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Art history isn't just for dim Sloanes

Blog | By Harry Mount | Feb 21, 2019


This week, a new show opens at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris – 'The Courtauld Collection. A Vision for Impressionism'.

The treasures, borrowed from London's Courtauld Gallery, are staggering – and, to me, extremely familiar. I studied at the Courtauld Institute 20 years ago, and was surrounded by the pictures now on show in Paris: Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergère (pictured); Gauguin's Nevermore; van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear; Seurat; Renoir.... Over 100 works are in the exhibition, collected by the visionary Samuel Courtauld.

Only now, two decades on, do I appreciate what an extraordinary place the Courtauld was. Still, though, the British don't really appreciate its wonders - or appreciate art history, considered a subject for dim Sloanes.

And yet we flood to exhibitions in our millions. And art history, properly admired on the Continent, is, at its best, a scholarly study of classics, religion, history and beauty.

British snobbery about the study of art history goes back to our ancient universities and their concentration on classics. Oxford and Cambridge have only started an art history undergraduate course in recent years - and still it's considered somehow infra dig.

Here's hoping that the French appreciation of one of our greatest collections, attached to our greatest art history school, will boost our own national understanding of a neglected intellectual discipline.