The National Gallery in London is one of the finest Art Museums in the world – and one of the oldest. It’s one of my favorite places to visit when I visit London. This is one of London’s top free museums, and you can just walk in whenever you like and admire some of the finest works of art humanity has ever produced. But there are thousands of works in the museum – which ones are the top ones to make sure you see? Here’s my personal list. As with anything to do with art, this list is completely subjective and based on my own tastes. It’s landscape heavy because I like landscapes. I welcome your own recommendations in the comments!
The Hay Wain by John Constable
By far the most well-known work by Constable. This painting of Willy Lott’s Cottage in Suffolk is an iconic scene that helped the British build their own conception of their countryside. When we think of the English countryside, we think of scenes like this. That’s because Constable painted them and gave us that vision of a bucolic wonderland. There’s a couch in front of this one, and I highly recommend sitting and staying awhile.
Rain, Steam and Speed JMW Turner
One of two Turner’s on this list – they also happen to be next to each other in the gallery. Rain, Steam and Speed and the Great Western Railway is Turner’s attempt at showing the rapidly industrializing Victorian World. He painted this in his later years, so it’s more impressionistic than his earlier works (and his vision as going). The train is ghostly, as are the people in the boat. If you squint, you can just make out the hare running away from the train, symbolic of nature being pushed out of the way by the forward march of time.
The Fighting Temeraire By JMW Turner
Voted Britain’s most favorite painting on multiple occasions, this painting is symbolic of the passing of the age of sail to the age of steam. Represented by the Temeraire being towed to be scrapped. The ship was one of the major ships that led Britain to victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1812 and was one of the last ships to be scrapped (HMS VIctory is the only one that remains). It’s a sad picture of a ship given an elegiac ending, with that beautiful Turner sunset (said to be influenced by the eruption of Mount Tambora). This is probably my favorite British painting as well.
Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh painted a lot of sunflowers in his day – so it’s not hard to see them in the various museums spread around the world. But the National Gallery has its own, and it’s beautiful.
Water Lily Pond Monet
In 1883 Monet moved to Giverny where he lived until his death. There, on the grounds of his property, he created a water garden ‘for the purpose of cultivating aquatic plants,’ over which he built an arched bridge in the Japanese style. In 1899, once the garden had matured, the painter undertook 17 views of the motif under differing light conditions. Surrounded by luxuriant foliage, the bridge is seen here from the pond itself, among an artful arrangement of reeds and willow leaves. This one is at the National Gallery; the others are spread around the museums of the world.
Mr. and Mrs. Andrews Thomas Gainsborough
Painted by Gainsborough around 1750, this is one of the most famous landscape paintings ever created in Britain. Why the couple pictured, the aristocratic Andrews family, are certainly handsome with lots of detail; the real start of this painting is the sublime English landscape beyond. You just want to step into the picture and run your hands over the wheat and listen to the sheep off in the distance bleat.
The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein
Painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in the Tudor era, this painting is famous for the amount of detail on display in the objects in the picture. It’s also one of the most lifelike paintings of the era. It also has a visual trick where if you look at the image at the right angle, you can see a fully formed skull. It’s a remarkable painting to see in person.
The Arnolfini Portrait
This is a 1434 oil painting on oak panel by the Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck. It forms a full-length double portrait, believed to depict the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, presumably in their home in the Flemish city of Bruges. It is considered one of the most original and complex paintings in Western art, because of its beauty, complex iconography, geometric orthogonal perspective, and expansion of the picture space with the use of a mirror. It’s remarkable.
This work was painted in the final year of Rembrandt’s life and is one of his last pictures. Rembrandt painted lots of self-portraits, and this was the last. I’d also recommend checking out the National Gallery’s other self-portrait which was painted 30 years earlier. It’s a remarkable comparison.
Equestrian Portrait of Charles I
The Equestrian Portrait of Charles I is an oil painting on canvas by Anthony van Dyck, showing Charles I on horseback. The portrait is thought to have been painted in about 1637–38, only a few years before the English Civil War broke out in 1642. It shows a King in the prime of his life. But it’s but a snapshot. By 1649, Charles I was executed, the only British monarch to be deposed, tried and executed by his own government.
What’s your favorite work of art in the National Gallery in London? Let us know in the comments below!
James R Brown says
Thanks for the art tour. These are among my very favorite paintings as well.
John Evans says
The 17 century Dutch landscapes and seascapes are pretty good too. Plus Turner’s “The Evening Star” – you have to look at the painting for a minute or two before you see the star!
The Fighting Temeraire – which I had been longing to see since I was 17. Got to see it finally at age 54 – and started to cry. I was overwhelmed – it was so beautiful! No print or reproduction does it justice (as is true with most artwork/colorwork in print). What a wonderful museum – my trip of a life time.
That’s lovely! What amazed me was just how HUGE the painting actually was.
Jesús Fuentes says
I was in London in 2013 and I visited the National Gallery of Art, in my opinion the most great painter was Rembrandt.