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All you need to know before you visit the National Gallery, London

The National Gallery, London

What to see at The National Gallery, London

The National Gallery’s collection includes over 2,300 paintings dating from the 13th century to the 20th century. It is one of the most visited art museums in the world, and its main building facade facing Trafalgar Square has not changed for two-hundred years. What to see at The National Gallery and what you need to know before you visit are covered below and the various links provided.

The National Gallery came into being when the British government bought 38 paintings from the heirs of a leading patron of the arts, in 1824. After that initial purchase, the Gallery was shaped mainly by its early directors and by private donations, which comprise two-thirds of the collection. The resulting collection is comprehensive in scope, covering most significant developments in Western Painting.

13th Century Paintings

With the decline of the Roman Empire, the Medieval era began, and the foundation art of the period was Christian Byzantine art. In the Middle Ages, the dominance of the church resulted in religion dominating the funding of art. The Byzantine paintings that influenced early Western art made extensive use of gold paint, and the figures were presented in conventional forms.

Religious art dominated 13th Century European Art. However, at the same time, the Eastern Roman imperial church headed by the Byzantium Empire in Constantinople was losing its universal authority. The Eastern Roman church was becoming increasingly irrelevant as the Byzantium Empire shrank. In Western Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was also fragmented and provided limited cultural leadership. At this point, Italian Medieval Christian art started to take the lead.

14th Century Paintings

14th Century Art refers to the period from 1301 to 1400. During this century, political and natural disasters ravaged both Europe. The Black Death claimed between 75 and 200 million lives and England and France fought in the Hundred Years’ War in which the Kings of England claimed the French throne. The war marked both the height of chivalry and its subsequent decline.

During this period, the painting for altarpieces and smaller works became the focus. European painters were influenced by Byzantine models, especially in Italy, from where most early Western panel paintings come. The process of establishing a distinctly Western style began with Cimabue and Duccio and was completed by Giotto, who is regarded as the starting point for the development of Renaissance painting. Most panel paintings remained more conservative than miniature painting because they were made to be seen by the public.

15th Century Paintings

The 15th century in Europe was the bridge between the Late Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance. Many technological, social and cultural developments during this century enabled the European  Early Modern period.  In religious history, the Roman Papacy was split into two parts in Europe, and the unrest associated with the pre-Protestant Christian movements saw the rise of the Protestant Reformation in the following century.

Gothic art begins to merge into the Renaissance art that had begun to form itself in Italy with a return to classical principles of composition and realism. The transition to the Renaissance occurred at different times in different places.

16th Century Paintings

The 16th century is regarded as the century in which Europe started its military and cultural dominance of the world. Spain and Portugal opened worldwide oceanic trade routes, and large parts of the New World in the Americas became Spanish and Portuguese colonies. This era of colonialism established mercantilism as leading economic system.

The Protestant Reformation grew,  leading to numerous religious conflicts and diminishing the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The first work ever on accounting was published and the first book was written on secular international law. Copernicus proposed the heliocentric universe, which challenged long-held beliefs, which led to major revolutions in astronomy and science.

The High Renaissance in Italy is dated between  1475–1525 and is exemplified by the genius of Leonardo da Vinci whose depiction of human drama in “The Last Supper” set the benchmark for painting. His younger contemporary Michelangelo also had a profound effect on European artists with his Sistine Chapel ceiling painting, which was a masterpiece of a figurative composition.

17th Century Paintings

The 17th century was characterised by the Baroque Art movement, the Dutch Golden Age,  the Scientific Revolution, and the Thirty Years’ War. It was during this period that the colonisation of the Americas lead to the exploitation of the silver deposits, which resulted in significant inflation as wealth was drawn into Europe. It was also a period of development of culture in general, notably theatre, music, visual arts and philosophy.

Dutch Golden Age painting, although it is included in the period of Baroque art, reflected the traditions of detailed realism inherited from Early Netherlandish painting. Dutch artists spend most of their careers painting portraits, genre scenes, landscapes or still lifes, in which many of their subjects were new in Western painting. The way the Dutch painted them in this period was decisive for their future development of art.

18th Century Paintings

During the 18th century, Philosophy and Science increased in prominence, and the growing Enlightenment culminated in the French and American revolution. Music was a vital part of this century with Johan Sebastian Bach, and George Frederick Handel in the first half. The latter half new forms like the symphony came to be with significant contributions from Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

During the 18th century, Rococo followed as an extension of Baroque, often frivolous and erotic. The 1730s represented the height of Rococo development in France exemplified by the works of Antoine Watteau and François Boucher. Portraiture was an essential component of painting in all countries, but especially in England. Where William Hogarth, in a blunt realist style, Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds in more flattering styles were influenced by Anthony van Dyck. By 1785, Rococo had passed out of fashion in France, replaced by Neoclassical artists like Jacques-Louis David.

19th Century Paintings

The 19th century was a period of social change, with slavery being abolished. The Second Industrial Revolution led to massive urbanisation and higher levels of productivity and prosperity. European imperialism brought much of Asia and almost all of Africa under colonial rule. The British Empire increased, especially with the expansion of vast territories in Canada, Australia,  Africa and India. By the end of the century, the British Empire controlled a fifth of the world’s land and one-quarter of the world’s population. This Pax Britannica period ushered in unprecedented globalisation and economic integration on a massive scale.

After Rococo there arose in the late 18th century, neo-classicism, best represented by such artists as David and his heir Ingres. This movement turned its attention toward landscape and nature as well as the human figure and the supremacy of natural order above humankind’s will. The idea that human beings are not above the forces of Nature was in contradiction to Ancient Greek and Renaissance ideals where humanity was above all things and owned his fate. This thinking led romantic artists to depict the sublime, ruined churches, shipwrecks and massacres.

By the mid-19th-century painters became liberated from only depict scenes from religion, mythology, portraiture or history. The idea “art for art’s sake” began to find expression in the work of painters like Francisco de Goya, John Constable, and J.M.W. Turner. Claude Monet in 1857 he introduced to Plein air painting, a dominant force which led to Realism at mid-century was Gustave Courbet. In the latter third of the century, Impressionists like Manet, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot, Cassatt, and Degas worked in a more direct approach than had previously been exhibited publicly.

20th Century Paintings

The 20th century was dominated by World War I, World War II, nuclear power, space exploration, and the Cold  War. The Digital Revolution and advances in communication delivered instantaneous worldwide computer communications.  The global population reached 6 billion, and global literacy averaged 80%, global lifespan-averages exceeded 40+ years for the first time in history, with over half achieving 70+ years.

In the 20th century, many artists felt a need to create a new kind of art which broadly can be labelled as Abstract Art. Abstract Art was a departure from reality in the depiction of imagery in paintings with a visual language of shape, form, colour, and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world. Abstract art encompasses multiple Art Movements. Art movements are especially important in modern art when each progressive movement was considered as a new avant-garde.

Explore The National Gallery


“A country that has few museums is both materially poor and spiritually poor …
museums, like theatres and libraries, are a means to freedom.”
– Wendy Beckett


Photo Credfavourstograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons