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Visual art: Painters’ Paintings at the National Gallery, WC2

Imagine an art collector. You may conjure an image of some big, boastful banker or brash oligarch, yet such clichés are mere footnotes to a far more penetrating story. The acquirer can take a role akin to that of creator and will frequently turn out to be an artist him or herself.

This is a twist in the tale that the National Gallery explores in its latest exhibition. The gallery has been shaped significantly by works bought from or bequested by painter-collectors.

Van Dyck possessed two of its greatest Titians; Degas gathered the fragments of Manet’s Execution of Maximilian; Matisse once owned Degas’s luscious La Coiffure.

Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck is one of those important shows that focuses on, articulates, and by means of a few informative loans refreshes works from the gallery’s fine collection.

It takes a 2011 bequest by Lucian Freud as its starting point. Corot’s sombre Italian Woman, which once presided with inscrutable dignity over Freud’s drawing room, now becomes the centrepiece of an opening gallery.

Freud, the most fêted of recent figure painters, adopts her sombre aura along with her hand gestures for his own rough-hewn self-portrait. The spectator is thus asked to reappraise a painter who — like Constable, who also features in this opening room — is better known for his landscapes.

From this beginning, the show moves back in time (taking what might feel to regulars like a discombobulating anticlockwise circuit of the Sainsbury wing galleries), spanning 500 years of history and focusing on seven artist-collectors on the way.

Here is the compulsive Degas revealing his passion for Ingres. Here is an obsessive Matisse so enchanted by the uncompromising modernity of Cézanne that he would get up before dawn to venerate Cézanne’s picture. Here is the proselytising Reynolds propagating his grand classical vision (as well as his own reputation) through works by Bellini, Bassano or Poussin. Here is a voracious Van Dyck discovering a role model in Titian.

The scrapbook-style hang feels vivid. It is frequently illuminating and occasionally spectacular. Corot crops up with surprising regularity. Cézanne’s bathers are stunningly translated into a sculpted bronze back by Matisse.

However, the labels become a little too intrusive and comparisons occasionally feel rather over-pushed. A Freud etching in the first room, for instance, bears rather less resemblance to what the labels tell us it should than to the full-lipped pair of aloof aristocrats, painted by Van Dyck, who appear in the very last room.

Yet perhaps this is the point. Pictures are less static objects to be pinned up like trophies than still-living entities to be swept up into a flow of ideas. Visitors carried away by this current will emerge as refreshed as the paintings themselves now feel.

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