Insight! Sensitivity! Genius! Our critic picks the top five masterpieces in the National Gallery

The National Gallery in London celebrates its 200th anniversary on Friday, but what makes it so special? Founded in 1824 when public fine arts museums were still in their infancy, it differed from rivals such as the Louvre (founded in 1793) and the Prado (1819) because they inherited royal collections. The National, on the other hand, started from scratch and deliberately built up the world’s most systematic corpus of European paintings. In that same thoughtful spirit, the gallery and the Guardian have mapped out a timeline of twenty of their masterpieces. Here are five that will take you on a journey through 600 years of insight, sensitivity and genius.

A young woman sits on a pillow on the floor, her back against a chest, head in a book. Every detail is so obvious, from the silk and fur of her clothing to the way her eyelids focus solely on the illuminated manuscript. She could be studying in a cafe, squinting against the blaring modern world. But this was painted almost 600 years ago in a medieval Europe with little science, technology or geography. Christianity shaped Europe and is the heartbeat of this painting.

Of course it is the Bible she reads. And she is not just any ordinary woman, but Mary Magdalene, who in the Middle Ages was presented as a reformed sex worker who followed Christ and was among his mourners. Next to her is the jar of ointment with which she anointed his feet. This character, who is both worldly and spiritual, made the medieval church appeal to ordinary people, especially women. And Van der Weyden’s realism increases that directness. The technical skill with which he paints the visible world was unheard of just a few years earlier. Suddenly, around 1430, Flemish artists started making mirror-like oil paintings of real people in real space.

You’d think he’d enjoy just showing off his prodigious skills. Instead, he uses them to reach the invisible and inner. Reading religious texts was a way to cultivate personal devotion in 15th century Europe. Communities of religiously minded lay women, called beguines, grew up in northern cities and were sometimes considered suspect. Van der Weyden lets us see this woman’s eyes move over the words, but her thoughts are a secret between her and God.

The 16th-century art chronicler Giorgio Vasari tells how people lined up outside a church in Florence to see an unfinished work by Leonardo da Vinci, even though it was only a ‘cartoon’, a full-size sketch put together taped sheets of paper. cardboard paper. Most of the time he never finished the painting. This may be what they saw. It is Leonardo’s only surviving cartoon and the only drawing permanently visible among the National Gallery’s more than 2,600 paintings.

Could it be a portal to his psychological secrets? Sigmund Freud thought that the two women resembled a Siamese double mother. Born in Vinci, Tuscany, in 1452, Leonardo grew up with a stepmother and it is difficult to say whether he even knew his unmarried biological mother, Caterina di Meo Lippi. Whatever you think of Freud, he is right when he says that there is an uncanny quality in the folded forms of Mary and her mother, Anne, whose heads seem to sprout from Mary’s shoulder.

It is also strange that Anne has deep hollow eyes, like a skull. That could be interpreted theologically, as foreknowledge of the mortal fate of the infant Christ. But in a closely related Leonardo painting in the Louvre, Anne smiles benevolently. Would Leonardo have softened her if he had finished this painting? It is typical of the greater freedom he takes in his drawings, allowing him to experiment with wild ideas. The sense of his imagination flowing freely in each soft, smoky line makes this one of the most hypnotic masterpieces in the National Gallery – or anywhere on earth.

We are used to the idea of ​​royal portraits. But the Republic of Venice, a city-state that existed for more than a millennium, had no monarchs. Instead, it had an elected doge who was to symbolize the community, as Leonardo Loredan does excellently here. He is Venice. This enduring polity liked to call itself ‘La Serenissima’ and its facial features are not much more serene than Loredan’s.

The subtlest smile enlivens his golden flesh, warmed by the sun from an open window, as he holds his bright eyes still for Bellini to observe: you get a powerful sense here of someone posing, even though Loredan’s pose is so quiet and undramatic. He seems absolutely at peace with himself in his delicately aged skin. Bellini encompasses every wrinkle: the age of such a high political figure is depicted here as a force that indicates mature wisdom.

It’s a shame Joe Biden can’t hire Bellini. While modern American presidents rarely succeed in uniting the entire nation, Loredan merges with Venice and its commercial dominance in the Mediterranean world. He wears a glittering top whose floral pattern is recognisably influenced by the Ottoman Empire. Loredan’s clothing, including his round Doge hat, shows off the luxury that Venice had received for centuries from its oriental trade. The wealth and stability of La Serenissima will, this portrait assumes, continue for millennia.

A woman looks at herself in a tall mirror – poetically called a in French Psyche. Is she looking into her psyche? Or is she judging the social facade she must present to the world? In the watery pool of her reflected face we see the gulf between a 19th century woman’s true self and the discipline of her public image. As the novelist George Eliot said when this was painted, “The human mind is so much more subtle than the external tissues that make a kind of blazon or dial for it.”

This is one of the National Gallery’s newest acquisitions, purchased this year as part of its anniversary celebrations. Yet this is not the first appearance here of Eva Gonzalès, who also stars in a portrait of her teacher Edouard Manet, bequeathed in 1917 (jointly owned by the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin).

Gonzalès opts for a blunt reality in this quietly provocative painting. One thing she seems to have shared with Manet is a passion for the 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, whose ironic realism they both emulate. Gonzalès takes on Velázquez here. As French art sought to capture the ambiguities of modern life in the late 19th century, painters were entranced by the cool, complex way this master had encapsulated the entire social world of Imperial Spain. If you want to see the connection, you can do so at the National Gallery, because this woman studying herself in the mirror has the same broken individuality as Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, staring somberly into a mirror.

Modern art undoubtedly started with this bouquet of flowers. In 1888, Vincent van Gogh, an unemployed, self-taught artist in his mid-thirties, stepped off a train in Arles, France. He was entranced. The intensity of the Provencal sunlight and the brilliance of the fruits and blossoms filled him with joy and hope. He rented a small house and believed it could be a commune for artists to work together in harmony and with a shared social faith. But believe in what? Art, God, utopia? These sunflowers express his ideal, in all its immensity and despair.

Van Gogh painted a series of sunflowers to decorate The Yellow House while he waited for Paul Gauguin, the first – and only – fellow artist he persuaded to join him there. The National Gallery has the largest. It is the ecstatic release of someone who feels he has finally found purpose. The boldness of his intimate first name, Vincent’s signature in blue on the rustic vase, expresses a total identification with this painting, his feeling of finally putting his deepest self on canvas. It is impossible to separate Vincent’s emotions from his brushstrokes. Objective reality does not matter here: the precise representation of the material world that dominated European art, from Rogier van der Weyden’s room to Eva Gonzalès’ mirror, has given way to a fiery fusion of self and world.

Of course sunflowers look like this, right? No, they are not made of paint, as Van Gogh’s flowers are flamboyantly. Deeply dug, roughly constructed furrows, ridges and tufts of color make every yellow and brown detail a statement of artistic freedom and autonomy. I am these sunflowers, these sunflowers are me. Knowing how he ended, we notice that the flowers are not completely fresh. Their withering curls in the heat of the Mediterranean seem ominous; the large yellow-brown centers are melancholic signs that Jerusalem will not be built here after all.

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