The Art Gallery of NSW did not embark upon collecting old masters until the 1950s, some 80 years after its foundation. Previously, the great masters of the past could only be experienced through copies intended for educational purposes.
The focus of the Gallery’s acquisitions policy since the late 19th century had been primarily on works by living artists – initially British, later Australian and European.
Between 1951 and 1976, the Gallery acquired an outstanding group of English 18th-century portraits, including works by three of the leading painters of the age: William Hogarth, Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds.
During these years the Gallery also purchased landscapes and subject pictures representative of British Neo-Classicism and Romanticism by artists such as Richard Wilson, John Glover, Richard Westall, William Hamilton and Francis Danby.
Although accessions of non-British painting were rare, three powerful and imposing figural compositions by the Baroque painters Bernardo Strozzi, Jan van Bijlert and Matthias Stomer expanded the scope and ambition of the collection.
The extraordinary donation by James Fairfax AC during the 1990s significantly enriched the Gallery’s holdings of European old masters, particularly in the area of 18th-century French and Italian art. Notable examples include works by Nicolas de Largillierre and Canaletto.
The collection has continued to develop in more recent times with the acquisition of major Italian Renaissance and Baroque works – such as the intense and imposing altarpiece by Giulio Cesare Procaccini.
These paintings remind us of what is constant in human experience and emotion while offering an insight into ages and cultures so different from our own.