As an 18th-century doctor, philanthropist and lover of the arts, Louis La Caze was determined to leave behind an artistic legacy in France and so sought out "neglected masters" ignored by the nation's biggest museums.
The affluent Parisian befriended experimental artists such as Degas and Manet and scoured obscure salons and flea-markets to amass paintings that he thought would fill the gaps in the Louvre's permanent collection. True to his word, after his death in 1869 he bequeathed almost 600 paintings, including works by Velazquez, Fragonard and Ribera. His collection instantly became the greatest bequest of paintings ever received by the museum.
Now, more than a century after they were donated to the Paris gallery, 16 of the most significant works will be displayed in Britain for the first time, including Ribera's Le Pied-bot (The Boy with the Club Foot) and Velazquez's Infanta Maria Teresa, which has never before been seen in Britain. Other highlights include two paintings from a series of 14 by Fragonard entitled Portraits de fantaisie, eight of which are in the Louvre with four having been donated by La Caze.
Masterpieces from the Louvre: The Collection of Louis La Caze is on display from today at the Wallace Collection in London. It also brings together rare works by Chardin, Watteau and Boucher, which were considered unfashionable in his lifetime.
La Caze's artistic vision contrasted with the tastes of the time and many of these works were considered unimportant. As a result, many of the 18th-century French paintings that he admired were comparatively cheap when he began collecting. He also bought Spanish paintings that were little-recognised in France. As a result, his collection became an "alternative museum" of daring works and home to some of the great artists missing from the Louvre's collection.
He chose his artworks carefully, sometimes spotting paintings in markets as well as buying through dealers, including his first work by Chardin, reputedly bought from a Parisian flea market. He came to own some of the finest Fragonards and one of the greatest Rembrandts, Bathsheba.
By the time of his death, he was no longer regarded as an outsider but a significant figure in the art world. Guillaume Faroult, a curator from the Louvre, said that after he donated his paintings, 250 stayed in the museum while others were displayed all over France.
The museum finished cataloguing his bequest only last year, after five years' work, and held the first show reflecting the depth of his artistic tastes. "La Caze was born around the same time as the Louvre opened which is why he was so interested in its collection... His interest in Spanish art may have been inspired by his family connections, including his mother who was born in Spain," said M. Faroult.
He also hosted Sunday morning salons and mixed with artists including Degas, Manet and Bonvin, allowing them to copy works they were interested in. The exhibition runs until 18 May.