This stately neoclassical building contains an unrivaled collection of Western art spanning 7 centuries -- from the late 13th to the early 20th -- and covering every great European school. For sheer skill of display and arrangement, it surpasses its counterparts in Paris, New York, Madrid, and Amsterdam.
The largest part of the collection is devoted to the Italians, including the Sienese, Venetian, and Florentine masters. They're now housed in the Sainsbury Wing, which was designed by noted architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991. On display are such works as Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks; Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne; Giorgione's Adoration of the Magi; and unforgettable canvases by Bellini, Veronese, Botticelli, and Tintoretto. Botticelli's Venus and Mars is eternally enchanting.
Of the early Gothic works, the Wilton Diptych (French or English school, late 14th c.) is the rarest treasure; it depicts Richard II being introduced to the Madonna and Child by John the Baptist and the Saxon kings, Edmund and Edward the Confessor. Then there are the Spanish giants: El Greco's Agony in the Garden and portraits by Goya and Velázquez. The Flemish-Dutch school is represented by Brueghel, Jan van Eyck, Vermeer, Rubens, and de Hooch; the Rembrandts include two of his immortal self-portraits. None of van Eyck's art creates quite the stir that the Arnolfini Portrait does. The stunning work depicts Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife (who is not pregnant, as is often thought; she is merely holding up her full-skirted dress in the contemporary fashion). There's also an immense French Impressionist and post-Impressionist collection that includes works by Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Cézanne. Particularly charming is the peep-show cabinet by Hoogstraten in one of the Dutch rooms: It's like spying through a keyhole.
British and modern art are the specialties of the Tate Gallery, but the National Gallery does have some fine 18th-century British masterpieces, including works by Hogarth, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Constable, and Turner.
Guided tours of the National Gallery are offered twice daily, with an extra tour on Wednesday. A Gallery Guide Soundtrack is also available. A portable CD player provides audio information on paintings of your choice with the mere push of a button. Although this service is free, contributions are appreciated.
Insider's Tip: The National Gallery has a computer information center where you can design your own personal tour map for free. The computer room, located in the Micro Gallery, includes a dozen hands-on workstations. The online system lists 2,200 paintings and has background notes for each work. Using a touch-screen computer, you can design your own personalized tour by selecting a maximum of 10 paintings you would like to view. Once you have made your choices, you print a personal tour map with your selections.
- © Frommer's 2013
- Very Highly Recommended 2010