Top Ten Paintings

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Rising to a Facebook challenge during lockdown, I am posting a ‘top ten’ of paintings which influenced me over the years, each with a few notes.

One of the first art books that I ever owned was The Picture History of Painting, by H.W. and Dora Jane Janson. This was first published in 1957, and appeared in a concise edition in 1961. I had the 1963 reprint, which I was awarded as a school prize for my GCE results in 1966 (Biology …). I would have had few other ways of affording the book’s price of 21 shillings. It would not be an overstatement to say that this might be the most influential art book that I have ever owned, as it deeply informed my painting and perspective on art at the time.

In retrospect, whilst the book starts with Egyptian, Cretean and Roman art, the majority of the work could be now criticised as taking a ‘white male European’ view of the history of art. Nevertheless, an important book in my own development as an artist.

10. Mark Rothko, 1903-1970.

1959, Black on Maroon.

Tate, London. Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts, 1969.

Painted for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York, now at the Tate. I recall seeing the Rothko Room at the Tate in the early 1970s, once described as ‘the most solemn place on earth’. When I was painting, Rothko was a huge influence.

Markus Rothkowitz was born in Latvia in 1903, and moved to the US in 1913. In 1925 he began to study at Parsons School of Design under Arshile Gorky. They both shared an interest in Surrealism. For Rothko, this morphed into ‘Color Field painting’, so defined by critic Clement Greenberg in 1955. In the 1960s, Rothko’s health was in decline after years of anxiety and his drinking and smoking habits. In 1970, the chronically depressed artist committed suicide.

From MoMA:

‘Mark Rothko sought to make paintings that would bring people to tears. “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on,” he declared. “And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions….If you…are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point’.

9. Roy Lichtenstein, 1923-1997.

1963, Whaam!

Tate, London. Purchased 1966.

Bought by the Tate in 1966 for £3,940 (£73,934 in today’s money). Trustees Barbara Hepworth & Herbert Read opposed the purchase. Exhibited in 1968, organised with Stedelijk, Amsterdam (recurring venue in my views on art).

Born in New York, in 1945 he was sent to war in Europe. As part of the infantry, he saw action in France, Belgium and Germany, although he sketched throughout and he stayed on in Paris after the war. From the Lichtenstein Foundation:

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lichtenstein began working in series and his iconography was drawn from printed images. His first sustained theme, intimate paintings and prints in the vein of Paul Klee that poked lyrical fun at medieval knights, castles and maidens, may well have been inspired by a book about the Bayeux Tapestry. Lichtenstein then took an ironic look at nineteenth-century American genre paintings he saw in history books, creating Cubist interpretations of cowboys and Indians spiked with a faux-primitive whimsy.

As with his most celebrated Pop paintings of the 1960s, Lichtenstein gravitated toward what he would characterize as the “dumbest” or “worst” visual item he could find and then went on to alter or improve it. In the 1960s, commercial art was considered beneath contempt by the art world; in the early 1950s, with the rise of Abstract Expressionism, nineteenth-century American narrative and genre paintings were at the nadir of their reputation among critics and collectors. Paraphrasing, particularly the paraphrasing of despised images, became a paramount feature of Lichtenstein’s art. Well before finding his signature mode of expression in 1961, Lichtenstein called attention to the artifice of conventions and taste that permeated art and society. What others dismissed as trivial fascinated him as classic and idealized—in his words, “a purely American mythological subject matter’.

8. Piet Mondriaan, 1872-1944.

1942-43, Broadway Boogie Woogie.

MoMA, New York. Oil on canvas, 50 × 50″ (127 × 127 cm). Given anonymously.

Mondriaan left Europe to go to the US in the 1940’s, and his work captured the movement of the city, with a jazz vibe. In 1917, Mondriaan and his friend Theo van Doesburg founded the magazine ‘De Stijl’ (The Style), a major influence on European art and design.

The Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam has one of our favourite collections of De Stijl, although it is now closed for a major architectural re-configuration.

7. David Salle, 1952 – .

1980, We’ll Shake the Bag.

Artist website. Acrylic on canvas. 48 x 72 inches.

We saw Salle at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, in 1983, in his first one-man show outside of a commercial gallery. Salle’s work was film-like, with fleeting and haunting imagery, always carefully drafted. Yet somehow the totality stands higher than any of the components, wherever it is ‘borrowed’ from. Each canvas felt complete, context not necessary. I love the multiplicity.

6. Bridget Riley, 1931 – .

1964, Pause.

Riley studied at Goldsmiths’ College (1949 – 1952), and then the Royal College of Art (1952 – 1955). She began painting in a semi-impressionist style, then changed to pointillism (Seurat) mainly with landscapes.

She taught children for two years before joining the Loughborough School of Art, where she led a design course in 1959. In 1960, Riley evolved her unique ‘Op-art’ approach, taught at Hornsey School of Art, and then (from 1962) at Croydon School of Art. She also worked for the J. Walter Thompson Group advertising agency from 1960, but gave up teaching and advertising in 1963-4.

From the Tate:

‘She began painting figure subjects in a semi-impressionist manner, then changed to pointillism around 1958, mainly producing landscapes. In 1960 she evolved a style in which she explored the dynamic potentialities of optical phenomena. These so-called ‘Op-art’ pieces, such as Fall, 1963 (Tate Gallery T00616), produce a disorienting physical effect on the eye’.

5. Georges Seurat, 1859 – 1891.

1884, Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte.

Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.

Seurat took two years to complete this painting, starting when he was 25, and there are about 60 studies existing which were part of his work. Sadly, he died aged 31 of an unconfirmed infectious disease, as did his son.

From the Art Institute of Chicago:

‘Bedlam, scandal, and hilarity were among the epithets used to describe what is now considered Georges Seurat’s greatest work, and one of the most remarkable paintings of the nineteenth century, when it was first exhibited in Paris’.

From Wikipedia:

Divisionism (also called chromoluminarism) was the characteristic style in Neo-Impressionist painting defined by the separation of colors into individual dots or patches which interacted optically. By requiring the viewer to combine the colors optically instead of physically mixing pigments, Divisionists believed they were achieving the maximum luminosity scientifically possible. Georges Seurat founded the style around 1884 as chromoluminarism, drawing from his understanding of the scientific theories of Michel Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood and Charles Blanc, among others. Divisionism developed along with another style, Pointillism, which is defined specifically by the use of dots of paint and does not necessarily focus on the separation of colors‘.

4. Vincent Van Gogh, 1853 – 1890.

1889, Country Road in Provence by Night.

Kröller Müller, Otterlo.

It would be impossible for me to have a list of ‘top influences’ without Van Gogh. Pure emotion on canvas, executed brilliantly, and always with a story to be told.

Van Gogh was born in Groot-Zundert, North Brabant in the Netherlands – by coincidence the province where Ingrid calls her original home and where her Mum still lives. In ten years, Vincent created around 2,100 artworks, including some 860 oil paintings. Most date from the last two years of his life.

Technically considered a post-impressionist, he developed one of the most unique and recognisable styles in the history of art. Ill from drink and with a smoker’s cough, in February 1888 he moved from Paris to Arles. It was there his breakthrough occurred. In May 1890, Van Gogh moved to the Paris suburb of Auvers-sur-Oise. Sadly, to quote Wikipedia:

‘On 27 July 1890, aged 37, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a 7mm Lefaucheux à broche revolver. There were no witnesses and he died 30 hours after the incident. The shooting may have taken place in the wheat field in which he had been painting, or a local barn. The bullet was deflected by a rib and passed through his chest without doing apparent damage to internal organs – probably stopped by his spine. He was able to walk back to the Auberge Ravoux, where he was attended to by two doctors, but without a surgeon present the bullet could not be removed. The doctors tended to him as best they could, then left him alone in his room, smoking his pipe. The following morning Theo rushed to his brother’s side, finding him in good spirits. But within hours Vincent began to fail, suffering from an untreated infection resulting from the wound. He died in the early hours of 29 July. According to Theo, Vincent’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever”‘.

Vincent has been a constant companion in my world since I was a teenager, and it has been wonderful to see his work in so many venues. But the Kröller Müller, Otterlo remains firm favourite, and this painting lives there.

3. Utagawa (Andō) Hiroshige, 1797 – 1858.

1840, ChushinguraThe Storehouse of Loyalty – Chushingura (47 Rōnin). Act VIII: bucolic journey along Tokaido.

Personal Collection.

Since a teenager I have had an interest in all things Asian, and that naturally led to Japanese wood block prints. Utagawa Hiroshige, born Andō, is considered the last, great master in the Japanese ukiyo-e tradition. Ukiyo-e had significant influence on Western painters such as Manet, Monet and Van Gogh, who all collected and closely studied the dynamic and bold compositions. Van Gogh even painted copies of two of Hiroshige’s prints from ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo‘, linking two of my influencers together.

Wikipedia notes:

‘The subjects of his work were atypical of the ukiyo-e genre, whose typical focus was on beautiful women, popular actors, and other scenes of the urban pleasure districts of Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868). The popular series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai was a strong influence on Hiroshige’s choice of subject, though Hiroshige’s approach was more poetic and ambient than Hokusai’s bolder, more formal prints. Subtle use of colour was essential in Hiroshige’s prints, often printed with multiple impressions in the same area and with extensive use of bokashi (colour gradation), both of which were rather labor-intensive techniques’.

We were lucky enough to find an excellent example of Horoshige’s work in München in 1986, and it has had pride of place in our art collection ever since. This print, Chushingura. The Storehouse of Loyalty, is described by the Art Institute of Chicago as follows:

‘On the right, Tonase and her daughter Konami travel on foot from Edo to Yamashima to meet with Rikiya in the hope of reaffirming the betrothal of the young couple. Instead of the usual setting of the rocky seacoast near Tago Bay, Hiroshige provides a background similar to landscapes in some of his Tokaido images. Mt. Fuji is in the background, and Hiroshige adds other travelers who would be present on the popular Tokaido Road journey. As the two women pause briefly, Konami seems to wonder if her love will last longer than the snow on Mt. Fuji’.

2. J.M.W. Turner, 1775 – 1851.

1844, Rain, Steam and Speed.

National Gallery, London.

Turner was a genius. He, alongside Constable, was a chronicler of the impact on Great Britain of the Industrial Revolution, each from their own perspective and artistic style. Constable is a natural precursor to the impressionist, modernist movement, painting ‘what is there’ by capturing the light. Turner, on the other hand, painted ‘what could be there’, defining the light, yet with enough reference to reality to persuade the audience of the ‘truth’ of what they were seeing. He painted both modern day landscapes and allegorical scenes.

The Fighting Temeraire (1838) is probably his most famous work. Whilst it shows the ‘demise’ of a real, old-style battleship being towed, overtaken by technology, Turner did not hesitate to change the position of the sunset in the landscape, to heighten the impact of the painting. In reality, the sunset should have been geographically behind the artist. Constable would never have done that.

Turner portrayed his times, yet, perhaps more importantly, suggested its possibilities. For me, Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) exemplifies his oeuvre. It goes far in its abstraction, whilst it still shows the shape of the landscape. The painting has immense power and energy, capturing the onrush of the industrial age, yet somehow standing outside of time.

His biography, from Wikipedia states:

‘Turner was born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, to a modest lower-middle-class family. He lived in London all his life, retaining his Cockney accent and assiduously avoiding the trappings of success and fame. A child prodigy, Turner studied at the Royal Academy of Arts from 1789, enrolling when he was 14, and exhibited his first work there at 15. During this period, he also served as an architectural draftsman. He earned a steady income from commissions and sales, which due to his troubled, contrary nature, were often begrudgingly accepted. He opened his own gallery in 1804 and became professor of perspective at the academy in 1807, where he lectured until 1828, although he was viewed as profoundly inarticulate. He traveled to Europe from 1802, typically returning with voluminous sketchbooks. 

Intensely private, eccentric and reclusive, Turner was a controversial figure throughout his career. He did not marry, but fathered two daughters, Eveline (1801–1874) and Georgiana (1811–1843), by his housekeeper Sarah Danby’.

Turner became more pessimistic as he got older, and, his gallery was neglected. But his art got ever more intense. Sadly, from about 1845 he lived in relative squalor and poor health, and died in 1851. He left more than 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours, and 30,000 works on paper.

1. Wassily Kandinsky, 1866 – 1944.

The first purely abstract painting is generally recognised as Wassily Kandinsky’s ‘Untitled – First abstraction‘ of 1910. Kandinsky had been edging towards that style of painting, with his dreamlike fairy tales using ‘flat’ colour fields. This painting started an artistic revolution. But what is also very interesting is the way that his writings about art and its development created a solid basis for both the theory and the practical art of abstraction.

Kandinsky’s early works were like fairy tales, strong in shape and colour.

1908 – 1909, Blue Mountain.

Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Kandinsky saw the triangle as a manifestation of movement and of music, and it is a central metaphor in both his writing and his painting. It has been claimed that Kandinsky had synesthesia, a neurological condition in which the senses co-operate (e.g. ‘seeing music’). Certainly that would partly explain both the way Kandinsky writes and paints. As time passed, his work became more abstracted, and colours more solid.

1909, Study for Autumn.

His book, ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art‘ (published in 1911) laid out the historical, contextual and scientific basis for his new art. In doing so, Kandinsky set out to open up painting and redefine art theory.

Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated. (pg 7)

Colour directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul. (pg 19)

The angle at which the triangle stands, and whether it is stationary or moving, are of importance to its spiritual value. This fact is specially worthy of the painter’s consideration. (pg 20)

So the abstract idea is creeping into art, although, only yesterday, it was scorned and obscured by purely material ideals. Its gradual advance is natural enough, for in proportion as the organic form falls into the background, the abstract ideal achieves greater prominence. (pg 21)

The artist must be blind to distinction between ‘recognized’ or ‘unrecognized’ conventions of form, deaf to the transitory teaching and demands of his particular age. (pg 24)

In 1910, Kandinsky changed the world of art forever.

1910, Untitled (First Abstraction.

Centre George Pompidou, Paris.

Watercolour and Indian ink and pencil on paper, 19.5 × 25.5″ (49.6 × 64.8 cm).

From that point on, Kandinsky experimented with varying levels of abstraction, including the relationship between painting and music.

1923, Transverse Lines.

Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany. 

Kandinsky was one of those very rare individuals that was both an exceptional artist and a gifted theorist. My ‘number one’.


I posted these in sequence on Facebook, with an interesting result on relative likes:

Van Gogh


Seurat rules, unless Kandinsky makes a late run …


JANSON, H.W & Dora Jane. 1957. The Picture History of Painting. 1963 Concise Edition. London: Thames and Hudson.

KANDINSKY, Wassily. 1911. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Online document © 2002 Blackmask Online. Available at (accessed 15/04/18).

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