Throughout its troubled history, the National Gallery in London has persevered to maintain one of the greatest art collections in the world. Having no Royal collection with which to begin, the museum found its start with the purchase of a mere 38 paintings from the estate of a recently deceased banker, J.J. Angerstein. Housed in his home at 100 Pall Mall for the first 10 years of its existence, the National Gallery opened to the public there in 1824.
Finding the museum frequently overcrowded and ill-adapted for the display of paintings, the directors finally persuaded Parliament to sponsor a new home near Trafalgar Square. The move was fortunate and the collection expanded accordingly.
During its first 30 years the galleries housed mostly 15th and 16th century Italian paintings, many of which are still on display. But over the decades the collection has grown to encompass representatives from 1250 AD to 1900 AD.
(Though it still houses works from the early 20th century, a decision was reached in 1996 to cut off acquisitions for any work post-1900 and several trades were arranged with the Tate Britain.)
The works, which number in the thousands, now cover every great name and hundreds of lesser ones. Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at 34 is here, as is da Vinci’s Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John. Titian’s Death of Actaeon was purchased in 1972 and Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks in 2004. A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal (a musical instrument) by Vermeer is also here.
Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors is part of the collection along with Botticelli’s Venus and Mars and Velásquez’ Rokeby Venus. Canaletto’s Regatta on the Grand Canal and The Stonemason’s Yard are here, showing the artists typically excellent sense of perspective and details of figure.
But there are several much later works, as well. Cézanne’s Les Grandes Beigneuses is here. And what museum would be complete without a Monet Water-Lily Pond or a Renoir, such as The Umbrellas?
But unquestionably among the most well-known works in the Gallery are the Van Eyck Arnolfini Portrait – found in nearly every art history book – along with J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.
Few major additions, though many minor and controversial ones, were made to the building until the addition of the Sainsbury Wing in 1991. That, too, was controversial but nearly everything in the art world is among some. The addition is modern, but nowhere near as large a contrast as the I.M. Pei addition to the Louvre. One of the highlights housed in the new wing is an altarpiece by Cima of The Incredulity of St Thomas.
In 2004, the museum gained a new ground level entrance from Trafalgar Square as part of the East Wing Project.
Nearby, and technically part of the collection, is the National Portrait Gallery. This separate building houses many of Britain’s most outstanding portraiture from the 15th through the 20th centuries.
Reaching the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery is easy via the London Underground i.e. ‘the tube’ or subway. Exit at Charing Cross station.