Fine art: Painters dwarfed by the pictures on their walls

Madame Cézanne: tenderness

Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck
National Gallery, London, until september 4

The paintings, apart from Degas and Matisse, diminish their owners. Reynolds, Freud, sad Leighton, even able Van Dyck – brought down by the Vendramins on his walls – have little to say compared with the grand, archaic body of Corot’s L’Italienne, the sphinx with the yellow sleeve that Freud hung humbly over his mantelpiece. Freud’s Corot would reduce the former’s self-portrait, and his nude, lit by the white light of dawn, to his tiresome obsession with the surface of flesh.

And so on. Any Cézanne kills its competitors. Even Matisse has trouble with his majestic Greta Moll, compared with the tenderness of the blues which suffuse the pink cheeks of Madame Cézanne, within the tight ovoid of her head, full as an egg.

And the naked Spartan adolescents of Degas, each of them, and there’s a few, with their touch of truth, would kneel at the red feet of that blue, statue-like figure, by Cézanne: Bather with Outstretched Arm.

So in this lovely exhibition, which I have turned into a silly race, the winner is Cézanne, with his small explosive paintings. His Three Bathers, so ambiguously sexual, so important for its owner Matisse, who woke up early to contemplate it lit by the first rays of the sun, and called it “notre plus cher trésor”, so erotic in its version of the curl of black hair, independent of the body, with all the intensity of Baudelaire’s poem “La Chevelure”, perhaps only succeeds because of its awkwardness. But at least they hung, those heavy androgynous bodies, on the walls of another great painter. Cézanne’s Afternoon in Naples didn’t share that luck.

Degas couldn’t stop buying. “J’achéte, j’achéte”, he shouted, even when he was broke. And on what scale: The Execution of Maximilian by Manet and Louis-Auguste Schwiter by Delacroix normally fill huge walls at the National Gallery. The beautiful Ingres portrait of Napoleon’s Chief of Police for the Roman States, Norvins, fills another wall with its presence, in the permanent collection. But then you find Cézanne’s Bather … again in the corner, the red feet of the small blue statue of the boy-god, springing from the red earth like a tree.

Reynolds bought Bellini’s Agony in the Garden, thinking it a Mantegna, and a Leda and the Swan, thinking it a Michelangelo, and the most moving Rembrandts of The Lamentation over the Dead Christ. These marvels express such sorrow that the composition seems to gyrate around the dead body like a swirl, sucked into an incandescent void.

Now you have to leave the exhibition, and once in the hall turn back, and you will find compressed between the exit doors the most beautiful view of all. The great Vendramin Family, painted by Titian, kept for a while by Van Dyck: their sharp Venetian faces against the sky, surrounded by their children, some added at the last minute – but not the youngest, with his scarlet legs and his emerald coat, and the spaniel, as good as by Velázquez, on his knees.