Topping the list: Is the National Gallery of Art really the best in the world?


I’m a serial lover of lists, especially those about art and art museums around the world. A few years back I read a ‘Worlds 50 Best Art Gallery’s’ feature in The Times and thought that I needed to do more to get around them. I kept the paper and I’ve annotated each entry with the date I visited so far managing 29/50 in almost four years. You can read the feature (even if you aren’t a subscriber) on the following three links.

There are many other lists out there: Trip Advisor even has its own crowd sourced version, the Independent has a particularly good list of the UK and the Telegraph has a decent one on a largely European city basis. You can even do the online equivalent of rating yourself using this link. I make the top 1%but still only half way at 51/100. But most reviews don’t always do justice to the strength of a collection. There are also trends which I feel force more modern collections to the fore. To get a truly objective viewpoint you also have to look at visitor numbers and for that I’ve compiled a list at the bottom of the article.

Perhaps one reason why I like these lists is the ability to disagree and conjure up one’s own. There is much to admire about The Times list. For me the Uffizi will always have a special place in my heart. Florence is such a magical place and having got engaged to my wife in the city it’s got something that can’t easily be replicated elsewhere.

But having recently visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington I feel it’s a little hard done by at only 34 and the visitor numbers bare me out on that. Understandable perhaps that the UK should feature strongly in a UK publication but it really isn’t true to say that the Dulwich Collection (25) is a full 9 places better!

So as much as I think the Uffizi is special, the National Gallery in Washington I think ought to be top. It certainly is on my personal list and there are a couple of reasons for that.

Firstly there is the strength of the collection. I like to do research before visiting the major museums as I can’t bear to miss things and think it might be years before I’m back. For me the number of entries a place gets is normally a decent barometer of how I’ll like it. To give you a brief snapshot of lists I’ve worked on in 2016 The Met has 54, the Uffizi 71, Vatican 52 and the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin 68.

It’s hard to sum up the strength of a collection but juts take a look at the two photos below. You’ll see in one room 5 Raphael canvases as well as a couple by his teacher Perugino. There is a similar strength elsewhere in the collection, works by Holbein, Rembrandt, Bellini, Botticelli – and I’ve picked out a few of my favourites at the end of this post.

What I think is different about the National Gallery’s collection, what raises it up against the others, is the fact that it’s got the full range. I wrote about this before in a post on the Kunsthistorices Museum in Vienna in respect of Da Vinci. The room in which Ginevra de’ Benci sits is every bit as much a horror as going to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. People push and shove and get their phones out whilst ignoring the other great works in the room. Having a Da Vinci doesn’t make you one of the world’s great museums, as the Scottish National Gallery demonstrates. But what separates those in the top division can often be the presence of a canvass by the most famous of the Renaissance artists.

There are also superb sculptures with works by Bernini and Canova. But, as much as I recognise that my tastes are weighted to the Renaissance and portraiture, you have to see the whole cannon. So what’s genuinely great is that in the same building in DC you can see a Van Gough self-portrait and a few rooms away see a Rembrandt self-portrait. The earlier artist and his work has so clearly influenced the later. You shouldn’t need to go to a whole new intuition to be able to see them. You don’t need an arbitrary cut of point as is the case with the Louvre. This is I think what lifts the NGA Washington to the very top. Its Northern European collection is as strong as its Renaissance collection – few places have 3 (possibly 4 – the Girl with a Flute is disputed) Vermeer’s. If I have just one complaint it’s the lack of a Caravaggio.

But it’s not just the collection, it’s the building itself which is wonderful. The original neoclassical West Building designed by John Russell Pope, which is linked underground to the modern East Building, designed by I. M. Pei (1978) didn’t open until 1941. It’s the last great neo-classical building in the world. What I found fabulous was the superb use of indoor courtyards like the one pictured below which sits directly under the magnificent dome.


These courtyards and the quite comfortable space they provide are delightful. You won’t find them in our own National Gallery or in the Louvre. But when you are doing a big visit (it took me 4 hours) then you really appreciate them.

I’m sure others will have their own favourite but you could do a lot worse than to give this a chance.


Worlds most visited Museums


Art Museums
Name City Country Visitors annually Year reported
Palace Museum Beijing  China 14,000,000 2014[2]
Louvre Paris  France 9,260,000 2014[1]
British Museum London  United Kingdom 6,695,213 2014[1]
Metropolitan Museum of Art New York City  United States 6,226,727 2013[3]
National Gallery London  United Kingdom 6,031,574 2013[3]
Vatican Museums Vatican City (Rome)   Vatican City 6,002,251 2015[4]
Tate Modern London  United Kingdom 4,884,939 2013[3]
National Palace Museum Taipei  Taiwan 4,500,278 2013[3]
National Gallery of Art Washington, D.C.  United States 4,093,070 2013[3]
Musée National d’Art Moderne Paris  France 3,745,000 2013[3]
State Hermitage Museum St. Petersburg  Russia 3,668,031 2015[5]
Musée d’Orsay Paris  France 3,500,000 2013[3]
Victoria and Albert Museum London  United Kingdom 3,290,500 2013[3]
Reina Sofía Madrid  Spain 3,185,413 2013[3]
Museum of Modern Art New York City  United States 3,066,337 2013[3]
National Museum of Korea Seoul  South Korea 3,052,823 2013[3]
National Folk Museum of Korea Seoul  South Korea 2,705,814 2013[3]
Somerset House London  United Kingdom 2,398,066 2013[3]
Museo del Prado Madrid  Spain 2,306,966 2013[3]
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam  Netherlands 2,450,000 2014[1]
National Gallery of Victoria Melbourne  Australia 2,273,907 2015[6]
The National Art Center Tokyo  Japan 2,039,947 2013[3]
Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil Rio de Janeiro  Brazil 2,034,397 2013[3]
National Portrait Gallery London  United Kingdom 2,014,636 2013[3]
Shanghai Museum Shanghai  China 1,946,420 2013[3]
Galleria degli Uffizi Florence  Italy 1,870,708 2013[3]
MuCEM Marseille  France 1,824,000 2013[3]
National Museum of Scotland Edinburgh  United Kingdom 1,768,090 2013[3]
Moscow Kremlin Moscow  Russia 1,758,460 2013[3]
J. Paul Getty Museum[ii] Los Angeles  United States 1,728,815 2013[3]
FAMSF[iii] San Francisco  United States 1,690,078 2013[3]
Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam  Netherlands 1,608,849 2014[1]
Art Institute of Chicago Chicago  United States 1,539,716 2013[3]
Saatchi Gallery London  United Kingdom 1,505,608 2013[3]
Astan Quds Razavi Central Museum Iran  Iran 1,496,971 2013 [7]
Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil Brasilia  Brazil 1,468,818 2013[3]
National Galleries of Scotland[iv] Edinburgh  United Kingdom 1,460,324 2013[3]
Deutsches Museum Munich  Germany 1,444,745 2014[8]
Grand Palais Paris  France 1,422,013 2013[3]
Tokyo National Museum Tokyo  Japan 1,403,909 2013[3]
Tate Britain London  United Kingdom 1,378,272 2013[3]
Tretyakov Gallery Moscow  Russia 1,360,000 2013[3]
Dalí Theatre and Museum Figueres  Spain 1,333,430 2013[3]
Musée du quai Branly Paris  France 1,307,326 2013[3]
Doge’s Palace Venice  Italy 1,307,230 2013[3]
Canadian Museum of History Gatineau  Canada 1,300,000 2015[9]
Gyeongju National Museum Gyeongju  South Korea 1,276,165 2013[3]
Australian Centre for the Moving Image Melbourne  Australia 1,260,577 2013[3]
Pergamon Museum Berlin  Germany 1,260,000 2013[3]
Galleria dell’Accademia Florence  Italy 1,257,241 2013[3]
Queensland Art Gallery/GoMA[v] Brisbane  Australia 1,224,964 2013[3]
Mori Art Museum Tokyo  Japan 1,223,198 2013[3]
LACMA Los Angeles  United States 1,202,654 2013[3]
SAAM/Renwick Gallery Washington, D.C.  United States 1,200,000 2013[3]
Guggenheim Museum New York City  United States 1,199,123 2013[3]
Institut Valencià d’Art Modern Valencia  Spain 1,163,419 2013[3]
Art Gallery of New South Wales Sydney  Australia 1,162,792 2013[3]
National Museum of Western Art Tokyo  Japan 1,155,975 2013[3]
Museum of Fine Arts Boston  United States 1,134,289 2013[3]
Museo Soumaya Mexico City  Mexico 1,095,000 2013[3]
Acropolis Museum Athens  Greece 1,091,143 2013[3]
National Portrait Gallery Washington, D.C.  United States 1,083,815 2013[3]
National Art Museum of China Beijing  China 1,050,000 2013[3]
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum Glasgow  United Kingdom 1,044,067 2013[3]
Royal Academy of Arts London  United Kingdom 1,018,378 2013[3]
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Montreal  Canada 1,015,022 2013[3]
Museum of Liverpool Liverpool  United Kingdom 1,015,022 2013[3]
Israel Museum Jerusalem  Israel 966,502 2013[3]
Belvedere Vienna  Austria 957,802 2013[3]
Royal Ontario Museum Toronto  Canada 956,498 2013[3]
Serpentine Galleries London  United Kingdom 945,161 2013[3]
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum Madrid  Spain 944,827 2013[3]
Neues Museum Berlin  Germany 940,000 2013[3]
Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil São Paulo  Brazil 931,639 2013 [3]
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao  Spain 931,015 2013 [3]
Museo di Capodimonte Naples  Italy 923,706 2013[10]
Museu Picasso Barcelona  Spain 911,342 2013[3]
Musée de l’Orangerie Paris  France 900,000 2013[3]
MCA Australia Sydney  Australia 894,876 2013[3]
CaixaForum Barcelona Barcelona  Spain 892,806 2013[3]
Art Gallery of Ontario Toronto  Canada 852,904 2013[3]
Museum of Fine Arts Houston  United States 850,395 2013[3]
Melbourne Museum Melbourne  Australia 850,194 2013[3]
Merseyside Maritime Museum Liverpool  United Kingdom 845,709 2013[3]
Louvre-Lens Lens  France 824,898 2013[3]
ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum Aarhus  Denmark 816,468 2015[11]
Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam Amsterdam  Netherlands 811,000 2014[1]
Royal Palace of Milan Milan  Italy 806,677 2013[3]
CaixaForum Madrid Madrid  Spain 790,732 2013[3]
Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna  Austria 778,853 2013[3]
Museo Egizio Turin  Italy 772,900 2015[12]
National Gallery of Australia Canberra  Australia 770,243 2013[3]
Minneapolis Institute of Art Minneapolis  United States 752,444 2015[13]
Ashmolean Museum Oxford  United Kingdom 747,874 2013[3]
Palais de Tokyo Paris  France 723,259 2013[3]
World Museum Liverpool Liverpool  United Kingdom 716,579 2013[3]
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris Paris  France 700,088 2013[3]
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art Beijing  China 700,000 2013[3]
Seattle Art Museum[vi] Seattle  United States 689,582 2013[3]
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium Brussels  Belgium 662,389 2013 [3]
Huntington Library San Marino (Los Angeles County )  United States 660,640 2013 [3]

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