This is not a list of the ten most outstanding artists in the History of Art; rather it is a list of artists who have particularly appealed to me and have had some effect on my painting.
Titian 1488 - 1576
I have excluded painters from the early Italian Renaissance, not because I don't like them but because their message for me is a spiritual one rather than one connected with the practicalities of painting. With the later Renaissance, it was hard choosing because Bellini, Veronese and Tintoretto are also great favourites.
Titian won out in the end because he combines so many aspects of painting. Composition, colour, his feeling for soft shapes and his wonderful portraits, his handling of rich textiles, and ultimately his simplicity and restraint - these are why I like him so much. The female nudes in the Prado in Madrid are wonderful paintings.
Chardin 1699 - 1779
A century later than Titian, the French painter Chardin has a certain amount in common in the way of composition and simplicity, but Chardin's subject matter is more restrained. There are no large figure compositions on the heroic scale. Instead, breaking with the standards of his time, he painted humble subjects, servants, governesses, children, loaves of bread, pieces of fish and meat, pottery jugs - even a cat about to pounce on some fish in a shop!
Ordinary people doing ordinary tasks like drawing water out of a copper cistern and his paintings are marvellous for their freshness, simplicity and the elusive quality of innocence. Chardin seemed to be able to convey the maximum with the minimum of means.
He was an influence on the Impressionists.
Turner 1775 - 1851
Turner was more of a bravura painter - a staggering talent and a huge diversity ranging from complex compositions of classical mythology, storms, land and sea battles, distorted and exaggerated landscapes, to the simple and serene works of his old age. He was undoubtedly one of the giants of the nineteenth century with a huge influence on the Romantic Movement.
In his later work he anticipated the Impressionists. I like his late landscapes and seascapes and the sense of energy and dynamism in paintings like "Snow Storm - Steamboat off a Harbour's Mouth".
He was also a brilliant watercolourist producing finely detailed topographical landscapes as well as quick sketches which summed up the feeling of the place, the sky and the sunset. It was one of his large watercolours of the St Gotthard Pass that first inspired me to paint on a larger scale. Turner is doubtless one of many people's favourite watercolour artists.
Constable 1776 - 1837
Almost an exact contemporary of Turner, Constable stands in his shadow because his range of subject matter was much smaller. As he was less successful than Turner, he turned out a certain numbers of paintings dominated by the desire for recognition rather than expression of his own vision; this has diminished his reputation.
He was primarily a landscape painter and as such his paintings have an intensity of feeling as well as fidelity to his subject which put him, in my estimation on the same level as Turner. His accuracy when painting clouds has been used by present day scientists studying weather patterns, yet he never lost the overall organization of the paintings and he was never a slave to detail.
Constable's paintings of Salisbury Cathedral and the late Hadleigh Castle are magnificent, and so are his watercolours.
Cotman 1782 - 1842
Cotman is the only painter in this group who painted almost exclusively in watercolour. His pared-down style, simplifying forms in a technique called "pattern making" is a brilliant expression of skill in organization, as in the paintings "Greta Bridge", "Dolgelly" and "Mountain Pass in the Tyrol". In his later years he abandoned "pattern making" but retained the same simplicity and economy, in such works as "Mont St.Michel". He managed to combine a controlled composition with a sense of feeling for the atmosphere of a place.
Monet 1840 - 1926
Towards the end of the 19th century, there occurred a process of fragmentation in the content of painting, which has continued into the 20th century. What has happened is that the various component of holistic art such as composition, image, energy, feeling, have emerged as separate elements and we get the rise of "isms". This started with Impressionism and Expressionism and diversified further with all the "isms" of Modern Art.
Cezanne, 1839-1906, was probably one of the last of the holistic painters, combining abstract design with image and feeling. I have not included him on my list because I do not like his colours as much as Monet's. Monet's composition may not put him in the ranks of the Very Greatest Artists, but I don't mind because colour is very important to me and his sense of colour is superb. I love his series paintings - haystacks, Rouen Cathedral and water lilies. His supreme gift was his sensitivity to tone - his tonal accuracy gives his paintings their remarkable sense of actuality.
Bonnard 1867 - 1947
If Monet, in his late work, went over the edge of Impressionism into the first fringes of Expressionism, Bonnard went even further. He painted his wife in a bath, many times. The paintings and the colours are quite magical.
For years I have wanted a bathroom like that with tiles in a huge range of brilliant colours. When I saw a photo of his actual bathroom, I was quite shocked to see that it was a conventional plain bathroom with white tiles!
The colours were all in his imagination; but what an imagination! The colours are exuberant, the handling of the paint gentle and soft - the feeling is of compassion and warmth.
Gwen John 1876 - 1939
Gwen John's colours are much more restrained. In fact restraint is the keynote of her painting. With a small range of subjects, interiors, still lifes, portraits of girls and nuns, her paintings have a quiet dignity, a stillness and a timelessness. More than almost any other painter she was skilled in the art of editing. She knew what to leave out. Just the essentials of what she felt to be the essence of a scene.
I find her paintings of her garret in Paris particularly moving. A small bunch of flowers on a small table in the dormer window with the sun coming in through the lace curtain and warming up the wall. I just don't know what the magic is - how it is that she can say so much with so little!
Paul Klee 1879 - 1940
Paul Klee stands at the other end of the spectrum from Bonnard. His paintings are highly cerebral. Some of them have an image and some are completely without, but the images are vestigial, like sign language, or children's drawings, rather than impressions drawn from life and they are often very jokey. Much influenced by music, (he played the violin), his paintings contain rhythms and proportion often carefully calculated from music.
Although he was so different from Bonnard, he was also an expert on colour. He had a great love of the superimposed translucent layers that can only be obtained with watercolour.
All this shows in his famous watercolour, "Battle Scene from the Comic Operatic Fantasy 'The Seafarer' ".
Sometimes the image disappeared completely as in his series of patches of colour. But the arranging and pitching of the colours produces something far richer and more subtle than the patchwork which they suggest. His work anticipated the work of many of the modern masters but he was much greater than his followers.
Winifred Nicholson 1893 - 1981
Unlike Gwen John, Winifred Nicholson enjoyed success and recognition during her lifetime. She was in a circle of most of the famous artists of her day, shared their theories and was influenced by their styles. When she freed herself from these and painted for herself, her work has a radiant innocence which few of her many imitators have managed to replicate (though many of their paintings have become greetings cards).
I love her painting of her children in the bath - not as easy to paint as Bonnard's wife because children don't keep still. She captures their movement brilliantly. In "Cheeky Chicks" she manages to convey the fleeting sunshine of the Hebridean landscape, the movement of the hens and the delicacy of a bunch of wild flowers in a jar on a window ledge.
But my most favourite of all has to be "Eigg, Candle" a visionary painting in vibrant, pulsating colour, of a candle in a window with a view of a larch grove just beyond. Done in her last years at a time when she was experimenting with pure spectrum colour, this painting is about life - a final surge of optimism and good feeling.
Copyright © 2016 Christian Wharton. All rights reserved.