Their response was overwhelming. "Oh seductive man," replied Sister Wendy Beckett from the depths of her Norfolk retreat. "I was all set for my usual polite refusal when I realised I'd actually like to do this." A common reaction, although not quite everyone mustered this sort of enthusiasm: "I think the game of favourites is a bit childish," chided the distinguished Professor Ernst Gombrich. "I was once asked in the States on TV, `What is your favourite colour?' "
Happily our call was more often answered than not, by artists as diverse as Frank Auerbach and Eduardo Paolozzi, critics with such different opinions as Brian Sewell and Waldemar Janusczak, and the people who run such varied institutions as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Arts Council, Christie's and Sotheby's, the Contemporary Art Society, the National Art Collections Fund, the Whitworth in Manchester, the Walker Collection in Liverpool, the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, the Ashmolean in Ox- ford and the Government Art Collection in London. We are grateful to them and to others too numerous to mention.
Our two criteria were simply that the pictures should be on public view and that they should deserve a place in the Top 100. The first stipulation was clear enough, although it still presented problems with at least two pictures (Breughel's Woman Taken in Adultery from the Courtauld Collection and Lucian Freud's Portrait of Francis Bacon from the Tate, London), which were rendered ineligible by being in the hands of thieves rather than on public display. The second stipulation was a little more hazy and produced an inevitably subjective response. Not surprisingly, the members of our panel preferred the concept of "favourite" to that of "best" - it's an easier word, less judgmental, more inviting. But by canvassing as many and varied a selection of people as possible, we hope to have found common ground between the "favourites" and the "best"; as a result, the list we will be printing on these pages over the next two weeks represents a comprehensive and democratic selection of the country's greatest pictures.
Rembrandt came out top, with more of his pictures mentioned more often than any other painter. And the most frequently nominated of all was his late and most mysterious Self-Portrait, currently hanging at Kenwood House on the edge of London's Hampstead Heath. It is an amazing picture - but part of its popularity may also stem from the appeal of the gallery that it inhabits, a notion suggested by the appearance on the list of two other pictures that share the same room - Gainsborough's Countess Howe and Vermeer's Guitar Player.
Our public galleries are remarkably rich in Rembrandt's work, as they are in Titian's and Velazquez's, the artists that tied for second place. But the list also shows some notable gaps. There is nothing by Michelangelo (despite two beautiful but unfinished canvases in the National Gallery); there is no Braque, or Klee, no Durer, Delacroix or Dali.
Works by women are also few and far between: although Berthe Morisot and Winifred Knights were both nominated more than once, only Gwen John made it into the Top 100. Two living women - Maggi Hambling and Paula Rego - were both mentioned, but like their male contemporaries Hockney, Caulfield and Hodgkin, they failed to make the final cut. Indeed, the only living painter on the list is Lucian Freud, while in total 82 per cent of the final selection pre-dates Cezanne - a division excused by one prominent contemporary art dealer as: "After Cezanne, everything else is just showbiz."
The end result shows signs of national pride, with a disproportionate bias towards British painters - including such eccentric but comparatively minor talents as Richard Dadd, Thomas Jones and Eric Ravilious. Predictably the National Gallery and the Tate in London are dominant, but as the Jones from Cardiff and the Ravilious from Aberdeen both demonstrate, there are all sorts of unexpected treasures to be found in galleries around the country. !
Artist Unknown: The Wilton Dyptich (National Gallery, London). A little folding altarpiece, no bigger than a large book, painted for the private devotions of King Richard II in the last years of the 14th century. This was the fourth most frequently nominated picture in the Top 100
William Blake: The Circle of the Lustful (Birmingham City Art Gallery). Blake was the prophetic poet-painter-madman of English art in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His best works were illustrations of his own and other's texts, such as this typically eccentric vision of Dante's Hell
Pieter Breughel the Elder: Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (Courtauld, London). Breughel is better known for his outdoor peasant scenes, but these are scarce in British collections. This, however, is one of his most lyrical landscapes. Painted in 1563, it was much admired during the artist's life and once belonged to Rubens
Canaletto: The Stone Mason's Yard (National Gallery). Most Canalettos in England - and there are more of them here than in his native Italy - were bought as glittering souvenirs by the Grand Tourists of the 18th century. This freer and less flashy depiction of ordinary life, painted circa 1726, is the artist's masterpiece
Paul Cezanne: The Montaigne Sainte-Victoire (Courtauld). Possibly Cezanne's most famous and favourite subject. This version from 1887, painted from near the artist's home to the west of Aix, met with derision when first exhibited in 1895, but sold for a small fortune just 13 years later
Pierre Bonnard: The Coffee (Tate, London). One of several good Bonnards in the Tate collection (Le Bain came a close second) and characteristic of his talent for combining intense colour and shimmering light
Agnolo Bronzino: An Allegory with Venus and Cupid (National Gallery). Acquired by the NG in 1860, this is still one of its most peculiar and symbolically dense pictures. It was painted in Florence circa 1540, and was probably commissioned by Duke Cosimo de Medici for presentation to the King of France
Francis Bacon: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (Tate, London).
Bacon's name came up repeatedly in the compilation of the list, but with little consensus on a single picture. These early studies of the Greek Furies narrowly beat both Aberdeen's Pope - Study after Velazquez and Huddersfield's Figure Study II
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: The Supper at Emmaus (National Gallery). Caravaggio was deeply unpopular in his day, as much for his fiery temper (which took him in and out of prison) as for his radical style. None the less he had a huge influence on subsequent generations of 17th-century painters
Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin: Woman Taking Tea (Hunterian, Glasgow). One of three delightful paintings by Chardin in the Hunterian Collection, and a good example of Diderot's description of Chardin's ability to paint "as if a vapour has been breathed onto the canvas"
Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin: Bouquet de Fleurs (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh). In the 1730s, when French painting was dominated by grand-scale studio heroics, Chardin became one of the greatest-ever practitioners of the more humble art of still-life. There are few finer examples than these flowers
Giovanni Bellini: Doge Leonardo Loredon (National Gallery). In the 15th century, long before their name was stolen for a cocktail, the Bellini family was the leading artistic dynasty in Venice. This portrait by Giovanni depicts the Venetian head of state soon after his election in 1501
Sandro Botticelli: Venus and Mars (National Gallery). Painted probably as a backboard for a piece of marriage furniture, this is one of the small number of secular works for which Botticelli is most famous. Its depiction of the god of war exhausted by the goddess of love has an appropriate message for the newly-weds
Edward Burne-Jones: Laus Veneris (Laing, Newcastle). One of three Pre-Raphaelite pictures on the list and the most frequently mentioned of all the artists with Pre-Raphaelite connections. His Legend of the Briar Rose series at Buscot Park in Oxfordshire was also nominated several times
Paul Cezanne: The Lac d'Annecy (Courtauld). This picture, painted while Cezanne was on holiday at Taillores in 1896, was the undeniable star of last year's blockbusting Cezanne exhibition. Cezanne was the fourth most frequently nominated artist on our list and this was by far his most popular picture
Claude Gellee (Lorraine): The Enchanted Castle (National Gallery). Painted in 1664, this dates from Claude's later and less monumental phase of classically inspired landscape painting. The depiction of space is at the heart of all his work, but these later pictures are also remarkable evocations of atmosphere
Richard Dadd: The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke (Tate, London). The product of a troubled mind. Dadd spent most of his life in lunatic asylums after stabbing his father in 1843. This bizarre excursion into fairyland was painted after his first dozen years in Bedlam
Jan van Eyck: The Arnolfini Marriage (National Gallery). When first unveiled in 1434, this double portrait demonstrated a new level of sophistication in the use of oil paint. Van Eyck's depiction of light and shade and the textures of fabric and glass were unrivalled for many years
John Constable: Study of Cirrus Clouds (V&A, London). A slightly eccentric choice, perhaps, given the wealth of work by Constable in our public collections, but we received more nominations for this sketch, and others like it, than for any more obvious "finished" masterpieces such as The Hay Wain or The Leaping Horse
Edgar Degas: Jockeys Before a Race (Barber Institute, Birmingham). The artist's racing and ballet pictures were nominated in equal measure: examples of both made it into the top 100. But his portrait of Diego Martelli (National Galleries of Scotland) narrowly missed inclusion
Domenico Veneziano: Annunciation (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). The altarpiece from Santa Lucia dei Magnoli is one of a handful of surviving works that can be attributed with certainty to Domenico. It is split between museums around the world, but no part is more beautiful than this little panel in Cambridge
Caspar David Friedrich: Winter Landscape (National Gallery). Friedrich specialised in a brand of Romanticism which imbued natural subjects with religious significance. The NG's acquisition of this 1811 landscape in 1987 made it the first of his works to enter a British public collection
Carlo Crivelli: The Annunciation with Saint Emidius (National Gallery). Painted in 1486 for the altar of the Franciscan Church in Ascoli Piceno, to mark the granting of self-government to the town. The Annunciation, a religious event set in a political context, is one of two altarpieces by Crivelli in the NG
Edgar Degas: The Rehearsal (Burrell Collection, Glasgow). One of several good works by Degas in the Burrell, a fantastic collection that's rich in this period of French painting. This is a good example of Degas' brilliant draughtsmanship and his preoccupation with human movement
William Dyce: Pegwell Bay (Tate, London). Compared to Millais and Rossetti, Dyce was a minor figure, but this haunting and peculiar landscape (of a bay in Kent) was nominated more often than any other Pre-Raphaelite picture
Lucian Freud: Girl with a White Dog (Tate, London). Freud is the only living painter on the list. Several pictures were nominated from different stages of his long career, from this hard-edged work of 1951- 52 to the recent and more painterly portrait of Leigh Bowery, also in the Tate
Thomas Gainsborough: Countess Howe (Kenwood, London). Gainsborough was at his best when painting the things he loved most in life - the English landscape and beautiful women. Of several good Gainsboroughs at Kenwood House, this is the most Gainsborough-ish of them all
Paul Gauguin: Vision After the Sermon (National Galleries of Scotland). Painted at Pont Aven in 1888, this depiction of Jacob wrestling with the Angel in the Brittany countryside is Gauguin's purest expression of the symbolist concept that form and colour can influence mood
Vincent van Gogh: Cornfield and Cypress Trees (National Gallery). A late, great landscape painted during van Gogh's stay in the asylum at St Remy-de-Provence in 1889 and illustrating his very personal theory of colour harmonies
Nicholas Hilliard: Young Man among Roses (V&A). A quintessential Elizabethan image from the finest miniaturist of all time. A young victim of courtly love is entwined by the five petalled roses that were one of the many symbols of the Virgin Queen's virginity
Gwen John: A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris (Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield). Extraordinarily, Gwen John is the only woman in the top 100. Her Self Portrait (Tate, London) was nominated several times, but this quiet study of her room in Paris proved more popular
Wassily Kandinsky: Cossacks (Tate, London). Kandinsky was one of the pioneers of abstract art. Although loosely tied to its folk-art subject-matter, this picture from 1911 shows Kandinsky beginning to use colour and pattern for their own sake
Francisco Goya: A Prison Scene (Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle). Goya is poorly represented in British collections, and aside from a couple of portraits in the National Gallery there is little of his work on show. This little painting of a prison interior offers a rare glimpse of his dark genius
William Hogarth: Captain Thomas Coram (Coram Foundation, London). This rare moment of honest portraiture from the usually cruel brush of our greatest satirist was nominated more than any of his more familiar moral tales. It narrowly kept his Rake's Progress from making it onto the list
Leonardo da Vinci: The Virgin of the Rocks (National Gallery). The first of two masterpieces in the National Gallery collection by the archetypal Renaissance man. Painted circa 1508, this is a later version of a picture of the same title that hangs in the Louvre in Paris
Paul Gauguin: Nevermore (Courtauld).
Described by Gauguin as "badly painted" but nevertheless "a good canvas", Nevermore dates from his second visit to Tahiti in 1897. The title was taken from the poem by Edgar Allen Poe; the composer Delius was the painting's first owner
Frans Hals: The Laughing Cavalier (Wallace Collection, London). A painting that's almost too famous for its own good, but which was much admired by artists as diverse as van Gogh and Whistler for its freedom with the brush and mastery of black, white and reflected light
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: Madame Moitessier (National Gallery). Ingres initially refused to paint this wife of a wealthy banker, but when they met he was so smitten by her beauty that he changed his mind. The portrait, begun in 1847, took nine years of occasional sittings to complete
Thomas Jones: Buildings in Naples (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff). The Welsh are not known as a nation of painters, but there are three of them on the list. Perhaps the best of them, and one of the best-kept secrets in the history of British art, was Thomas Jones. This deceptively simple view of Naples was painted in 1782
Leonardo da Vinci: The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist (National Gallery). This cartoon on eight sheets of glued paper shows Leonardo solving the problems of a four-figure composition, a puzzle that dominated much of his work in the opening years of the 16th century
Andrea Mantegna: The Agony in the Garden (National Gallery). A fine example of the qualities of draughtsmanship, colour control and perspective that made Mantegna one of the most admired artists of the 15th century
Masaccio: The Virgin and Child (National Gallery). "Big Tom", as Masaccio was known in Florence in the early years of the 15th century, was one of the greatest painters of the early Italian Renaissance. This altarpiece was painted two years before his tragically early death, aged 28, in 1428
John Everett Millais Ophelia (Tate, London). Painted in 1852 when Millais was only 23. In true Pre-Raphaelite fashion the background was painted leaf by leaf from nature and the figure added back in Millais's London studio, where he made his model lie in the bath for days on end until she caught a chill
Kasimir Malevich: Dynastic Suprematism (Tate, London). Suprematism, the form of abstract art that Malevich invented in 1913, was, he claimed, Cubism in its purist form. This painting dates from 1916, two years before his White Square on a White Ground pushed the principles of abstraction to their logical conclusion
Andrea Mantegna: The Triumph of Caesar (Royal Collection, Hampton Court). Mantegna's late masterpiece displaying his continued fascination with Roman antiquity in nine large canvases. They came to Britain having been bought by Charles I in the 17th century
Henri Matisse: L'Escargot (Tate, London). Confined to his bed at the end of his life Matisse took to making increasingly abstract paper cut-outs. The Snail was made at the Hotel Regina in Nice in 1953, the year before his death. This was the most frequently nominated 20th-century work on the list
Edouard Manet: The Bar at the Folies-Bergere (Courtauld Collection, London). Arguably Manet's greatest work, painted in 1881, The Bar at the Folies-Bergere presents an enchanting visual riddle. It is the third most frequently nominated painting on our list
Simone Martini: Christ Discovered in the Temple (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). One half of the dyptich that was probably the last work of Martini's life, painted in 1342 while he was in the service of the Papal Court in Avignon. This is the earliest work in the Top 100
Henri Matisse: The Pink Tablecloth (Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery). Yet another great French painting in a Glasgow collection, this still- life of 1925 is typical of Matisse at his most domestic and decorative
Joan Mir: Painting 1927 (Tate, London). Typical of the biomorphic abstractions made by Mir in the mid-1920s and which were probably his most significant contribution to Surrealism. This is one of the simplest and most satisfying works of its kindReuse content