SEVERAL weeks ago we published "The 100 Best Paintings in Britain?", the results of a survey of 100 art experts - artists, museum curators, art historians, writers, gallery owners and auctioneers. We asked each of them to name their 10 best paintings in the country. The one stipulation was that the paintings should be on public view, so a certain amount of competition between museums and galleries crept in. As the experts' replies were opened, it became obvious that they preferred the word "favourite" to "best". And so do our readers - to whom we posed the same question. It seems that experts and the general public alike love painting more than they like making judgements, and that's how it should be.
I had a feeling that the experts, being experts, might nominate unusual or recondite works known only to a few. On the whole they did not. I also thought that readers' preferences would differ from those of art professionals. Wrong again. It's striking that both groups have similar feelings about great paintings. For the two top pictures the experts and the readers agreed on Vermeer's Young Woman Standing at a Virginal and Rembrandt's Portrait of the Artist (though the experts put Rembrandt first). What does this prove? That our readers have elevated tastes? No doubt (and we know from our "Details" competition that they have acute eyes and long visual memories). But might the similarities in the lists show that the readers were led by the experts and tended to choose from the 100 paintings we reproduced on 26 January and 2 February? Maybe.
One could brood for half a lifetime on these pictures. Here are some of my thoughts. I'm not quarrelling with choices, just making comments.
1 Jan Vermeer A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal (National Gallery, London). For the top two places in this art chart, the experts and readers agreed on Vermeer and Rembrandt (though the experts had Rembrandt at No 1). The Vermeer may have been especially treasured because it didn't travel to the Dutch master's retrospective in The Hague last year
2 Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn Portrait of the Artist (Kenwood House, London). The Rembrandt self-portrait is of course, unforgettable. I think he has better pictures in the National Gallery, but people tend to walk past them, the NG being so big and busy. Kenwood had 150,000 visitors in 1996, the NG five million. You can get from one to the other easily on the much-loved 24 bus
3 JMW Turner Rain, Steam, Speed (NG). Nice choice. The painter in old age, excited and bemused by modern transport and its power. One (wrong) interpretation of the picture is that the hare running in front of the locomotive represents the artist. Again from the NG, and perhaps chosen because when you go to look at Turner in the Tate you see so many that they become a blur
4 Uccello The Battle of San Romano (NG). We are still in the National Gallery. This picture commemorates a victory by the Florentines over the Sienese. Two companion panels are in the Louvre and the Uffizi. An influence, incidentally, on the illustrations of Lewis Carroll's Alice books - an effective way for an old master to enter the national subconscious
5 Frans Hals The Laughing Cavalier (Wallace Collection, London). Very spirited. The virtuoso brushwork was much admired in the late 19th century. The real title is Portrait of a Gentleman. For many years reproductions of this painting were a favourite decoration in British schools - not damaging its popularity, it now appears
6 Piero della Francesca The Baptism of Christ (NG). Ruskin merely said what a pretty name he had, and Piero was not seen as a great artist before the 20th century. An altarpiece, and the only religious painting in the readers' selection. Everyone loves the light and landscape in this picture, binding together the real and the mystical
9 Jan van Eyck The Arnolfini Marriage (NG). Irreverently known as "Tell the Press We're Just Good Friends". It's always been regarded as a wedding picture, but surely the father is dedicating his future child to the service of God. One of the early marvels of verisimilitude in oil painting
8 Henri Matisse L'Escargot (Tate, London). This huge decoration began as a drawing of an actual snail, then evolved to become a universal dance. Matisse sometimes called it Abstract Painting Rooted in Reality. If you think it's simple, try making a copy. The latest painting on the list, for it dates from 1952-53
7 Georges Seurat Bathers at Asnieres (NG). Here's the youngest artist on the list, for the French painter was just 24 when he exhibited his magnificent piece of modern classicism. I wonder if readers think of Piero and Seurat in the same way, though one is sacred and the other secular?
10 Sandro Botticelli Venus and Mars (NG). Serene Venus keeps her cool while Mars sleeps off their lovemaking. But it's not an erotic picture and on the whole our readers have not favoured sensual art. No nudes on the final list, for instance. Cover the top third of this picture and you'll find some chaste, classical relief statuary
THE WINNING READERS
When we invited you to choose your 10 best paintings, and, briefly, explain the reasons behind your choices, we promised a bottle of champagne to the five most persuasive and/or witty submissions. We received a great many interesting, often moving and passionate letters, from which we compiled the definitive readers' top 10 above. And so from winning paintings to winning readers (who may or may not have agreed with the consensus). Champagne goes to: Susan Veitch of Alnwick, Northumberland; Michael Rubinstein of Benington, Herts; Mrs L Hepburn of Chatham, Kent; Christopher Bagnold of London SE3; and Roger Lewis Jones of Worcester. The final word on the matter belongs to Mrs Hepburn. "Committing oneself to that last one is so hard. Made me realise how many amazing paintings are accessible to us, and how many major works by other artists are not." Indeed.
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