Though the late 18th century saw several European countries nationalize their royal collections to form a national art museum, no such thing happened in England and the British Royal Collection still remains in royal possession. John Julius Angerstein was a London businessman and art collector who died in January 1823. Politician George Agar Ellis proposed to the government that it buys Angerstein’s art collection of 38 paintings. The unexpected repayment of a war debt by Austria allowed the British parliament to buy Angerstein’s collection, for £57,000. This led to the formation of the National Gallery, which opened to the public on May 10, 1824. After the initial purchase, the museum was shaped mainly by its early directors, notably Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, and by private donations. Today the National Gallery houses a collection of over 2,300 paintings dating from the mid-13th century to the 20th century. Moreover, it is among the most visited art museums in the world, after the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The National Gallery is located in Trafalgar Square in the City of Westminster, in Central London. Its collection belongs to the government on behalf of the British public. Here are the 10 most famous paintings in the National Gallery.
#10 Bacchus and Ariadne
Active during the 16th century, Titian was an Italian artist who exercised profound influence on the future generations in Western art. Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, asked Titian to be one of the chief painters for a cycle of mythological compositions for his newly rebuilt rooms, the Alabaster Chambers in the castle at Ferrara. This painting was one of the compositions Titian created in response. In Greek mythology, Ariadne was a Cretan princess. This paintings shows the episode in which she has been left on the island of Naxos, deserted by her lover Theseus. Bacchus, the God of Wine, discovers her on the island and falls in love with her on first sight. The masterful depiction of the scene and Titian’s humorous interpretation of an idyllic world of antiquity make Bacchus and Ariadne one of the masterpieces of Renaissance art.
#9 Rokeby Venus
Artist: Diego Velazquez
Diego Velazquez was a Spanish artist active during the 17th century who is considered the foremost figure of the Spanish Golden Age. The only surviving nude by Velazquez, Rokeby Venus depicts Venus; the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex and fertility; with her son Cupid holding a mirror for her. The painting was bought by English scholar John Morritt in 1813 and he hung it in his house at Rokeby Park in Yorkshire, thus providing the popular title of the painting. In 1906, the painting was purchased by the National Gallery. The 3D like quality of Rokeby Venus which makes the viewer feel in touching distance, the flirty effect of Venus staring back, the rich coloring and warm flesh tones all add to make this masterpiece one of the most erotically charged artworks of all time. The painting made headlines in 1914 when it was vandalized by Canadian feminist Mary Richardson who became known as “Slasher Mary”. It has been faithfully restored since the slashing.
#8 The Judgment of Paris
Artist: Peter Paul Rubens
According to Greek mythology, Eris, the Goddess of Discord, was prevented from attending the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Being insulted like this, she threw her wedding gift from outside the door. This gift was a golden apple and had the engraving “To the fairest of them all”. The three goddesses Aphrodite, Hera and Athena all fought over this “Golden Apple of Discord”, each claiming to be the fairest and thereby the rightful recipient of the apple. Paris, the Trojan prince, was chosen by Zeus to make the decision. Sir Peter Paul Rubens, the most influential Flemish Baroque artist, created several versions of the Judgment of Paris and this version in the National Gallery is perhaps the most famous among them. The myth ends with Paris giving the Golden Apple to Aphrodite as she bribed him by promising him that he would marry the most beautiful mortal woman in the world. This made Hera begrudge Paris in a big way, which ended up affecting the outcome of the Trojan War.
#7 Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway
Artist: J.M.W. Turner
Joseph Mallord William Turner was a British painter who is widely regarded as one of the greatest landscape artists of all time and who is perhaps the most renowned British artist ever. In this famous artwork, Turner masterfully combines the elements of nature and the industrial revolution. The painting depicts a train approaching the viewer at high speed. The rain blends into the steam of the speeding train to leave the powerful black engine of the locomotive as the only visibly sharp object on the canvas. The location of the scene is the Maidenhead Railway Bridge which crosses River Thames. Rain, Steam and Speed is an outstanding example of J.M.W. Turner’s late works, which gained in popularity with time to become his most cherished masterpieces and are considered a forerunner to the hugely influential artistic movement Impressionism.
#6 Mars and Venus
Artist: Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli was perhaps the greatest humanist painter of the Early Renaissance. He painted a wide range of mythological and religious subjects. Botticelli aimed to capture beauty and virtue through his works. The goddess Venus, who represents these qualities, appears in many of his best known works. This painting shows her along with Mars, the Roman God of War. The youthful couple recline in a forest setting and are surrounded by playful baby satyrs. Most critics believe that Venus and Mars was created to commemorate a wedding. There are several interpretations of the painting with the most prominent being that the couple are relaxing after making love. Mars is in fact fallen asleep and the male habit of doing so was a subject of jokes in the context of weddings in Renaissance Italy. Between 1857 and 1878, the National Gallery acquired five works of Botticelli and this painting was among them. It remains a prime attraction at the museum till date.
#5 Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers
Artist: Vincent van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh was a Post-Impressionist artist who shot himself due to mental instability. He rose to fame in the early 20th century, a decade after his death. Ultimately he was credited with being a key figure in the development of modern art and one of the greatest artists in history. Van Gogh’s paintings on “sunflowers“ rank among the most famous still life paintings ever created. They show the sunflowers in all stages of life, from full bloom to withering; and are well known for depicting the natural beauty of the flowers and for their vibrant colors. The above painting is one of five versions of the Sunflowers series of Van Gogh that are now spread around the world (the others currently residing in Amsterdam, Tokyo, Munich and Philadelphia). Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers has been on permanent loan to the National Gallery since 1924.
#4 The Ambassadors
Artist: Hans Holbein the Younger
Hans Holbein was a German artist who is renowned as one of the greatest portraitists of the 16th century and several of his portraits have become cultural icons. This painting is a double portrait which features Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England; and his friend, Georges de Selve, who acted on several occasions as French ambassador to the Republic of Venice, to the Pope in Rome and others. Apart from being known for its visual appeal, the Ambassadors is also famous for the numerous objects that have been meticulously placed in the portrait. The symbolism behind these objects has been much discussed in the art world. The most famous symbol in the work is the distorted skull which is placed in the bottom center of the composition. The skull is rendered in anamorphosis, a distorted perspective requiring the viewer to occupy a specific vantage point. The viewer has to approach the painting from high on the right side or low on the left side to view the form as an accurate rendering of a human skull.
#3 The Fighting Temeraire
Artist: J.M.W. Turner
HMS Temeraire was a 98-gun second-rate warship of the Royal Navy which is famous for its heroic performance in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar between U.K. and the combined fleets of French and Spanish Navies. J.M.W. Turner depicts the warship, years after its glorious days, being pulled by a tugboat, to be broken into scraps. The painting pays a tribute to sailing ships as they were going to be replaced by steam-powered vessels. Turner uses symbolism, like the setting sun, to suggest the demise of the subject and its mortality despite its heroic past. Painted by Turner at the prime of his career, The Fighting Temeraire is his most famous painting and the one he referred to as his “darling”. In 2005, it was voted as Britain’s favorite painting in a poll organized by the BBC.
#2 The Hay Wain
Artist: John Constable
Romantic English artists favored landscape and the most influential among these was John Constable. The Hay Wain depicts a rural scene on the River Stour between the English counties of Suffolk and Essex. It is the area around where Constable was born; which is portrayed in his most celebrated masterpieces; and which came to be known as Constable Country. At the center of the painting is a wooden wain, or large cart, which is being pulled across the river by three horses. The scene takes place near Flatford Mill, which was owned by Constable’s father. The left bank is in Suffolk while the landscape on the right bank is in Essex. The Hay Wain is revered as one of the greatest landscape Romantic paintings as well as among the best ever created by an English artist. In a 2005 poll organized by BBC, it was voted the second most popular painting in any British gallery.
#1 Arnolfini Portrait
Artist: Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck was a Flemish painter who was one of the most important artists of the early Renaissance. Arnolfini Portrait, his best known work, is a full-length double portrait most likely depicting Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife. The painting is also known as The Arnolfini Wedding. The woman in the painting is not his first wife Costanza Trenta as she had died in 1433. From 1861 till the 1990s, it was thought that the woman depicted was Giovanna Cenami but it was found in 1994 that the wedding of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami occurred in 1447, six years after the death of Van Eyck. Hence her identity still remains unknown. Arnolfini Portrait is regarded as one of the most original and complex paintings in Western art. It is especially noted for its beauty, complex iconography and the accurate use of a convex mirror. The Arnolfini Portrait is perhaps the most famous painting in the National Gallery.