Things to Look Out for at the National Gallery
Our pick of the best of the best National Gallery paintings inside the British National Gallery.
The National Gallery is the UK’s third most popular museum in the UK, after the Natural History Museum and the British Museum. Unlike the majority of European Museums, it was founded upon the principles of individual philanthropy instead of absolutist monarchy, as the initial collection was started by insurance broker John Julius Angerstein and bought by the government in the early 19th century (almost every other national collection was begun by nationalising a pre-existing royal art collection). Since then, it has been shaped by a combination of generations of dedicated directors and private donations. Compromising all the major movements and works from the western history of art, the collection spans devotional religious works from the medieval era to early 20th century Impressionism, with a particularly strong anthology of Old Masters. Keep an eye out for these particularly stunning masterpieces on your next visit.
Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart, by Anthony Van Dyck, around 1638
The traditional identification of the sitters, Lords John and Bernard Stuart, as sons of Esmé Stuart, 3rd Duke of Lennox, made from the inscription, is incorrect. The original Van Dyck double portrait of the brothers ‘Lord John and Bernard Stuart’ is also in the Collection, and is perhaps the model for this work. This work is painted in a manner reminiscent of Van Dyck’s style in the late 1630s.
Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon, Cornelius van Haarlem, 1588
This gruesome episode comes from the story of Cadmus which is told in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ (III: 1-151). Cadmus was sent by the Delphic oracle to follow a cow and build a town where it sank from exhaustion. The cow stopped on the future site of Thebes, and Cadmus, intending to sacrifice it, sent his followers to get water from the neighbouring well of Ares. They were killed by the guardian of the well, a dragon who was the son of Ares. Cadmus then killed the dragon and on the advice of Athena sowed its teeth in the ground, from which sprang up armed men who slew each other, with the exception of five who became the ancestors of the Thebans. This is without a doubt the most gruesome work housed within the National Art Gallery.
The Family of Darius Before Alexander, Paolo Veronese, 1565-7
The National Gallery of Art ‘s inscription is incorrect about this work. The real story illustrates the mistake made by the family of Darius, the defeated Persian Emperor, in identifying Alexander after the Battle of Issus. Alexander and his friend Hephaestion visited Darius’s tent; the mother of Darius, misled by Hephaestion’s splendour and bearing, offered him the reverence due to the victorious monarch; Alexander forgave her. Veronese’s interpretation is subtle and genteel. He arrays the figures elegantly across the surface, magnificently dressed in modern fashion, with the exception of Alexander who is clad in red and wears armour of classical derivation.
Colonel Tarleton, Joshua Reynolds, 1782
The sitter, Colonel Banastre Tarleton (1754 – 1833) distinguished himself in the American War of Independence, and returned to England as a lieutenant-colonel about the beginning of 1782. Later he was Member of Parliament for Liverpool, a general and a baronet. This work was painted in 1782. Tarleton is in the uniform of a troop, raised during the American campaign, known as the British Legion, of which he was commandant. In 1781 Tarleton lost two fingers of his right hand, as Reynolds discreetly shows.
Supper at Emmaus, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1601
Two of Jesus’ disciples were walking to Emmaus after the Crucifixion when the resurrected Jesus himself drew near and went with them, but they did not recognise him. At supper that evening in Emmaus ‘… he took bread, and blessed it, and brake and gave to them’ (Luke 24: 30-31). Christ is shown at the moment of blessing the bread and revealing his true identity to the two disciples. Caravaggio’s innovative treatment of the subject makes this one of his most powerful works. The depiction of Christ is unusual in that he is beardless and great emphasis is given to the still life on the table. The intensity of the emotions of Christ’s disciples is conveyed by their gestures and expression. The viewer too is made to feel a participant in the event. Do appreciate this piece as much as you can, should you get a good look: the National Gallery UK tends to lend it to a lot if international exhibitors.
The Execution of Maximillian, Edouard Manet, 1867-8
The Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian (1832 – 1867) was installed in Mexico as a puppet emperor by Napoleon III in 1863. He was dependent on the support of the occupying French army and when Napoleon withdrew his troops Maximilian was captured by Mexican forces loyal to their legitimate republican government. He was executed alongside two of his generals, Mejía and Miramón, on 19 June 1867. The left-hand section of the canvas showing General Mejía was probably cut off by Manet himself. After the artist’s death the canvas was cut up into smaller fragments, some of which were sold separately.
Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, Hillaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, 1878
The acrobat Miss La La caused a sensation when she performed at the Cirque Fernando in Paris. Here she is shown suspended from the rafters of the circus dome by a rope clenched between her teeth. Degas sought out such striking modern subjects, concentrating on figures in arresting poses. We view the spectacle as the audience would have done, gazing up at the daring feat taking place above.
Visit The National Gallery at Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DN
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