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London Art | The National Gallery: Raphael, Gainsborough and British Art

I decided to start my London series with The National Gallery, London because it was where I saw my absolute favourite, most beautiful artwork Of All Time. If you can guess, it was a work by Raphael…

Going to London in May 2022 was such perfect timing as there were so many special exhibitions (and some still ongoing) that I was particularly interested to see! At The National Gallery, there’s the phenomenal Raphael exhibition — running until 31 July 2022. There was also the historic, once-in-a-century exhibition of Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy which ended on May 15th and I managed to see it in its final week!

| Cover image: Detail of John Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821) |


I don’t think I really need to review the Raphael show and tell you how good it is, since it’s already gotten plenty of 5-star reviews from the British newspapers. There’s an incredible showing of artworks on loan, including the the Louvre, National Gallery of Art, Washington, the Prado Museum, Uffizi Museum and the Vatican Museum. I was also amazed that the exhibition pamphlet contained all the wall text and didactics in the show, so you could focus on viewing the pictures and reading up on each of them at a later time. Also very much appreciated since the ticket price is steep — I paid £24 to see it on a Monday morning.

Raphael, Study for an Angel, 1515–16
Raphael, Christ’s Charge to Peter, 1515–16

I was super excited to go after viewing the exhibition trailer (so epic) and the photo highlights, which you can view on the National Gallery’s website here. I loved how they have blown up the portrait of Bindo Altoviti as the ‘star’ image, and it was fun seeing him on ads on buses and on billboards across the city!

Raphael, Bindo Altoviti, about 1516–18

I also loved seeing many of Raphael’s masterpieces of Madonnas, which was like a Renaissance art history class come to life! Love the colours, they’re so vivid.

Raphael, The Madonna of the Pinks (‘La Madonna dei Garofani’), about 1506–07
Raphael, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, about 1507

But the absolute stunner of the show (spoiler alert?) to me is hands down, the final piece in the exhibition in the last portraits room: Portrait of a Woman (‘La Fornarina’).

Raphael, Portrait of a Woman (‘La Fornarina’), about 1519–20

I’ve actually been researching La Fornarina to include in my PhD, and I was so surprised and excited to find out that this was included in the Raphael exhibition! It is so much more beautiful and incredible than I’d ever expected in person. The Guardian says that ‘This great show is like falling in love again’, but I honestly just fell in love with this painting, it is so wonderful.

The sitter in question (La Fornarina, meaning the Baker’s Daughter) is not known, although she was purportedly Raphael’s lover. I would think she really was, as the entire painting is done with such intimacy and affection and it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen. My favourite part is her face and her blue and gold turban — I was literally admiring the blue colour.

Detail of Raphael’s Portrait of a Woman (‘La Fornarina’)

Gainsborough’s Blue Boy

I might have a thing for blues so it was also perfect timing to see The Blue Boy by the British artist Thomas Gainsborough. The epic story behind The Blue Boy goes that it was sold to an American collector and sailed away from British shores 100 years ago, and now resides in the collection of The Huntington in San Marino, California. The painting goes on loan to The National Gallery for the first time ever, and 100 years later to the day (!) opens to the British public again on January 25, 2022.

Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, 1770

There’s a fantastic article from ARTnews that shares more about the history behind The Blue Boy, which you can read here. Coincidentally, a few days ago, I also find out about The Pink Boy supposed to be a counterpart to The Blue Boy at the Waddesdon Manor!

I love the regal pose of The Blue Boy — who is now thought to be modelled by Gainsborough’s nephew Gainsborough Dupont — and the lovely blue shimmer to his clothes!

The Blue Boy was shown alongside a few of Gainsborough’s portraits as well as Antony van Dyck’s portraits, like the double portrait of George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1628–1687), and Lord Francis Villiers (1629–1648) below, which inspired The Blue Boy.

Anthony van Dyck, George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1628–1687), and Lord Francis Villiers (1629–1648), 1635
Anthony van Dyck, Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart, about 1638

The Collection and British Art

The National Gallery, London consists of a collection of paintings in Western art ranging from the 13th century to the early 20th century, going from the medieval, Renaissance, early modern to the modern era. I spent the whole day taking in as much as I could, but my favourite room was the one devoted to British art from the 18th and 19th centuries!

George Stubbs, Whistlejacket, about 1762
I love the National Gallery’s new acquisition of Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Portrait of Charles William Lambton (‘The Red Boy’), 1825, more than Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy! The gorgeous frame is also original from the 19th century.
John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821
Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838, 1839
William Hogarth, The Graham Children, 1742
Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews, about 1750
Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs William Hallett (‘The Morning Walk’), 1785
Thomas Gainsborough; Sir Joshua Reynolds; George Romney

More Favourites from the Collection

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888
John Singer Sargent, Wineglasses, probably 1875
Claude Monet, The Thames below Westminster, about 1871
Edouard Manet, Woman with a Cat, about 1880–2

Going to the museum feels like an excellent lesson in Western art history, but at the end, I realised how devoid the collection is of women artists. I only saw works by Berthe Morisot, and a self-portrait by Gwen John (that’s on loan from the National Portrait Gallery which is currently closed for redevelopment).

The National Gallery also has fantastic self-portraits by Artemisia Gentileschi and Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, but they are both out on loan to overseas exhibitions, so I was sad to miss them!!

Berthe Morisot, Summer’s Day, about 1879
Gwen John, Self portrait, about 1900

Still, based on my bias, the National Gallery is one of my favourite museums in London!

Andrea del Sarto, Portrait of a Young Man, about 1517–18
Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman seated at a Virginal, about 1670–2
Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520–3
Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, about 1491/2–9 and 1506–8
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