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Episode 35

The National Gallery Podcast

In the September 2009 podcast, learn how to spot a Fragonard by reading the clues in a painting. Plus the difference a donation makes.

11 min 41 sec | September 2009

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. In this month’s episode: we hear from some first-time visitors to the Gallery, courtesy of our outreach programme, Line of Vision, and what price a masterpiece? How just 50p can help the collection grow.


Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start with some detective work. When the 18th-century French painter Fragonard exhibited a new picture for king and court at Versailles in 1754, it was an immediate hit. But over time, the Rococo style and heavy sensuality of his painting – entitled Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid – fell out of favour; indeed, the work was so little valued, its origins were eventually lost. For many years it was attributed to a minor painter, Carle van Loo, and mistakenly believed to depict other mythological scenes. Only in 1977 was the picture’s true identity revealed, as I discovered when I met up with historian Jacqui Ansell, who began by explaining how the mystery was finally solved.

Jacqui Ansell: Well, it was the presence of all these women who look so similar they must be sisters that meant that one rather clever art historian looked at this painting again and realised that the story must be Psyche and her sisters. And if it was that famous story, from this time period, it must surely be by Fragonard. The story begins, I suppose, with Psyche, a woman who is so beautiful that she made the goddess of love and beauty jealous, and Venus, the goddess of love, was so jealous that she said to Psyche that she was going to marry a monster. Well, Psyche didn’t mind too much about this, she was very brave and she allowed herself to be led up to a mountain top to meet her fate or to be carried off and eaten by wild beasts. Well, as she was there, tied up on this mountain, well who should fly over but Cupid? And he looked down and he saw her and something happened to him that had never happened before. He fell in love.

Miranda Hinkley: So it’s usually him making other people fall in love by shooting off his arrows at them, but in this case, he finally succumbed.

Jacqui Ansell: Exactly. And he got the West Wind to carry her off to his enchanted castle, where anything she wanted magically appeared. If she wanted gifts of jewellery or clothes it was brought to her by invisible servants. Well, she was quite happy for a while, but she was rather lonely, but that evening, Cupid came and revealed himself to her, well in words at least, because he said to her that all of these gifts could be hers if only she obeyed him and didn’t ever look at him. Well, she thought that was a fair price to pay, and every night he’d come and he’d lay down beside her and they’d get to know each other and eventually – as the children tell me when I tell this story – they got married.

And it was all going very well, but Psyche had several sisters so she invited all her sisters around and they came and they came to admire her gifts and no sooner had they started to admire them than they started to conspire amongst themselves and they started to feel rather jealous and they said to her, ‘Psyche, we think your husband has tricked you. We think he is a terrible monster – why else would he not want you to look at him? We think he is a terrible monster and we think that you should look at him and we think that if he is a monster, you should kill him’. Well, this is a very, very difficult decision she’s suddenly got to make – a moral dilemma. Should she look at him or not?

So what she does next of course is the next time she lays down beside him, curiosity gets the better of her, she lights a lamp, and she looks at this beautiful sleeping form next to her. She doesn’t mind that he’s got wings, so technically actually he is a monster.

Miranda Hinkley: But he’s so handsome it doesn’t matter.

Jacqui Ansell: Exactly! And she’s in ecstasy as she stares down at this sleeping form, but as she looks at him, a drop of oil drops from the lamp, lands on his shoulder, burns him, wakes him up! He wakes up, he looks at her looking at him, and he knows that she’s disobeyed him. And at that instant, the whole beautiful castle and all the gifts disappear.

So what are our clues that this is the real explanation for this story? Well, Cupid’s left his calling card – you see that quiver full of arrows we noticed earlier? We’ve got emblems of love, we’ve got the flowers that we saw earlier, and of course, most importantly, we’ve got the goddess Eris, the goddess of discord, a personification of the jealousy that the sisters are feeling. And in the background it looks as if this whole vision, this beautiful enchanted castle, is about to disappear. Well, all of those associations make this a very important painting. But how did such a wonderful, sensuous, sensual painting get lost to history and art history?

Miranda Hinkley: And particularly a painting that had been seen and admired by the king…

Jacqui Ansell: Well, in fact, of course, in the turbulent times of the late 18th century that may very well be one of the keys to its downfall, because as Rococo and its frivolity and its associations with the ancient regime – as those, the owners of the paintings, were swept away by the French Revolution and this new classical style, Fragonard’s work went out of favour. It was so out of favour, that his most famous painting, 'The Swing', that you might remember from the Wallace Collection, was actually offered to the Louvre in the 1870s, I think it was. They didn’t want it, and that is how Richard Wallace was able to buy it for the Wallace Collection and that is how it resides in London today.

So this is the kind of painting you either love, for its sensual and sensuous nature, its rosy cheeks of the cherubs fore and aft – we’ve even noticed the rosy ears and the rosy shoulders and the rosy backs – it’s a very enticing painting, but you either love it or you loathe it, but we’re very lucky I think to have it in the National Gallery.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Jacqui Ansell. If you’d like to make up your own mind about Fragonard’s painting, come along to the Gallery. 'Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid' is on display throughout the month. 

Individual gifts

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): In these days of state-subsidised art, it’s easy to forget the difference a donation from an individual can make to an arts organisation. From multimillion-pound bequests to 50p in a collection tin, much of the Gallery’s work is funded by members of the public. And it’s always been thus, as I discovered when I spoke to archivist Alan Crookham and fundraiser Laura Dee. Alan began by explaining how the Gallery owed its founding to an individual’s gift.

Alan Crookham: Initially, George Beaumont and a number of other people in the 1810s and 1820s were really pushing for the formation of a national gallery and in fact I think that George Beaumont focused people’s minds on establishing a national gallery by offering to give his own collection of paintings to the nation in 1823 provided that suitable accommodation was found. And I think this really pushed the government into a situation where the following year of course they were then in a position to buy the Angerstein collection and that was the foundation of the National Gallery.

Miranda Hinkley: So the interesting thing there is that it’s not a collection that belongs to the royal family and then a gallery is built to house it. This is the collection belonging to an individual who wants to make a bequest.

Alan Crookham: No, absolutely not. It’s not a royal collection – I mean, there is a royal collection that continues to exist to this very day – the National Gallery very much is the 'national’ collection, it belongs to everyone. It was established by a vote of parliament – they voted the money, £57,000, to buy Angerstein’s collection, and as a result of buying Angerstein’s collection, George Beaumont then fulfilled his earlier promise to donate his collection of 16 paintings to the nation two years later, in 1826.

Miranda Hinkley: And so how did the Gallery develop over time? I mean, has it ever been thus that individuals have wanted to make bequests of private collections?

Alan Crookham: Yes, I think people right at the start wanted to encourage everyone, both major collections and members of the public, I guess, to make donations to the Gallery and they hoped that it would expand in this way, so for example, if you come forward a hundred years, you then have Samuel Courtauld’s great gift to the Gallery when he gave £50,000 to a trust to buy Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works of art in 1924.

Miranda Hinkley: So one of those paintings is behind us now, Seurat’s ‘The Bathers’, which is now one of the most well known and popular works in the collection. I mean, did he have any kind of input into which works were selected?

Alan Crookham: Very much so, because what he did was he established a trust fund to buy the works. He didn’t actually give the money straight to the Gallery because I think he was concerned that the Gallery trustees at the time were slightly conservative, and even though we’re talking about 1924 they were not very well disposed towards acquiring Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works of art and those works of art were fairly few and far between in the Gallery, and what Courtauld very much wanted to do was to increase the reputation of those schools in the National Gallery’s collection, and therefore he set up this trust fund with himself as a trustee – also people like the Director of the National Gallery and the Director of the Tate Gallery – to purchase works of art such as Seurat’s 'Bathers', but also, I mean, really iconic works in the Gallery’s collection today – things like Van Gogh’s 'Sunflowers', 'Van Gogh’s Chair', Renoir’s 'At the Theatre' – really iconic works of art that were set up, and Seurat’s 'Bathers' being one of those that came into the collection at that time.

Miranda Hinkley: Laura, you’re nodding your head there... you’re the Head of Trusts and Individual Giving – do you see that pattern of individuals making bequests continuing to this day? Is that something that still happens?

Laura Dee: Absolutely, I think most people would be amazed to find out that about a quarter of the paintings in the collection have been made possible by bequests from individuals and small or large gifts from wills. And that continues to this day. We have an acquisitions fund which is made up from gifts from wills and that’s what we use to buy our next painting.

Miranda Hinkley: And other than these single bequests when these people make their will, is there other giving in the Gallery and what difference does that make?

Laura Dee: Yes, absolutely, we have a range of types of giving that come into the Gallery, everything from major individual gifts, trusts and foundations, through to small, individual gifts, right down to our visitor donation boxes. They all make a huge difference. I mean, just to give you an example, we have individuals who support curatorial posts, we have individuals and trusts who make exhibitions happen, our autumn exhibition wouldn’t happen without a gift from an individual. Most of our Sunley Room exhibitions which are free are made possible by trusts and foundations and individuals who make gifts. Likewise we have many of our great paintings reframed with better frames by gifts from individuals.

The interesting thing about gifts and making a gift is that you don’t have to be wealthy. When we say that every single small gift, every coin counts, we really mean it, and our visitor donation boxes are incredibly important to us. The money from those boxes helped provide the free guided tours, the free floor plans, the free lecture series, and if everybody who came into the Gallery gave 50 pence each, we would raise £2,500,000 and we can do a huge amount with that.

Miranda Hinkley: Thank you very much.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio):  Thanks to Alan Crookham and Laura Dee. 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): To learn more about the paintings and projects in this episode, visit, where you’ll also find news of all the Gallery’s upcoming events. And don’t forget this month is your last opportunity to visit the ‘Corot to Monet’ exhibition. The show runs until 20 September, and admission is free.

That’s it for now – until next time, goodbye!