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A SOBER brick building, unpretentious in scale and design, lies modestly low among lawns at the end of a road with playing fields on either side: the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It does not look as if it was designed by the architect of the Bank of England to house a mausoleum hung with most of the pictures assembled for the National Gallery of Poland. Its unusual history began when a rich Welshwoman from Glamorgan, Magaret Morris, married her French tutor, Noel Desenfans, just before the Revolution in his native country. Her fortune set him up as an an-dealer who did a lucrative trade with French aristos desperate to sell their pictures.

Before long Desenfans formed links with European royalty. With his close friend and partner, Sir Francis Bourgeois, he was commissioned to form a collection for Stanislaus Augustus, the King of Poland. They worked on this project until 1795 when, sadly for Stanislaus and themselves, his unstable country was divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia. That left them with what was, in effect, a National Gallery on their hands. With considerable altruism, the partners kept most of the collection intact, but during the Napoleonic Wars could find no public institution willing to purchase it. They behaved with a romantic benevolence more consistent with the principles of Rousseau and Godwin than with the practice of most dealers in fine art. Desenfans left his share to Bourgeois, and Bourgeois bought back pictures from his own share that he had sold; but he still failed to interest Pitt's successors in government in the notion of a London National Gallery. In the end he bequeathed the pictures, with enough money to pay for their exhibition, to Dulwich College (an independent school founded by the actor Edward Alleyne), with which he had no connection; presumably because it had a rudimentary portrait gallery already and was prepared to fall in with his plans, which included a mausoleum for the three founders (Mr and Mrs Desenfans and Bourgeois himself), public admission to the pictures and the employment of Sir John Soane as architect. There the founders remain in a spectral menage a trois.

Soane intended a cloister outside the gallery, and even a quadrangle, but ran out of money, so contented himself with an illusory brick loggia in low relief. The refurbishments of 1999-2000 include a narrow 'cloister' of bronze and patterned glass, backed by rooms, proportionate to the gallery, for the inevitable education room, an exhibition room and a cafe. The gallery itself remains, fortunately, much the same. The coherent arrangement of the pictures allows one to seek out what one wishes to view. The contrast with the now divided Tate Gallery is extreme. One is not forced to follow a prescribed track of pictures impudently thrust upon the public by the often vitiated whims of would-be artistic dictators. The zealous wish of the Dulwich Gallery is to foster one's intention to look at a particular Cuyp or Poussin. The stem intent of the Modem European Tate Gallery on Bankside is to foster with public money the degeneracy of our colleges of art, whilst withdrawing from view Chagall and Modigliani, Magritte and Delvaux, Utrillo and Dufy, Bonnard and Matisse.

The gallery opened in 1814, ten years before the National Gallery in London. Later benefactors included Charles Fairfax Murray, minor Pre-Raphaelite, scholar and picture-dealer, who anonymously and munificently donated forty-six paintings, including the pair by Lely. The Bourgeois Bequest fortunately reflected the taste of its time, so much that, in relation to its size, the gallery has a signal collection of seventeenth-century Italian pictures, as well as French, Dutch and Flemish works from the same period.

Revered in the eighteenth century, ferociously condemned as actually evil by the intermittently crazy Ruskin in the age of Queen Victoria, and disdained by the Bloomsbury circle, the Italian painters of the Counter Reformation have now, partly through the work of such scholars as Sir Denis Mahon, returned to deserved public esteem.

Foremost among the later Italian pictures at Dulwich is, in my view, Guercino's Woman taken in Adultery. As a Pharisee enumerates the Levitical laws (in favour of stoning the woman) on his fingers, Christ points to the tears and the bowed head of the frail sinner. Perhaps as a sign that Christ shared ail human distress, Guercino has given His eyes, in the roseate olive dusk, the squint which was Guercino's own lifelong misery. Guercino shrinkingly hid his squint in the shadows of his brow in his self-portrait of about 1625, but it is conspicuous in the later portrait by his nephew Benedetto Gennari in the Mahon Collection. Guido Reni, whose haughty and irascible temper, which contrasts with his mild-mannered works, awed his prudish ecclesiastic patrons into allowing him great latitude, is represented by two superb male nudes, wispily clad for saints: St Sebastian, narrow-framed as the shafts that pierce him, and a rapt young St John the Baptist. The St Sebastian is replicated by the artist, in less detail an d with less shadowy intensity, in the Prado. More masterly still than his two male saints is Reni's darkly purposeful Lucretia at the moment of her self-immolation.

The late Venetian Sebastiano Ricci and the late Florentine Carlo Dolci are seen here at their best. In Ricci's Defeat of the Rebel Angels, an elegant, almost courtly, St Michael trounces Satan's uncouth supporters. Ricci exploits, in his Resurrection, his dexterity in painting suspended figures, no doubt derived from his practice as a ceiling-painter. Carlo Dolci, a devotional painter, achieves a telling sincerity, and an avoidance of the merely pretty not often attributed to him, in his portrayal of a grief-laden and disconsolate St Catherine of Siena, wearing her own crown of thorns as tears run down her sallow face from the droop of her hooded eyelids. One is reminded of the lines of Dolci's British contemporary and fellow Catholic, Richard Crashaw:

I'll weep, and weep, and will therefore

Weep,' cause I can weep no more.

A wall is shared by the swashbuckling Rubens and the more graceful van Dyck: graceful but fervent in his rare religious pictures, such as his buxom Madonna at Dulwich. She raises trusting eyes to heaven as she sings to her sturdy but doomed child. (The vivid characterisation of van Dyck's Samson and Delilah has already been described in the issue of the Contemporary Review for December 1999.) Ruben's moderately absurd Hagar in the Desert is a pretext for a portrait of his redheaded and ample wife Helene. In the guise of the outcast Hagar, she poses by a spring in copious rustling silks and brawny bare feet: the hands and feet of Rubens's women are in general heavily masculine. In deference to the biblical story she has an empty flask but is in no hurry to fill it. There is no sign of her maternal solicitude for Ishmael. Ruben's dashing sketches, such as his Lament for Adonis, probably intended to be worked up in his studio in Antwerp, are more engaging than the unsightly finished canvas (probably not finishe d by himself) Venus, Mars and Cupid, almost certainly a recycling of his sketches for War and Peace in the London National Gallery and The Origin of the Milky Way in the Prado.

Like Ostade's yokels, the topers of Brouwer's Antwerp frequent a lower sort of tavern than those of Teniers and Steen. There, in the intervals between their brawls, they cackle and spy, inquisitive about the smallest event. The dark treacly colours of Adriaen Brouwer,s Interior of a Tavern suit the murk and smoke of the pot-houses favoured by that grimly observant wastrel. Often in some corner of the paintings of Ostade and Brouwer something thoroughly impolite is taking place. The alehouse is lit only by the thronged fireplace, a single candle and the lugubrious winter moonlight vapid in the open door; which has led one muddled workman to mistake the position of the communal chamber-pot, as he props himself against a beam scored, at some time in the past, with one customer's Falstaffian debit. Two labourers, flushed with beer and temporarily lordly, share a screw of tobacco in their clay pipes. To the same fallacious grandeur is the cobbler raised in Robert Herrick's contemporaneous Hymn to Bacchus:

When we thy Orgies sing

Each Cobler is a King,

Nor dreads he anything

Though he has no riches,

But walks with dangling breeches

And skirts that want their stitches.

A third toper bawls out a song not much esteemed, evidently, by his companions, who ignore him. By the crowded fireside another reveller, tired of niceties, swigs from a large earthenware jug. Brouwer, well-known as a militant egalitarian, represents the fuddled fallacious pleasures by which the poor sweetened their labours. Unlike the ale-drinkers in Adriaen van Ostade's better lit and airier Peasants at an Inn nearby, Brouwer's tipplers do not seem to be actually enjoying themselves. Brouwer's pictures were surprisingly popular among the patricians of Antwerp. Rubens owned seven of his pictures, tried to recruit him for his picture-factory, and even lodged him in the palatial Rubenshuis until obliged to eject him for rowdiness. Brouwer's riotous but dismal life ended at the pathetic age of twenty-nine when, weakened by his dissipations and at least one spell in a debtors' prison, he succumbed to the plague which beset Antwerp in 1638.

Until the time of Brouwer's death David Teniers (unnecessarily known as the Younger, since most of the few works ascribed to his father have now been convincingly re-attributed to the son) imitated Brouwer's manner, although with some distaste for his drunken abandon. Their divergence was more of style (Tenier's spare tasteful drawing in contrast with the murky slapdash of Brouwer) and temperament (since Teniers was fond of neatness and order) than of social class. Admittedly Teniers, by marrying the daughter of Jan Bruegel (called 'Velvet Bruegel') joined a well established and widely ramified family of painters before, on his own merits, he became Dean of the Antwerp Guild of Painters. He was chosen as court painter by the Archduke Leopold-Willem, the Habsburg Governor of Flanders, upon whose private collection of pictures the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna was based. Teniers's distance from the rustics he painted is illustrated by his canvas, in the Brussels Museum of Art, of his visit with his wife to a country fair on his estate, De Drij Toren. Both are fashionably dressed and have arrived by carriage, accompanied by their domestics, to view the festivities; certainly not to join them.

Unlike Brouwer, Teniers loves the distinct colours of the open air, and the sight of trim farmworkers soberly tending their beasts. In Teniers's pictures at Dulwich, animals satisfy appetites more innocent than those assuaged in Brouwer's pot-houses. A pure white horse dominates The Chaff Grinder. Whilst it munches a truss of hay, a cottager throws out corn to feed her spry poultry. Equally white in The Sow's Litter, five well-rounded piglets enjoy their dam's bounty as she inspects her neat pail and trough of fodder.

Andrew Marvell wrote jestingly of the flatness of Holland:

The fish oftimes the burgher dispossessed

And sat, not as a meat, but as a guest.

It is a pity that Marvell did not use his 'curious felicity' of phrase to distinguish the effects of water that are spread everywhere in Dutch landscapes, especially at Dulwich: the spray-rush and engulfed estuaries of the younger van der Velde, or his ships in a calm, as if insubstantial on the pallid haze; the placid torpor of Hobbema's mill-pond, with the sleepy hamlet that environs it; the vaporous stretch of the Maas that runs through Cuyp's Dordrecht; the sudden pond in Berchem's Road through the Woods, where leaf-tangled twilight gilds the green of the oaktrees; the unhurried stream which projects its subaquatic shimmer on the underside of Pijnacker's bridge, over which a drover guides his cattle through a sunset confused in the viridescent tresses of the weedy stones. Even more important is the air which swings round the vast Dutch sky. The small Ruisdael is aptly a sketch of two windmills; windmills responsive to the currents of space, and drawing breath and motion from them, like his own paintings.

The notable pictures by Aelbert Cuyp at Dulwich are, like those from the Bolognese School, a noble legacy from the eighteenth-century tastes of the founders of the gallery; but whereas the painters of the circle of Reni and Guercino fell from favour in this country (so much so that a prime Domenichino was sold at auction as recently as 1939 for a contemptuous fourteen guineas), Cuyp has been continuously admired in Britain. Eighteenth-century British collectors admired the work of 'the Dutch Claude' so much that there are more of his works here than in his native Holland. As relatively late as 1903 he was accorded a one-man show at the Royal Academy, and has retained his popularity for more than three centuries.

Cuyp painted mostly around his native town of Dordrecht, where he was a landowner and councillor, and along the two stretches of the Maas, which divided under its bridges. In his three paintings of herdsmen and cattle at Dulwich, a moist swirl of twilight, suspended over the low horizon, permeates the mild marshy pastures and caresses the slack flanks of the grazing animals. Against the level limpid sky Cuyp's carefully delineated foregrounds stand in stereoscopic relief. A Sandy Landscape by Jan Wijnants, like Ruidael a citizen of Haarlem, is likewise spacious in its rendering of air and terrain, although small in size. An oak hoists itself from an ambush of ivy to frame, with its crooked twigs and incipient leaves, a clump of hornbeams, a gravelly knoll and the sand-sifted paths of Haarlem, nowhere far from the dunes of the North Sea.

Amongst the Dutch landscapists who studied in Rome, Cornelis van Poelenburgh, though deficient in the draughtsmanship and intricate fantasy of his master Abraham Bloemaert, deserves cordial mention for his amiable comicality and massive, hilarious indecorum. Only Arnold Bocklin vies with him as the most ludicrous painter, not actually meritless, in Northern Europe. In Poelenburgh's oval panel, A Satyr and a dancing Nymph, a heavyweight melon-buttocked nude nymph prances up and down to the thump of a satyr's tabor by a lake festooned with curlicue bushes and reeds. Encouraged by a fellow-dryad, she raps a tambourine at each earth-shaking bounce. Not many picture galleries have the means to provoke such an invigorating laugh.

Unfortunately for joke-lovers, Poelenburgh was succeeded as a teller of classical myths by severer and more able figure-painters such as Adriaen van der Werff, an artist of importance in his own time, and court-painter to the German princeling, Johann Wilhelm van der Pfalz, who also patronised Weenix and Schalcken. This unemotional but gifted perfectionist was much influenced by his French contemporaries across the Rhine. He worked on the Dulwich Judgement of Paris steadily for four months. In keeping with the conventions of such French painters as Noel-Nicolas Coypel, his men are tawny and his women, as his three goddesses are here, twists of silver. The goddesses have every asset except charm. Although Paris has already decided to award the golden apple to Venus, he teasingly holds it back from her outstretched hand: for a moment he has a deity in thrall. Venus's serpentine stance, with one arm aloft, suggests Eve as she plucks the apple which she will hand to Adam; and one of van der Werff's pupils later u sed his copy of the figure for that scene. Van der Werff, a clever man, may have thought out the ambiguity of her pose, since both apples (one awarded and one pressed on its recipient) brought disaster. The painting was once in the renowned collection of the duc d'Orleans.

Rembrandt's Girl at a Window would hardly have attracted the libertine duke. She daydreams, with soft eyes in a face as knobbly and flushed as a ripe pippin, her elbows, loose in a nightgown, on the sill. She enjoys one of those happy moments when it is enough to enjoy the morning light, and there is nothing to be planned or thought of or desired; nothing but merely to sense the warm stonework. The pictures of Rembrandt's pupil, Gerrit Dou, resemble those of his master only in his use, sparingly at that, of dramatic shadow. He prefers an exactly defining access of light, particularly through large arched windows which frame the pictures. The Dulwich Lady at a Clavichord has a window at the side, but a rough arch is created by a tapestry drawn back and pinned up over an alcove, where it could be dropped to create a private space. The heavy arras suggests a muffled quiet as the lady suspends her music to look at someone outside the picture. That direct gaze is not unusual in the portrayal by Dou (and also Verme er) of single figures. The suggested outsider in Dou's panel could be the viewer of the scene but, if that were so, the viewer would be invited to enter and play a viola da gamba, with a musical score solicitously open beside it, next to an hospitable glass of wine already poured out from the flask in the wine-cooler. It is a less fanciful supposition that she has been waiting for a fellow-musician of whom she is at least fond, and that he has now arrived; or someone else? Her eyes are more apprehensive than welcoming. The mystery lingers in the mind, which was perhaps Dou's intention. Meanwhile, like Vermeer in his later and closely comparable Lady seated at a Virginal, Dou has succeeded in painting, not music-making, but silence.

The last Dutch painter to be mentioned here is Peter Lely (the name assumed by Pieter van der Fies, born in The Hague), who worked in England for most of his life and was knighted by Charles II. Lely's two pastorals, The Sleeping Nymphs and The Rustic Musician, may be deemed to outdo any native British works in the collection, in spite of the portraits by Gainsborough and Reynolds and the early landscape by Richard Wilson. Slimmer than those of his fellow Lowlander Rubens, the soft forms of Lely's nymphs, their full yet delectable bodies slack in sleep, are not classical at all, but an amorous vision of Caroline beauties whose period hairstyles have been dishevelled in their open-air slumbers, though they have retained some of their otherwise discarded finery. The spirals of their ringlets, trapped in moonlight, tumble equally on bare shoulders and wafted silks. Lely's young shepherd, their contemporary, is clad in a ruffled cambric shirt, and pipes on a well-carved bass recorder. His cheeks uphold the same p each-plump flesh as the limbs of the sleeping nymphs. Once thought to be a portrait of Abraham Cowley, the author of the delectable quasi-pastoral sequence of poems called The Mistress, the picture was once in Horace Walpole's collection at Strawberry Hill. Walpole, with unwonted lyricism, wrote of the shepherd's 'eyes swimming with youth'.

The Countess of Dysart, of Ham House near Richmond-on-Thames, was one of Lely's early patrons, and encouraged him to paint playful mythologies in the style of the seventeenth-century French artists, such as Mignard and Nattier (the elegance of van Dyck enhancing the quaintness of Poelenburgh, who had also worked for Charles I between 1643 and 1650, the period of these two pictures). Like Gainsborough he was forced by the vanity of the dull English patriciate to renounce works of the imagination in favour of portraits: 'damn'd faces', as Gainsborough called them. In his Lucasta of 1660 Lely's friend Richard Lovelace lamented Lely's need to paint portraits, which according to the letters of Dorothy Osborne were anyway poor likenesses. Lely found a way out. He disliked the formal costumes of the time (discarded by the Dulwich nymphs), and after the Restoration of Charles II ventured, like Mignard, to paint his sitters, mainly female, in classical costume; or in nightgowns, shifts or -- when he portrayed the King 's mistresses, such as Barbara Palmer or Nell Gwyn -- sumptuously nothing.

Although few could paint landscapes better than Nicolas Poussin, he sometimes neglected them in his haste or for the sake of isolating a theme or an allegory. His backgrounds at such times are ad hoc and perfunctory: no more than a drab rocky escarpment, with perhaps a tree or two, and an alluvial monotony in front of the central figures, as in the Dulwich Venus and Mercury, Nurture of Jupiter and Rinaldo and Arinida. At these times, whenever he can, he lets loose his urchin romping putti in their playground, the frugal forefront of the picture. He ornaments the middle distance with, instead of verdure, olive-coloured nymphs, nudely piping in the watery recession. To these he adds dozing river-gods, supernumerary to his subject, yet heedlessly pouring floods from their urns.

But the ever-busy putti are rarely superfluous. In Rinaldo and Armida (a subject from Tasso's epic on the liberation of Jerusalem), a putto in the guise of Cupid tugs back the arm of the Saracen enchantress as she prepares to stab the sleeping Crusader Rinaldo with a dagger. As he does so, her expression perceptibly changes from dire intent to tenderness. Thus the putto outwardly manifests her inward change from enmity to love at the moment when she touches Rinaldo's hand. As Rinaldo slumbers in his luxuriant orange pantaloons, his hand droops on his sword, so foretelling his unsoldierly retreat into Armida's magic pleasure-gardens. Venus and Mercury is the larger part of a picture dismembered in the hope of greater profit from the sale of the components as separate works. The smaller part in the Louvre includes four putti would-be musicians playing with rather than playing a viol and a lute, with a fifth putto advancing with two wreaths for the victor of the wrestling match, which takes place in the Dulwich picture, between a cupidon and an infant satyr: evidently a struggle between divine and mundane love. A tanned Mercury, surrounded by the implements of the arts, points out the contest to a honey-coloured Venus, who looks doubtful about whom she hopes will win.

In The Nurture of Jupiter a putto merely looks on, although in a celebratory wreath, as the infant who is to become the ruler of the skies feeds at the forcibly uplifted udder of an indignant she-goat. (The story is found in Virgil's Georgics. Jupiter was sent to Crete to escape his ferocious father, the Titan Saturn. The Cretans nourished him as best they could on their sparse pastoral amenities.) Although lightly clad, the intrepid nymph Melissa, with a straight-nosed classical gaze, gathers honey from a beehive. A river god, younger and more alert than his many fellows in Poussin's paintings, smiles at the whimsical scene. In Poussin's later treatment of the same subject at the Washington National Gallery, the Cretans have learnt more sense. A shepherd milks the goat into a drinking-horn and Melissa has driven the bees away from her proffered honeycomb. The pictures at Dulwich prove Poussin's versatility. He ascends with St Rita of Cascia as she glides upon the wind and the light-shot clouds over the city of Spoleto; and returns to earth to rejoice in the easeful shade and water alongside the stretch of The Roman Road, dreary in the dogday heat. Poussin's versatility is further evinced by the fact that he painted St Rita's supernatural journey on top of an abandoned sketch of a nymph in a landscape.

Appropriately nearby is a painting by Poussin's disciple, and court painter to Louis XIV, Charles Lebrun, who founded his book about expressive gesture on Poussin's practice. Unlike Lebrun's decorations in the Galerie des Glaces and elsewhere at Versailles, his Horatius on the Bridge is sharply coloured and spacious. The crowded figures are confined to an arc across the middle ground; although that part of the composition is admittedly only an enhanced imitation of a fresco by Bernando Strozzi in Genoa. A putto borrowed from Poussin guides Nike, the goddess of victory, as she prepares to place a wreath on Horatius's head. The Hellenistic river god, as if in surprise, pours his urn away from the Tiber instead of into it, although Lebrun, no humorist, probably did not intend that as a joke.

To complement the Poussins that he inherited from Desenfans, Bourgeois acquired one of Claude's three pictures of Jacob and Laban. The large watery distances at nightfall suggest Jacob's vagabondage before offering his services to his uncle Laban, who has approached Jacob with his daughters on the pretext of inspecting his flocks. The picture remains a pastoral scene with a nominal biblical context: a celebration of landscape immersed in vague wistful reverie. The sheep drowse in birch-fringed meadows below a small fortified town still luminous in the last rays of the sunset.

The gallery is also fortunate in owning two works by the lesser, but not much lesser Claude, Joseph Vernet. His Italian Landscape is land-locked, yet Vernet refuses to renounce his love of fluent water. Cascading streams, changing colour in their descent, hurl in their labyrinthine courses through crags and shelves peopled with spectators. He returns to his favourite harbour-scenes in his Italian Seaport, drenched in rain and the bleary wet-shingle drag of the ebb-tide. In Vernet's canvases even the indistinct is luminous. On an outcrop of rock, circled by the sea-lifted sand, a pair of lightly clad women, mermaid-like, flirt with sailors, whilst other sailors haul a boat across the shell-crunched foreshore towards a sea-cave in the cliff.

Antoine Watteau also rejoiced in the open air, as one can see from the gallery's winsomely pensive Plaisirs du Bal. A choicely clad company has assembled under a colonnaide, their glossy-faced children as if chipped from roseate pearl, their spaniel dogs straight out of a scene painted by Metsu or Terborch. Watteau has contrived to smuggle in characters from his well-loved Italian Comedy, who have climbed down from their improvised stages at the Parisian fairs to attend the ball. We discern dangling-armed, doll-like Pierrot, the black-masked face and gaudy triangle-patched jumpsuit of Harlequin, the pert topknot of Columbine, the striped jerkin and rakish cowl of Mezzetin. They all gather under banded columns derived from the architect de Brosse's facade of the Tuileries, although Watteau's park, with its long leafy plunges of greenery and open sward, is nothing like the gardens there, then and now. The prospect is of meadow after meadow, not of the rue de Rivoli.

Watteau took pains to open his picture up to the sky. An X-ray of 1949 revealed that he painted out most of a semi-circular portico which hid half the park. He decided on trees, in their autumn opulence, instead of a stone wall. In the distance a fountain plays. Through and beyond the fountain a cerulean haze (transitory as the dancers, silkily ephemeral as their finery) fades. Beneath the colonnade, although urged on by a small band of string-players, the debonair couples are too involved in their flirtations and gossip to join the leaders of the dance. Like the lovers seated on the grass outside, the music evanesces along the narrowing vista between the trees, and the fountain flows only to ebb.

A near-grisaille of a sooty-faced girl, signed by Jean-Alexis Grimou, an inebriate imitator of Rembrandt, has recently been attributed to Fragonard. The portrait does in fact (apart from its ugliness, its baleful coloration, botched paint-work and ineptitude in both lighting and design) anticipate the spiralling ease and facility of Fragonard's figures de fantaisie. The girl's collar, frothy as whipped eggwhite, is somewhat in the manner of Fragonard but much more in the style of Franz Hals. But why should anyone want to forge the signature of a little-known dabbler on the work of a renowned master? Pierre Rosenberg implies that it was a pious tribute by Fragonard himself; yet Fragonard had no connection with Grimou and was born only a year before Grimou's death. It would be an affront to Fragonard to suppose that this picture is his work rather than that of its undistinguished signatory.

The Murillos at the Dulwich Gallery include The Madonna of the Rosary, the plump, darkly ornamental immaculada, uplifted by cherubim into the fused mists of the multicoloured empyrean, whom he used without much differentiation for his Virgins in Glory: a pretty piece, but without much feeling or even the moving sincerity of his narrative pictures, such as the sequence telling the story of The Prodigal Son in the Prado. When lacking fervour, Murillo all too often simulated it.

The three other Murillos are of the street-children of his native Seville, whom the profits of its rich merchants and sea-traders never reached. One might blame Murillo for making 'fancy pictures' out of children's penury; but he may have intended them as incitements to charity, even though less directly than in his pictures in the Cincinnati Art Museum, of the little St Thomas of Villanuova distributing his own clothes to beggar boys. Although Murillo's Flower Girl at Dulwich is not clad in rags, but in Andalusian costume to attract customers, she is subtly the most pathetic of all his impoverished children. She has no hope of selling her half-blown roses, but smiles on professionally, with hopelessness in her eyes.

There are few early Italian pictures in the Dulwich collection. The portrait of a long-nosed, friendly-faced young man by Piero di Cosimo, certainly cut from a larger picture and possibly the face of a donor, lacks interest, unsurrounded as it is by the inventions of di Cosimo's curious and daring imagination. One leaves the gallery with a blessing from two tiny saints from the School of Raphael: St Francis and St Anthony of Padua, one on each side of the door. (Both are fragments from a polyptich, and both were owned successively by Christina of Sweden and Philippe, duc d'Orleans before reaching the Bourgeois Collection.) Thus one goes from the gallery, it is to be hoped, in a state of grace; and also mindful of the history and vagaries of taste.

Editor's Note: In a letter on Donald Bruce's critique, Chardin at the Royal Academy (Contemporary Review, May 2000), Pierre Rosenberg, Director of the Louvre and organiser of the exhibition, comments on 'the delicacy of the analysis, the pertinence of the observations and the precision of the scholarship'.
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Author:Bruce, Donald
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2000

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