'Mona Lisa' just one of the world's greatest paintings that fails to make it into top 100

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

They might be two of the most famous images on the planet; but neither Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa nor Van Gogh's Sunflowers is considered worthy of inclusion in a new selection of the world's finest art.

The compilers of the Folio Society's lavish and expensive Book of the 100 Greatest Paintings believe that some works are so overexposed and have been reproduced so often that they can no longer be viewed with a fresh eye.

And so, Leonardo, Van Gogh, Canaletto and Turner are in the top 100 – but not for the paintings or even themes one might expect. And no postwar work is included, because the authors believe that to judge contemporary art against Old Masters is simply impossible.

The book is edited by the critic and author Martin Bailey, of The Art Newspaper, who worked alongside Folio Society experts. The top 100 stretches from Duccio di Buoninsegna (1285) to Picasso in 1937. Only one female artist is included in the list, the 19th-century French impressionist Berthe Morisot, a reflection of how difficult it was for women to succeed as artists until well into the 20th century.

Sometimes the paintings chosen are the images popularly associated with an artist, such as Holbein's The Ambassadors or Klimt's The Kiss. However, more unexpectedly, for example, Leonardo is represented by Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine – not the Mona Lisa. And Rembrandt is represented by a self-portrait rather than the ever popular The Night Watch.

Martin Bailey said yesterday: "The Night Watch is certainly his most popular picture. But it has become really a rather clichéd scene, and one sees the intensity of Rembrandt in a self-portrait rather than a group portrait.

"We didn't go for Van Gogh's Sunflowers, but for a landscape. Sunflowers is a marvellous, striking and dramatic image, but it has been seen and reproduced so many times that it is difficult to see freshly. It has lost its impact. Also, with Canaletto, we didn't go for one of the Venetian canal scenes but for The Stonemason's Yard." The Turner, too, is an unconventional choice: a more traditional landscape, not one of the ethereal works for which the artist is now best known .

The latest painting in the book is Picasso's Guernica from 1937, an anguished cry against war. Mr Bailey says the lack of anything more recent was not intended as a denigration of contemporary art. But he and his fellow authors believed there needed to be at least 50 years' distance to be able to judge art in a historical perspective. Also, contemporary art leant heavily on installation pieces and videos, which made comparisons with the previous centuries impossible.

"The medium of paint," Mr Bailey said, "has become decreasingly important within the visual arts." However, the Tate Gallery said: "There are undoubtedly great modern painters, many of them in fact British, who will take their place in any greatest hits list in time. David Hockney, Bridget Riley and Francis Bacon are among these."

There are only 99 names in the top 100 as one anonymous master is included. It is the Master of "The Wilton Diptych", whose exquisite pair of gold-ground panels was probably created for Richard II in the 1390s. Even the painter's nationality remains a mystery.

Mr Bailey said: "In the early days of painting, few artists signed their work, and museums are full of pictures which would receive much greater acclaim had they been painted by named individuals."

The book, which will be published next month, does not rank the paintings, presenting them only in chronological order. But Mr Bailey said yesterday that his personal favourite was Vermeer's The Art of Painting. "It is a virtuoso performance by the artist," he said. "The tapestry curtain is pulled back, to reveal the painter depicted from behind; it is presumably Vermeer himself. As in all his finest pictures, he has captured a moment in time, creating a marvellous feeling of stillness.

"I love Vermeer's interiors. They have a wonderful sense of stillness and balance and they always repay repeated viewing. It's a complex picture with many layers of meaning. It's about art and fame; the relationship between an artist and a model; and between a woman and a man."

Of the 100 artists in the book, 25 are from Italy, 22 are from France and 19 are from the Low Countries. There are seven British painters included: Hogarth, Stubbs, Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, Stanley Spencer and Joseph Wright of Derby.

Each painting in the book is accompanied by a specially commissioned text written by a leading specialist in the field. The 44 contributors are all distinguished art historians or museum curators at centres such as the Courtauld Institute, the Tate Gallery and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Although most of the paintings are well known, the commentators have nevertheless made some revealing observations in the book.

Mr Bailey said: "There are observations which illuminate the works. What is the meaning of the pet monkey in Seurat's afternoon scene by the river? Why has Stanley Spencer painted St Francis in such an awkward pose, and Picasso depicted a burning victim of the bombing of Guernica with similarly outstretched arms?"


Duccio The Rucellai Madonna 1285; Giotto The Lamentation 1305; Simone Martini The Annunciation 1333; Anonymous The Wilton Diptych 1395-9; Fra Angelico The Deposition 1432; Jan van Eyck Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife 1434; Rogier van der Weyden St Luke Drawing the Virgin 1435; Sassetta The Wolf of Gubbio 1444; Piero della Francesca The Baptism of Christ 1450-60; Antonello da Messina St Jerome in his Study 1465; Giovanni Bellini Pieta 1468; Petrus Christus Portrait of a Young Woman 1468-70; Hugo van der Goes The Portinari Altarpiece 1473-8; Hans Memling The Apocalypse of St John the Evangelist 1479; Andrea Mantegna The Dead Christ 1480-90; Sandro Botticelli The Birth of Venus 1485; Domenico Ghirlandaio Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni 1488; Leonardo da Vinci Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine (Cecilia Gallerani) 1490; Albrecht Dürer Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight 1500; Vittore Carpaccio St Augustine in his Study 1502-8; Raphael Madonna of the Meadow 1505-6; Hieronymus Bosch The Garden of Earthly Delights 1505-16; Giorgione La Tempesta 1507; Gerard David The Rest on the Flight into Egypt 1510; Michelangelo The Creation of Adam 1511-12; Mathis Grünewald The Crucifixion (Isenheim Altarpiece) 1515; Joachim Patinir Landscape with St Jerome 1516-18; Correggio Madonna of St Jerome 1528; Lucas Cranach the Elder The Judgement of Paris 1530; Hans Holbein the Younger The Ambassadors 1533; Lorenzo Lotto The Annunciation 1534; Titian Diana and Actaeon 1556-9; Paolo Veronese Virgin and Child in Glory with Saints and Angel 1564; Pieter Bruegel the Elder Hunters in the Snow 1565; Tintoretto The Last Supper 1579-81; Caravaggio The Lute Player 1595-6; Juan Sanchez Cotan Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber 1600; Peter Paul Rubens The Descent from the Cross 1612; El Greco The Adoration of the Shepherds 1612-14; Georges de La Tour Cheat with the Ace of Clubs 1628-30; Anthony van Dyck Charles I at the Hunt 1635; Nicolas Poussin The Arcadian Shepherds 1638-40; Frans Hals Portrait of Stephanus Geraerdts 1650; Diego Velazquez Las Meninas 1656; Pieter de Hooch Courtyard of a House in Delft 1658; Rembrandt Self-Portrait 1665; Johannes Vermeer The Art of Painting 1666-7; Claude Lorrain Landscape with the Nymph Egeria in Mourning over Numa 1669; Willem van de Velde the Younger The Gouden Leeuw at the Battle of the Texel 1687; Jean-Antoine Watteau Les Charmes de la Vie 1717; Jean-Simeon Chardin The Silver Goblet 1726-7; Canaletto The Stonemason's Yard 1726-30; Giovanni Battista Tiepolo The Finding of Moses 1735-40; William Hogarth Marriage A-la-Mode: The Tête à Tête, or Shortly after the Marriage 1743; Thomas Gainsborough Mr and Mrs Andrews 1750; George Stubbs Cheetah with Two Indian Attendants and a Stag 1765; Joseph Wright of Derby An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 1768; Benjamin West The Death of General Wolfe 1770; Jacques-Louis David The Death of Marat 1793; Francisco de Goya The Third of May 1808 1814; Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres Portrait of Marie Marcoz, later Vicomtesse de Sennones 1814; JMW Turner Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed 1818; Caspar David Friedrich Chalk Cliffs on Rügen 1818-19; John Constable The Lock 1824; Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Ruins in the Roman Campagna, with Claudian Acqueduct 1826-8; Eugene Delacroix The Death of Sardanapalus 1827-8; Frederic Edwin Church The Heart of the Andes 1859; Edouard Manet Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe 1863; James McNeill Whistler Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl 1864; Winslow Homer Prisoners from the Front 1866; Berthe Morisot The Cradle 1872; Edgar Degas The Dance Class 1876; Gustave Moreau Salome Dancing before Herod 1876; Pierre-Auguste Renoir The Ball at the Moulin de la Galette 1876; John Singer Sargent Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1886; Georges Seurat Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte 1886; Vincent van Gogh Wheatfield with Cypresses 1889; Paul Cèzanne Still Life with a Basket of Apples 1890-4; Paul Gauguin Where are you Going? 1893; Edvard Munch The Scream 1893; Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec At the Moulin Rouge 1899; Claude Monet The Japanese Bridge 1908; Gustav Klimt The Kiss 1908; Georges Braque Violin and Palette 1910; Marc Chagall I and the Village 1911; Henri Matisse The Red Studio 1911; Wassily Kandinsky Composition VII 1913; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Potsdamer Platz, Berlin 1914; Paul Klee Architecture with the Red Flag 1915; Amedeo Modigliani Seated Nude 1916-17; Egon Schiele The Family 1918; Otto Dix Skat Players 1920; Joan MiroThe Birth of the World 1925; Piet Mondrian Composition with Red, Blue, Yellow and Black 1929; Edward Hopper Early Sunday Morning 1930; Rene Magritte La Condition Humaine 1933; Stanley Spencer St Francis and the Birds 1935; Pierre Bonnard Nude in the Bath 1936; Salvador Dali Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937; Pablo Picasso Guernica 1937