Five National Gallery highlights

Published 7 January 2015

To celebrate the release of Frederick Wiseman's celebrated documentary, we've rounded up five of the greatest works in the National Gallery collection, from Renaissance masterpieces to Turner seascapes.

1. Titian, Diana and Callisto, 1556–1559

One of the most admired paintings in Western art history, Diana and Callisto influenced generations of Europe's greatest artists, from Velázquez and Rubens through to Constable and Freud. One of Titian's 'poesie paintings', a series of large mythological works inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses, it shows the moment when the pregnant Callisto is banished by Diana, the goddess of chastity. Diana and Callisto was saved for the nation in 2012 with help from an Art Fund grant.

2. Hans Holbein, Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, c. 1526–8

Bought by the National Gallery with Art Fund support, the enigmatic Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling was created shortly after Holbein's first journey to England. The sitter's identity remains unknown, but Holbein was devoted to the use of symbolism in his work and there are clues that suggest the subject may be Anne Lovell, wife of the Norfolk landowner Francis Lovell. The squirrel held by the sitter is probably a reference to the three squirrels on the Lovell coat of arms, while the starling may be a visual pun on East Harling, the Lovells' estate.

3. Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1491/2–9 and 1506–8

Popularly known as the Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo painted two versions of this magnificent altarpiece, and the National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks is the later, more idealised of the two. In contrast to the warmer version in the Louvre, the painting is illuminated with a cold, almost other-worldly light, with a fantastical landscape visible through a gap in the rocks that frame the group. The two versions were brought together for the first time ever at the National Gallery's blockbuster 2011 exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.

4. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Four Times of Day, c. 1858

One of the most significant French artists of the 19th century, Corot was a painter of landscapes and portraits who had a tremendous influence on Impressionism. He painted The Four Times of Day over the course of a single week to decorate a studio owned by his friend, the painter Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps. The gift proved to be a blessing and a curse: Decamps was stunned at the quality of the paintings, but dismayed by the superiority of Corot's works to his own. The series was acquired by the gallery in 2014 thanks to an Art Fund grant.

5. JMW Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839

Bequeathed to the National Gallery by Turner in 1851, this naval scene captures the moment of transition from a romantic past into an industrial future. The Temeraire, a warship which served at the Battle of Trafalgar, is depicted as a spectral form on the horizon, towed to its final dockyard by a smoke-belching tug. The painting featured in the most recent James Bond movie, Skyfall, in a scene where the ageing agent contemplates his own retirement.

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