The National Gallery In London's Most Overlooked Paintings

Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid
Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid | © Andrew0921/WikiCommons
Anne Rybka

The National Gallery, housing more than 2000 paintings, is considered to be one of the finest art collections in the world. This is reflected by the number of visitors, which happens to reach over millions each year. Instead of fighting for a position in front of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Holbein’s Ambassadors, why not discover some other paintings featured in the gallery that are lesser known, but nonetheless are still true accomplishments.

Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid

Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid – Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Do not let the long title of this French 18th-century painting discourage you, as it tells a fantastic love story derived from Greek mythology. Cupid falls in love with the beautiful Psyche the moment he sees her, and decides to marry her under the condition that she will never be allowed to see him. This painting depicts the moment where Psyche – living in a palace and spoiled by invisible servants – shows her sisters all the presents she received from her mysterious husband. However, the sisters are overcome by jealousy, which Fragonard represented as an emerging dark cloud in the background. Consequently, the sisters trick the innocent girl into disobeying her husband’s wish. This icon served as a moral instruction to the French society ruled by monarchy, warning not to question authority.

Saints Peter and Dorothy

Saints Peter and Dorothy – Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece

The Renaissance is often associated with Italy, and people tend to forget about the artistic progress made in the rest of Europe during that time. If the Italian galleries are a bit overcrowded, there’s more than enough space in the Northern European Galleries to appreciate German Renaissance art, such as this painting from c.1510. Every Christian saint has specific attributes that allow us to identify them. Saint Peter, one of Christ’s 12 apostles, is always depicted as an elderly man with a white beard, holding keys to both heaven and hell. He is looking cheekily at Saint Dorothy, a Roman virgin saint. It is said that she was sentenced to death because of her Catholic belief, and moments before her execution an angel appeared to her holding a linen cloth filled with flowers.

Young Woman seated at a Virginal

Young Woman seated at a Virginal – Johannes Vermeer

Vermeer is best known for his paintings of Dutch domestic interior scenes of the 17th century, also called genre paintings. This piece is located in a quiet room in the National Gallery and allows visitors to take a close look at all the details, such as the painted lid of the Virginal, and the finely painted tiles on the floor. The painting on the wall is a reference to Dirck van Baburen’s The Procuress, which depicts a prostitute demanding her payment from a client. It is possible that Vermeer included this painting as a moral reminder, suggesting something about the sitter’s virtue.

Landscape with Narcissus and Echo

Landscape with Narcissus and Echo – Claude Lorrain

Claude Lorrain preferred painting landscapes rather than figures, however, landscape painting was not greatly appreciated in the 17th-century. This work is a perfect example of the artist’s technique of including miniscule figures to a grand landscape scenery. If observed closely, these figures reveal themselves to be Echo and Narcissus, from a tale by the Roman poet Ovid. The nymph Echo, punished by the Gods to only repeat the last words said to her, fell in love with Narcissus, but he rejected her cruelly as he fell in love with his own reflection. In this painting, you can see him admiring his mirror image on the lake.

The Crowning with Thorns

The Crowning with Thorns – Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch, a Dutch painter from the 15th century, has influenced many surrealists such as Dali with his fantastic and dreamlike imagery. This painting depicts Christ shortly before his crucifixion, surrounded and tortured by four men. Bosch uses many stylistic features to highlight Christ’s innocence. He is dressed in lightly coloured clothes and looks out past the painting, showing his suffering. The men around him are represented as barbaric, one wearing a spiked dog collar, another wearing a headdress with the Islamic crescent moon stitched on it, identifying him as an opponent of Christianity.

The Story of Griselda

The Story of Griselda – The Master of the Story of Griselda

This is the first piece of a series of three, telling the story of Griselda falling in love with a marquis. The series is an example of narrative paintings, allowing the artist to tell a story by painting several episodes in one work; so you can actually spot Griselda and the marquis several times. On the left, the marquis finds the poorly dressed girl and decides to marry her. In the centre, you can see them getting married, and on the right the artist used the opportunity to paint naked Griselda whilst she is getting dressed in richly decorated clothes. The storyline continues with the marquis testing Griselda’s loyalty by getting a divorce, but Griselda stays faithful to him, concluding in a happy ending.

St Francis in Meditation

St Francis in Meditation – Francisco de Zurbarán

Works by Spanish artists, such as Velasquez or El Greco, are popular tourist attractions when visiting the National Gallery. If you want to discover more about Spanish art and avoid a large crowd of people, have a look at Zurbarán’s depiction of St Francis of Assisi, painted in 1639. This painting is a perfect example of chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and dark. St Francis, a very popular saint and founder of the Franciscan order, is represented in his brown habit and praying, while holding a memento mori in the form of a skull in his hands. Spain at that time was a Catholic country and therefore paintings of saints were extremely popular.

Self Portrait in a Straw Hat

Self Portrait in a Straw Hat – Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

When walking through the National Gallery, visitors will have a hard time finding works by women artists. One of the few examples is this self-portrait in the 18th-century French Gallery. The artist decided to represent herself as fashionable, but also highlights her profession with a certain level of pride. Furthermore, this painting was inspired by Ruben’s Chapeau de Paille, which demonstrates her extended knowledge about the arts.
The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN, +44 20 7747 2885

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