London's 20 unmissable paintings

Time Out's guide to must-see works of art in the city

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Not only is London home to a vibrant and ever-changing contemporary art scene but it’s also the place to see some of the world’s greatest historical artworks. For a crash fine art primer we round up the top 20 unmissable paintings in the permanent collections of London’s major museums and galleries.

  • A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

    1881-2 by Edouard Manet
    © Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

    In Manet’s late, great modernist masterpiece, a barmaid at Paris’s premier nightclub of the day appears lost in thought, but what she’s thinking about is as much a puzzle as the woman’s displaced reflection, seemingly engaged in conversation with a top-hatted gentlemen in the mirror behind her.

    See 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergère' by Edouard Manet at The Courtauld Gallery.

    A Bar at the Folies-Bergère
  • The Raphael Cartoons

    Cartoon of The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, 1515, By Raphael
    The Royal Collection © 2010 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

    The Raphael Cartoons, of which ‘The Miraculous Draught of Fishes’ is one, are the original full size cartoons (all are on display at the V&A) for the ten tapestries commissioned by Pope Leo X to hang on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. The paintings depict the Acts of St Peter and St Paul, founders of the early Christian Church.

    See 'The Raphael Cartoons' by Raphael at the V&A.

    The Raphael Cartoons
  • Sunflowers

    1888, by Vincent Van Gogh
    © The National Gallery, London

    One of several sunflower paintings Van Gogh made in the late summer of 1888, with the intention of using them to decorate the studio in Arles in the south of France he was about to share with Gauguin, this image is so iconic it’s even featured in the storyline of an episode of Dr Who.

    See 'Sunflowers' by Vincent Van Gogh at the National Gallery.

    Sunflowers
  • Girl at a Window

    1645, by Rembrandt
    © Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery

    Described as ‘London’s Mona Lisa’, Rembrandt’s ruddy-cheeked young woman, toying with the gold chain at her neck, is an enchanting and ambiguous mix of innocence and knowingness.

    See 'Girl at a Window' by Rembrandt at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

    Girl at a Window
  • The Snail

    © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2002

    1953, by Henri Matisse
    © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2002

    This painting was made in the year before Matisse's death, when the artist may have been too frail to paint but still found a way to create vibrant, colourful images by collaging pieces of paper painted by assistants. Nearly three metres square, the composition of this image is a loose spiral, based on a snail’s shell.

    See 'The Snail' by Henri Matisse at Tate Modern.

    The Snail
  • The Arnolfini Portrait

    © The National Gallery, London

    1434, by Jan Van Eyck
    © The National Gallery, London

    The exquisite detail and representation of light, not to mention the cute pooch, are part of the enduring appeal of this extraordinary portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife. Contrary to appearances, Mrs Arnolfini isn’t expecting Giovani junior, it’s the bunched-up frock fabric she’s holding against her that’s causing that tummy bulge.

    See 'The Arnolfini Portrait' by Jan Van Eyck at the National Gallery.

    The Arnolfini Portrait
  • The Fighting Temeraire

    © The National Gallery, London

    1839, by Joseph Mallord William Turner
    © The National Gallery, London

    The Temeraire was an important gunship in Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar but Turner’s wildly expressive and romantic seascape shows the subsequently decommissioned ship being towed away by tugboat to be broken up. The fiery sunset only accentuates the pale, already ghostlike appearance of the now obsolete old vessel.

    See 'The Fighting Temeraire' by Joseph Mallord William Turner at the National Gallery.

    The Fighting Temeraire
  • The Three Dancers

    © Succession Picasso/DACS 2002

    1925, by Pablo Picasso
    © Succession Picasso/DACS 2002

    Picasso’s almost violent portrayal of three frenzied dancing figures becomes a surreal dance of anguish and unrest when viewed within the context of the death of one of Picasso’s oldest friends, Ramon Pichot, during the painting of the work, and the failing relationship with his then wife, ballet dancer Olga Kokhlova.

    See 'The Three Dancers' by Pablo Picasso at Tate Modern.

    The Three Dancers
  • Adam and Eve

    © Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

    1526, by Lucas Cranach 1
    © Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

    This lush Renaissance landscape, rich in detailed animal iconography, shows Adam scratching his head at the moment of indecision as a beguiling, droopy-eyed Eve hands him the apple. Painted at the height of the artist’s powers, both the rosy apples and Eve’s rosy cheeks look good enough to eat.

    See 'Adam and Eve' by Lucas Cranach 1 at The Courtauld Gallery.

    Adam and Eve
  • The Ambassadors

    © The National Gallery, London

    1533, by Hans Holbein the Younger
    © The National Gallery, London

    Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII and Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur are believed to be the well-dressed, pensive pair of this painting’s title, but discussions continue about the significance of the objects and instruments surrounding them and the prominence given to that skewed anamorphic skull.

    See 'The Ambassadors' by Hans Holbein the Younger at the National Gallery.

    The Ambassadors
  • The Ditchley portrait

    Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait'), circa 1592, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

    Commissioned by the Queen’s Champion Sir Henry Lee, this lavish portrait of good Queen Bess shows her standing on a map of England with her feet near Ditchley, Lee’s home, to commemorate where he entertained her in order to regain her favour after his offence of living openly with his mistress.

    See 'Queen Elizabeth I' ('The Ditchley portrait') by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger at the National Portrait Gallery.

     

    The Ditchley portrait
  • The Lady of Shalott

    © Tate

    1888, by John William Waterhouse
    © Tate

    The first and most magical of three paintings the pre-Raphaelite artist made in illustration of Alfred Tennyson’s poem of the same name, this image depicts the Lady of Shalott as a beautiful and wistful redhead, singing her last song in her boat as she drifts tragically to her death.

    See 'The Lady of Shalott' by John William Waterhouse at Tate Britain.

    The Lady of Shalott
  • The Great Wave

    © The Trustees of the British Museum.

    1823-1829, by Katsushika Hokusai
    © The Trustees of the British Museum.

    This woodblock print of a stylised, curling, foam-topped wave framing a tiny snow-capped Mount Fuji in the background featured at no. 93 in the British Museum/BBC Radio series ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’.

    See 'The Great Wave' by Katsushika Hokusai at the British Museum.

    The Great Wave
  • Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

    'The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke' 1855-64, by Richard Dadd
    © Tate

    Richard Dadd spent nine years painting this fantastic, otherworldly image of fairy activity after being committed to Bethlem hospital for the murder of his father whilst suffering mental illness. Related pop trivia: Freddie Mercury wrote a song of the same name based on the painting which appears on Queen’s 1974 second album ‘Queen II’.

    See 'The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke' by Richard Dadd at Tate Britain.

    Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke
  • Nevermore

    © Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

    1897, by Paul Gauguin
    © Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

    Gauguin’s separation from his Danish wife and numerous relationships with young women in Tahiti didn’t prevent this sultry painting of a reclining Tahitian girl from topping a 2010 Art Fund poll to pick the most romantic painting out of a shortlist of five.

    See 'Nevermore' by Paul Gauguin at The Courtauld Gallery.

    Nevermore
  • Crucifixion

    Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, circa 1944, by Francis Bacon
    © Tate

    Painted during World War II, Bacon’s triptych depicting three isolated and nightmarish monsters, whose features are distorted by pain and rage, is deeply disturbing not only in its representation of physical and emotional torment but also in its absence of any hope of salvation.

    See 'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion' by Francis Bacon at Tate Britain.

    Crucifixion
  • Metamorphosis of Narcissus

    © Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2002

    1937, by Salvador Dali
    © Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2002

    In Dali’s surreal telling of the Greek myth in which Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection and is transformed by the Gods into a flower, the youth is shown squatting with his head bowed, while his reflection becomes a huge grey hand clutching an egg from which the flower grows.

    See 'Metamorphosis of Narcissus' by Salvador Dali at Tate Modern.

    Metamorphosis of Narcissus
  • The Laughing Cavalier

    © by kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection

    1624, by Frans Hals
    © by kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection

    Displaying more of a saucy smirk than a laugh and portraying an unknown Dutch nobleman rather than a cavalier, Hals’ portrait is a virtuoso demonstration of flourishing brushwork in his depiction of the sitter’s sumptuous outfit. It’s also the archetypal portrait where the eyes appear to follow you round the room.

    See 'The Laughing Cavalier' by Frans Hals at Wallace Collection.

    The Laughing Cavalier
  • The Linley Sisters

    1771-72, by Thomas Gainsborough
    © Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery

    Daughters of the composer Thomas Linley, 18-year-old Elizabeth and 14-year-old Mary were already talented performers themselves when Gainsborough made this double portrait in which Mary stares precociously towards the viewer and therefore also the artist. Tragically there were no happy endings, with both sisters dying young.

    See 'The Linley Sisters' by Thomas Gainsborough at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

    The Linley Sisters
  • Madame de Pompadour

    © By kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection

    1759, by Francois Boucher
    © By kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection

    Synonymous with the extravagantly frilly and frothy French rococo style, Boucher’s portrait of Madame de Pompadour, patron of the arts and official mistress to King Louis XV, sets her against a darkened, park-like background where her peachy complexion and equally peachy, floral confection of a frock both stand out.

    See 'Madame de Pompadour' by Francois Boucher at the Wallace Collection.

    Madame de Pompadour

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

1881-2 by Edouard Manet
© Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

In Manet’s late, great modernist masterpiece, a barmaid at Paris’s premier nightclub of the day appears lost in thought, but what she’s thinking about is as much a puzzle as the woman’s displaced reflection, seemingly engaged in conversation with a top-hatted gentlemen in the mirror behind her.

See 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergère' by Edouard Manet at The Courtauld Gallery.

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