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The 100 best paintings in London: the top 10

Leading artists, gallery owners, curators and critics pick the best paintings to be seen in the capital

Written by
Time Out London Art

10. 'The Ambassadors' - Hans Holbein the Younger

WHEN? 1533
WHERE CAN I SEE IT? National Gallery
I LIKE IT See also 'A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling'

It’s important if you’ve got a lot of stuff to look blasé about it, like it’s no big deal. Jean de Dinterville and Georges de Selve look suitably underwhelmed by all the clobber they’ve accumulated. Of course, it’s all symbolic: these are Renaissance men with a capital ‘R’, no branch of the arts or sciences is unknown to them. Might play the lute; might fiddle with the astrolabe; might model my new coat. Art historians hop from one foot to the other in their eagerness to point out that the grey splodge in the foreground, when viewed in a cylindrical mirror (should you have one to hand) is a skull. Death is in the house, and no amount of worldly knowledge can conquer the Reaper. It’s not that simple, though. The anamorphic skull means we can never see this image as anything other than the creation of man: it literally is a big splodge of paint on the picture. Holbein’s vast skill is a commodity like the rest of these men’s expensively acquired items, while they themselves, mere microns thick, are just symbols of illusory power. Which, you suspect, they’re perfectly happy to be.

9. 'The Arnolfini Portrait' - Jan Van Eyck

WHEN? 1434
WHERE CAN I SEE IT? National Gallery  
See also 'Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns)'

If captive pandas think they’ve got it tough they should spare a thought for Mrs Arnolfini. Her possible pregnancy has been the source of public scrutiny for half a millennium. Is she or isn’t she? Probably not. This exquisite painting shows the merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife dressed in the fashionable clobber of fifteenth-century Bruges – and it’s the bunched-up fabric of her frock that’s causing that belly bulge. Van Eyck was evidently a fun guy. He even ‘graffitied’ his own work by writing on the wall behind the couple. ‘Jan van Eyck was here 1434’ it reads, proving that the quality of graffiti hasn't moved on that much in 600 years.


8. 'Battle of San Romano' - Uccello

WHEN? 1438-1440 
WHERE CAN I SEE IT? National Gallery   
See also 'The Arnolfini Portrait'

This is less an epic battle scene than an experiment in geometry, with Florentine painter Paolo Uccello placing broken lances and fallen bodies to emphasize the latest, fifteenth-century discovery of linear perspective (though he famously got the foreshortening of one body slightly wrong). The result, for all its wealth of detail, may be slightly static in visual terms; yet the grid-like format also conveys the work’s deepest message: the transience of battles and other human affairs ultimately surrender to the eternal truths of mathematical principles. The ‘Battle of San Romano’ is a set of three paintings. In addition to the painting in the National Gallery there are related works in the Uffizi in Florence and the Louvre in Paris.

7. 'Nevermore' - Paul Gauguin

WHEN? 1897 
WHERE CAN I SEE IT? Courtauld Gallery   
See also 'The Card Players'

Back in 2010, Gauguin’s painting of a nubile Tahitian girl was voted most romantic painting in an Art Fund poll. Evidently, it’s still a favouite. But romantic? We’re not so sure. The French painter travelled to French Polynesia in 1891 in the hope of reviving his career with visions of exotic life. But by that point, the South Sea Island was already fairly westernized. This didn’t stop ol’ bed-hopping Gauguin (who apparently had innumerable offspring with local indigenous women) from fabricating sultry visions of a supposed uncultivated society. 

Although Gauguin disputed the connection to Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, ‘The Raven’, there are obvious similarities that appear in the painting. Could the black bird watching over the reclining naked girl be the very same raven from Poe’s rhyme? There’s no denying the painting’s title was taken from the very phrase the raven endlessly repeats in Poe’s verse. Although the poem is set on a dreary December evening, here, Gauguin captures a balmy afternoon, but Poe’s haunting ode to a lost love certainly resonates from Gauguin’s Tahitian girlfriend who averts direct eye contact with the viewer. A sadness and uncertainty pervades the composition, making this one of Gauguin’s most beguiling and unsettling paintings.


6. 'The Supper at Emmaus' - Caravaggio

WHEN? 1601
WHERE CAN I SEE IT? National Gallery   
See also 'Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist'

The scene is the moment when a resurrected but unrecognised Jesus reveals himself to two of his disciples – and it’s hard to think of a better subject for Caravaggio, that master of theatricality and illumination. Most impressive of all is the way Caravaggio orientates the life-sized figures, making you feel as if you’re taking part in the event, a direct witness to the revelation. Of course, you wouldn’t actually want to have dinner with the famously fiery Caravaggio who, owing to a mix-up between butter and olive oil, once threw a plate of cooked artichokes in the face of a waiter and reached for his sword.

5. 'The Baptism of Christ' - Piero della Francesca

WHEN? 1450
WHERE CAN I SEE IT? National Gallery   
See also 'The Nativity'

Is this the most perfect painting in London? A masterpiece of the quattrocento, it certainly lives up to Piero della Francesca’s reputation as a great scientist and mathematician as well as an unrivalled painter. 

The artist shows his mastery of linear perspective, drawing the eye into the scene by positioning Christ and John a little way into the picture plane. There’s also a dominant central vertical, with the dove (symbolising the Holy Ghost) hovering mid-flight exactly above the baptismal water, Jesus’s beard and praying hands. In the background is a typical Tuscan town (Piero’s hometown, Sansepolcro). Uniting the scene is the calming green of the Umbrian landscape and the leaves of walnut trees (a symbol of Christ’s crucifixion). It’s this effortless combination of the rational and mystical that makes the painting so rich and complex. It’s exerted its calming power to believers and non-believers alike for more than 500 years, 150 or so of those in the National Gallery.


4. 'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion' - Francis Bacon

WHEN? 1944 
WHERE CAN I SEE IT? Tate Britain   
See also 'Triptych – August 1972'

The screaming, mutated forms that make up this most famous of Francis Bacon’s triptychs are terrifyingly grotesque – and their symbolism wasn’t lost on a London audience when they were first shown in 1945, just as the world was learning about the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. These three canvases sent shockwaves through the British artworld – it was a eureka moment, with every artist suddenly realizing that they’d better up their game or Franky was going to leave them all in his twisted, anguished dust. Bacon’s reputation precedes him – he was terrible drunk, and a bit of a vicious bastard by all accounts, but he was still a truly brilliant painter. That all these years later the pain that so clearly went into these works still feels as fresh as it did back in 1945 is proof of just how good he was. It truly is a must-see artwork in a city filled with must-sees.

3. 'The Seagram Murals' - Mark Rothko

WHEN? 1958
WHERE CAN I SEE IT? Tate Modern   
See also 'Abstract Painting No 5'

London’s saddest series of paintings was never intended to hang in a museum like it does now, or to be deeply contemplated in a semi-dark room. It was originally commissioned for the ultra-swanky Four Seasons restaurant in New York – fancy decoration for snobby, high-class diners. But while painting these huge, dark, beautiful works – Mark Rothko, bona fide giant of post-war American art, realised they were too good for that pitiful fate. He finished them, hoping they’d put diners off their food, but eventually decided they belonged with him, not in a restaurant. He kept them in storage before finally allowing the Tate to take them. They arrived in London on the day he committed suicide – darkening their already powerfully sombre aura even more. 

Entering the Tate’s ‘Rothko room’ is like walking into a chapel – the lights are low, the paintings shimmer with otherworldly sadness. Yet, although they confront misery and mortality, there’s comfort in Rothko’s vast tormented works.


2. 'Self-Portrait with Two Circles' - Rembrandt van Rijn

WHEN? 1665 
WHERE CAN I SEE IT? Kenwood House   
See also 'Self-Portrait at the Age of 63'

Rembrandt gazes straight at the viewer. Lit from above, his eyes are cast into shadow, as though reflecting all the troubles of a lifetime. But they are also, it suggests, the source of his power. This is not just a self-portrait, it’s a painting of a painter painting, and the vision of the artist is what distinguishes him from other men. His actual tools – his hands, brushes and palette – are barely sketched in. The two circles might be Rembrandt caught between two spheres, the earthly and divine, but the shapes are equally the simplest way of representing that which is man-made. Man may be the creation of God, but man is also the creator. 

There is a suggestion of Leonardo’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ in the composition, that Platonic ideal of a human, but Rembrandt unflinchingly confronts the reality: he is old, he is ugly, he is tired. Maybe he can’t summon up the energy or enthusiasm to finish the painting; maybe nothing can ever really be finished. At the same time, though, like Dorian Grey in reverse, there is a triumph in the life lived and committed to canvas, and a statement of intent: Look what tremendous power this old man still wields!

1. 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergère' - Edouard Manet

WHEN? 1882 
WHERE CAN I SEE IT? Courtauld Gallery   
See also 'The Execution of Maximilion'

There’s no getting round it, London’s best painting is French. As French as an appellation contrôllée aperitif sipped by a chic courtesan on a belle-epoque banquette. But that’s what you get for running such an, erm, laissez-faire poll. The art world has spoken and Edouard Manet, nineteenth-century painting colossus and mentor for younger impressionist contemporaries such as Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet, has triumphed. 

So should we feel disappointed? Not one bit. ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ is the last great work by one of the greatest painters of all time. Philanthropic art collector Samuel Courtauld knew as much when he stumped up more than £22,000 for it in 1926 (that’s over £1million today). From the dimpled skin of satsumas and the crinkled foil of a champagne bottle (don’t worry, they’re serving Bass pale ale for us rosbiefs), to the flowers nestled in the décolletage of the barmaid and the intoxicating fug of the notorious nightclub itself (Manet’s favourite hang-out, naturally) this masterpiece distils everything that’s great about a painter who is often dubbed ‘the first modern artist’. 

But it’s more than that. It’s also one of the most psychologically-charged paintings you’ll ever see, a glittering world of misleading reflections and skewed perspectives. At its centre, alone in the crowd, stands a barmaid – and probably also a prostitute – weary, detached, looking at us but not really at us, while to the right, in reflection, we see a shadowy figure who’s no doubt interested in more than a glass of rosé. Where are we in this image? Well, that’s us with the top hat and the tache, the menacing lech. The implication: that everything here is for sale lends a cold, hard reality to the scene. It’s the party and the hangover rolled into one. And Manet paints it with the mixed feelings of intoxicated punter and dispassionate observer. 

There’s humour and pathos in the details – an acrobat’s legs dangle in the air at the top left of the painting; Manet has added his signature to the bottle of wine on the left of the marble counter. And is that the artist himself amid the throng across the room? He was mortally ill when he finished this work. It’s long been considered his au revoir to the captivating theatre of glamour and cruelty that was nineteenth-century Paris.

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