The collection of paintings at The Bowes Museum presents a comprehensive survey of European art from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
John Bowes bought his first old master painting in 1830 when travelling in Europe. By 1844 he had acquired fifty-seven paintings, mostly from London dealers. Joséphine was a talented amateur painter, especially interested in modern works. In the 1860s she bought work by major French painters such as Courbet, Fantin-Latour, Boudin and Monticelli, the latter being an influence on Van Gogh. Sadly she died just before the opening of the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, and one can only speculate where her taste might have led her. She tried to buy a painting by Manet at auction in 1868, but was outbid.
Many of the Italian paintings were bought by John Bowes before he met Joséphine. The most important is perhaps A Miracle of the Holy Sacrament by Sassetta, a panel from a predella (a series of narrative panels underneath an altarpiece) from a Sienese altarpiece, dating to 1423-26. Other important works include The Harnessing of the Horses of the Sun by the Venetian artist Tiepolo, a preliminary study piece for decoration in the Archinto Palace, Milan, painted in 1731 that was sadly destroyed in World War II. It shows Apollo (the Sun god) about to ascend his chariot before making his day’s journey across the sky. There are also two large paintings by Canaletto, the famous painter of Venice, showing the festivals of the Sposalizio del Mare, when Venice is married to the sea with a wedding ring cast in the water and the annual Regatta or race of boats.
The Bowes Museum possesses one of the largest collections of Spanish paintings in Britain. Amongst the collection are works such as The Tears of St. Peter by El Greco, Goya’s Portrait of Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés and his Interior of a Prison. The collection of French paintings is also the largest in the country, and includes many fine eighteenth century landscapes, including works by Boucher, Vernet, Robert and Valenciennes.
The European paintings are complimented by a group of British paintings, including works by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Richard Wilson and Alan Ramsay. Two watercolours by Turner depict Gibside, the estate formerly belonging to the Strathmore family. John Bowes’ father, the 10th Earl of Strathmore, commissioned these works when the artist was working in the North of England.