Sarah Cho ’18 on the Courtauld Gallery and Her Art-Filled Semester in London!

This past semester, I studied abroad at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, UK! It was fantastic to be immersed in an environment where everyone was just as passionate about art history as I am. Another great part about London was that museums were free. This meant that I never had to rush to see an entire museum in one day (you know—that broke college student life), and could have true to life moments exploring sections of the museum at a time. I got to really enjoy nooks of Tate Modern, the entirety of Tate Britain (one of my favorite museums), decorative arts panels at the V&A, the “countryside” vibe of Kenwood House, and so much more. I also had the opportunity to explore the many treasures housed in museums all over mainland Europe. There might have been one too many moments where I nerded out after being able to see my favorite art works in person. There also might be a collection of selfies/photos of me being excited about these works.

Me in front of Delacroix’s paintings at the Louvre ft. a judgy teen.

But, the most memorable museum of them all was my uni’s gallery: the Courtauld Gallery. It’s located at Somerset House, an old palace that once was the home to the Royal Academy of Arts. Somerset House is still very much ingrained in the art scene, as it hosts monthly influential art fairs and shows. The Courtauld Gallery lives in the wing where the Royal Academy used to host its exhibitions; the likes of J.M.W. Turner, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Mary Moser, and Angelica Kauffman once roamed these halls and showcased their works to the scrutiny of the public. On the top floor of the Courtauld Gallery, if you look up, you can see the same architecture of the walls of the gallery that was used for the annual Exhibition.

The Exhibition Room at Somerset House by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin. 1800

Now replaced by winding white cube gallery walls like this:

(Top floor of the Courtauld Gallery. Peep the wonderful Manet sketch of a woman in the corner!)

Stemming from many different famous English collectors, The Courtauld Gallery is home to London’s most phenomenal collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Medieval art works. They have the most insane Cézanne collection—all the works that I’ve seen on projector screens during my time as an art history student were just casually hanging on the walls at the Courtauld. It was crazy to be able to see them in person and know that it was there at any time for my looking and questioning.

Famous blue rails of Somerset House/ The Royal Academy/ Courtauld Gallery

The gallery also holds one of my favorite paintings, Degas’ Two Dancers on a Stage. I’ve had a framed copy of this painting hanging next to my bed since the fourth grade, so you can only imagine how excited I was to be able to experience the real thing. What was also fantastic was that in the gallery that the painting hung, there were two free-standing sculptures of dancers by Degas. It was as if we were standing in a corner of Degas’ studio, seeing the process of him molding the sculptures by hand and transferring it to paint. Of course, I couldn’t give up the opportunity to get to know the work further, so I gave a “Lunchtime Talk” at the gallery about Two Dancers on a Stage and shared all the details I loved about the painting to the gallery’s visitors.

Edgar Degas, Two Dancers on the Stage, 1874. Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 46 cm.

One of the most loved paintings at the gallery is Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. People come from all over the world to see Manet’s last masterpiece—as they should! It is so beautiful and dense with details that just beg to be parsed over and over again. The Bar (as we at the Courtauld fondly call it) is quite arresting in person, as the bar maid is positioned right at eye level. It’s almost as if your presence in front of her is causing her to avert her eyes. I was lucky enough to do multiple class presentations in front of this lovely painting—just like we do at the Princeton Museum.

Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883), A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882, Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

I think the reason why the Courtauld Gallery holds such a special place in my heart is because it reminded me so much of the Princeton Art Museum. The Courtauld Gallery, like PUAM, functions as a University museum. At the Courtauld Institute, one of the classes I took was titled The City and the Country: Painting in France, 1871-1914. Obviously, the Courtauld Gallery held a large amount of significant paintings that we looked at in class. It was phenomenal to be able to talk about a specific painting in class and then hop over to the gallery and give presentations and have discussions in front of the physical work. My time at the Courtauld reminded me of why I became an Art History major in the first place, and how the PUAM played a big role in that decision. Much like at the Courtauld, we are so lucky at Princeton to be able to hold seminars and classes in front of the actual pieces of work. And as much as I loved my time in London, I’m excited to return to campus. I’ve re-found my appreciation for the PUAM and I can’t wait to be back.

I got to go into the storage rooms of the Courtauld Gallery, courtesy of the head Curator of Paintings! They have some serious masterpieces hanging in these racks.