The National Gallery in London is Britain’s national home for paintings produced before 1900. Housed in its grand building on Trafalgar Square, the gallery’s collection comprises over 2,300 works dating from the mid-13th century to the turn of the 20th century and is recognised as one of the world’s best collections of western European art.
It is the second most popular museum in Britain and the fourth worldwide, with 4.7 million annual visitors. Entry to its main collection is free of charge.
The National Gallery’s collection belongs to the public, and the gallery itself is classed as an exempt charity and run by an appointed board of trustees. The current director of the National Gallery is Dr Nicholas Penny, who had previously worked as the senior curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
History and foundation
Since the late 18th century there had been calls for the founding of a national gallery in Britain, but the government had passed up several opportunities to purchase major collections from notable collectors such as Sir Robert Walpole and Philippe d'Orléans. In 1823 the landscape painter Sir George Beaumont promised his collection to the nation, on the conditions that the government also purchased the collection of financier John Julius Angerstein and that a suitable building would be found in which to house them.
In 1824 Angerstein’s collection was opened for public display in his former townhouse on Pall Mall, and Beaumont’s collection joined them in 1826. In 1838 the entire collection was moved to their new purpose-build home on Trafalgar Square. The location was chosen due to its proximity to both the wealthy areas of London’s West End and the poorer districts of the East End, enabling people from all social classes to view the work.
In 1855, following the reform of gallery administration, the new director travelled throughout Europe to acquire new works for the gallery. During the 10 years in this role, Sir Charles Eastlake ensured that the gallery's collection of Italian painting expanded and widened in scope to become one of the best in the world. Other notable acquisitions included 77 paintings bought from the collection of the late prime minister Sir Robert Peel, and over 1000 paintings, drawings and watercolours bequeathed by the artists Joseph Mallord and William Turner.
Such was the size and scope of this collection that it was originally housed in South Kensington, before being returned to the newly-expanded gallery in 1876. In 1889 Henry Tate, the wealthy industrialist, offered to both donate his art collection to the nation and fund the construction of a separate gallery for British works of art. A site was selected at Millbank, a short distance from Trafalgar Square, and the gallery opened in 1897.
The new gallery was officially known as the National Gallery of British Art, which was changed to the National Gallery, Millbank in 1917. However it soon became known as the Tate Gallery, and the majority of the National Gallery’s British pictures were transferred there with only a small selection of works remaining at Trafalgar Square. The Tate Gallery was originally under the administration of the National Gallery, but in 1955 it was formally established as an independent institution.
Departments and collections
Although the work within the National Gallery is classed as a single collection, it can be broadly separated into four categories. These are:
13th – 15th century paintings
This includes late medieval work depicting religious scenes, along with 15th century pieces which draw upon ancient history and mythology. Notable works in this section include ‘The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Narrative Scenes’ by Margarito of Arezzo, ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ by Jan van Eyck and ‘Venus and Mars’ by Sandro Boticelli.
16th century paintings
This includes work by the Italian Renaissance masters, including ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ from Panels from the S. Francesco Altarpiece, Milan, by Leonardo da Vinci, ‘The Madonna of the Pinks’ ('La Madonna dei Garofani') by Raphael, and ‘The Entombment’ by Michelangelo.
17th century paintings
This includes Baroque work from the 1600s including ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ by Caravaggio, ‘Self Portrait at the Age of 34’ by Rembrandt and ‘Samson and Delilah’ by Peter Paul Reubens.
18th – early 20th century paintings
This features work from the Romanticism of ‘A Picnic’ by Francisco de Goya and John Constable’s ‘The Haywain’ to the Impressionism of ‘Water-Lilies’ by Claude Oscar Monet and the Post-Impressionism of ‘A Wheatfield, with Cypresses’ by Vincent van Gough.
The gallery is home to some of world’s most famous paintings. Amongst these are treasures such as Vincent van Gough's ‘Sunflowers’ and ‘Chair’, ‘The Haywain’ by John Constable, ‘The Toilet of Venus’ (known as the Rokeby Venus) by Diego Velázquez and ‘Bathers at Asnières’ by Georges Seurat.
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