Of all the world's great art museums, the National Gallery, London is the only place where you can truly grasp the breathtaking scope of European painting between 1200 and 1900. Established in 1824, the National Gallery was commissioned as the people's museum—a cultural institution meant to reflect the artistic legacy both of Great Britain and of the European continent. Inside its halls are more than 2,500 European paintings by some of Western civilization's greatest masters, including Titian, Rubens, and Rembrandt.
Today, the National Gallery is one of the top five tourist attractions in the United Kingdom. Each year, more than 5 million people explore the gallery's impressive collections, including its renowned and respected holdings in Italian Renaissance art and 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting. To browse through the hallways and wings of the National Gallery is to witness the powerful evolution both of European painting and the European history that it represents.
Now you can take a virtual tour of this world-class collection through Museum Masterpieces: The National Gallery, London. In 24 fascinating lectures, Professor Catherine B. Scallen, a noted art scholar at Case Western Reserve University, offers a memorable introduction to this remarkable artistic institution and its rich collection of masterworks.
But this is more than just a gallery tour. This course also offers a breathtaking and comprehensive overview of the history of European painting. The National Gallery holds one of the finest collections of European painting from the late medieval period to the beginning of the 20th century. Raphael and Titian, Rembrandt and Rubens, Poussin and Claude, Velazquez and Goya, Gainsborough and Turner—these are just a few of the great masters whose works are represented in the National Gallery's outstanding collection.
Britain's National Treasure
Your tour begins with an introduction that highlights the gallery's unique history, cultural mission, and aesthetic focus. Unlike many national art collections, which developed according to the whims of the ruling monarch, the National Gallery was established and planned with a clear strategy: to amass a sumptuous collection of art that celebrates the zenith of achievement in European painting.
In the first lecture, you gain an appreciation for the careful forethought and commitment to public art that has informed the development of this exceptional collection and has preserved it as a national treasure for the British people.
You hear, for example, the story of how, during World War II, the entire collection was transported to Wales to ensure its safety. Between 1939 and 1946, a single painting from the collection was returned to London for display each month as a patriotic reminder of the nation's great cultural heritage.
Professor Scallen uses the special access she was given to the gallery to guide you through the physical layout of this grand institution, including an exclusive peek into its many supporting departments, such as these:
- The Framing Department, where experts choose antique frames to accent these masterpieces
- The Scientific Department, where scientists study pigments and other media used by the masters
- The Conservation Department, where the collection's paintings undergo routine cleaning and repair
700 Years of European Masterpieces
Because of its history and mission, the National Gallery is able to offer something truly unique: a collection of paintings that represents the "best of the best" of European art. To walk its galleries is to sample nearly seven centuries of famed masterworks and lesser-known but equally beautiful treasures.
Here are just a few of the works Professor Scallen has selected for your consideration:
- Leonardo da Vinci's full-scale preparatory drawing of Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist, the only such preparatory drawing by Leonardo to survive
- Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, a masterpiece that juxtaposes a vision of Renaissance achievement with a distorted image of a skull—a reminder of the fleeting nature of worldly accomplishments
- Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder's Flowers in a Vase, in which the artist brings together flowers that bloom in different seasons in an idealized vision of floral splendor
- A remarkable comparison of self-portraits of Rembrandt in youth and old age—an exploration of the trajectory of the master's growth as an artist and as a human being
- Van Gogh's A Wheatfield, with Cypresses, painted during his stay in a mental institution, in which he used the flow of paint and pattern to capture the sense of nature as well as his own response to it
View These Masterworks from All Angles
As you encounter each of these great paintings, you gain an appreciation not only for this collection but also for the art of painting itself through fascinating facts and anecdotes:
- A description of standard techniques such as undermodelling—the underlying layer of paint used by medieval artists to provide a unifying tone and define shadows
- An analysis of a wide variety of painting styles, such as Leonardo's use of sfumato ("smoky" blended edges); Titian's use of his fingers to blend paint; and Velázquez's heavily textured use of impasto (small raised areas of paint)
- An explanation of the painters' materials, such as the difference between oil and tempera paints, and the lavish use of ultramarine, an expensive pigment made with lapis lazuli
- The use of cutting-edge technology by modern art historians to shed light on the artistic process, as seen in Raphael's Madonna and Child with the Infant Baptist (studied with infrared reflectography) and Titian's Noli Me Tangere (analyzed using x-radiography)
Professor Scallen also tells stories of the artists' lives and times to broaden your understanding of the place of art in history. For example, you learn how the dreaded Black Death suppressed artistic development during the Middle Ages; how the iconoclasm of Calvinism helped create a new market for painting; and how Degas' declining eyesight may have contributed to his signature style.
The Finest of European Painting—in One Museum
Whether you're planning a trip to London or simply want to enjoy the best of European painting, Museum Masterpieces: The National Gallery, London offers a breathtaking introduction to this institution and its many treasures.
And, as you find, Professor Scallen is the perfect guide. Listening to her explicate these great works is like having a very smart friend, who also happens to be an expert in art, take you on a stroll through the gallery. Deeply learned, passionate about her subject, she has a rare gift for communicating the power of these great works, even if this is your first foray into the world of European painting. And if you already know and love these masterworks, Professor Scallen will surprise you with unexpected insights and keen observations that will help you see them with new eyes.
Join Professor Scallen and see why the National Gallery, London is not only the pride of Great Britain, it's a treasure trove to be savored by anyone who appreciates fine art.