Dulwich Picture Gallery sprung out of one of the most successful art dealerships in London during the late 18th century - the partnership of Frenchman, Noël Desenfans (1745 - 1807), and his younger Swiss friend, the painter, Sir Francis Bourgeois, RA (1756 - 1811). The enterprise appears to have been launched by the dowry of Desenfan’s wife, Margaret Morris.
In 1790 the pair were commissioned by Stanislaus Augustus, King of Poland, to form a Royal Collection from scratch. They devoted the next five years exclusively to this task during which time Poland was gradually partitioned by its more powerful neighbours leading in 1795 to its complete disappearance as an independent state. The King was forced to abdicate, which left the two dealers with a Royal Collection on their hands.
Bourgeois and Desenfans strove to resolve their situation in two ways. In private they sold individual works from their Polish stock and replaced them with further important purchases. In public they sought a home for their “Royal Collection” approaching, amongst others, the Tsar of Russia and the British Government. When it became clear that they would not be able to sell the collection in its entirety, they began to think to whom they might bequeath it. This became more pressing after Desenfan’s death in 1807, which left Bourgeois as the sole owner. At that date there was no National Gallery, so the key candidate was the British Museum. However, Bourgeois found its trustees too ‘arbitrary’ and ‘aristocratic’ and so he decided to leave his collection to Dulwich College instead, despite him having no obvious connection with the school. More important than the destination was the stipulation in the will that the paintings should be made available for the ‘inspection of the public’. So it was that Dulwich Picture Gallery - England’s first purpose-built public art gallery - was founded by the terms of Sir Francis Bourgeois’s will upon his death in 1811.
Bourgeois and Desenfans reflected the taste and market opportunities of their time by concentrating on European painting of the 17th and 18th centuries, the period sometimes known as the ‘Age of Baroque’. Their taste was broad with a strong representation of all the major national styles of painting - Italian, Spanish, French, Flemish and Dutch. The great collection of English painting at Dulwich is largely due to two later donations. The group of Linley family portraits was given in 1835 and the Fairfax Murray Gift (also in the main comprising English portraits) in 1911.
During the period 1600 - 1750 European art was at its most rich and most diverse. This was an age when artists were working for radically different societies and did so with astonishing individualism and experimental audacity. The result is an impressive range of style and different ways of looking at the world. To make sense of this kaleidoscope of painting, the collection has been hung by country and period. The Latins - the Italians, Spanish and French are hung at the north end of the Gallery; the Northern Europeans - Flemish, Dutch and British - to the south. The Gallery as a whole thus allows for a ‘broad-brush’ contrast between these two European polarities. Today Dulwich Picture Gallery houses one of the finest collections of Old Masters in the world.