The National Gallery is engaged in a desperate campaign to buy Poussin's Sacraments, which have been valued at a world record price of £100m.
Already in the midst of what has been described as the most serious acquisition crisis for more than a century, the gallery is waiting to hear whether its application for cash from the Heritage Lottery Fund, submitted earlier this summer, has been successful. The National has no budget beyond the interest earned on its Getty endowment valued at £3m a year to put towards new acquisitions and has found itself increasingly unable to compete against well-endowed foreign galleries able to pay the sky-high prices in the booming international market place for major art works.
It is understood that the Louvre is gearing up to bid for the set of five paintings by the French Baroque artist, Nicolas Poussin, along with the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
A decision is expected on the paintings in December. They have been on loan to the gallery from the private collection of the Duke of Rutland since 2002. However, the Duke's decision to sell has sparked a scramble to secure funding. If the National fails to win the backing of the fund the Government may seek an export ban. But because the works would be among the most expensive ever to reach the open market, any stay of execution would be only temporary.
To confound efforts to save the paintings for Britain, the decision to divert lottery money to help fund the London Olympics is squeezing the money available for the arts. According to The Art Newspaper, the amount available for major projects is being capped this year at £40m and must fund a range of projects.
The National's claim on the fund's cash reserves was dramatically weakened after it received £11.5m towards the purchase of Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks in 2004.
Before arriving on loan at the National, the works had been in the Duke's family seat at Belvoir Castle since 1785. Poussin painted the series of five pictures between 1637 and 1640 for his friend and patron Cassiano dal Pozzo. There were originally seven sacraments – Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Extreme Unction, Marriage, Penance and Ordination. Penance was destroyed by fire in 1816 while Baptism was sold in 1939 to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Poussin later created a second series of Sacraments for Paul Freart de Chantelou from 1644-48. It was acquired by the Duke of Bridgewater in 1798, before passing to the Duke of Sutherland in 1964. They hang on long term loan at the National Gallery of Scotland.Concern over the future of the Poussins comes as the National has been forced to confront the loss of other major works. A £55m bid for Titian's Portrait of a Young Man was rejected and the painting owned by Lord Halifax remains on sale though its failure to sell could indicate the price being sought is too high.
The National has dropped out of the race to buy Rubens's 1630 sketch from the ceiling of Inigo Jones' Banqueting House that was on display as an "anonymous loan" at the gallery from 1981.
The Frenchman adopted by Rome
Despite being born in Normandy in 1594 and painting in the style known as French Baroque – albeit with a heavy Renaissance influence – Nicolas Poussin painted his finest works during his long sojourn in Rome. Like other artists of the day he was dependent on the generosity of patrons. First there was Giambattista Marino, court poet to Marie de Medici who helped establish him in Roman society while later came Cardinal Francesco Barberini and his secretary Cassiano dal Pozzo who commissioned the original Seven Sacraments. Poussin, by now married and with a growing reputation, was ordered back to Paris by Cardinal Richelieu as painter to Louis XIII. He spent just two years in his native capital, eventually returning to Rome in 1643 where he finished the second series of Sacraments five years later. He died in 1665. His works hang in the Louvre, where a gallery is dedicated to him, as well as the National Gallery in London.