London is an art lover’s delight. With artistic treasures spanning centuries and movements, the city’s many galleries and museums offer something for every taste. Even better, many of these innovative, beautiful and thought-provoking pieces are part of the national collection and are thus available to enjoy entirely free of charge.
Before your trip and stay in our residences, take a moment to get acquainted with some of London’s greatest artworks and where to find them.
Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières, 1884
Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434 (both National Gallery – Free)
Seurat’s monumental pointillist masterpiece Bathers at Asnières (Une Baignade, Asnières) depicts working class men relaxing on the left bank of the river Seine. The artist’s first large-scale painting, it juxtaposes the smoky industry of nearby factories with the simple harmony of leisure time spent on a riverbank. The work is suffused with a sense of hazy summer warmth and light lent by small brushstrokes and soft, muted colours. In both its subject and tones it can be seen in contrast to another of Seurat’s paintings from later the same year – A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The latter piece is set directly across the river from the Asnières scene and shows upper class leisure, this time bathed in shadow instead of light.
The Arnolfini Portrait by van Eyck is one of the most celebrated paintings in European art, renowned for its originality, complexity and air of mystery (to this day there’s disagreement about the meaning of the painting). The domestic scene it depicts seems modest on the surface, but a closer look sees each detail brought to life in skilful reproduction – from status symbols and sumptuous fabrics to the convex reflections of the scene in the mirror on the wall.
Other prominent works at the National Gallery include: Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors; Monet, The Water-Lily Pond; Botticelli, Mars and Venus; Turner, The Fighting Temeraire and Van Gogh, Sunflowers.
Mark Rothko, Seagram Murals, 1958 (Tate Modern – Free)
Though the Seagram Murals were originally commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, Rothko was repulsed by the overtly pretentious atmosphere of the setting and withdrew from the project before the series was complete. He kept hold of the paintings and they were subsequently sold off in separate groups. Room 3 at the Tate Modern unites their own eight murals with a selection of those from Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art in Sakura and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
The wash of deep tones marked a dramatic shift in Rothko’s palette and the pieces were, according to him, intended to inspire feelings of invited entrapment and the sense of being ‘walled in’. Though they were explicitly intended to imbue negativity in viewers, there is also a quiet grandeur and warmth to the large and sombre frames.
Other prominent works at the Tate Modern include: Picasso, Weeping Woman; Frampton, Marguerite Kelsey; Kandinsky, Swinging and Matisse, The Snail.
Édouard Manet, A Bar At The Folies-Bergère, 1882 (Courtauld Gallery)
Manet’s painting of a barmaid at a Paris music hall was recently hailed as the best painting in London by Time Out, who called it ‘one of the most psychologically-charged paintings you’ll ever see, a glittering world of misleading reflections and skewed perspectives.’ The last of Manet’s great works, its most intriguing element is perhaps the ambiguous expression of the barmaid and how that relates to the powerful gaze present in the painting (whether that of the man in the mirror or our own gaze as viewers).
Other prominent works at the Courtauld Gallery include: Degas, Two Dancers on a Stage; Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire with a Large Pine; Gauguin, Nevermore and van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear.
Associated with John Taylor, William Shakespeare, c. 1600-1610 (National Portrait Gallery – Free)
The ‘Chandos portrait’ of William Shakespeare (reputed to be by John Taylor) is perhaps most distinguished by its provenance; the portrait is the only depiction of the playwright with a reasonable claim to have been painted from life. The pale skin of Shakespeare’s face almost glows against the rich background tones and his black doublet, appropriate for such an incomparable luminary of English literature. What’s more, our Covent Garden residence is close by.
Other prominent works in the National Portrait Gallery include: Unknown, Queen Elizabeth I (the ‘Darnley portrait’) and Austen, Jane Austen.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767 (Wallace Collection – Free)
A sensuous masterpiece of the rococo era, The Swing (Les hazards heureux de l’escarpolette) symbolises the hedonistic and flighty spirit of the time. A young lady – gliding through the air with abandon, dress billowing and shoe flying – is observed rather indecorously by the reclining young man in the bottom left. According to the memoirs of the writer Charles Collé, this risqué composition originated with the courtier who commissioned the work, originally from a different artist: ‘I should like to have you paint [my mistress] on a swing that a bishop would set going. You will place me in such a way that I would be able to see the legs of the lovely girl…’
Other prominent works at the Wallace Collection include: Hals, Laughing Cavalier, Velázquez, The Lady with a Fan and Titian, Perseus and Andromeda.
Visiting: Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930 (Royal Academy of Arts, 25th Feb – 4th June)
American Gothic is one of those rare paintings, in the company of the Mona Lisa, The Creation of Adam or The Scream, which has taken on a life of its own through cultural appropriation and parody. As of last year, its dour (or perhaps impassive) subjects, their pitchfork and the quaint ‘Dibble House’ backdrop, have left US for the first time. Catch sight of the modern classic at the Royal Academy of Arts America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s exhibition, running till 4th June.
Other prominent works at the America After the Fall exhibition include: Hopper, Gas and New York Movie, O’Keefe, Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses and Benton, Cotton Pickers. If you’re staying in our nearby Knightsbridge residence, it is definitely worth heading there.