The greatest painting in Britain shortlist

Only one of the six paintings I picked (the Hockney) got onto the final shortlist of ten. That shortlist in full:

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

The Hay Wain by John Constable

A Rake’s Progress III: The Orgy (1733-4) by William Hogarth

The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838 by Turner

The Baptism of Christ by Piero Della Francesca

The Bar at the Folies Bergere by Manet

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh

The Last of England by Ford Madox Brown

The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch by Sir Henry Raeburn

Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy by David Hockney

A lot of British paintings, not surprisingly. The only one that seems wildly out of its depth is the Madox Brown, which looks like a very ordinary piece of Victorian narrative painting to me. The van Eyck and the Turner are both paintings I considered picking – you certainly have to have something by Turner, the only question being which one. The Hay Wain is certainly a much better painting than its status as a piece of kitsch Englishiana would suggest, but I’ve never really connected to Constable, somehow. Sunflowers isn’t even the best painting by Van Gogh in the National Gallery. I’m not wild about the Manet – I said something earlier about the Impressionists not being at their best painting people; that may have been a bit sweeping, but I think this is a case in point. It’s attractive enough, but lacks the transcendant quality of the best Impressionist landscapes. The Hogarth is lively and entertaining, but those aren’t qualities I rate particularly highly in painting.

A couple of other observations. There are no paintings from between the C15th and C19th, which means no Vermeer, Velasquez, Rubens, Caravaggio, Titian, or Rembrandt for a start. And the only C20th painting is the Hockney, which means nothing abstract and nothing foreign. Britain isn’t especially rich in modern art – Tate Modern’s collection is distinctly patchy – but there are paintings by, for example, Picasso, Miro, Mondrian, Modigliani, Rothko, and Pollock. I suppose in a lot of cases there’s a sense that the very finest paintings by an artist are elsewhere; the Botticellis in the National are OK, but nothing to the ones in Florence, and similarly with Vermeer, Velasquez, Picasso, and Matisse. I would have thought the Rembrandts in the National might make the cut, though.

EDIT: Hogarth is C18th, of course. A better way of putting it might be: all the non-British paintings are either Renaissance or Impressionist.

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