THE 100 GREATEST ARTWORKS OF ALL TIME – Culture | Art – The Telegraph – Mark Hudson

I was at lunch in Florence one rather grey day last year, awaiting dessert, when I realised I was sitting just a few streets away from the Brancacci Chapel, home to Masaccio’s frescoes of scenes from the life of St Peter. Created in 1420, they were the first paintings to make use of perspective, paving the way for Leonardo and Michelangelo, and have been one of my artistic touchstones since I first saw them at the age of 18.


I had a train in an hour. The chapel was a five-minute walk – no, run – away. Pudding was panna cotta. I love panna cotta, but I was out of that restaurant in seconds. I might have missed the world’s best “baked cream”, but, I assure you, the experience of those frescoes was worth it.


The 100 works listed here encompass a huge range of forms and styles, but my first criterion in choosing them was, would they pass the Panna Cotta Test? I’d like to think every entry here would – though there may be a few that surprise you.


If I’d been asked to list the 100 greatest artworks 200 years ago – or even 100 – we’d have been looking for pieces that belonged to an unassailable canon, based on the study of Michelangelo, Raphael and the ancient Greeks and Romans. The standards of great art were fixed.


Since the advent of modernism in the 1860s, however, virtually the first thing we ask of art is whether it’s doing anything new, moving forward the great narrative of creation


This attitude applies as much to the art of the past as to our own time. Looking at a piece of, say, medieval sculpture, we want to know not just that it’s a fine piece of craftsmanship, but that it contributed, in however small a way, to the development of human culture.


We look back on the history of art as a succession of incremental developments, punctuated by moments of seismic change. Those artists who are agreed to have “changed everything forever” – the Turners and Picassos – tower like titans.


And my list reflects that – to a degree. Yet alongside the big noises – Leonardo, Titian, Matisse – I’ve made space for figures who are less shouty, who couldn’t claim to have “shaken everything up”, but who refined existing genres in a way that is essential to what art has become – the fabulous 18th-century French still-life painter Chardin is one of those.


Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, in art, nothing is forever. Yet, our criteria for judging works of art remain remarkably constant. We still value skill, for one, the instinctive dexterity that comes from pursuing an activity all day, every day for decades. Looking at a late drawing by Degas, for instance, we understand that there’s half a century of graft behind his ability to capture the the rhythms of human movement in a few impulsive lines.


We want our art to have depth, to have many layers and resonances, for its meaning to go right through to the core of the work, even if we don’t know quite where or what the core is, or why. Velázquez's truly monumental 1656 painting Las Meninas has many dimensions of thought and meaning behind it, but so does Marcel Duchamp ' s 1917 Fountain –simply a porcelain urinal that the father of conceptual art signed “R. Mutt” – and so does Tracey Emin’s bed. Am I saying that Emin is as “good” as Velázquez? No, I'm not, but we do need art that speaks to our time, that provokes us with the messy ephemera of everyday life, whether or not history decides it was a masterpiece.


It would have been relatively straightforward to group the list according to genre – the best still-lifes, the best portraits, and so on – but works of art are remarkable for the way they transcend rather than adhere to these tired categories. Instead, I’ve opted for more over-arching themes.


More difficult was restricting the number of works by individual artists. How do you decide between Michelangelo as painter and Michelangelo as sculptor? Between Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1534) and Diana and Actaeon (1559)? Not allowing space for both would have distorted the list’s perspective on what art has been. But I limited myself to two works per artist – and then only in remarkable cases.


Above all, I wanted a list that reflected art’s ability, whether sculpture or painting, photography or performance, to tackle and challenge every aspect of human experience; to reflect many moods and states of mind. To encompass sex, violence and politics, but also stillness and tenderness, the profound as well as the breathtakingly ordinary.


If you want to put any of these works to the Panna Cotta Test, I’d be happy to provide a complimentary pudding. No, seriously, you'll have to take my word for it. But they are all, I promise, absolutely worth it.


The Top 10


10: The Seagram Murals – Mark Rothko, 1958

This suite of eight large abstract paintings in sombre blacks and maroons creates a sense of engulfing mystery that is among the most powerful spiritual experiences that modern art can offer. Tate


9: Snow Storm – J M W Turner, 1842

We’re taken right into the eye of the storm in this maelstrom of a painting. No one got more weather onto canvas than the proto-impressionist  Turner. Tate


8: The Piano Lesson – Henri Matisse, 1916

Time, as well as space, feels fragmented in this deceptively placid scene that seems to slice reality apart in an austere, yet very personal riposte to Picasso’s cubism. Museum of Modern Art, New York


7: Garden of the Asylum – Vincent van Gogh, 1889

As van Gogh closed the door on his own life, he ushered in 20th-century expressionism in this misleadingly tranquil garden scene (pictured at the top of this article), painted just months before his suicide, in which every pulsing brush mark reflects his inner torment. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

6: Guernica – Pablo Picasso, 1937

Picasso, typically, fused his personal mythology (the bullfight, the face of his lover Dora Maar) with major political events (the bombing of a village during the Spanish Civil War), in this still overwhelming painting of political protest painting. While the Spanish artist Picasso spent decades noodling on personal and art historical themes, he showed here that he could – when needed – respond to the great issues of the day on a truly monumental scale. Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid

5: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters – Francisco Goya, 1799

Both a political warning to Spain’s liberals and a semi- comic account of the way we all feel on a bad day. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


4: The Deposition – Michelangelo, 1547-1555

Michelangelo cast himself as Nicodemus, towering over the dead Christ, then smashed to pieces this late, great sculpture to pieces in a fit of rage. Even in its unevenly restored current state, it remains one of the Italian master’s most enigmatic and moving works. Museo del Duomo, Florence


3: Self-Portrait, aged 51 – Rembrandt van Rijn, 1657

Rembrandt’s 40 self-portraits, some dewy-eyed, others tetchily resigned (like this), represent art’s most penetrating self- examination. National Gallery of Scotland


2: Diana and Actaeon – Titian, 1556-59

Actaeon dooms himself by casting light on divine ï¬‚esh in this fabulously complex work,  which feels like a manifesto for the art  of painting itself in every shimmering surface. Scottish National Gallery/National Gallery, London

1: Brancacci Chapel – Masaccio, 1425-28

Masaccio’s pioneering use of perspective and anatomy gave these Old and New Testament scenes in Florence an unprecedented spatial depth and realism, making them a pivotal moment in art, and hugely influential. Yet ultimately it’s the sense of humanity, a timeless simplicity and dignity, that still moves us 600 years on. Brancacci Chapel, Florence



Family Values


The Arnolfini Portrait – Jan van Eyck, 1434

Van Eyck’s meticulous realism still startles. While his subtle use of light and space changed painting forever, it’s the tenderness of the merchant and his wife that lingers in the mind. National Gallery


Las Meninas – Diego Velázquez, 1656

It’s a case of who’s watching whom in this enigmatic tour de force, in which the painter paints himself painting a young princess and her maids. Prado, Madrid

Mr and Mrs Andrews – Thomas Gainsborough, 1750

The great British portraitist invests property-owning with profundity in this impish study of landowners, set in a glorious English landscape. National Gallery, London


Family Group – Henry Moore, 1950

Moore’s family sculptures are at once celebrations of the birth of his only child, and affirmations, in the aftermath of the Second World War, of universal human values. Barclay School, Stevenage


The Artist is Present – Marina Abramovic, 2010

The moment, recorded in video, when the Serbian artist opened her eyes during a performance and found herself looking at her former lover, Ulay – with whom she was then in litigation – is one of the most perplexingly poignant in art.



The Human Factor


Pope Innocent X – Diego Velázquez, 1650

Pride and power enthroned in an electrifying portrait that reveals far more than the subject intended. Galeria Doria Pamphilj, Rome


Maharaja Bhupat Pal Smoking a Hookah – Unknown artist, c 1685

Things are ordered according to how they feel rather than how they look in this intensely coloured portrait of an Indian potentate. Howard Hodgkin Collection/Ashmolean Museum

Pierrot (Gilles) – Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1718-19

The setting may be romantically archaic – commedia dell’arte in a grand garden – but the poignant uncertainty in the face and posture of this sad clown make this one of the first truly modern portraits. Louvre, Paris

Doña Antonia Zárate – Francisco Goya, 1805

Dominated by the subject’s sad, grave eyes, this still-powerful female portrait is a hypnotic study in black, yellow, umber and the pearly texture of the subject’s skin. National Gallery of Ireland

Portrait of Monsieur Bertin – J A D Ingres, 1832

Once-influential political journalist Louis-François Bertin lives on as the formidable, hulking presence in Ingres’s greatest portrait. Crisp brushwork and stark lighting ensures thatmake his unflinching stare remains frighteningly real. Louvre, Paris


John Minton – Lucian Freud, 1952

The tremulous fragility of the subject, a brilliantly talented but tortured painter, seems to breathe through the translucent textures of this heart-rending portrait. A close friend of the artist, Minton killed himself five years later. Royal College of Art




Everyday Stuff


Les Très Riches Heures – The Limbourg Brothers, 1412-16

This vision of the medieval cycle of the seasons finds space, alongside its courtly pageants, for moments of touching realism, from tending pigs to snuggling up in a snowbound peasant hut. Musee Conde, Chantilly

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter – Johannes Vermeer, 1663-64

Whether she’s reading a billet-doux or a shopping list, it’s the subject’s concentration that makes us want to concentrate on her in this understated study in the art of looking. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Bal du Moulin de la Galette – Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1876

Life-enhancing impressionist light and colour bathe this scene of urban leisure – a Sunday spent relaxing in the local pub garden – in art’s ï¬rst great celebration of “le weekend”. Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Still Life with Five Objects – Giorgio Morandi, 1956

The Italian painter spent decades in near-seclusion, imbuing mundane domestic objects with a monumental scale and weight, as in this exquisite etching, rendered entirely in dense criss-crossing lines. Estorick Collection, London


Monogram – Robert Rauschenberg, 1955-59

Created with materials scavenged on the Manhattan streets – in this case, a stuffed goat rammed through a tyre – the most famous of Rauschenberg’s “combines” testifies to his determination to get “today” into his art as directly as possible. Museum of Modern Art, New York



Thinking Big


Mên-an-Tol – Unknown artist, c 3200 BC

Hewn from Cornish granite, this primal exposition of the human generative principle, found in a field near Land’s End, can’t be beaten for graphic simplicity. Near Morvah, Cornwall


Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? – Paul Gauguin, 1897-98

Distraught at the death of his daughter, Gauguin asked life’s big questions in this symbolist masterpiece with its sumptuously sensual panorama of Tahitian life. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Merzbau – Kurt Schwitters, 1923-37

The madcap Dadaist turned life into art in a vast cubistic assemblage of scrap-materials that penetrated eight rooms of his parental home, before it was destroyed in an Allied raid in 1943. Sprengel Museum, Hannover (Reconstruction)

Fushimi Inari-taisha – Unknown artist, 711

Less a Shinto shrine, more a vast art installation with 10,000 brilliant orange torii (gateways), snaking up a hillside above Kyoto. Like much of Japanese aesthetics, this feels like modernism centuries before the event. Kyoto, Japan



The Search for Identity


Human Hand – Unknown artist, c 37,000 BC

This ancient handprint, one of many on cave walls around the world, speaks in a hauntingly intimate way of our everlasting urge to imprint ourselves on our surroundings. Cantabria, Spain


Vitruvian Man – Leonardo da Vinci, c 1490

“Man is the measure of all things” summed up in a brilliantly simple graphic formula that has become a sort of logo for the humanist ideal, inspiring everything from Dan Brown’s thriller novels and film adaptations to Le Corbusier’s modernist architecture. Accademia, Venice

Self-Portrait – Vincent van Gogh, 1889

The tormented universe of the immortal Vincent van Gogh feels nowhere more real than in this intense, but formidably controlled, self-portrait. Musée d'Orsay, Paris

The Scream – Edvard Munch, 1893

The unbearable anguish of the modern everyman, reduced to a hairless cipher, in the face of what the artist described as the “infinite scream passing through nature.” National Gallery, Oslo

A Rake’s Progress – David Hockney, 1961-3

Hockney’s flair for juxtaposing wildly disparate visual styles is gleefully to the fore in these razor-sharp etchings, which transpose Hogarth’s cautionary tale to the lonely world of Sixties gay Manhattan, with the artist himself in the central role. Tate


Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams – Ibrahim El-Salahi, 1961-65

The Sudanese painter transmutes childhood memories through the looping forms of traditional Arabic calligraphy in a piece of haunting and highly personal African surrealism. Tate

My Bed – Tracey Emin, 1998

Emin’s recreation of her ï¬lthy, rumpled double bed is now 20 years old, but it has retained its edgy humour and capacity to provoke. If “anything can be art”, then why not Emin’s dog ends and sanitary towels? Tate



Time, Form, Space


Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress – Paul Cézanne, 1888–1890

Cezanne sent art on a new path within his 29 portraits of his wife, deconstructing form, merging foreground and background, and paving the way for cubism. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Blue Poles – Jackson Pollock, 1952

Frantically dense layers of dripped and spattered paint are lent cohesion by the eponymous poles dividing the surface of this abstract expressionist masterwork. National Gallery of Australia

Early One Morning – Anthony Caro, 1962

There’s a joyous spontaneity to Caro’s improvisatory interplay of lines, planes and space in welded steel and aluminium. Placing his works directly on the floor and painting them in household gloss, the English artist jettisoned centuries of sculptural tradition. Tate


Untitled – Donald Judd, 1980-84

Space, edge, surface, material – the American minimalist’s primary elements are given their most dramatic exposition in a concrete installation in the Texan desert. Marfa, Texas


The Clock – Christian Marclay, 2010

This brilliantly conceived 24-hour timepiece in the form of a montage of film clips, each featuring a clock and synchronised to real time, has proved one of the most popular works of art of the 21st century. Tate



Carnal Knowledge


The Venus of Urbino – Titian, 1532-34

The frank, yet ambiguous gaze of the ultimate pin-up still challenges in the age of #MeToo. Who is looking at whom in this game of amorous illusion? Uffizi, Florence

Ecstasy of Saint Theresa – Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1647-52

Every exquisite marble detail contributes to a sense of rapture that is more than metaphysical in a baroque masterpiece, set in the Cornaro Chapel at the Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome


A Woman Bathing in a Stream – Rembrandt van Rijn, 1654

Rembrandt’s frank and guilt-free enjoyment of his lover Hendrickje Stoffels’s body is captured in a few succinct brush strokes in this timeless, intimate image. National Gallery


Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow) – Kitagawa Utamaro, 1788

Less is more: it’s what you don’t see rather than what you do that makes this exquisite arrangement of pattern and drapery such a potent erotic masterpiece. British Museum

Woman Dozing on a Bed – Pierre Bonnard, 1899

Bonnard’s domestic studies form a shimmering stream of consciousness in which memory replaces observation. The ageing Mme Bonnard remained forever 20 years old twenty in her husband’s paintings. Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Anthropometries of the Blue Epoch – Yves Klein, 1960

Naked women rolled in blue paint stood in for brushes, dragging each other over canvases, in this era-defining performance and its resulting paintings. Pompidou Centre, Paris



Magical Mystery Tour


The School of Athens – Raphael, 1509-11

Classical philosophers meet renaissance superstars – including the artist himself – in a kind of neo-platonic Valhalla of the mind. Vatican Museums, Rome

Hunters in the Snow – Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565

You can practically hear the soft padding footsteps under the dead sky in this classic image of winter. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Ejiri in Suruga Province – Katsushika Hokusai, 1831

Sheets of paper blowing over a marshy landscape provide the focus for an image whose every line feels racked by gusting movement. British Museum

The Gare St-Lazare – Claude Monet, 1877

Amid billowing smoke and looming engine-sheds, Monet captures the excitement of a great railway station in this urban masterpiece. National Gallery, London

Madrid, Spain – Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1933

Modernist photography’s impulse towards abstraction meets gritty street photography in a “decisive moment” of pure visual poetry. Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris / Museum of Modern Art, New York

Amazon – Andreas Gursky, 2016

The mood of our consumer-fixated times is summed up in an enormous photograph of an Amazon warehouse, with the objects of our instant gratification stretching away in endless rows. It happens to be in Phoenix, Arizona, but it could be anywhere – and nowhere. Sprueth Magers



This Changes Everything


The Kiss of Judas – Giotto, 1304-065

Medieval art was given a transfusion of ambition and emotion in this fresco cycle on the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe – Édouard Manet, 1862-63

Manet restaged Titian’s romantic pastoral as a bohemian picnic in 19th century Paris, kick-starting the modern era with a scandal. Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – Pablo Picasso, 1907

Picasso’s vision of a Barcelona brothel whacked traditional notions of form into a delirium from which they never recovered. Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Black Square – Kazimir Malevich, 1915

Conceived as a modern icon, Malevich’s stripped-back form is now revered as the “ground zero” of modern art. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Fountain – Marcel Duchamp, 1917

The great trickster of French modernism ushered in the conceptual age by signing a mass-produced china urinal and calling it art. The original was thrown out with the rubbish. Tate (Replica)





A Pastoral Landscape – Claude Lorrain, 1645

Your can feel yourself unwind as you gaze at Claude’s exalted, golden-lit landscape. Barber Institute, Birmingham


The Hay Wain [oil sketch] – John Constable, 1821

The four-seasons-in-one-day character of the English light is beautifully nailed in this full-sized study – far more satisfying than the finished work. V&A


Contemplation Rock – Eadweard Muybridge, 1872

The pioneering photographer transported the viewer to inaccessible places, such as this remote Californian valley, and took an early “selfie” along the way.


Composition VI – Wassily Kandinsky, 1913

In the first full-scale abstract paintings, the Russian artist created internal landscapes that strain towards a spiritual dimension beyond the everyday. Hermitage, St Petersburg


Nymphèas – Claude Monet, 1920-26

The elderly Monet’s lily ponds capture the passage of time in sumptuous colour, spread over the walls of two magical, immersive oval rooms. Musee de l’Orangerie, Paris





Liberty Leading the People – Eugene Delacroix, 1830

Never mind the archaic symbolism, this is still the ultimate  street - fighting  painting, a rousing call to the barricades in which you can practically smell the gunpowder. Louvre, Paris

The Burghers of Calais – Auguste Rodin, 1884-9

Larger than life in every way, and bursting with anguish, this powerful tableau of six bronze medieval townsmen held hostage is the nearest that sculpture gets to the epic sweep of a great 19th-century novel. Victoria Tower Gardens, London


Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada… – Hannah Hoch, 1919

The liberal pretentions of Germany’s interwar government are skewered in this savagely inventive Dadaist photo-montage that presages everything from pop art to Monty Python. Staatliche Museen, Berlin

I Like America and America Likes Me – Joseph Beuys, 1974

In his simultaneous assault on and tribute to the “Land of the Free”, the German conceptual artist locked himself in a New York gallery with a live coyote. A collection of extraordinary photos record the encounter. Pompidou Centre, Paris

Straight – Ai Weiwei, 2008-12

Ninety-six tonnes of rusting steel, salvaged from schools destroyed in an earthquake then placed in undulating stacks, Straight is both a numbing meditation on loss and an indictment of the corruption and shoddy building that cost the lives of thousands. White Cube



Pure Form


Three Statues of Senusret III – Unknown artist, c 1860 BC

The hypnotic composure of these subtly differentiated black granite figures of a pharaoh is somehow enhanced by their shattered state. British Museum


Parthenon Marbles: River God – Phidias, 447-438 BC

This magnificent male figure shows that the fundamentals of sculpture don’t change much from one millennium to the next.


The Ife Head – Unknown Yoruba artist, c 1300

The elegance of this medieval Nigerian bronze proves that the “classical” sensibility isn’t confined to ancient Greece and Rome, but is a universal human attribute. British Museum


The Legend of the True Cross – Piero della Francesca, 1447-656

A strict, geometric calculation of space and proportion brings a sense of transcendent balance and harmony to these frescoes. Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo


Verre d’eau et cafetière – Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, 1760

Just a glass of water, a coffee pot and a few heads of garlic: simplicity brings a sense of almost existential modernity to this rococo still-life. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh


Tableau 1 – Piet Mondrian, 1921

Stripping art back to right angles and primary colours, Mondrian broke the mould of Western painting while harking back to classical ideals of harmony. Gemeentemuseum, The Hague



Shaking You Up


Object (Breakfast in Fur) – Méret Oppenheim, 1936

The surrealist desire to disconcert is unnervingly embodied in this fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon, which evoke a host of associations – a few enticing, most repulsive. Museum of Modern Art, New York


Autumn Cannibalism – Salvador Dalí, 1936

Whether you find it horrifying or hilarious, this darkly erotic image of a couple eating each other in a sun-blasted Spanish landscape is a fantastic showcase for Dalí’s hyper-surrealist style, rarely seen to such brilliant effect again. Tate


Fall – Bridget Riley, 1963

Traditional notions of form and space, depth and reality, are sent into a literally dizzying freefall in the greatest of Riley’s op art paintings. Tate


Cell (Eyes and Mirrors) – Louise Bourgeois, 1989-93

A pair of polished limestone eyeballs watch us from a large cage surrounded by distorting mirrors, in a chilling play on confinement, surveillance and oppressive power that reflects the artist’s own troubled background. Tate


The Women of the Revolution – Anselm Kiefer, 1992

To anyone with the slightest knowledge of 20th-century history, the German artist’s bleak installation of lines of lead-covered beds will bring an immediate chill. White Cube



Matters of the Spirit


Wooden Doors, St Maria im Kapitol, Cologne – Unknown artist, 1065

The cheeky exuberance of these carved vignettes of Christ’s life, spread across the panels of a set of early medieval doors, gives a poignant sense of art speaking to us across an immense expanse of time. St Maria im Kapitol, Cologne


Madonna of the Pear – Giovanni Bellini, 1488

The Venetian master returned endlessly to the subject of the serene Madonna with Child, the cool northern Italian light standing in for the glow of divine grace. This is one of his most delightful works. Accademia Carrara, Bergamo



Primavera – Sandro Botticelli, 1477-1482

The world feels forever young in in art’s best party painting, a pagan festival of spring with nymphs, goddesses and fertility symbols in profusion – though only one man, the god Mercury, has turned up. Uffizi, Florence

The Garden of Earthly Delights – Hieronymous Bosch, 1490-1510

Art’s ultimate trip. Whatever the meaning of this mind-blowing phantasmagoria – and no two scholars precisely agree – no work since has topped it for sheer hallucinatory invention. Prado, Madrid

Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple – Jacopo Tintoretto, 1552-3

The great Venetian showman-artist merges his painting with the surrounding architecture, bending perspective to positively surreal effect in this overpowering visionary scene. Madonna Dell Orto, Venice

Christ in the House of his Parents – John Everett Millais, 1849-50

Despite the strange stylisation and whiff of Victorian sentimentality, a genuine and slightly eerie spirituality runs through this early Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece. Tate



Body Works


Study of Nudes – Edgar Degas, c .1901

It may look hurried, but there’s an elastic tension and energy in every line of this meticulously observed chalk drawing by the impressionist master. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Black Monkey Mask – Dogon People, Mali, early 20th century

The haunting, quasi-human face of this radically abstracted animal mask speaks volumes about why African sculpture was such a crucial influence on the early modern artists. Musee Quai Branly, Paris


The Big Toe – Jacques-André Boiffard, 1929

The  human toe becomes a sinister, almost alien form in this perverse photographic masterpiece. The antithesis of idealised beauty, the toe is also the part of the body that keeps us upright, and thus the most essential to our humanity.



These Violent Delights


The Martyrdom of St Matthew – Caravaggio, 1599-1600

The baroque wild man captures a moment of religious high drama with the immediacy of violent TV reportage in one of the most disturbing and compelling of his starkly lit tableaux. San Luigi dei Francese, Rome


The Tiger Hunt – Peter Paul Rubens, 1615

With its leaping tigers, rearing horses, screaming tongues and bulging eyes, this riotous animal hunt is a bravura display of Rubens’ terrifying muscular energy. He’s the undisputed master of action-entertainment. Musee des Beaux Arts de Rennes, France


Judith Beheading Holofernes – Artemisia Gentileschi, c 1620

Baroque violence from the woman’s perspective, as the artist portrays herself as the young Jewish heroine beheading the general of the invading Babylonians in an image of extraordinarily gruesome ferocity. Uffizi, Florence


A Rake’s Progress – William Hogarth, 1734

A young man’s descent from cheerful dandy to the madhouse is captured in riotous detail over a series of eight engravings. Hogarth’s scabrous, mass-produced indictments of urban life have served as a model for dissenting artists ever since. British Museum



Last Rite


The Last Judgement – Gislebertus, 1120-1135

The medieval mason offers both a terrifying vision of the after-life and a reassertion of the heroic values of western sculpture in this awe-inspiring cathedral portal in Autun, France. Autun Cathedral, France


The Last Judgement – Michelangelo, 1536-41

This vast apocalyptic vision aims for the ultimate in a way that is unimaginable in art today. If parts look clunky to us now, the scale and intensity of it is still overwhelming. Sistine Chapel, Rome


Totes Meer (Dead Sea) – Paul Nash, 1940

The pomp of Nazi blitzkrieg is reduced to a moonlit waste of shattered plane-parts (observed by Nash at a salvage dump near Oxford) in this haunting testament to the futility of war. Tate


Jazz – Henri Matisse, 1947

Confined to a wheelchair and armed only with coloured paper and a pair of scissors, the aged Matisse created some of the most exuberant works of the century. Pompidou Centre, Paris


Study After Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X – Francis Bacon, 1953

The flamboyant bad-boy merged a Velásquez papal portrait with an Eisenstein still of a woman shot in the eye in this savagely sensational embodiment of 20th-century violence, which is somehow, like all his work, still guiltily pleasurable. Des Moines Art Center, Iowa


Marilyn Monroe - Andy Warhol, 1967

Beautiful, sinister, hypnotic, callous? Warhol’s silk-screened paintings have lost none of their ambiguous power, exemplified by this image of a tragic superstar. Museum of Modern Art, New York

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