There are more than 300 museums and art galleries in London. Londoners themselves prefer to visit the openings of new exhibitions when the tickets are sold out weeks in advance. So, if you don’t like noise and crowds, we tell you about some masterpieces of permanent exhibitions which you can visit whenever you wish.
It’s quite difficult to sum up all the famous paintings in London into one list. Because the British capital is home to a truly extraordinary collection of artwork, famous paintings in London museums and galleries came from around the world and across hundreds of years. So our World-famous Paintings You Can See in London list can be considered as a starting point to an amazing journey to famous artwork in London.
1. Tournesols, Vinset Van Gogh (1888)
“Sunflowers” by the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh is one of the works of the series with a bouquet of sunflowers. The National Gallery has a version of the painting with a yellow background. It is one of the 7 Van Gogh paintings in the National Gallery London. By the way, did you know that The National Gallery was one of the filming locations of Skyfall (2012)?
If you want to see other London famous landscapes shown in films check out our Best Films Set in London guide.
Van Gogh intended to create a series of twelve works in total. But unfortunately, he hasn’t fulfilled his plan, Van Gogh considered this flaming yellow canvas to be the pride of his unfinished series. The artist used the impasto technique in writing this painting. The picture shows 15 sunflowers, most of which are written quite flat as if by a child’s hand. And only two leaning sunflowers fall out of this plane of primitivism. This small detail takes the painting into reality. The horizon is shown in a simple way. The flat surface on which the vase with sunflowers stands is separated from the background only by a thin blue line.
Sunflowers were of great importance to Van Gogh. It was the favorite flower of his close friend Paul Gauguin. The idea of the sunflowers series was born shortly after van Gogh moved to Arle. Van Gogh felt a need to decorate his modest home when he was waiting for the arrival of his friend and another outstanding post-impressionist Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh to smooth the impression of his guest, so, the whole series of these paintings was designed for Gauguin.
Sunflowers symbolize appreciation, gratitude, and hope. These ordinary, earthly flowers are not just flowers anymore, but small luminaries collected in a vase.
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2. Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck (1434)
Arnolfini Portrait is probably one of the most famous paintings in the London National Gallery and one of the most enigmatic works in the history of art. This recognizable work is the first paired portrait in European painting. Pair portrait of the Arnolfini spouses by the Dutch artist Jan van Eyck appeared as if from nowhere. You can see all the smallest details of the masterpiece painted with photographic accuracy which was not typical for paintings of Dutch artists of the 15th century.
The question “which event is shown on the painting?” still doesn’t have one clear answer. The candles that are blown out and the scenes from the Gospel after the death of Christ near the mirror on the side where the woman stands suggest that she is no longer alive. Some belief in the opposite scenario, that we see not the end of a marriage, but its first moments. As the man and the woman joined their hands, and the dog in front of the couple is a symbol of fidelity.
And others believe that this is a kind of unique form of the marriage contract in front of witnesses, which is reflected in the mirror. It shows not only two main characters of the painting but also two men entering the door, who could be witnesses. Above the mirror, we see the inscription: “Jan van Eyck was here. 1434″
The only thing that art critics agree about is that the painting depicts a member of the Arnolfinis, a large family of Italian merchants at that time.
It is most likely that the man in the painting is Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, and the woman nearby is his wife. Don’t be put off by a woman’s huge belly, she is not pregnant – she simply holds the folds of her luxurious attire, as ladies usually did in her time.
3. Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci (1495-1508)
There are two versions of Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci. One is located in the Louvre in Paris (the one on the left). And the other, which we will talk about (the one on the right), is one of the National Gallery London’s most famous paintings.
In the early 1480s, the Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception ordered the painting from the great master, however, they received it only 25 years later. Da Vinci completed the painting in 1483 and sold it to other people. Since he and the Brotherhood had some disagreements, including the ones over the financial question. After the first painting was sold, the Brotherhood persuaded Leonardo to write a second version of the painting. It was completed in 1508 or even earlier. The later version of Madonna of the Rocks is now a part of the collection of the National Gallery.
The canvas depicts the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and the blessing baby Jesus, supported by an angel. The painting is written in the sfumato technique and the landscape is rich in details.
4. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Édouard Manet (1882)
The Bar at the Folies Bergère is Édouard Manet’s last large painting: the artist died a year after he finished it, in 1883. The pain tormented every movement of Manet, as his body was being destroyed by the tabes dorsalis that affected his spinal cord.
Folies Bergère was a popular entertainment venue at the end of the 19th century. It combined a bar, variety show, and cabaret and was Édouard Manet’s favourite place. In the last years of his life, he was not able to visit it because of his disease, so he built a copy of the bar counter in his workshop. And to this day the masterpiece, which is a kind of result of Monet’s creative activity, remains the most mysterious painting of the French artist.
Critics and experts offer various interpretations of the plot of the canvas. There is no need to be an expert in the laws of optics to notice that the reflection of the barmaid in the mirror does not match her posture in the foreground. As if these two women belong to two different realities and are separated from each other. The barmaid in the foreground looks sad, she is deeply immersed in her thoughts, she is alone. But the barmaid in the reflection of the mirror almost merges with the sea of visitors, leaning towards one of them. The inconsistencies of the painting provide us with a feeling of a magical illusion, which has not been solved even today.
The “Bar at the Folies Bergère” is a part of the rich collection of fine artworks of the London Courtauld Institute of Art.
5. The Rokeby Venus, Diego Velázquez (1647-1651)
Another must-see painting is “Venus” by the famous Spaniard of the 17th century – Diego Velazquez. You can see the masterpiece in the London National Gallery. This is his only painting with explicitly erotic overtones despite the fact that it was written during the strict church censorship times. During his visit to Italy, Velazquez was inspired by the charming Venuses by Giorgione and Titian and decided to write his own version. Velázquez enjoyed the favor of the king, and even a painting with a naked female body and quite distinct erotic overtones did not affect his reputation.
The canvas depicts a beautiful woman with hair tied in a simple Greek knot looking at her reflection in the mirror held by a winged cupid. Unlike the perfect ancient goddesses of Italian artists, Velázquez’s Venus is a real woman. And the personality of the model with which the artist could write his painting is a mystery. The artist wanted to keep his model anonymous, the reflection of her face in the mirror is blurry. Another distinction is that the classical depiction of the goddess of love is a dormant and inactive Venus. But Velázquez’s Venus is awake and looking at her own reflection in a mirror.
In 1914, Marie Richardson ripped open a canvas with a meat cleaver. The painting received 5 cuts and 6 tears. Fortunately, the damage to the painting was restored completely by Helmut Ruhemann and after a hundred years it still attracts the sights of the guests of the National Gallery.
If you want to see other London museums and art galleries, check out London Museums you should see before you die plan.