Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnières’ at the National Gallery, London
Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnières’ at the National Gallery, London © AFP via Getty Images

Hmmm. Now, which way to go? Do I feel like Route A: all those sumptuous Italians, including my favourite, palate-cleansing Pieros? Or perhaps Route C: Hogarth, Constable, Turner and more, ending up through the Monets and Van Goghs?

I decide to start with Route B, for no special reason but that it’s the longest (35 minutes, we’re promised, as against 25 for the other two). On view will be Rubens, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Caravaggio and others, winding up again through the Impressionists.

Welcome to the post-Covid world of London’s National Gallery, which reopens to the public tomorrow after a long hibernation. These routes through the permanent collections follow a one-way system designed to ensure proper distancing. I was all ready to rebel against following the arrows on the floor, which seem to be the antithesis of the semi-instinctive browsing and grazing that is, for me, the essence of gallery-going. But not only did I not mind, it was actually quite an interesting way of seeing pictures that are apparently familiar — and of making me concentrate on them.

During its closure, the National Gallery has been busy with the completion of a long-running project, which is also unveiled to the public tomorrow. For almost two years, the largest gallery in the building, Room 32 — a massive 34 metres long — has been getting a lavish up-do, its original rich red wall-coverings, ornately painted and gilded ceiling details, lunettes with lions and dolphins all carefully restored. With of course latter-day ventilation and lighting too. Renamed the Julia and Hans Rausing Room, after the donors of the £4m budget, it houses the enormous dramatic 17th-century Italians — Guido Reni and Guercino, and world-beating Caravaggios, including the “Boy Bitten by a Lizard” that everyone knows.

Among them, installed in place of honour with Caravaggios to the left and right of her, is a proud new acquisition, a glowing self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi. Artemisia — she is often referred to by her first name to avoid confusion with her father Orazio Gentileschi, some of whose (rather less good) pictures also hang here — has really only been accorded her proper status in the past 30 years, and is now the classicist du jour. Partly because we are relieved finally to place a woman firmly among the A-listers, partly because of her dramatic life story as a woman who battled every prejudice to become a highly successful artist, the first female member of Florence’s prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, and a survivor of rape who underwent a very public trial. A full exhibition of her work, simply entitled Artemisia, is one of the sad victims of the Covid crisis: it was to have opened in the gallery’s Sainsbury Wing in April.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ (c. 1615-17) has been newly acquired and restored by the National Gallery © The National Gallery, London

British art-lovers feel a little possessive about Artemisia, because in 1638 at the invitation of Charles I she came to London, where Orazio was installed as court painter to the king — his is the elaborate ceiling in the Queen’s House, Greenwich, an allegory of Peace and the Arts. Charles I, the finest collector the British royal family has ever mustered, acquired what is probably Artemisia’s best-known work, “Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting”, which is still in the Royal Collection.

The National Gallery’s new self-portrait also has a story. Lost for centuries, it was rediscovered in France in 2017, and has been lusciously restored by the gallery’s specialists. It shows Artemisia as the martyr St Catherine, her hand on the instrument of her torture, a viciously spiked wheel — although the artist’s strong features, in dramatic close-up, look firmly out at the viewer, sombre but undefeated. Defiantly unmartyred. It is not only the first work by Artemisia in the National Gallery, and of superb quality, it’s the first and only work by a woman in its otherwise magnificent collection of 17th-century Italians.

There are other new hangs for the reopening, including some delicate 19th-century French landscapes, but Artemisia’s powerful piece, as well as a personality that reaches down the centuries, steal the limelight. They also remind us that art history, our understanding of it, and the work of museums and galleries cannot stand still.

The Rausings’ mighty gift could make us think, for a moment, that the British government’s £1.5bn bailout plan for the arts is not so necessary after all. But philanthropic funds for renovations are completely different from the sheer grinding business of keeping our institutions alive and running, as well as protecting their staff: besides which, it is only very few places that can attract this kind of largesse. A visit to any of our just-opening museums and galleries, large or small, brings home to us how essential to life our cultural institutions are.

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