicide at 37 in 1890.
Dr Serres said that the Courtauld’s ownership of Van Gogh’s “iconic” Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear – left by the gallery’s art collector founder Samuel Courtauld – helped persuade galleries to loan their masterpieces.
She told the Telegraph: “It does give us a lot of cachet and influence, it is a bit of a secret secret weapon. It gives us lots of inroads.
“The fact that we have one of these iconic images, as the Bandaged Ear is, can be incredibly persuasive.
“Our reputation preceded us, in a way. Having that associate with Van Gogh did make it easier to get these paintings, although it has been a very long process. Galleries knew they were going to be in good hands.”
Alongside the self-portraits, the Courtauld will show Van Gogh’s Chair and Portrait of Eugène Boch, the artist’s friend, with all works displayed in the new Denise Coates Exhibition Galleries, named after gallery donor and Bet365 founder Denise Coates.
The show follows a three-year closure for renovation work at its home at Somerset House on the Strand, which was begun in 2018.
The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Van Gogh. Self-Portraits opens to the public February 3 and runs to May 8.