• Kath London Culture Tours

10 Must-See Paintings at the Re-opened National Gallery London!

Have you been lucky enough to make it to the National Gallery post-lockdown?

To celebrate the re-opening, I decided it was time for a post about the key paintings you should seek-out whether you visit in-person, or virtually..

When I bring guests to the gallery we will often discuss more than thirty paintings, so picking just ten was has been a struggle! These are chosen partly to cover the highlights of the collection, partly on personal taste, and partly based on my love of a good story!

I’ve arranged the paintings below in the order which you will come across them in the gallery, and given the room numbers and routes, so if you are in London do go check them out!

(All the images used in this post are © The National Gallery)

Venus and Mars - 1485 - Sandro Botticelli

(Route A, Room 58)

I am super happy that the National Gallery has a Botticelli, and especially this one, as it’s an insight into the Italian sense of humour and into social history of the time. Venus and Mars – god of war and goddess of love – this painting captures the moment after they have just finished making love, and Venus is supposed to look regal and invigorated, whereas mars is out for the count. This was a ribald joke in 14th century Italy, about men falling asleep after sex, and I love the idea of Botticelli painting to amuse his friends and admirers. Mars is so totally asleep that the satyrs who are playing in all his armour and making this awful racket are unable to wake him up, one of the naughty satyrs is blowing a conch shell, the symbol of Venus, in his ear, and even that doesn’t wake him up. And carrying on with the sexual theme, the conch shell is supposed to represent Venus’s feminine sexuality, and the huge lance is obviously Mars masculinity...

'The Virgin of the Rocks' - 1491-1508 - Leonardo da Vinci

(Route A, Room 66)

I couldn’t do a top 10 and exclude da Vinci! The NGA is so proud of owning this painting it has its own room, and even its own exhibition last year, you can find lots of talks on the National Gallery's Youtube channel. What I love about this painting is that da Vinci has set the virgin in this brilliant landscape, a cave, hence why we call it the virgin of the rocks, and we actually have a passage in da Vinci’s diaries where he writes of seeing a cave and wanting to explore it and feeling too afraid, and believing if he had been brave enough to explore god would have rewarded him with a miraculous sight like this. If you have visited the Louvre before you might think you are seeing double as there is actually an earlier version of this painting in the louvre, you can play a bit of spot the difference between the two. One thing that doesn’t change is the extreme chubbiness of the Jesus child on the right!

The Arnolfini Portrait - 1434 - Jan van Eyck

(Route A - Room 63)

This is one of the most famous paintings in the gallery and there is often a crowd around it. Jan Van Eyck was originally credited with the invention of oil painting, and although we now know it had been used much earlier in iconography, Jan van Eyck was certainly the first to popularise the technique. If you look around the gallery you are in you will see a lot of paintings painted in egg tempura, basically pigments ground up and mixed with and egg and water mix. Van Eyck’s painting masterfully uses the unique slow drying properties of oils, and the thin glazes to build up an array of textures and create a depth and complexity in a small portrait. Look at the fluffy dog, the amazing fur lined outfits of the couple, the grains of wood in the floor boards, the detail is incredible and would be hard to achieve in another medium. Pretty amazing. The couple’s removal of shoes would be for sacred ceremonies, and the candle lit above show the presence of god has led to the idea that this is a marriage portrait. In addition, the artist himself has signed the painting right in the middle, just above the fabulous mirror, as a sort of “I was here, I witnessed this union”, and the artist and another witness are shown in the convex surface of the mirror itself, pretty darn advanced for the 1400’s!

Samson and Delilah - 1609-10 - Peter Paul Rubens

(Route B, Room 18)

Ah, Rubens! Everyone’s favourite Flemish painter, and not least the favourite of the aristocrats and royalty of England in the 1600s. We loved the guy, and you can see his painted ceiling in the Banqueting House, a fabulous Indigo Jone’s building from 1622, a five minute walk from the National Gallery. This is my favourite Rubens, but it’s actually even contested whether its by Rubens at all! And that’s not surprising if you take a look around you in this room at Ruben’s other works. This one sticks out like a sore thumb, it’s so much more vibrant and theatrical than the others, but that is believed to be as it was painted after Ruben’s spent time in Rome and came under the influence of the great master of dramatic chiaroscuro (toning), Caravaggio (who is discussed below). It’s a painting of Samson and Delilah and its so sumptuous and lighting is used to dramatic effect to catch the moment of Delilah's betrayal of Samson. Note the crossed hands of the servant and the cupid statue with his mouth bound, both signs of betrayal…

A Woman bathing in a Stream - 1654 - Rembrandt

(Route B, Room 22)

The entire room of Rembrandts is a delight, but I particularly love this small intimate painting which is believed to be of Hendrickje Stoffels, who originally entered Rembrandts house to care for his baby son after his wife died but became his long-term partner. It’s not only a very tender painting showing intimacy, it is also showing Rembrandts skill and daring as a painter. Water is known to be a tricky substance to paint, and to show Hendrickje wading, her reflection and the movement of the water around her feet was almost certainly Rembrandts challenge to himself, or a chance to show off his skill. Also, if you take a close up look you will see you can determine individual brush strokes, thickly applied painted, pretty daring stuff for the 1600’s when a painting should strive for perfection and the artists hand should never be seen.

The Toilet of Venus - 1647-51 - Diego Velázquez

(Route B, Room 30)

The only surviving nude by Velazquez, frankly because he was painting during the Spanish inquisition and this put painting nudes out of the question. However, Velazquez’s patron was king Philip the 5th, and with those connections he could get away with painting this. She is supposed to be Venus, hence cupid holding up her mirror, so Venus can fix her hair and make-up. In reality we can see straight away this doesn’t look like our normal blond and voluptuous Venus, this has led to the idea this was a mistress of the prime minister’s son and he wanted her immortalised, we’ll probably never know for sure. But the wonderful luminosity of the skin has made this painting a firm favourite in the gallery. Sadly in 1815 it was the target of an attack by the suffragettes, fighting for equal rights for women, and they attacked that luminous skin, if you look closely at the painting today, despite the restoration, you can still see the faint marks where it was ripped and has been repaired. The National Gallery had to close briefly as so many paintings were attacked by suffragettes!

The Supper at Emmaus - 1601 - Caravaggio

(Route B, Room 32)

Caravaggio became one of my favourite paintings mainly for his incredibly disruptive and violent life - the gangster of painters. He would have incredibly creative sprints of a few weeks, before throwing down his brushes, picking up his sword and going out on the town getting into sword fights. I love the drama Caravaggio creates with his use of chiaroscuro (toning), the pilgrims faces as the jump backwards and the still-life edging off the table, adding to the drama. The halo like effect of the shadow around Christ is incidentally completely unrealistic, as we have no light source to account for the shadows created by Caravaggio here. Sadly, Caravaggio’s lifestyle eventually resulted in his premature death, but not before he left behind a legacy of dramatic paintings such as this one here and influenced countless other artists such as the Ruben’s mentioned above.

The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth - 1839 - Joseph Mallord William Turner

(Room 34, Routes B and C)

Thought to be Britain’s greatest painter, and this painting was voted by the public in 2005 as the Nation’s favourite painting. Its latest claim to fame being its soon to be inclusion on our new £20 note, so everyone in Britain can own a Turner! It’s not hard to see why everyone is taken by this painting, the dramatic sunset bleeds a beautiful array of colour into what is otherwise quite a fleeting scene, with the buildings difficult to make out in the background. The ship seen here, the Fighting Temeraire had been influential in the Napoleonic wars, but by the time this was painted she had reached the end of her useful life and was to be broken apart for scrap. Turner has contrasted the graceful ship with the ugly modern tug boat pulling her off to her final berth as the sub sets on the era of these historic ships, and on the Napoleonic era.

Ballet Dancers - 1890-1900 - Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

(Room 42, Routes B and C)

A lot of visitors miss Degas in the gallery as he has his own little room just off the main impressionist’s rooms, and by the time people get this far through the gallery they are mainly thinking about the coffee shop at the end! But it’s worth making time to step out of the impressionist’s gallery and into Degas’s world, often grouped with the impressionists, and he was friends with them and did exhibit with them, but in his method of working he was not an impressionist as his compositions were often posed or created in is studio from sketches made in real life. Yet he has the same love of colour, light and a sense of energy of the impressionists. Famous for his ballerinas this is a lovely example in pastel, a medium Degas favoured later in life. A further Degas is exhibited in the main impressionists rooms, and that is “Combing the Hair”, this was actually owned by Matisse, and although it is thought to be unfinished in parts it shows Degas skill to create texture, movement, feeling with sparse detail, you can see why he is known as a master of the human form!

Water-Lilies, Setting Sun - 1907 - Claude Monet

(Room 41, Route B and C)

Whist the gallery does own the classical Waterlilies painting, actually this is my favourite of his – look at it from the other side of the gallery and its looks like a photograph, get close up and you’ll see most of the lily pads are just single strokes of paint thickly applied. The impressionists were controversial for their subject matter, which often included working class people and daily life, for painting outdoors, en plein air, and for their use of thick paint (impasto), which led criticism that their works looked unfinished. Monet loved to paint his waterlilies at every time of day to try to catch the different light, and to me this is a beauty, with the reflection of the willow tree in the water. Monet said, “when I look at the world, I see only colour”, and this painting sums that up for me.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our whistle-stop tour of the National Gallery! There’s always so much more to discuss about each painting but I hope that this has whetted your appetite to discover more! If you are planning to visit the gallery don’t forget to book your free slot on their website. You can also explore the paintings discussed above on their virtual tour page on the website. And if you have a favourite painting that I have left out please add it to the comments below!

If you would like a complete list of the paintings that I stop at on my National Gallery tour, please subscribe with your email in the subscription box below and you will receive it to your inbox as a thank you!

All these paintings are still on display on the National Galleries newly-designed socially-distanced visiting routes. Route A takes you around the newer Sainsbury wing with the oldest paintings and continues on to route B and C which are both in the older galleries and both finish with the Impressionists. If you want to see the maximum number of paintings in one trip, first complete route A, then continue directly to route B. Once you exit route B into the main domed entrance, you can cross directly into the room opposite you (Room 2) where you will find a superb collection of Hans Holbein the Younger’s paintings, you are now in route C having only missed a couple of the paintings at the beginning of the route. (There are also plenty of gallery assistants around who will happily direct you to route C once you have completed route B.)

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