A Wander in the National Gallery- review & musings

On Tuesday I had some spare time, so I decided to spend some time wandering in the National Gallery. The collection is huge, so there is always something new to discover, and there are always favourite paintings I like to go back to. If you need to escape the crowds of London for a bit, there are also smaller rooms off the larger main halls that you can have to yourself!

I didn’t have any particular destination in mind, but decided to wander through the impressionist galleries, since I’d just seen the Monet to Matisse exhibit, and wanted to look at the water lily canvases here too. These galleries, as usual, were quite crowded with visitors- tourists as well as many school groups, a focus particularly on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. On a personal level, I really don’t understand why the Sunflowers are so popular… I find many of Van Gogh’s other works to be more compelling, interesting, and vibrant, and Sunflowers comes off as a bit boring and drab, with a very muted palette (at least this version). I find it a bit depressing almost. Which is interesting, as now that I’m looking it up, Van Gogh basically thought the complete opposite- the National Gallery website says that he associated the yellows with happiness, that Sunflowers was the work he was proudest of. Not that I have to understand everyone’s reasoning for being drawn to this piece, and my own reaction to it is interesting as well. Is everyone focusing on this one, because it’s the one they’ve seen before? In any case, I prefer the paintings hung on either side- A Wheatfield, and Two Crabs. My absolute favourite is still Starry Night, which hangs in the MOMA in New York. Seeing this in person is one of my ‘aha’ art moments. Standing in front, really being able to see the colours and the brush strokes, and realizing how big of a difference it can be to see a work of art in person, and not just in a book or on a computer screen- no matter how good the image.

I then continued wandering, and stumbled into a free, temporary exhibition I didn’t know was on- Visions of Paradise: Botticini’s Palmieri Altarpiece. I was glad I did, as it was a very interesting and well put together exhibit, with lots of information, but not too big or overwhelming, divided into different sections or themes- information on Palmieri, who commissioned the altarpiece for his funerary chapel, as well as his writings, the altarpiece itself, discussion of Botticini and his style, and issues of attribution, as well as discussion of Florence, and the Church of San Pier Maggiore, where the altarpiece originally hung.


The exhibit began with a brief bio of Palmieri, explaining his career as an apothecary, which he inherited. There was a bust of Palmieri, an image of a medieval apothecary, as well as two apothecary jars. It’s always nice to have some other artifacts to put paintings into a wider context.  This section also contained context about notable figures Palmieri associated with, such as the Medici family, and manuscripts of Palmieri’s writings on the heavens and afterlife, one of which was illuminated by Botticini. This was very helpful in explaining the purpose and style of the altarpiece, and to make some interesting social history connections. Next was the section on the altarpiece itself, and the issues with attribution of artwork, which compared Botticini paintings to those of his contemporaries, to show how difficult identification can sometimes be. The other existing altarpiece from San Pier Maggiore is also on display. I thought the label for the Botticini altarpiece was interesting, as it contained a key to many of the buildings painted in the background, including the Florence cathedral, and the Church of San Pier Maggiore. There was also a discussion here on angels and heresy, comparing the depiction of the hierarchy of angels and the afterlife in this altarpiece with others.

Finally, there was a small section on Florence and the importance of place, explored through a handful of paintings, and a large book, and very interestingly, in a video that digitally reconstructed the now-demolished Church of San Pier Maggiore, which scholars from Cambridge and the National Gallery achieved through archival research, mapping, and looking for any physical evidence that remained. It was interesting to see this come together as small remnants of the church remained in people’s apartments and cafes, and how the streets maintained the overall structure of the church.

Overall, a nice interesting exhibit that I recommend stopping in to see!
To learn more about the exhibit and the painting visit:
If you just want to see the video of the church reconstruction and where the painting hung, you can watch it on youtube: https://youtu.be/ZUXa1nDtOB0

Otherwise, I continued wandering the gallery, stopping at Vermeer and Rembrandt, and being amazed at how empty some of the rooms were, but which was generally nice, as I could actually see the paintings. Although a bit awkward in some of the smaller rooms where there was a guard looking bored out of their minds, and I was the only person there. I always finds this creates a false sense of pressure, like I need to look extra interested in everything while staunchly avoiding eye contact, or rushing through, not stopping at anything, as if I’m in a hurry, or awkwardly thinking too much about if I should try and ask a question…

Anyone else feel this way? I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. It’s also why I like to say hi to people when I’m in a guard/ interpreter type position- I try to be pleasant and let you know I’m there if you have a question, but then leave you alone until you do. At least, I hope that’s what I’m doing. I always think it’s nice to get a ‘let me know if you have questions’ but then no feeling of having to ask a question.

In this case, I wonder how knowledgeable the guards are. I tend to assume that most museum guards/guides/interpreters are knowledgeable about the collection, but after all the staff strikes at the National Gallery, which were over private contractors for visitor services and security staff, maybe they are just security guards, who have not been trained to know about the collection? (I don’t know if this is the case or not. Maybe they are all really knowledgeable and passionate about art, despite the looks of utter boredom).  I personally don’t think this is the best route to go. Even if your primary job is security of the collection- to make sure no one walks off with a masterpiece, or touches it, or defaces it- I think these types of positions should be two fold, and should be there to help and provide knowledge for visitors too. I think there also needs to be more training about interacting with the public and creating a friendly and open environment, where visitors don’t necessarily feel intimidated either.

On my way out, I stopped in at the DaVinci cartoon, and then, of course, wandered through the gift shop. I knew I wasn’t going to buy anything, but museum shops always have something interesting. Of course there was a very large section featuring the Sunflowers. It had its own corner, full of jewellery, notebooks, scarves, pillows… If someone brings you back a souvenir from the National Gallery, I feel like there’s at least a 1/10 chance it will feature sunflowers. Besides sunflowers, lots of interesting things, and always an amazing array of books, from babies to the hard core collector. I always want to buy them all. You can even get a Monet colouring book.

Finally, a stop to look at the entrance hall mosaics. I seriously love these mosaics. I wonder who picked the themes for each one. At first you think they make sense- compassion, wonder, virtue- but there are also ones like erotic love, and other things you might not consider virtues. And then just things that seem to be a bit random. My favourites are the ones for christmas pudding and mud pie (not pictured), although I have a fondness for the pub too.  So bizarre and fantastic.


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