The National Gallery in London is probably the most famous art museum in the country. It has art pieces from famous artists like Da Vinci, Botticelli, and Van Gogh.
Founded in 1824 and located on the North side of Trafalgar Square, this art museum contains one of the world’s largest collections of diverse pieces. Paintings from the Italian Renaissance, French Impressionists and as far back as the medieval period. With attractions like this, it’s not hard to see why it draws in millions of visitors annually.
The National Gallery wasn’t always located right in Central London. The roots of the gallery can be traced back to the British government’s purchase of a collection of 38 works of art, belonging to John Julius Angerstein after his death. These were exhibited in a small townhouse previously owned by Angerstein in Pall Mall. However, as the collection grew and more pieces were acquired, it became necessary to move to a larger site. The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square is the third building to house the Gallery.
The architecture of the Gallery can only be described as magnificent and is one of the reasons the gallery is considered one of the Nation’s must-see tourist attractions. The soaring ceilings and domes topped with glass give the museum a palatial feel. The floor of the entryway uses beautiful mosaics to depict the pleasures of life, the labours of life, and modern virtues.
The main floor of London’s National Gallery consists of 4 wings. Each wing contains pieces from a particular period, arranged in chronological order.
- The Sainsbury Wing covers the Medieval and Early Renaissance periods (1250-1500).
- The West Wing covers the high Renaissance (1500-1600).
- The North Wing covers the Baroque Era (1600-1700).
- The East Wing holds pieces from the 1700s to the early 20th Century covering Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism.
The National Gallery has three entrances; the main entrance, the Sainsbury wing entrance (in the smaller building to the left of the main entrance), and the Getty entrance, all facing Trafalgar Square. The Sainsbury wing entrance will take you straight to the earliest art, we would recommend you enter the National gallery here and start exploring its many treasures!
Seven of The Most Famous Paintings At The National Gallery
London’s National Gallery is not just a masterpiece of architecture, it’s filled with masterpieces too. We know it can seem overwhelming to plan your visit, so we will list seven of the most famous paintings, which can form the backbone of your collection tour.
1. The Virgin Of The Rocks By Leonardo da Vinci
Level 2, Room 66
In April 1483, this piece was commissioned as part of the altarpiece for a newly built chapel, the Church of San Francesco Grande, Milan. The Virgin of the Rocks was created at the height of the High Renaissance.
The painting shows the legend of the meeting between the Holy family and John the Baptist. It depicts a mystical landscape with strange rock formations and figures grouped in a pyramid. Mary is kneeling and has a glow on her face that can only be described as supernatural.
The Virgin of the Rocks which is part of the National Gallery’s collection is the second version of this painting. The first version is hanging in the Louvre, Paris. It is still unclear exactly why there are two versions of this painting, but the most likely scenario is that Leonardo da Vinci sold the first copy when a payment dispute arose after the original commission.
2. The Arnolfini Portrait By Jan Van Eyck
Level 2, Room 63 (I5th-Century Netherlandish Painting)
This painting is considered one of the most intriguing in the world and is probably the most famous painting by Jan Van Eyck. With a casual glance, it appears to just be an oil painting of two people; a well-dressed man and a woman. They are probably the Italian Merchant Giovanni Di Nicolao and his wife.
A closer look at this painting reveals some observations. It seems to show off the riches of the subjects, the room appears to have a restrained luxury, clearly displayed in the furniture. The couple in the painting are dressed in the same manner with expensive yet conservative clothes.
Behind the couple is a mirror that reflects not the couple themselves, but two other figures coming in from a door. One of the figures has their hands up in greeting and it seems the man in the picture is responding to this greeting.
Historians have argued about what the picture was supposed to depict for many years. In the past, most people believed it to be a wedding ceremony, but it is now believed that the couple were already married and it is more of a symbol of their union.
The National Gallery acquired this painting in 1842 for the sum of 600 guineas. It was the first Netherlandish painting to be placed in the National Gallery.
3. A Young Woman Standing At A Virginal By Johannes Vermeer
Level 2, Room 27 (de Hooch, Saenredam, Vermeer)
This painting, rumoured to be part of a pair by the artist, depicts a young woman at the keyboard. This genre of art showing scenes of music-making was quite popular in Holland during the 17th Century. Most of the surviving paintings by Johannes Vermeer all show women playing musical instruments in orderly interior environments.
The girl in the picture is staring pointedly at the viewer, once you tear your gaze away from her stare, you start to notice other parts of the piece. Take the empty chair next to the keyboard, which signifies that she may be waiting for someone. The naked cupid on the wall behind her implies further that this may be a romantic meaning. We do not have enough clues to draw a solid conclusion about the painting and it seems this is intentional. However, we can tell from how the girl is dressed, that she is from a wealthy Dutch family.
Looking at the style of the painting, it was probably completed sometime between 1670-1672. The painting also depicts the subtle effects of light on different objects. Johannes Vermeer was an expert in creating art that was intriguing and filled with uncertainties.
4. Bacchus and Ariadne By Titian
Level 2, Room 10 (The Sacred and Profane in Sixteenth-Century Italian Art)
This painting tells a story between the abandoned Cretan princess, Ariadne, and the god of wine, Bacchus. This is a story that many poets have told, but the version depicted here came from the stories of Ovid and Catullus.
The painting tries to capture the moment Bacchus falls in love with the Princess. He is seen returning from India on his cheetah-drawn chariot accompanied by his usual companions, the music-making nymphs, satyrs, and a drunken Silenus. He is seen, in mid-flight from the chariot to greet the beautiful Ariadne. This depiction of the god was rarely seen in paintings of the period.
This is one of the most famous pieces in the National Gallery. Titian, the masterful artist, filled the picture with details which are better appreciated when you take a closer look. He creates a colourful and vibrant work that exudes depth but isn’t overwhelming.
This piece has had a strong influence on the style of European art, it remains a “must-see” for anyone visiting the National Gallery.
5. Sunflowers By Vincent van Gogh
Level 2, Room 43 (Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh)
Vincent Willem van Gogh was a post-impressionist painter recognized as one of the most famous and influential in the history of Western art. It should come as no surprise then that at least one of his pieces is featured in this article.
It is believed that this piece was intended to please his friend, and fellow artist, Paul Gauguin. However, it also seems to carry some significance for Van Gogh himself. The painting is of fifteen sunflowers in different stages of their lifecycle, from young bud to dead flower. It depicted the sunflower’s association with sacred and profane love. Van Gogh has created a sense of intense heat through his vibrant and expert usage of yellow paint.
This piece in the National Gallery is one of the seven versions of Sunflowers the artist made. The others are displayed in museums and galleries worldwide, in private collections and unfortunately, at least one piece was destroyed. Such was the popularity of these compositions, that Vincent became known as the painter of sunflowers after his death.
6. The Fighting Temeraire By Joseph Mallord William Turner
Level 2, Room 34 (Constable, Turner, and Stubbs)
This is a scene showing the final journey of the Temeraire, famed for its important role in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The Temeraire is towed by a paddle-wheel steam tug from Sheerness in Kent, to the site of its eventual scrappage in Rotherhithe in southeast London.
Part of the beauty of this piece is that it was created not from observation, but from Turners interpretation of reports of the event. Indeed, it us understood that Turner was not even in the country at the time, yet he managed to create a very beautiful and historically significant painting.
He used artistic licence in the recreation for both symbolism and grandeur. The colour scheme of the ship has been adapted to fit the occasion and the masts and sails are still intact. The Union flag is also missing on the ship, which signifies it is no longer naval property.
This painting has been the source of various discussions, with many praising the poetic and patriotic significance. Turner seemed to hold a special place in his heart for the piece, as he refused to sell it right up to his death. The National Gallery acquired it as part of the Turner Bequest in 1851 and we’re sure you’ll agree that to this day, it remains a very evocative piece of art.
7. Venus and Mars By Sandro Botticelli
Level 2, Room 58 (Botticelli and Filippino Lippi)
In the last three decades of the fifteenth century, Sandro Botticelli was one of the most popular painters in Florence. Venus and Mars was one of the paintings he created during this period.
It seems Botticelli wants to give the impression of love conquering war. We look at the scene after a sexual encounter, Venus, the goddess of love, has conquered the sleeping god of war Mars.
You can see Venus, reclining on a cushion and looking over at her lover, Mars. Mars is sleeping so deeply that he cannot hear the conch a satyr is blowing in his ear, nor has he taken notice of the other satyrs playing around him. These aspects all point to Boticelli’s playful side, but he was also well versed in culture and fashion.
This knowledge of ancient sculpture is on display as each character looks just as they would have in fashionable Florence. Venus is fully-clothed, while Mars is almost naked, this could be symbolic of the tradition where women would stare at sculpted male bodies in the hope of conceiving male babies.
Other Famous Paintings To Look Out For At The National Gallery
If you have reached the end of our main list, don’t worry these are far from the only paintings in the National Gallery. As long as you have the time and energy, there are countless paintings for art lovers to enjoy, here are a few more for you to seek out.
- Equestrian Portrait of Charles I By Anthony van Dyck
Level 2. Room 21 (Van Dyck)
- Self Portrait at the Age of 34 by Rembrandt (Part of a collection of Self-portraits)
Level 2, Room 22 (Rembrandt)
- Samson and Delilah by Peter Paul Rubens
Level 2, Room 54 (Mantegna and Crivelli)
- The Water lily pond by Claude Monet
Currently on loan to Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, France
- The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello
Level 2, Room 53 (Florence and Beyond, 1440-1470)
- Bathers at La Grenouillère by Claude Monet
Level 2, Room 41 (Cezanne, Monet, Renoir)
- The Rokeby Venus by Diegi Velazquez
Level 2, Room 30 (Spain)
- The Baptism of Christ by Piero Della Francesca
Level 2, Room 53 (Florence and Beyond, 1440-1470)
As you can see London’s National Gallery has something for all visitors, whether you want to just browse the highlights or spend the day hunting out more than just the most popular paintings. Should you still find the idea of visiting alone overwhelming, or you’d simply like an expert guide to accompany you look no further than our National Gallery Highlights Tour
National Gallery FAQs
We will finish off with several questions we are asked regularly about the practicalities of visiting the National Gallery.
Is the National Gallery London Free?
There is no cost to enter the gallery and visit the main collection, you do have to purchase a ticket to visit special exhibits.
Can I visit the National Gallery shop?
The shop is open daily. You can browse at your leisure after visiting the gallery, or you can just visit the shop directly from the Sainsbury Wing entrance.
What is on at the National Gallery?
The current special exhibit is a collection of Freud’s most famous Paintings sponsored by Credit Suisse. Entry costs £24-26 and the exhibit runs until the 22nd of January 2023. Visit National Gallery Exhibition to find out more.
From the 21st of October 2022 until the 15th of January 2023, a special exhibition will look in detail at Manet’s portrait of Eva Gonzales. Admission is free.
From the 3rd of November 2022 until the 19th of February 2023 a spectacular pair of paintings by Turner will be on special exhibition. Admission is free.