Throughout the National Gallery’s 200-year history, the London museum’s collection has served as both a cultural touchstone and a flashpoint for political swirl. In 1914, suffragist Mary Richardson strode into the gallery with a meat cleaver and slashed Diego Velázquez’s depiction of a mirrored nude woman, The Toilet of Venus (also called the Rokeby Venus), to protest the arrest of a fellow activist. During World War II, the gallery hid its masterpieces in Welsh mines for safekeeping, leaving a rotating “picture of the month” as a cultural reprieve for a bombed and battered London. Nearly 80 years later, in 2020, the gallery closed for an unprecedented 111 days, shifting, like other museums, to digital outreach amid the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the gallery prepares to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its founding on May 10, 1824, it’s worth reflecting on a broader question: What gives a national gallery of paintings—whether it’s the London museum, the National Gallery of Art in the United States or the National Gallery of Australia—such significance, and why does this type of collection matter today?

The United Kingdom’s National Gallery is “a free, current and constant reference point,” says Martin Caiger-Smith, head of the master’s program in curating at the London-based Courtauld Institute of Art. “It’s a voice of authority, for better or worse.” The gallery houses around 2,300 Western European paintings spanning the 13th to early 20th centuries, a collection that has historically reflected—and shaped—the canonical tradition of Western art history.

The Toilet of Venus (Rokeby Venus), Diego Velázquez, 1647-1651
The Toilet of Venus (Rokeby Venus), Diego Velázquez, 1647-1651 © National Gallery, London

In the late 18th century, a trio of aristocratic collectors known as the Bridgewater Syndicate spurred a fervor for classical Western European art in the U.K. The syndicate’s profitable public exhibitions laid the groundwork for a permanent national institution that would continue to promote this shared visual idiom in art history.

“The National Gallery has held a special place in British history and culture for 200 years,” says the museum’s director, Gabriele Finaldi. “It was established specifically to create a collection of the best possible art for the enjoyment of the entire British public, for free.”

The gallery opened in London’s Pall Mall area in 1824, in the former townhouse of banker John Julius Angerstein. The government had purchased 38 paintings from Angerstein’s private collection, which were soon augmented by works from other collectors.

The National Gallery When at Mr J. J. Angerstein's House, Pall Mall, Frederick Mackenzie, 1824-1834
The National Gallery When at Mr J. J. Angerstein's House, Pall Mall, Frederick Mackenzie, 1824-1834 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

“Old Masters” like Titian, Raphael and Anthony van Dyck formed the majority of the gallery’s founding collection. But “from the very beginning, it [housed] British [and] contemporary art,” too, says Christine Riding, the gallery’s director of collections and research. “The longer history of the National Gallery shows you just how much people really grappled with the notion of, ‘If you’re a “national” gallery, should you just have national art?’ Or can you … be national in the sense of being a center of excellence and a center of human endeavor and creativity?”

The gallery’s initial ethos was informed by the era in which it was founded. “Like most national galleries, it was born of that early 19th-century sense of nationhood” that developed in Europe, says Caiger-Smith. That nationalism grew in the U.K. alongside an industrializing, urbanizing population. Its educational aims were spurred by “top-down” philanthropy—including the concept of making fine art freely available to the public—that aimed to address widening economic and social gaps.

National competitiveness also came into play. After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, Riding explains, there was “a sense of slight embarrassment that the United Kingdom, despite having come out of the war … one of the wealthiest nations in the world, didn’t have the kind of provision that other [European] countries had” for publicly accessible art.

Self-Portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria, Artemisia Gentileschi, circa 1615-1617
Self-Portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria, Artemisia Gentileschi, circa 1615-1617 © National Gallery, London

Unlike many European national collections, the London gallery was created through an “act of Parliament as the nation’s gallery, rather than [as] a nationalized royal collection,” says Riding. “To have something that from the very beginning was developed specifically for the public and collected for the public is actually a really good message in the 21st century.”

Other democratic, formerly colonized countries followed the U.K.’s lead in establishing free institutions in their capital cities—albeit with collections that have centered more closely around emerging ideas of national identity. The National Gallery of Canada was established in 1880, creating a wide-ranging collection that today highlights Indigenous and Canadian art. The National Gallery of Australia’s extensive, global holdings include the world’s largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.

Though Australia’s national collection originated in the 1910s, the gallery’s establishment took a back seat to other political priorities until 1967, and the building was only completed—and dedicated by Elizabeth II—in 1982. Located in Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle, on the lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, it occupies a prominent position comparable to the U.S. National Gallery of Art’s prime location on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a short stroll from the Capitol building.

View of the National Gallery's interior
The London National Gallery houses around 2,300 Western European paintings spanning the 13th to early 20th centuries. © National Gallery, London

The Washington gallery, established in 1937 through the donation of industrialist art collector Andrew Mellon and a joint resolution of Congress, provides another example of the ties between art, money and politics. It supplanted the previous “National Gallery of Art” that formed part of the varied holdings of the Smithsonian Institution and evolved into today’s Smithsonian American Art Museum. The U.S. collection—which is not part of the Smithsonian—centers European and American art. Its Neoclassical architecture evokes the same humbling, powerful motifs as the U.K. gallery, with a similar Grecian portico, central cupola and extended wings.

Angerstein’s townhouse could hardly compete with other national museums like France’s palatial Louvre, so Parliament agreed to fund a new home for the gallery. The imposing Neoclassical building seen today opened in Trafalgar Square in 1838. Its central London location—between the wealthy West End and underprivileged East End—was chosen to reinforce the idea of the gallery’s public, cross-class accessibility. The London gallery’s “popularity was almost immediate, and certainly by the 1850s, it was getting about a million visitors a year,” Caiger-Smith says.

In the decades since, the gallery’s prominence has been bolstered by the location and its symbolism. When the museum was founded, Trafalgar “was a very populist area,” Caiger-Smith says, and “the site of key public events and protests. In some ways, it still is.” London Pride and various protests march through the square today.

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington​​​​​​​, Francisco Goya, 1812-1814
Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, Francisco Goya, 1812-1814 © National Gallery, London
The Virgin and Child With St. Anne and St. John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci, 1499-1500 or 1506-1508
The Virgin and Child With St. Anne and St. John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci, 1499-1500 or 1506-1508 © National Gallery, London

By extension, the gallery’s collection has also become a target for activists. Richardson set a precedent for painting-based protests that has continued into the present. In 1961, retired bus driver Kempton Bunton confessed to stealing a Francisco Goya portrait as an objection to retirees having to pay BBC television license fees, in an almost too-good-to-be-true story that was dramatized in the 2020 film The Duke. In 1987, Robert Cambridge shot at a Leonardo da Vinci drawing to express his dismay with “political, social and economic conditions in Britain.”

More recently, in 2022, environmental campaigners from Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers and glued their hands to the frame of John Constable’s The Hay Wain, returning in 2023 to attack the protective glass of the Rokeby Venus with hammers. The gallery’s art has served as a high-profile target for these disparate issues because of its national—and now global—recognition.

While the collection has served as a canvas for protest, it has equally been a source of inspiration, especially during times of upheaval. Despite evacuating much of its art to the cavernous Manod slate quarry during World War II, the gallery’s remaining “picture of the month” and popular lunchtime concert program earned public acclaim. A 1942 letter published in the London Times explained the offerings’ symbolism: “Because London’s face is scarred and bruised these days, we need more than ever to see beautiful things.”

The gallery also hosted contemporary exhibitions of war artists like Paul Nash, Henry Moore and Eric Ravilious. The museum’s wartime role “underlines how an institution like ours could actually be a real focus for culture and society,” Riding says, exemplifying its method of “bringing people together … galvanizing them and supporting them in a very positive way.”

“There’s a considerable loyalty to it,” Caiger-Smith says. After the museum closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, “the response we got from people when they were able to come again to the gallery was really moving,” Riding says. “It really showed that we did matter, and that people … wanted to come back.” Annual visitors numbered around six million pre-pandemic, returning to three million in 2023 after a steep drop in 2022.

The way the collection is shared and received by that audience is constantly changing. “How you represent the national story, or national stories, in an era of globalization … needs to be rethought and re-presented all the time,” Caiger-Smith says. Like many other U.K. museums, the gallery is in the process of “negotiating its past,” investigating the “the legacy of slave ownership [and] questioning where its collectors, its donors, its trustees got their money,” he adds.

Staff evacuate paintings from the National Gallery during World War II.
Staff evacuate paintings from the National Gallery during World War II. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Beyond this postcolonial shift, scholars are reconsidering the diversity and depth of national collections and their relationship to the art historical canon. National galleries “are seen to be central to upholding the canon, or what is important in art. That’s something which is increasingly under scrutiny … with ideas of opening up the canon and exploding the canon,” Caiger-Smith says. But change can come slower for a national institution: Consider, for instance, the London gallery’s acquisition of a single piece by George Bellows in 2014, the first major American painting to join its collections. “Those are quite radical moves for a historic collection of European painting,” the academic adds. “You move from where you are.”

According to Caiger-Smith, the gallery’s “great challenge is to remain relevant while its collection increasingly is seen to be centered in the past,” and to figure out “how you take the past into the future, particularly at a time when you might say, arguably, that white, European collections are seen by many, particularly the young, as less and less central, less and less relevant, even. How do you keep [it] contemporary?”

The gallery has continually navigated the malleable boundaries of its collections, categorizations and hierarchies in tandem with other U.K. institutions. In 1996, the gallery and the Tate Modern museum agreed that the former would collect paintings created up to 1900, while Tate would house modern and contemporary works. But history and modernity are not static categories: “Every year, [1900] gets that little bit further [into] the past,” Caiger-Smith points out.

How do you design a gallery room? | National Gallery

Riding sees a kind of symbiotic relationship between contemporary and historic art in the national collection. “All art was contemporary,” she says, and soon becomes historic. “No matter how cutting-edge [J.M.W.] Turner thought he was in his own lifetime … we now see him very much as a historical artist.” Though the gallery does not acquire contemporary art for its permanent collection, it has sponsored contemporary artist residencies since the 1980s.

“You underestimate at your peril how important contemporary artists have been” to the gallery’s history, Riding says. “So many of them were directors and forged the way that the National Gallery developed really for the first 80 years of its existence.” The curator adds that artists have also influenced the gallery’s collection through the donation of their own works, “in order to insert themselves into the grand narrative of Western painting.”

The museum has further aimed to contemporize its collection through digital access and social media, the demands of which have accelerated museums’ public-facing duties over the past few decades. “I’d argue that the National Gallery has been one of the most innovative of England's national museums in recent years in sharing its collection both digitally and physically,” and in how it presents its exhibitions, says Maxwell Blowfield, author of the Maxwell Museums newsletter. The gallery has “gone far in ridding [itself] of an image of being a bit traditional and a bit stuffy. … If that shows other big institutions they, too, can be more nimble and more fun, then that’s a good thing.”

On May 10, the gallery will celebrate its bicentenary and evince its evolution into a contemporary model for what a museum can offer the public—even with a traditional collection. Plans for the bicentenary include mounting 12 displays of the gallery’s “National Treasures” across the U.K., taking significant works in the collection beyond the locus of London to reach the broader population.

View of the National Gallery in London's Trafalgar Square
View of the National Gallery in London's Trafalgar Square Mike Peel via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

“Public ownership and access to world-class paintings and art is just as vitally important now for a thriving civic society as it was in 1824, and these fundamental principles of excellence and access are still what guide us today,” says Finaldi, the museum director. To mark the anniversary, the gallery will also host a series of contemporary performance art events staged by Jeremy Deller, bolster online research and accessibility to its collections, create educational programs, and present exhibitions on van Gogh and 14th-century Sienese painting, culminating in an ambitious rehang of the permanent collection in 2025.

“Two hundred years later, we do things a little differently,” Finaldi says. “Key to this is that, although we are very proud to welcome millions of people each year to Trafalgar Square, we no longer expect everyone to have to come to us in order to discover the power of art. Our paintings are owned just as much by those in the U.K. who can’t visit Trafalgar Square as those who come to see their favorite painting every week.”

The director adds, “We continue to seek new ways to bring the experience of seeing and understanding great paintings to as many people as possible, through digital channels and also through an intense engagement with contemporary artists.”

Though the gallery’s approach may look different, its purpose remains constant. “Why people felt it was so important to [have a national gallery] 200 years ago is often the answer as to why it’s important now,” Riding says, “because in essence it’s all about … learning, creativity and engaging” people with art. Today, a national gallery is an ever-evolving space to preserve and interact with beauty, history, hierarchy, influence and power.

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