Ten London masterpieces

From Vincent van Gogh's luminous Sunflowers at the National Gallery to Gwen John's arresting Nude Girl at Tate Britain; enjoy these remarkable works.


Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533

  • The National Gallery, Room 4
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

Hans Holbein painted The Ambassadors during Britain's great renaissance as the country was becoming key player on the world's stage, yet it is suffused with darkness. The Ambassadors depicts two young men standing by a table containing objects that represent the great enlightenment; travel, knowledge, music and the arts, yet in the foreground is a monstrously distorted image that, when seen from a certain angle, reveals itself to be a skull. Holbein was the court painter who dared to paint the truth, life is death, he said, and all the instruments and knowledge in the world cannot change that.


Francis Bacon, Three figures at the base of a Crucifixion, c. 1944

  • Tate Britain, Room: 1940
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

Francis Bacon's brutal requiem for art and god depicts a triptych of screaming monsters. First exhibited in 1945, it secured his reputation as Britain's enfant terrible. The French surrealists inspired Bacon to create this alien abomination. The British artist transformed the movement's dream-like narratives into this sweltering nightmare in which wrathful grey-fleshed creatures writhe theatrically against an unholy orange background. Bacon painted this primal scream of repulsion at the end of the Second World War, as Europe awoke to the reality of the death camps. No other art work encapsulates the sheer horror of the moment better.


Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of the Artist with two circles, c. 1665-69

  • Kenwood House
  • Free entry to all

Rembrandt was the artist who made the portrait philosophical and here he paints himself in all his craggy truthfulness, a masterful work of art. By the age of 59 Rembrandt was bankrupt. A life of careless spending had reduced him to poverty, and he paints this picture from the depths of his failure. It is a melancholy work, yet there is also dignity here. Locked in his epic battle with truth he confronts his own ruin and paints it as he sees it. In those warm golds and browns he emerges, not as a tragic figure, but as an artist stripped of everything but the light and darkness of creativity.


Gwen John, Nude Girl, 1909-10

  • Tate Britain, Room: 1900
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

A profoundly deliberate painter, Gwen John offers the viewer an audacious view of womanhood stripped bare, and it is calculated to shock. Skinny, ascetic, with skin the colour of alabaster, Fenella Lovell is depicted against a dingy wall, the unwilling victim of Gwen John's gaze. She is not nude, but naked, a lean-faced pale creature trapped in John's paired down palette of foggy greys, greens and yellows. This painting was made between 1909 and 1910, three years into John's love affair with Auguste Rodin and five years after her insane mission to walk to Rome, which reduced her to a half-crazed, half-starved wreck.


Elgin Marbles, 447-432 BC

  • British Museum, Room 18
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

The most beautiful and mysterious images of the human form in the world, these goddesses of marble, carved for the Parthenon in Athens continue to inspire wonder. The ancient Greeks created these extraordinary sculptures for the temple to Athena. A synthesis of mass and grace, they are objects of stunning beauty. From the musculature torso of the centaur to the exquisite draping of fabric on the reclining goddesses. Over the next thousand years, the sculptures suffered extreme damage as the city was laid under various sieges. In the 1800s Lord Elgin brought the marbles to the British Museum where they remain today.


Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888

  • National Gallery, Room 45
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

Among the most famous paintings in the world, Van Gogh's Sunflowers are an iconic work representative of the artist's creative powers at their height. Vincent van Gogh painted six sunflower pictures in total, two while in Paris and four in a frenzied burst of activity in 1888, two years before his tragic suicide. The National Gallery owns a later one, made in Arles while the artist was waiting for Paul Gaugin to arrive. Inspired by the decorative strength of Japanese prints, the yellow flowers are richly textured and shimmer like gold fabric. "My paintings are..." he wrote "a cry of anguish while symbolising gratitude in the rustic sunflower."


David Bomberg, The Mud Bath, 1914

  • Tate Britain, Room: 19140
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

When this painting was first exhibited it stopped traffic, a paroxysm of red, white and blue, it is as if the union jack is having convulsions. David Bomberg created this masterpiece in 1914, inspired by the public steam rooms on Brick lane in East London. Yet his decision to paint the water a crimson red, and the people as twisted, machine-like forms proved prophetic, as within months the First World War had turned into a blood bath. A hugely influential figure in British abstraction, Frank Auerbach described Bomberg as “the most original, stubborn, radical intelligence that was to be found in art schools".


Piero della Francesca,The Baptism of Christ, c.1450

  • National Gallery, Room 66
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

This strikingly original depiction of Christ by the 15th century painter is set in Umbria in the artist's own time and has an invincible calm authority. Piero della Francesca's enigmatic picture of Christ, pale and statuesque, surrounded by a gathering of priests and angels is one of the most beautiful paintings in the world. The picture was commissioned for a church in Borgo, Sansepolcro and it is an uncannily perfect composition. Jesus is placed next to a walnut tree that stretches out its foliage to make a protective arch over the son of god.


Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère,1882

  • The Courtauld Gallery, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism gallery
  • Free entry with National Art Pass

The world through a glass darkly, the cruelty and glamour of modern life is encapsulated in this melancholy portrait of isolation painted by the radical Impressionist artist Edouard Manet. When Manet first exhibited this picture in 1882 the critics were disconcerted by the expression on the young woman's face. Was it detachment? boredom? sadness? Suzon, the barmaid, stands alone in a crowded room, alienated from the drinkers that surround her. Their reflections in the mirror, coarse, quickly painted, seem to compound her estrangement. Manet painted the cold allure of contemporary Paris with a sober intensity. He held up a mirror to the viewer and presented them with the tragedy of the modern condition.


Sir Jacob Epstein, Jacob and the Angel, 1940-1

  • Tate Britain, Room: 1940
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

No one wanted this sculpture when it was first exhibited, considered too ugly, too cannibal, it languished as a sideshow in a Blackpool funfair, yet there is no escaping its forceful primitivist realism. Jacob Epstein produced this monumental alabaster carving during the Second World War and it depicts an episode from the book of Genesis when Jacob, at a crisis in his life, wrestles through the night with an angel. Its muscular eroticism is bold and transgressive, and, it seems, far too carnal for the public’s tastes in 1941. Epstein was never afraid of confronting the primordial nature of man, and he did it with a demonic fervor that is impossible to ignore.

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