The Chair on the left, The Sunflowers on the right. Happiness, National Gallery
Art London

8 Masterpieces in the National Gallery You Can’t Miss!

What can be said about one of the most famous art museums in the world that have not been repeated over and over? Since its foundation, in 1824, National Gallery started collecting paintings all over Europe, creating one of the greatest collections of artworks in the world.

Contrarily to Prado or Louvre, the collection has never been a property of the British Crown. Instead, National Gallery started with the purchase of a set of paintings made by the British Government. Part of this lot was the “Raising of Lazarus”, by Sebastiano del Piombo, a protagonist of the recent exhibition “Michelangelo&Sebastiano”. Over the years, every director increased the collection by acquiring paintings all over the world. The result is smaller in size when compared with other museums, but higher in quality as every canvas needed to be bought singularly.

The ‘700 gallery, with several amazing works from Canaletto, National Gallery
The ‘700 gallery, with several amazing works from Canaletto
The Post-Impressionist hall, dedicated to Gauguin, National Gallery
The Post-Impressionist hall, dedicated to Gauguin

It’s tough to decide where to go, what to see here. There are so many things we want to do that every time we end up in spending hours inside. The fact that the museum is free for everybody just increase our desire to get back here over and over!

8 Masterpieces in the National Gallery

Our list is purely driven by our taste. We tried to put here a representative of different artistic movements that can be found. Otherwise, we would just speak about Room 41 to 46 (Impressionism and Post-Impressionism gallery)!

1.) Van Gogh’s Chair – Vincent Van Gogh

Do you see that group of people trying to get a selfie with a painting? Well, that’s where the “Sunflowers” are. Now move to the left a bit, just a couple of canvases. Here we have one of the most incredible artworks in modern history: “Van Gogh’s Chair”. But to get a better understanding of this canvas we need to have its natural companion in mind: “Gauguin’s Chair”.

Van Gogh and Gauguin lived together for a brief period of time in the Autumn of 1888, in the famous Yellow House in Arles. This has been one of the most productive time for the Dutch painter who, inspired by Gauguin, will produce many of his most famous works before his mental disease forced him to be recovered at Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Remy. The two chairs are the symbols of what Van Gogh was thinking of himself and his French friend, projecting his feelings into the representation of the object the two artists were using the most. Gauguin’s chair is bright, triumphant, owner of the environment and of the painting. It sits on a carpet, with two sources of light, a gas lamp on the wall, symbolizing how Gaugin was entirely in step with the times, and a candle on the chair itself, next to two books.

‘Gauguin’s Chair’ Vincent van Gogh, 1888 © Wikimedia Commons, National Gallery
‘Gauguin’s Chair’ Vincent van Gogh, 1888 © Wikimedia Commons
‘Van Gogh's Chair’ Vincent van Gogh, 1888 © Wikimedia Commons, National Gallery
‘Van Gogh's Chair’ Vincent van Gogh, 1888 © Wikimedia Commons

Such elegance and modernity are in striking contrast with Van Gogh’s chair. There are no lights here, no books, nothing at all. The point of view is raised compared to the first painting, as the observer was a parent in the act of scolding his own child. Van Gogh put his signature on the most miserable object he can conceive, a box of onions. The chair is simple, with asymmetric wooden legs, the sitting is a bit bent over the pressure of its occupier (the world squeezing Vincent’s mind), the carpet is replaced by a more unadorned brown tile floor. Resting on the chair, there is Vincent’s pipe and his tobacco pouch. Van Gogh stated in a letter to his beloved brother Theo he smoked the pipe as a way of contrasting melancholy, and that’s the main feeling he put on the canvas. Yet, in an amazing contrast, Vincent’s chair is filled with daylight, in a representation of how Vincent was childish and simpler, but more authentic than the artificial and baroque Gauguin.

We could keep on going for hours describing this painting and how much we love it. It’s one of the best things you can ever see in the world, and if you want to visit the National Gallery for only 10 minutes, let them be 10 minutes of Vincent’s Chair.

2.) The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist – Leonardo Da Vinci

At the end of the Sainsbury Wing, the most recent extension to the National Gallery, there is a small room dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci. The Italian inventor is present in the National Gallery with two artworks. One is a representation of “The Virgin of the Rocks”, similar and successive to the more famous one on display at Louvre. The second one is a cartoon, “The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist”The cartoon is one of the most extraordinary examples of the gentle touch of the Tuscan artist.  Leonardo was inspired by the principle of the screw and how an inclined plane over a cylinder maintain its visual dynamism. St Mary and Jesus rotate on their axis. The holy mother, seated on the knees of St Anne, is turning from right to left, keeping his baby with her hands. Christ is represented on a horizontal axis, twisting his body from upward to downward, trying to reach his little friend John, who is looking at the fingers of Jesus, learning a gesture, the blessing, that will make him famous in the next years.

‘The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist’ Leonardo da Vinci, 1499-1500 or 1506-8 © Wikimedia Commons, National Gallery
‘The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist’ Leonardo da Vinci, 1499-1500 or 1506-8 © Wikimedia Commons

This is one of the sweetest, more joyful representation of the “Virgin and the Child” subject. It’s been completely restored after a vandal shot at the drawing in 1987, and the artwork is finally ready to be admired by everybody.

3.) Arnolfini Portrait – Jan Van Eyck

‘Arnolfini Portrait' Jan van Eyck, 1434 © Wikimedia Commons, National Gallery
‘Arnolfini Portrait' Jan van Eyck, 1434 © Wikimedia Commons

One of the most extraordinary paintings in the world, Arnolfini Portrait was acquired by National Gallery in 1842. The author, Jan Van Eyck, is a highly regarded representative of the Flemish Renaissance. It depicts a married couple, presumably Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, in their apartment in Bruges. The painting includes the typical features of the northern Renaissance style. The level of details is incredible, from the beads of the amber necklace in the background to the beautiful convex mirror. Colors are smooth and shaded. Van Eyck painted countless layers of different shades of colors, using a technique called “wet-in-wet”, to increase the depth of the painting, making the two protagonists stand out over the environment. It’s an extraordinary work and something you can’t miss on a visit to this museum.

4.) The Ambassadors – Hans Holbein the Younger

This painting in a hall adjacent to the Arnolfini Portrait stands out compared the other works in the same room. This is not only because of the size of the canvas but also because of the strange shape at the feet of the two protagonists. This is one of the most famous examples of anamorphosis, a type of graphical projection intended as a visual puzzle for the viewer. The subject of this trick is a skull, but its complete form can only be seen by looking at the painting from the top right corner of the canvas (or from the lower left one). The skull is a clear symbol, a memento mori. But this portrait is full of symbols, as it was common in Northern Renaissance paintings of that period. The globe, the scientific instruments, the oriental carpets are symbols of the explorative nature of the two protagonists.

‘The Ambassadors’ Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533 © Wikimedia Commons, National Gallery
‘The Ambassadors’ Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533 © Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, several religious objects can be interpreted as an attempt by the author to link together science and religion. Finally, a lute with a broken string near a Lutheran hymnbook reminds to the open conflict between the Roman Church and the Protestant Reformation.

5.) The Supper at Emmaus – Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

‘Supper at Emmaus’ Caravaggio, 1601 © Wikimedia Commons, National Gallery
‘Supper at Emmaus’ Caravaggio, 1601 © Wikimedia Commons

Caravaggio is a personal favorite of ours. His works are characterized by a technique called “chiaroscuro”, letting the light become the actual subject of the painting. His paintings assume vivid, sharp tones, where the juxtaposition of dark and light spots create movements and emotions throughout the canvas. The Supper at Emmaus is a beautiful example of his art. Jesus is at the center of the artwork, illuminated by two rays of light. Cleopas, the men on the right, is touched by the same light, making his expression of disbelief more evident. It’s an impressive work, an absolute gem of the museum that ought to be admired over and over again. There is another version of The Supper at Emmaus in Milan, painted 5 years later, where we can draw interesting comparisons. As a last note, check out the still life with fruit that looks ready to fell off the table. Does it remind you of another painting?

6.) Venus and Mars – Sandro Botticelli

The installation of Venus and Mars, as it was designed by the artist, National Gallery
The installation of Venus and Mars, as it was designed by the artist

Venus and Mars is one of the best examples of Botticelli’s art. Venus, the goddess of love, watches his lover Mars sleeping after they finished to consume their adulterous relationship (Venus is traditionally married to Volcano). Three satyrs play in the background with a wooden lance, with one of them who is blowing a conch shell in an unsuccessful attempt to wake Mars. The atmosphere of the scene is playful, but with some profound meanings. Note how Venus is looking at his bed companion. It’s Venus who, awaken, stare at his sleeping lover. She is being put at a higher level of importance compared to him. Considering the date Botticelli painted this artwork, 1485, this is quite a revolutionary subject. A fantastic masterpiece from Sandro Botticelli, and one of the few works from this artists out of Italy, something that is deserved to be admired as much as we can!

7.) Portrait of Hermine Gallia – Gustav Klimt

‘Portrait of Hermine Gallia’ Gustav Klimt, 1904 © Wikimedia Commons, National Gallery
‘Portrait of Hermine Gallia’ Gustav Klimt, 1904 © Wikimedia Commons

Venus and Mars is one of the best examples of Botticelli’s art. Venus, the goddess of love, watches his lover Mars sleeping after they finished to consume their adulterous relationship (Venus is traditionally married to Volcano). Three satyrs play in the background with a wooden lance, with one of them who is blowing a conch shell in an unsuccessful attempt to wake Mars. The atmosphere of the scene is playful, but with some profound meanings. Note how Venus is looking at his bed companion. It’s Venus who, awaken, stare at his sleeping lover. She is being put at a higher level of importance compared to him. Considering the date Botticelli painted this artwork, 1485, this is quite a revolutionary subject. A fantastic masterpiece from Sandro Botticelli, and one of the few works from this artists out of Italy, something that is deserved to be admired as much as we can!

8.) Sun Rising through Vapour – J. M. W. Turner

‘Sun Rising through Vapour’ J. M. W. Turner, 1807 © Wikimedia Commons, National Gallery
‘Sun Rising through Vapour’ J. M. W. Turner, 1807 © Wikimedia Commons

Among the most significant artists born in UK, J.M.W. Turner deserves a place of honor. Famous for his begrudged character, this eccentric artist lived in London all his life, where he died in poor conditions in 1851. He has been a prolific artist, creating more than 2000 paintings and several more sketches. There is a specific set of paintings which deserve to be admired to honor the career of this artist. The two canvas “Sun Rising through Vapour” and “’Dido building Carthage” have been left to National Gallery upon the precise request by Turner to be hung between Claude’s “Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba” and “The Mill”. Claude is a French-born landscape artist who lived in the first half of the 17th century. While it’s now considered somehow a minor artist, he was highly regarded among his contemporary aristocrats, who bought several of his artworks (especially Roman landscapes) during the Grand Tour. Turner was heavily influenced by Claude’s scenes, and he asked National Gallery to create this precise composition to evidence similarities and differences between himself and Claude.

The National Gallery is a vast, old-style art gallery, with an extensive collection of European artists from Middle Ages to early ‘900. Given its size, we don’t recommend a blind visit, as it’d just be a loss of time. Instead, plan your visit ahead, deciding what to visit before entering the museum. In that way, you will not get stuck in a section that is not suitable for your taste. Apart from that, visit this place and enjoy some of the most amazing artworks humanity ever produced!

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