Scotland has a Botticelli; the Kimbell Art Museum does not.
The Scots have a Vermeer; the Kimbell does not. But then the Kimbell has a Caravaggio and a Michelangelo and the National Galleries of Scotland do not.
There is great synchronicity among the holdings — repeats such as Rembrandt and Raeburn — and the omissions, which makes for an interesting visit to see the Kimbell’s summer exhibition, “Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces From the National Galleries of Scotland.”
The National Galleries of Scotland are actually three entities with holdings of Western art from the Renaissance to the present. They are the Scottish National Gallery (early Western art through the 19th century), the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (all portraits) and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (art from the 20th century on).
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There is some cross-pollination, such as portraits in the National Gallery, because the parameters are porous and because there were early gifts that had irrevocable stipulations. The three museums are in Edinburgh, under the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. The Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery are practically neighbors, and the Modern is at a discrete distance across the Water of Leith, the local river.
As a family of institutions, it has a fractious history of infighting and territorial disputes, as its members have had to compete for monies and gifts.
The collections did not begin as a royal collection, as the Prado’s did. All of the Scottish permanent collections have been built on bequests, gifts and purchases with their own, often limited, resources.
In the 1980s, they got a needed financial boost when the British government agreed to accept artworks in lieu of taxes. This has benefited the collections greatly as pieces by Bernini, Botticelli, Canova, El Greco, da Vinci and Raphael have been added to the index.
The history of how they came by so many of the great works is included in the catalog, which is an accessible, enjoyable account of the artists, the artworks and their provenance.
Take the Botticelli, for example. The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (c. 1485) was purchased in 1999 for the Scottish National Gallery by a consortium of three banks, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund, private donations and contributions from the American Friends of the National Galleries of Scotland.
At the time, the work had been downgraded to an effort from the workshop of Botticelli. Subsequent examinations and conservation revealed a number of changes in the original composition that indicated to scholars that it is indeed from the early Renaissance master, making it quite a score. This will be the first time it has left Scotland in more than 150 years.
Another fortuitous purchase was John Constable’s The Vale of Dedham (1827-28). This very large landscape of the English countryside near Suffolk is painted in such minute detail that a botanist would have no trouble identifying every plant and tree.
The view across the countryside takes in cottages, a toll bridge and the tower of Dedham Church and suggests the villages of Manningtree and Mistley. It was bought during World War II when funds were low but national pride ran high.
George Shackelford, deputy director of the Kimbell and curator of this exhibition, always develops a doomed infatuation with an artwork from every exhibition he mounts. From the National Galleries, it is the Constable landscape.
“Look what he does,” he says, pointing to the underbrush. “He coaxes detail out of nothing.”
The romance will be a summer fling; The Vale of Dedham will have to return to Great Britain.
Shackelford had an intimate gallery built in the center of the temporary exhibit space in the Piano Pavilion. The walls were painted a royal red to mimic the galleries at the National Gallery.
Here are the giant portraits of men in kilts and argyle socks — Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry (1771-1828) (c. 1812), said to be a bit of poser, by Sir Henry Raeburn, and Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, 1st Baronet (1754-1835) (c. 1790s), also by Raeburn. They are resplendent.
There is a portrait of three sisters, The Ladies Waldegrave (1780-81), by Sir Joshua Reynolds that was commissioned by the girls’ great-uncle, the famous critic and connoisseur Horace Walpole.
The sisters were only in their 20s when they sat for Reynolds, but they look older because of their Antoinette-ish gray wigs. They sit close around a small table, their skirts billowing like down comforters, laboring over their needlework.
“It’s a very Downton Abbey moment,” says Shackelford of the privilege, not the period.
Another portrait with great significance to the Scots is Reverend Robert Walker (1755-1808) Skating on Duddingston Loch (c. 1795), another Raeburn. It is considered a national treasure, as inexplicably popular as Grant Wood’s American Gothic is on our shores, and the subject, equally as stoic.
There are oddities such as The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania (1847), by Sir Joseph Noel Paton, that played to the Victorian infatuation with fairies. The scene roils with a multitude of fairies of every stripe and size, evil, charming, angelic and lascivious. It’s the Where’s Waldo of its day and quite entertaining.
Another strange painting, with an even stranger backstory, is Sir Alexander Morison (1779-1866) (1852), by Richard Dadd.
After killing his father (at the urging of ancient gods, he said), Dadd, 26, was committed to mental institutions for the remainder of his life. His painting ability was so impressive that he was allowed art supplies and even given a studio, where he painted Morison, one of his physicians.
Morison was the author of The Physiognomy of Mental Diseases and believed facial expression revealed mental conditions. Dadd painted him with the same close attention to detail as Morison subjected his patients.
There are many spectacular paintings, including artworks from the early 20th century, such as brilliantly colorful pieces by Gauguin, Derain and Jawlensky, plus cubist works from Braque and Picasso, that speak to the wealth of the holdings of the three institutions. But they are not nearly as compelling as those from the Italians of the Renaissance and the British portraitists.
The paintings were loaned as goodwill ambassadors to encourage travel to Scotland.
While they may lure more travelers to Great Britain, they will definitely entice visitors to the Kimbell. A visit won’t accrue any flying miles, but it is definitely worth the trip.
Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces From the National Galleries of Scotland
▪ Sunday-Sept. 20
▪ Renzo Piano Pavilion of the Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth
▪ 817-332-8451, www.kimbellart.org