1: Jan van Eyck (c 1385 – c 9 July 1441)
The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (‘The Rolin Madonna’)
As the Masters in the South got to grips with linear perspective, those of the Northern Renaissance explored the new medium of oil paints and their power in representing surface textures and the effects of light. This remarkable work is a landmark in the development of Western painting, and an early triumph of realism, which opened the way for landscape as a new genre.
2: Albrecht Dürer (21 May 1471 – 6 April 1528)
The Willow Mill
This watercolour landscape would not look out of place alongside the works of Turner and other masters 300 years later. It is one of many pioneering works by the versatile genius of the Northern Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer, whose innovations in prints, watercolour, and broadening of painting genres made him uniquely important, and this remarkable painting a signpost to the future.
3: Nicolas Poussin (15 June 1594 – 19 November 1665)
Landscape with a Calm (‘Un Tem[p]s calme et serein’, ‘The Calm’, etc.)
In his later years, Poussin turned more to landscape painting. This is one of his most sublime and pure landscapes, idealised rather than representing any view of the real world, and one of the greatest landscape paintings.
4: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (15 July 1606 – 4 October 1669)
Bathsheba with King David’s Letter
Instead of depicting her as an erotic nude in a scene of lust and voyeurism, Rembrandt reveals Bathsheba’s inner conflict, and transforms the technique of painting. This moving work is remarkable for its thoughtful treatment of a complex subject, and the creation of an arresting illusion from its composite of marks.
5: Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (6 December 1750 – 16 February 1819) and Thomas Jones (26 September 1742 – 29 April 1803)
(Plein Air) and A Wall in Naples
Two modest and simple landscapes, some of the first painted outdoors or plein air using oil paints, with a freshness not seen in formal studio work, which paved the way for Constable, Turner, and the Impressionists.
6: Joseph Mallord William Turner (c 23 April 1775 – 19 December 1851)
The Blue Rigi, Sunrise, and Norham Castle, Sunrise
Two late paintings portraying tranquil sunlit scenes of dawn over still water, remarkable in their anticipation of Impressionism. Turner’s virtuoso displays of painterly skills used watercolour and oils, making him one of the first painters to push the boundaries in both media, and to accord both with the dedication that they deserve. Comparison of these two works shows that Turner made no distinction between the worth of the media, and was able to create similar effects irrespective of medium. Indeed his art had transcended its media.
7: Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro (10 July 1830 – 13 November 1903)
Setting Sun and Fog, Éragny
A simply golden landscape at sunset, by the central figure in Impressionism and father of Post-Impressionism. Through his relationships with Cézanne, Gauguin, and Signac, his influence over Vincent van Gogh, and late friendship with Matisse and other young artists, Pissarro was not only the hub of Impressionism, but of singular importance to post-Impressionist art, and that of the twentieth century.
8: Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot (14 January 1841 – 2 March 1895)
La Lecture (Reading)
This Impressionist essay on light, colour, and tranquillity features vivacious brush work. Together with Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot developed what was in effect a new genre of painting, depicting the intimate moments of everyday family life, particularly activities involving mothers and their helpers, and children. This emphasis on domestic scenes was an important part of the Impressionist agenda to paint the world as it is, and broadened the appeal of their paintings. They were among the first painters to offer art truly for all.
9: Vincent Willem van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890)
Starry Night over the Rhône
This serene and startingly colourful nocturne took painting from the heights of Impressionism towards several radical movements of the twentieth century. Vincent van Gogh’s late works were of profound influence to many painters, and he achieved more in those frantically productive three years than other great painters do in their entire working lives.
10: Paul Victor Jules Signac (11 November 1863 – 15 August 1935)
Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (La Bonne-Mère), Marseille
A luminous painting of the port of Marseille in dawn light, looking up towards the ‘Good Mother’ church, marks the height of both Neo-Impressionism and Fauvism. When Signac and successors first arrived on the Mediterranean coast, it was relatively unspoilt and many of today’s densely populated and popular resorts were still small fishing villages. As a technique, Divisionism (pointillism) had proved a dead end, but the vibrant studies of light and colour produced by Signac and others form a unique record of the Midi at that time, and had a lasting impact on painting.
11: John Singer Sargent (12 January 1856 – 14 April 1925)
Dolce Far Niente (Sweet Nothing, Pleasant Idleness)
This startlingly realistic depiction of idle moments by the side of an alpine stream is composed of bravura brush strokes, dabs and daubs of bright colour. But it is a carefully contrived illusion, in every respect. Although very popular with patrons, critics, and the public at the time, and successful at the Salon and Royal Academy, proponents of Cubism and more modern art during the middle of the twentieth century took a dim view of Sargent’s work. This has fortunately changed over the last few decades, when he became a (realist) painter’s painter. This work is typical of Sargent at his very best, with its distinctive passages of water and white fabrics, rich light and colour.
Sadly, all those painters who I wanted to feature after Sargent – including Pierre Bonnard, Marc Chagall, and others more recent – are still covered by copyright, and it would therefore not be legal to show images of their work. In any case it is perhaps better to leave the future to establish whether their work is in the same league as those above. I will be adding more articles to this series, covering others who are no longer subject to copyright restrictions, in coming weeks. If you have suggestions for painters or paintings which you would like to see included, please let me know.