Please use the menu on the left to navigate through this resource
The National Gallery is a 13-part series introducing students to some of the paintings in the National Gallery collection, and developing visual literacy in general. It encourages critical thinking about the contexts for which the paintings were made.
The National Gallery houses the national collection of Western European paintings dating from about 1260 to 1900. The collection includes works by masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. These pictures belong to the public and entrance to the Gallery is free.
In the Gallery the collection is arranged chronologically.
The oldest part of the collection is hung in the Gallery’s newest building, the Sainsbury Wing. Many of the works here were painted on wooden panels and require the best possible environmental conditions. The most recent works are in the East Wing; they include Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières.
These programmes are not, however, a chronological survey of the collection: instead each programme looks at a painting or paintings from different periods, painted in different styles and using different techniques.
A few important considerations should be born in mind when looking at these paintings:
The Programme Notes
- Function. Why was this painted? Who paid the artist for it? Might this have influenced its appearance? Programme 2 looks at a portrait specially commissioned by a king; Programme 3 looks at a seventeenth-century painting that may have been made for the open market, and was perhaps bought by a middle-class collector.
- Appearance. A painting’s size, and the materials used in it, may reflect its function. Programme 6 looks at a fourteenth-century altarpiece which is large and imposing because it was designed to be seen by many people in a church. Gold leaf was used partly to make the picture more visible in a dark church: it would have reflected the light from the candles that stood before it on the altar.
- Illusion. Many of these paintings represent people, objects or places in a ‘realistic’ way. How is this achieved? Programmes 6 and 7 examine perspective, one of the means by which artists convincingly represent three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface.
- Subject. Why did the artist – or the person who commissioned the work – choose this subject? For portraits (Programmes 3, 4 and 5) the question may be easy to answer. Programmes 11, 12 and 13 look at paintings that tell stories. Why were these particular stories chosen? Sometimes artists include symbolic objects, such as the skull in Holbein’s The Ambassadors. These may help us understand the meaning of a painting. Sometimes incidental details in a painting, such as the costume and the scientific objects in Joseph Wright’s Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, may help in the dating of a picture. But beware when you are looking at something like Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey: this shows an event from Tudor history, but it was painted in the nineteenth century and not all the details are historically correct.
These Programme Notes include:
- A brief introduction to the series and a summary of the principles of how to look at paintings and make sense of them.
- A set of notes for each programme including information about the paintings and the artists.
- A short list of key terms.
- A reference section listing links to major galleries and a useful guide to reading narrative and religious paintings.
- A list of the paintings and artists featured in each programme.