In keeping with the present spirit of virtual tours and online events, the National Gallery in London offered a unique recasting of its collection whilst its doors were closed to the public.
The Director’s Choice originated from a series of weekly emails from the Gallery’s Director, Dr. Gabriele Finaldi, to their supporters in which individual works were described in detail. Twenty of these have been grouped together in a single space for this virtual tour – available on mobile and via browsers – and include artists like Jan van Eyck, Andrea Mantegna, Joseph Mallord William Turner, and Francisco de Zurbarán.
Figure 1: Detail from The Director’s Choice, created with Moyosa Media © National Gallery, London
Loading into the experience, you are immediately greeted by Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast at centre stage. By clicking on the painting, you are afforded a closer view at average visitor height. In other words, it feels like seeing it in the flesh. This is a large painting which is normally hung a little high so that the bottom edge does not hit the mouldings. Therefore, visitors usually need to look up a little. This attention to visual experience is replicated in the virtual space, complete with a little glare on the picture’s surface. There is a real sense of material texture here that many virtual experiences simply do not reproduce. Like others, you can also zoom in to admire the details with the kind of the proximity that security barriers typically prevent.
Clicking on the painting again, you are presented with its caption text which spans no more than four paragraphs per work. These offer insight into the stories of depicted narratives, information about the paintings’ commissions or ownership history, and sometimes comments by previous scholars.
Figure 2: Detail from The Director’s Choice, created with Moyosa Media © National Gallery, London
At the bottom of each caption are three clickable icons which provide an audio guide, a 3D model experience, and a link to their respective catalogue entries on the National Gallery website. The first and last things are rather straightforward; it is the middle item which is unfortunately a little flawed but also quite interesting.
Although each painting is beautifully photographed in high resolution, mapping them on to the 3D model gave them a smooth glossy surface that is flat and lacks any texture. There is also nothing on the back of the paintings, just a black shiny surface. This mode is perhaps most useful for the double-sided Wilton Diptych, the only true 3D object in the selection, enabling viewers to see it up close from all sides without the hinderance of a glass display case.
However, the real benefit of this mode is that it offers a greater appreciation of their frames, which have been realistically reproduced in relief. This is most noticeable in Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan which is housed in a lovely tabernacle frame. Sadly, the Gallery gives no information about their frames, which could have been a unique offering among such virtual experiences.
Figure 3: Detail from The Director’s Choice, created with Moyosa Media © National Gallery, London
The twenty paintings are scattered across two connected spaces with seemingly little relation to each other. A tab at the top right corner of the screen also brings up a list of all the artists exhibited. Generally speaking, there is a broad representation of time periods and regions covering Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish artists. The selection includes two female artists: Catharina van Hemessen and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.
However, it is quite clear that this is not an ordinary display of their usual highlights. Only four paintings feature in the official highlights section of the Gallery’s website, and another five are among their most famous in the public eye. The remaining ten are typically lesser-known pictures by famous artists.
Instead of a Leonardo da Vinci, we are given a small Pentecost by Giotto and his workshop. Claude Monet’s Water Lilies have been shunned in favour of a Snow Scene at Argenteuil. There is no Vincent van Gogh here, only Zurbarán’s Cup of Water and a Rose. Even Albrecht Altdorfer’s Christ taking Leave of his Mother has come out to play, a picture I only very recently knew existed! Also included in the selection is the National Gallery’s recent acquisition in 2019 of Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses, commissioned by King Charles I for his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria.
Figure 4: Detail from The Director’s Choice, created with Moyosa Media © National Gallery, London
The Director’s Choice experience feels like a teaser towards a real-life visit. It astounds us with recognisable pictures and delivers new ones for us to enjoy. In doing so, it encourages us to seek them out in the flesh, past the masterpieces, and into the unknown. The same is true of the frames and their craftsmanship. Those using the 3D mode would surely marvel at Pisanello’s Virgin and Child with Saints when given the chance, much treasured in the academic community for its elaborate gilded frame containing copies of medals with portraits of Pisanello and Leonello d’Este. Overall, this is a light-hearted tour that demands little of the viewer, whilst offering as close to a real-life visit as virtually possible.
Nigel Ip is an Instagram arts writer and Editorial Intern at Print Quarterly. He is a contributor to Museum Bookstore, reviewing books on Italian Renaissance art and the Pre-Raphaelites. A specialist in sixteenth-century Italian works on paper, his research interests include Raphael and his circle, the Northern Romanists, history of predella panels, and selfies. His MA thesis at the Courtauld Institute was titled ‘Masterful Recycling: Re-use and Reversal in Raphael’, a project which reframed Raphael’s creative decisions and methodologies in response to his increasing fame and reputation. He is based in London, UK.