“Discovering the Italian Baroque” is a catalogue published by the National Gallery, London which accompanied an exhibition at the gallery between 26 February – 18 May 1997 to celebrate the Sir Denis Mahon Collection of paintings and drawings which encompassed nearly 80 paintings, together with a selection of his drawings by Guercino. It was a long-overdue celebration, not only of 17th Century Italian (specifically Bolognese) art, but also a fitting tribute to Sir Denis Mahon, who put his collection together over a forty year period from the mid 1930s to the early 1970s.


Sir Denis came to collecting through the route of a history degree at Oxford, after which he stayed there for another year to study art history under the tutelage of Kenneth Clark, then the Keeper of Western Art and Director of the Ashmolean Museum. Clark advised him to study the Seicento, a field that was still under-studied. In 1933, Sir Denis attended lectures by Nikolaus Pevsner on Seicento painting at the Courtauld Institute of Art. It was Pevsner who suggested he research the work of Guercino. Sir Denis’s studies were intimately bound up with the formation of his own collection of paintings and drawings. In 1934, he bought his first picture by Guercino, Jacob blessing the Sons of Joseph (cat. 44), which is now in the National Gallery of Ireland. Two years later, he bought for £200 Guercino’s Elijah fed by Ravens (cat. 43) from the Barberini collection in Rome. At this time, he was serving as honorary attache (an informal, unpaid curator) at the National Gallery and he offered to sell the painting at cost price to the gallery. The Director, by now Kenneth Clark, thought very highly of the painting but felt it would be impossible to persuade the trustees of the merits of buying an Italian Baroque painting. At that time, Italian Seicento pictures were despised in Britain, partly due to the influential views of John Ruskin in the late 19th Century who detested the Carraccis in particular. As Sir Denis said : in England it (Seicento painting) is still something of the neglected Cinderella of Italian art, perhaps not so much from the point of view of appreciation as from that of art history. This persuaded Mahon to form a collection, with a view to holding the pictures until such time as the national collections would be interested in having them and so around 1935 he toured Britain and the Continent in search of Guercino’s paintings and drawings, thus acquiring eventually for quite small sums paintings by the then unfashionable painters such as Domenichino, Andrea Sacchi and Ciro Ferri. In 1941, he bought Guercino’s large painting, Saint Gregory the Great with Saints Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier (cat. 47). In 1945 he bought Guido Reni’s The Rape of Europa (cat. 63), which is now in the National Gallery. Both the Elijah fed by Ravens and the Saint Gregory featured in Sir Denis’s book, Studies in Seicento Art and Theory, which was published by the Warburg Institute in 1947 and remains a fundamental text on 17th Century Italian art. This book single-handedly won over the institutions of art history in Britain to the acceptance of Italian 17th Century painting as a major school of art. Sir Denis’s outstanding collection, including masterpieces by Sébastien Bourdon, Annibale and Ludovico Carracci, Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Pietro da Cortona, Gaspard Dughet, Luca Giordano, Nicolas Poussin, Lo Scarsellino and Pierre Subleyras, has been left to British institutions such as the National Gallery in London, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, as well as the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna and the National Gallery of Ireland.


The Denis Mahon Collection

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