Monday, June 30, 2014

Artist rankings (enlarged version)


Recently the practice of ranking creative figures (great artists, great composers, great writers) has attracted criticism. "Greatness" has been denounced as elitist and patriarchal.   The term canon has commonly served at the focus of these debates.
As a matter of theory and policy one may reach various conclusions on this issue. It is hard to deny, though, that in our daily intercourse with works of art we observe certain practical principles of selectivity. That is to say, we choose - most of us - to allocate our time to Rembrandt van Rijn and not to Rombouts (whether Gillis or Salomon); to Cézanne and not to Puvis de Chavannes. 

These choices are not merely arbitrary, but seem to reflect an inherent sense, confirmed by experience, that the works of some artists are simply more rewarding than those of others. Moreover, museum curators must decide - and justify - what objects are to be shown and which ones must remain in storage. 

A major element in this discrimination process is the relative fame of artists, for this factor affects what the public expects to see. So whether its legitimacy  is acknowledged or not, the principle of ranking artists persists.  That is not to say, however, that its effects have always been benign.


A difficult question is this:  How does an individual artist become a candidate for inclusion in the lists? Those who compile them hold, as a rule, that the issue of quality is the sole determinant.  Of course it is hard to promote an artist who is truly mediocre.  On the other hand, it is possible to imagine that the pool of candidates is almost always larger than the elite corps of those who are lucky enough to enter the winner's circle.  

Astute PR has often played a role.  For example, Michelangelo benefited from the advocacy of two gifted biographers, Ascanio Condivi and Giorgio Vasari.  In recent decades the advocacy of eloquent critics like Clement Greenberg and Rosalind Krauss has been crucial in consolidating the status of some contemporary artists.  The art magazines, and increasingly online journals, play an important role.  Major collectors, almost by definition, have a vested interest in seeing the reputations of artists in whose work they have important holdings be confirmed and grow.

In the past - and so too today - having good connections, especially those leading to the patronage of the powerful and the wealthy, always helped.  Some artists benefitted from promotion as ornaments of their city and nation.  For this reason, Florentines early became prominent in the Italian Renaissance.  Although, he spent much of his life in Italy, Nicolas Poussin was cherished as a quintessentially French artist. In the middle years of the twentieth century, the abstract expressionists were aggressively promoted as "American-type" painting.

In recent times the role of galleries, critics, and art fairs has been vital in fostering the status of artists.  These institutions too are ranked, so that being shown in a major gallery is more significant than in a minor one. Although art is truly international now, still it helps to have a base in a prominent center, preeminently New York and London.  Today, many condemn the influence of big money as a distorting factor.  

Over time, it is sometimes maintained, the effect of such distortions will be effaced by the "test of time."  A noted  exposition of this idea is found in Culture and Anarchy (1869) by the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888).  Arnold held that over time a stable canon of masterworks had been crafted through a sustained, intergenerational effort.   In that light, we may confidently devote ourselves to the redeeming project he envisaged.  "The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the greatest help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which concern us most, the best that has been thought and said in the world."

The test of time has succeeded in establishing, or so it was long maintained, a stable and reliable canon of masterworks, tried and true.  That is so not just in literature, but in all the arts.  

Immediately, though, some skepticism is warranted. If the process has operated so perfectly, why has disagreement  arisen on what are regarded as the finest works?  This issue overlooked, Arnold's uplifting sentiment has enjoyed widespread support - at least until recent critiques by feminist and multiculturalists, who have flagged the dominance of dead white European males in such pantheons.  

Yet there may be a subtractive benefit, as it were, for the process of examination for suitability has served to banish works that seemed worthy, even perhaps inspiring, at the time of their creation, but which failed to maintain their status over time.  In this way, the  winnowing process has allowed critical opinion to exclude the works of artists, popular in their time, but not in fact turn endowed with staying power.  These individuals were short sprinters.   After World War II, the French artists Raoul Dufy and Bernard Buffet were held in high esteem.  Yet no longer.  

Still, it may be questioned whether this winnowing process always works as it should.  In some judgments artists who are maintaining fame do not deserve the high status they have kept.  The needs of the market, and powerful advocates, sustain them.  Less fortunate, other creative figures languish in obscurity, notwithstanding the earnest efforts of their supporters

In all this,  it remains important to acknowledge that subjective factors continue to play an important role.


Turning now to the question of origins, why did the modern practice of compiling lists of excellent artists begin in Renaissance Italy?  The answer lies in the spread and increasing acceptance of the concept of fame.  During this era individuals were celebrated for significant achievements in public affairs and increasingly also in the arts. This cult of “famous men” was largely inspired by ancient Greek and Roman ideas. The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374), one of the first to take a renewed interest in classical antiquity, recorded the feats of heroic men in his De Viris Illustribus (On Famous Men), written in 1347 and modeled on the works of the Roman historian Livy. Still traditionally oriented, this book focused on military and political heroes from antiquity.

Taken up by subsequent writers and artists, sequences of “famous men” (and occasionally women) sometimes embraced literary as well as military figures. For example, the mid-fifteenth-century frescoes decorating the Villa Carducci in Legnaia by the Florentine artist Andrea del Castagno (d. 1457) included three military heroes, three famous women, and three major poets: Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio.  In fact, painters and sculptors had already been elevated to the status of “famous men” by Pliny the Elder in the account of ancient Greek artists incorporated into his Natural History, providing classical sanction for the high status claimed by Renaissance artists.
Despite their new prestige, many artists escaped the attention of the biographers, sometimes through historical accident and sometimes because their products lay outside the designated precincts of “high art,” as in the case of tapestry weavers or ceramists. During the Renaissance, countless other artists participated in a rich and varied commercial production that did not lend itself to individual renown because it involved collaborative practices and relatively standardized work.  Nonetheless, fame was a prerequisite for entry into the lists that are being discussed here.
Without attempting to be exhaustive, the following paper explores the historical tradition whereby a specific group of artists - a pantheon, if you will  - enjoyed the highest ranking at various epochs along the way. The following discussion will identify a series of links in a chain - or rather two chains, since there is a verbal and a visual tradition.  The figures singled out in these lists were the ultimate role models, setting standards all others should aspire to.  
Since Italy early took the lead in the effort to provide recognition for artists, it is not surprising that artists of that national origin predominated for a long time.  Even when the scope of the inquiry was expanded to include other Western nations, the purview was confined to Europe.  Yet comparative analysis discloses as  similar pattern  in the indigenous critical ranking of Chinese painting that is altogether independent.   However, non-Western artists will not be considered here.


1. LITERARY SOURCES.  Some of these references occur in writers on art. Others appear, incidentally but 
revealingly, in discussions of other matters. These are revealing, because evidently the writers expected 
that readers would accept them as a matter of course, part of the conventional wisdom, as it were.


Bartolomeo Fazio (or Facio; Fatius; ca. 1400-1457) was an Italian humanist  who worked mainly in the service of king Alfonso V in his court at Naples.  Embedded in his De viris illustribus (1456) - a compilation of more than ninety short accounts of famous men - are biographies of four artists: Pisanello, Gentile da Fabriano, Jan van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden.  These choices are notable for the fact that the two Italians are balanced with two Flemish artists.  Later Italian writers were less generous to the Northern school.
It is unlikely that Fazio meant for these four artists to stand alone at the summit of the art of painting; they are simply figures he found interesting.  For that reason his coverage, though enterprising, belongs to the prehistory of the lists of famous artists, and not to that history itself.  We owe the start of that history to another writer, the poet Ludovico Ariosto.
[See Michael Baxandall, “Bartolommeo Facius on Painting,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 27 (1964), pp. 90-107,]
Ludovico Ariosto  (1474-1532) was a major poet of the Italian Renaissance.  Born at Reggio Emilia, he first distinguished himself in the diplomatic service of the Este family in Ferrara.  In due course he turned to writing, creating several successful comedies.  His major work, however, was the Orlando Furioso This epic poem, a continuation of Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato, relates the fantastic adventures of Charlemagne, Orlando, and the Franks as they battle the Saracens.
The first edition of the epic in forty cantos was published in 1516; with a revised version, unchanged as to substance, appearing in 1521.  Today it is usually read in the final version of 1532.  For this issue Ariosto added eight new Cantos, including 32 and 33, of interest here.
Cantos 32 and 33 of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (in the final) concern the Castle of Tristan, remarkable for its murals that prophetically illustrate future events. In order to illustrate the power of artists, the poet gives two lists at the start of Canto 33: an ancient Greek one (derived from Pliny, Natural History, 33: 35-36) and a modern Italian one. The first sequence reads as follows: “Timagora, Parrasio, Polignoto, Protogene, Timante, Apollodoro, Apelle, più di questi noto, e Zeusi.” Although the works of these eight paragons have vanished, their fame still lives through literary praise. There follows in the second stanza a list of nine top artists of Ariosto’s own day: “Leonardo, Andrea Mantegna, Gian Bellino, duo Dossi, e quel ch’a par sculpe e colora, Michel, piu che mortale, angel divino; Bastiano [Sebastiano del Piombo], Rafael, Tiziano.“  Each list has one supreme master—Apelles and Michelangelo.  In this enumeration the two Dossi brothers, Dosso and Battista, strike us as interlopers.  Their inclusion is an act of boosterism since they were local boys.  We will encounter this kind of massaging of the lists repeatedly in the narrative that follows. 
As has been noted, this discussion, occupying the first two stanzas of Canto 33, does not appear in the two earlier versions of the epic. It was added in 1532. The question of why this insertion was timely in the early 1530s is puzzling. Perhaps it reflects a retrospective impulse.  Although several of the modern artists cited were still living, the sack of Rome in 1527 is generally recognized to mark the end of the high Renaissance in art.

Michelangelo Buonarroti is the only one of Ariosto’s all-stars who excelled as both sculptor and painter.  Ariosto may have been the first to call Michelangelo “il divino.”  That judgment was ratified, emphatically, by Giorgio Vasari, especially in the second edition of his Lives of 1568.

When Sir John Harrington published his English version of Ariosto’s Orlando 1591, he silently amended the list of modern greats. Leonardo da Vinci, Bellini, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian remained, while the two Dossos and Sebastiano del Piombo disappeared.  Then, somewhat mysteriously, he added a Flemish artist identified only as Flores (presumably Frans Floris I, esteemed in his day as a link between Italy and Flanders). So Harrington admited five Italians and one northerner.

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) was an Italian painter, architect, writer, and art historian. He invented the genre of the encyclopedic compilation of artistic biographies with his Le Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettetti (often called simply The Lives), dedicated to Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici. First published in 1550. the work was partly rewritten and enlarged in 1568, with the addition of woodcut portraits of artists (some conjectural). 

The inclusiveness notwithstanding, Vasari's interest goes almost exclusively to Italian artists.  Even in Italy he shows a bias in favor of Florence,  In the final edition, Michelangelo takes his place as the foremost of all the artists.
The second, final edition of The Lives comprises no fewer than 189 biographical entries. Since some of the entries include more than one artist, even more figures are covered - more that 200 - a stupendous achievement.  Yet for the following reason inclusion in Vasari’s roster cannot be simply taken as a marker of quality.  Central to Vasari's conception was the notion of the rebirth of art, rinascita. After the pause of the Dark Ages, art began to reestablish itself as a noble pursuit.  Yet this was not a simple matter, for the ascent of art required three stages.  1)  In the primordial, somewhat primitive stage Cimabue, Giotto and their contemporaries achieved the nascence of art, inspired by the imitation of nature.  This first stage was  that of the primi lumi.  2)  There followed an intermediate developmental period (augumento) with such figures as Brunelleschi, Masaccio, and Donatello,  3) In due course this phase yielded to the age of perfection (perfezione) with such titans as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo.  Because of constraints of their time, masters like Giotto or Masaccio, however worthy, could not be regarded as attaining the summit of art.  Thus inclusion in Vasari’s roster is not in itself a guarantor of high status.


Gian Paolo Lomazzo (1538-1600) was a Milanese painter, nowadays best remembered for his writings on art theory.  Modern scholarship assigns him to the Mannerist trend in Italian art and architecture.
He painted a large Allegory of the Lenten Feast for the church of San Agostino in Piacenza (1567). Other works by his hand include an elaborate dome fresco showing the Glory of Angels for the Capella Foppa in San Marco in Milan, and the Fall of Simon Magus in the wall of the chapel.
Lomazzo went blind in 1571, so he turned to writing, producing two ambitious treatises that are milestones in the development of art criticism and theory.  His first work, Trattato dell'arte della pittura, scoltura et architettura (1584) is in part a guide to contemporary concepts of decorum which the Renaissance inherited in part from classical antiquity.  This ideal stipulated consonance between the functions of interiors and the kinds of painted and sculpted decors that would be accepted as suitable
Lomazzo's less practical and more metaphysical treatise Idea del Tempio della Pittura (1590) offers a classification utilizing the Four Temperaments, along with a theory of human nature and personality.
In this latter work he singled out seven top artists, correlated with the seven planets and seven metals. Lomazzo’s supremes are Michelangelo, Gaudenzio Ferrari, Polidoro Caravaggio (these last two are local luminaries), Leonardo, Raphael, Mantegna, and Titian. Along with Michelangelo, these last four would certainly still command assent.
When Lomazzo’s treatise was published in an English rendering in 1598, the translator added the names of the English artists Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. This “improvement” shows once again how nationalistic and other subjective factors may play a role in the assemblage of this lists.

[See Marilena Z. Cassimatis. Zur Kunsttheorie des Malers Giovanni-Paolo Lomazzo (1538–1600). Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1985; and Cornelia Manegold. Wahrnehmung - Bild - Gedächtnis: Studien zur Rezeption der aristotelischen Gedächtnistheorie in den kultur-theoretischen Schriften des Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo. Hildesheim 2004. ]


Alessandro  Tassoni (1565-1635) was an Italian writer who is best known for his mock-heroic poem,  La secchia rapita  (The Rape of the Pail, 1622).  In addition he was an early participant in the controversy comparing the ancients and the moderns, as seen in the tenth volume of his  Dieci libri de’ Pensieri Diversi  (originally published in 1620).

Tassoni’s overall argument is that modern arts and sciences are superior to those of the ancients.  Painting is no exception.

In his text he cites eight ancient painters, based on information derived from Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia.  Then he notes: “Pero passiamo a’ nostri moderni, tra quali otto ne scieglieremo ancor noi, che se la Grecia gli havesse havuti; son sicurissimo, che havrebbe composti, otto volumi di Romanzi di più. Saranno questi Tiziano, Rafaello da Urbino, Michelagnolo Buonaroti, Andrea del Sarto, il Parmgianino [sic], Antonio da Coreggio, Alberto Duro [sic], Leonardo da Vinci.”  [Alessandro Tassoni, De’ Pensieri Diversi di Alessandro Tassoni, Libri dieci, Venice, 1665, Book X, cap. xx, p. 387.]

All are Italian, except for Albrecht Dürer.


The English poet, essayist, and playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was born in London.  Jonson attended St. Martin’s parish school and Westminster School, where he came under the influence of the classical scholar William Camden. As an adult he served in the military at Flanders, before working as an actor and playwright for Philip Henslowe’s theater company.

In 1598, Jonson wrote what is considered his first great play, Every Man in His Humor. In a 1616 production, William Shakespeare, acted in one of the lead roles. 

Under King James I, Jonson received royal favor and patronage. In the course of the next fifteen years several of his most famous satirical plays, including Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610), were produced for the London stage.  His circle of influential admirers and friends, calling themselves the “Tribe of Ben," met regularly at the Mermaid Tavern and later at the Devil’s Head.

In Timber or Discoveries: Observations on Men and Manners (published posthumously in 1641), Jonson cited as “famous painters of Italy” Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Correggio, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giulio Romano, and Andrea del Sarto. 

Giulio Romano, by the way, is the only artist mentioned in the writings of Shakespeare (“The Winter’s Tale”), where he is misclassified as a sculptor; in reality he was mainly active as a painter and architect.
Roger de Piles
Roger de Piles (1635–1709) was a French painter, engraver, art critic, and diplomat.  In 1662 he assumed a position as tutor to MIchel Amelot de Gournay, whom he was to follow through much of his later life, acting as secretary in his various missions as French ambassador to Venice, Portugal, Spain.
In Venice (1682–1685) Roger de Piles began to assemble an ambitious collection of prints, drawings, and paintings by such artists as Giorgione, Correggio, Rembrandt, Rubens, Claude Lorrain, and Antoine Coypel.
Active also as a spy, Roger de Piles was not always fortunate. In 1692 he was arrested in The Hague, found to be carrying a false passport, and imprisoned for the next five years. He spent his time in confinement composing L'Abrégé de la vie des peintres ...avec un traité du peintre parfait.  This book was published in 1699 following his appointment as honorary counselor to the Académie de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris. 
He made a major contribution to aesthetic theory in his Dialogue sur le coloris, in which he initiated his famous defense of Peter Paul Rubens in the dispute inaugurated in 1671 by the painter Philippe de Champaigne on the relative merits of drawing and color in the work of Titian. 
To his last published work, Cours de peinture par principes avec un balance de peintres (1708), de Piles appended a kind of balance sheet of fifty-nine major painters - mostly Italian, French, German, Dutch and Flemish - with whose work he had acquainted himself as a connoisseur during his travels.  Compared to earlier lists, this is a large company. 
The gathering is fairly inclusive regarding nationality - though only one Spanish painter, Murillo, appears. The eldest is Giovanni Bellini, born in 1430.  This means that none of the earlier Italian luminaries had made the grade, even though Vasari had discussed them in his Lives.  Giotto, Duccio, Fra Angelico, Masaccio, and Botticelli are among those missing in action.  Also absent are Bosch, Vermeer, Altdorfer, Cranach, and El Greco.  The resurrection of all these masters would have to await a later period and the changes in taste that ensued. 
To each painter in the list de Piles gave marks from 0 to 18 in four categories: composition, drawing, color, and expression. This device offered a kind of “felicific calculus” of aesthetic appreciation.  Of the four categories  color and drawing were the most important. Overall, the highest marks went to Raphael and Rubens, with a slight bias on color for Rubens, a slight bias on drawing for Raphael. The fact that de Piles could honor both a champion of High Renaissance formalism (Raphael) and an exuberant baroque virtuoso (Rubens) shows a remarkable catholicity of taste.  Painters who scored badly in anything but color were Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione and, curiously, Caravaggio [with 16 in color and 0 (zero) on expression].
An old theory holds that taste is purely subjective, something that one cannot dispute.  Roger de Piles implicitly rejected this view, offering specific criteria for his qualitative rankings.
[See Bernard Teyssèdre.  Roger de Piles et les débats sur le coloris au siècle de Louis XIV.  Paris: Bibliothèque des Arts, 1957.]


Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 23 February 1792) was the dominant figure in English painting in the late eighteenth-century.  His flattering portraits of influential people helped to consolidate his position.  In more elaborate compositions he fostered a grandiloquent but somewhat empty “Grand Style,” based on ancient and Renaissance Italian models.  One of the founders of the Royal Academy in London, he served as its first president. In 1769 he was knighted by king George III.  

Reynold’s fifteen Discourses on Art discuss a wide variety of painters, lingering over their individual qualities and offering comparisons, one with another.  Yet in  his Fifth Discourse (1772),  Reynolds argued that only two masters may contend for the highest honor:  Raphael and Michelangelo. “To the question therefore, which ought to hold the first rank, Raffaele or Michael Angelo, it must be answered, that if it is to be given to him who possessed a greater combination of the higher qualities of the art than any other man, there is no doubt but Raffaelle is the first. But if, as Longinus thinks, the sublime, being the highest excellence that human composition can attain to  .  .  .  then Michael Angelo demands the preference.” 

This dueling pair foreshadows the debates engendered by ranking in the field of modern art. In this way the painters Matisse and Picasso are ranged one against the other, as are Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier in the realm of architecture.


Charles Baudelaire (1821=1867) was a French poet who also produced notable work as as an essayist, translator, and art critic. His most famous work, Les fleurs du mal  (The Flowers of Evil), is a cycle of exquisitely crafted poems that capture the contrasts of beauty and ugliness in modern, industrializing Paris. Baudelaire had a strong interest in the visual arts, publishing extensive reviews of the Salons of 1845, 1846, and 1859.
The sixth poem in the first edition of  Les fleurs du mal (1857) is entitled “Les Phares” (“The Beacons”). Here he cites eight artists of particular importance, allocating a quatrain to each. The artists are (in the order given) Rubens, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Puget, Watteau, Goya, and Delacroix. 

Here, as a sample, is the first evocation.

“Rubens, fleuve d'oubli, jardin de la paresse,
Oreiller de chair fraîche où l'on ne peut aimer,
Mais où la vie afflue et s'agite sans cesse,
Comme l'air dans le ciel et la mer dans la mer.”

[Rubens, oblivious garden of indolence,
Pillow of cool flesh where no man dreams of love,
Where life flows forth in troubled opulence,
As airs in heaven and seas in ocean move.  
-- Translated by James Huneker, 1919]

The sequence of artists is not chronological, but there seem to be a few guiding principles.  By placing Rubens at the beginning the poet silently allies himself with one side of the seventeenth-century dispute between the Rubénistes and Poussinistes.  Those who accounted Rubens supreme believed in the supremacy of color and expressivity, over against what they regarded as the cold rationality of Poussin and his school.  In general terms this orientation seems to apply to all the artists extolled by Baudelaire.  It is especially true of the concluding figure, Eugène Delacroix, Baudelaire’s idol. 

Otherwise, the octet is admirably balanced. There are two low-country artists, two Italians, one Spaniard, and three Frenchmen. Three media, painting, printmaking, and sculpture are covered. Three artists are “twofers,” active in two media. Michelangelo was both a sculptor and a painter. And while Rembrandt and Goya were major painters, Baudelaire probably gained his acquaintance to them mainly through their prints.


Toward the present

The nineteenth century saw an upending of traditional criteria, as a vast chasm opened between the officially sanctioned academic artists (such as Bouguereau, Jérome,  Meissonnier) and the avant-garde (represented by Courbet, the Impressionists, Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin).  At first this bifurcation required two rankings, one for the academic painters, the other for the avant-gardists.  Eventually, the academic artists were  toppled from their perch, and the avant-gardists emerged triumphant. 

Of course older artists like Michelangelo, Dürer, Rembrandt, and Poussin continued to be admired.  Here too there were changes as Vermeer, Bosch, and El Greco were redeemed from obscurity.

This turbulence notwithstanding, something of a consensus of the masters of European art may viewed through the lenses of a publisher’s enterprise: the Classici dell’Arte series initiated by the Rizzoli firm in Milan in 1967.  The large-format volumes have a standard tripartite formula: an opening interpretive essay, often by a well-known writer; then a selection of color plates; and finally the catalogue raisonné - the opera completa - with small black-and-white reproductions of all the artist’s works.  An international advisory board helped to limit nationalistic bias.  

A number of volumes appeared in editions by collaborating  publishers in English, French, and Spanish.  However, the original Italian one, covering some 100 artists, is the only complete sequence.

The only significant precursor of the Classici dell’Arte was the German Klassiker der Kunst series (1904-37), comprising monographs on thirty-eight artists then believed to rank as top figures. 

Here is the roster of the Rizzoli series, arranged according to historical period:

Early artists:  Cimabue, Duccio, Giotto, Simone Martini.

Fifteenth Century:  Angelico, Antonello da Messina, Botticelli,Carpaccio, Crivelli, Gentile da Fabbriano,  Mantegna, Masaccio, Memling, Piero della Francesca, Piero di Cosimo, Pisanello, Cosmè Tura, Uccello, Van Eyck.

High Renaissance and Mannerism:  Beccafumi, Bosch, Bramantino and Bramante, Bronzino, Bruegel, Celllini,Correggio, Dürer, El Greco, Giorgione, Grünewald, Holbein, Leonardo da Vinci, Lotto, Michelangelo, Parmigianino, Pontormo, Raphael, Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese.

Seventeenth Century: Annibale Carracci, Caravaggio, Hals, Claude Lorrain, Murrillo, Poussin, Rembrandt, Salvator Rosa, Reni, Ribera, Sebastiano Ricci, Georges de la Tour, Van Dyck, Velázquez, Vermeer, Zurbarán.

Eighteenth Century: Boucher, Chardin, Fragonard, Francesco Guardi, Hogarth, Liotard, Longhi, Piazzetta, Tiepolo, Watteau.

Nineteenth Century:  Boldini, Canova, Cezanne, Constable, Courbet, Daumier, Degas, Delacroix, Fattori, Friedrich, Füssli, Gauguin, Géricault, Goya, Hayez, Ingres, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Rousseau, Seurat, Turner, Van Gogh.

Twentieth Century: Boccioni, Braque,  Carrà, De Chirico, Klimt, Matisse,  Modigliani, Mondrian, Picasso, Schiele, Segantini.  

This is an extraordinarily comprehensive list.  Running from 1967 to 1984, the series affords a sense of what the overall concept of the top artists was in the later decades of the twentieth century.  These are the artists, for example, that a graduate student in art history might be expected to know.

One notes a few omissions, notably Rubens, David, Kandinsky, and Duchamp; perhaps the editors just didn’t get around to them.  More recent centuries have a trifle too many Italians, but some national bias is to be expected.

Still, it must be noted that this is an exclusively European list.  There are no East Asians, Indians, Islamic artists, North Americans, or Latin Americans.  The roster comprises mostly painters, with very few sculptors.


The rise of advanced modern art stimulated the production of alternative canons, designed to highlight precursors of particular trends and tendencies.  Over the course of his life, André Breton (1896-1966) set forth a series of artists of the past that he ranked as precursors of the Surrealist movement.  These included Paolo Uccello, Piero di Cosimo, Francisco Goya, Gustave Moreau, and Paul Gauguin.  All these masters, he held, were animated by a special quality of magic or charisma lacking in more prosaic figures. 

Such partisan efforts, while influential in some circles, could not aspire to be definitive.  A more practical task - and one felt to be more urgent - was to enumerate a convincing roster of  the major modern artists.

An early, remarkable effort to establish an objective canon of twentieth-century art - at least for the first third of that century - was embodied in two exhibitions at New York's Museum of Modern Art during the late 1930s.  Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (1902-1981), the Museum's founding Director, organized both.  As he noted in the catalog of Cubism and Abstract Art (1936), the exhibition was "intended as a historical survey of an important movement in modern art."  The painters and sculptors shown comprised Archipenko, Arp, Belling, Boccioni, Brancusi, Braque, Calder, Carrà, Cézanne, de Chirico,
Delaunay, Derain, Doesburg, Domela~Nieuwenhuis, Duchamp, Duchamp-Villon, Ernst, Feininger, Gabo, Gauguin, Giacometti, Gleizes, van Gogh, Gonzales, Gris, Hélion, Kandinsky, Klee, Kupka, La Fresnaye, Larionov, Laurens, Le Corbusier, Ledger, Lipchitz, Lissitzkiy, Malevich, Marc, Marcoussis, Masson, Matisse, Mirò, Moholy~Nagy, Moore, Mondrian, Nicholson, Ozenfant, Pevsner, Picabia, Picasso, Piranesi, Hodchenko,Rousseau, RussolO; Schwitters, Seurat,,Severini, Tanguy, Tatlin, Vantongerloo, and Villon.  Not noted here are the architects and theater designers, who were also shown. Even though no Americans were included (they had been exhibited in separate shows), this list has held up remarkably well.

This event at the Museum of Modern Art was followed by Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1937). This event was more eclectic - even quirkier - than the previous one, and hence has proved less formative.  More than 157 American and European artists were represented, ranging from such
extremes as Giovanni di Paolo and Leonardo da Vinci of the fifteenth
century to Walt Disney, Rube Goldberg, and James Thurber of the twentieth
century. Coverage included such famous names both old and modern as Hieronymus
Bosch, Dürer, Arcimboldo, Hogarth, William Blake, Cruickshank, Lewis Carroll, Dauiaier, Delacroix, Edward Lear, Redon, Chagall, de Chirico, Duchamp, Picasso, Arp, Dali, Ernst, Grosz, Magritte, Mirò, Klee, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, Peter Blume, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Alexander Calder.

In the course of many years of astute purchases most of the artists chosen for the exhibitions were welcomed into the Museum's collections, which long ranked as exemplary.


There seems to be no generally agreed upon means of ranking artists who emerged in the middle of the twentieth century and after: what is sometimes termed the Cold War era.  This perplexity reflects the fact that the art falls into a number of discrete movements, such as art informel, abstract expressionism, pop art, and minimalism, which are incommensurable.   How does one compare, say Pierre Soulages, a French abstractionist, with Donald Judd, an American minimalist?  For the present, then, a convincing set of rankings for what has come to be called the Cold War period does not seem possible.  This is so, even though the eminence of such figures as Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Richard Serra - to cite only three prominent names - is generally recognized.  There are, of course, auction-house records for the entire period showing the prices fetched by artists of all sorts, and these may be compared.  However, price does not equate with value, because as a rule subtle works do not command the same remuneration as more flashy ones.  Moreover, the value of some artist's creations may be depressed because they exist in relatively large supply, while other big-name figures, whose works have become scarce, may ascend to the heights in terms of the money needed to acquire them.  In the market place scarcity is a significant factor - commercially, but not aesthetically.

As regards chronology, it used to be thought that there was a major shift - the emergence of postmodernism - which began about 1968, the year of the uprisings in France.  As discussions of postmodernism proceeded, the concept came to seem less helpful, since in many ways the trend represented a continuation of modernism, which it had supposedly supplanted.  As a result there is a growing tendency to regard the period from 1945 to 1989 as a unit - one in which, as has been noted, generally agreed-upon rankings are hard to establish.


The latest chapter in this story is what has come to be called "contemporary art."  Can one establish clearly when this phase began?  A persuasive answer  comes from Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson in their edited volume Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present (Malden, MA: Wiley, 2013): "one basic point of structural and historiographical organization is our periodization of the contemporary from 1989.  We do this for a number of reasons.  The unprecedented growth of the contemporary art world coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the tumultuous events surrounding the Tienanmen Square protests. The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the Solidarity Movement in Poland, and the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and the rest of the Eastern Bloc irrevocably modified the landscape of contemporary European Art; it also provided the economic means for local collectors to become highly influential players in the international art world."

At all events, after 1989 matters become both clearer and murkier.  Since isms, by and large, no longer matter these days, artists can be compared in a sort of grand unified field.  At the same time they are almost incredibly diverse - in nationality, intended audience, medium - and almost anything else one can 
think of.

Nonetheless, overall assessments have been attempted.  It may be possible to achieve a reasonable degree of consensus if we combine the selections of two well-regarded guides: Christiane Weidemann and Brad Finger, 50 Contemporary Artists You Should Know, Munich: Prestel, 2011; and Kelly Grovier, 100  Works of Art That Will Define Our Age, London: Thames and Hudson, 2013.  The following list comprises artists featured  in both volumes:   Ai Wei Wei, Doug Aitken, Matthew Barney, Sophie Calle, Maurizio Cattelan, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Peter Doig  Marlene Dumas,  Olafur Eliasson, Tracey Emin, Nan Goldin, Andreas Gursky, Mona Hatoum, Damien Hirst, David Hockney,  Anish Kapoor,  Mike Kelley, William Kentridge, Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Paul McCarthy, Takashi Murakami, Bruce Nauman,  Chris Ofili, Gabriel Orozco, Neo Rauch, Gerhard Richter, Pipilotti Rist, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Rachel Whiteread.

Not so fast, though.  On the one hand, it would be useful, though painful, to prune the list of some eminent figures who established their reputations well before 1989: in that light, Anselm Kiefer, Bruce Nauman, and Cindy Sherman are three who should be dismissed - from this list at least, though not from the earlier, largely hypothetical reckoning.  By contrast, some recent favorites,, such as Marina Abramovic and Banksy, should surely be added.  

From time to time, a number of art publications offer lists of the “greatest living artists.” For example in 2014, Vanity Fair asked 100 art-world worthies—mainly artists, professors of art, and curators (but not dealers, whose judgment would be colored by those they represent)—to name whom they consider to be the six most important living artists. The German painter Gerhard Richter emerged as the most admired living artist, having received 24 votes. Jasper Johns came next with 20 votes, followed by Richard Serra with 19. Bruce Nauman (17), Cindy Sherman (12), and Ellsworth Kelly (10) completed the top six. John Baldessari, Jeff Koons, William Kentridge, and Ai Weiwei each garnered five votes. David Hammons, Brice Marden, Ed Ruscha, James Turrell, and Kara Walker received four votes.  As the editors concede, a different group of experts would provide a different result.  There is also the persistent problem of the confusion of sales records with intrinsic quality.  They are not the same.
The situation is in flux, and all attempts now being essayed are likely to be superseded in the near future.


In addition to the verbal lists examined above, there were also paintings showing actual effigies - some imaginary - of the leading artists.  Here are some examples of these iconic assemblages.

Uccello (?)

The Musée du Louvre in Paris possesses a mysterious quattrocento panel painting, sometimes known as “The Founders of Florentine Art,” attributed to Paolo Uccello (1396/7-1475; see John Pope-Hennesy, Uccello, 157-58). The bust figures in this frieze-like work bear inscriptions, possibly added in the sixteenth century. They are as follows: Giotto, Uccello, Donatello, Antonio Manetti, and Brunelleschi. 

Since the names seem to have been written on the panel at a later period, the identifications are not conclusive.  Yet the selection seems coherent, as all the artists were early Renaissance figures who were interested in the techniques of perspective.  Giotto manipulates space in almost all his paintings. Uccello produced perspective devices known as mazzocchi and used one-point perspective in his paintings.  Brunelleschi, who invented the modern application of the principle, introduced Donatello to it.  That artist employed perspective in his reliefs.  If the Manetti referred to here is Antonio Manetti di Chiaccheri, he is the craftsman responsible for the intarsia panels executed about 1436 for the North Sacristy in Florence Cathedral, which show a skillful use of perspective.

So far so good.  However, it has been argued that the panel is not by Uccello but by Masaccio.


Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), whose literary tour de force  has been noted above,  essayed a selective view in two fresco cycles Vasari depicting artists he admired. These occur in two rooms decorated according to his design in the Palazzo Vecchio (1556-62) in Florence. The Sala di Cosimo il Vecchio shows artists patronized by the elder Cosimo de’ Medici when Florence was still a republic, including Fra Angelico, Luca della Robbia, Ghiberti, Andrea del Castagno, and Brunelleschi. The Sala del Duca Cosimo similarly presents the Grand Duke Cosimo as fostering his own artists: Tribolo, Del Tasso, Vasari, Ammanati, Bandinelli, and Benvenuto Cellini. There is no doubt that Vasari thought these figures were important, but their selection is governed more by the principle of patronage rather than by universal characteristics of quality.

El Greco
El Greco (born Domenikos Theotokopoulos;1541-1614), was a painter sculptor, and architect of the Spanish Renaissance.  "El Greco" (The Greek) was a sobriquet alluding to his national origin, and the artist normally signed his paintings with his full birth name in Greek letters.
The artist was born in Crete, at that time a possession of the Republic of Venice, and a major center of Post-Byzantine art. He trained and became a master within that tradition before traveling at age 26 to Venice.  In 1570 he moved to Rome, where he opened a workshop and executed a series of works. During his stay in Italy, El Greco enriched his style with elements of the Mannerist style and of the Venetian Renaissance with its lush coloring.  In 1577, he moved to Toledo in Spain, where he lived and worked until his death. 
El Greco's dramatic. proto-expressionist style elicited puzzlement among his contemporaries but found appreciation in the twentieth century. He is best known for tortuously elongated figures and often fantastic or phantasmagorical pigmentation.
Over the course of his career El Greco painted four versions of the subject “Christ Casting the Money Changers Out of the Temple.” The second version, now in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (possibly 1570-75) contains, as a kind of footnote in the lower right corner, four busts of artists. There is general agreement that the first three are Titian, Michelangelo, and Giulio Clovio. The fourth has been identified a Raphael, Correggio, or possibly even a self-portrait.


Hippolyte de la Roche (1797-1856), commonly known as Paul Delaroche was a French painter.  He was trained by Antoine-Jean, Baron Gros, noted for painting life-size historical subjects. 
In 1841 Delaroche unveiled his impressive fresco in the Hemicycle of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. With allegorical figures in the center, this cycle comprised 28 painters, 14 sculptors, 12 architects, and two engravers. The painters are divided into two groups: the colorists (19) and those who excelled in drawing. Delaroche’s pantheon is surprisingly unchauvinistic, since there are more Italians than French, and the Dutch and Flemish make a respectable showing. 
This bravura work, located at the very heart of the institution then most highly regarded for taste making, had an enormous influence.
[See Stephen Bann.  Paul Delaroche: History Painted.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.]

The Albert Memorial

During the years 1863-72 the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott supervised the construction of a grandiose Gothic baldachino in honor of Prince Albert, the deceased consort of Queen Victoria.  

The Parnassus Frieze, running all the way around the base of the monument, consists of 181 figures, divided among five categories, poets, musicians, architects, sculptors and painters. The sculptors and architects are by J.B. Philips, the rest by H. H. Armstead. The architect stated that he was inspired by the Hemicycle of Paul Delaroche in Paris.

Yet the idea of patronage recalls the rooms of Cosimo the Elder and Grand Duke Cosimo in the Palazzo Vecchio as noted above. Here, however, Prince Albert is viewed as symbolically patronizing the flowering of the arts over the centuries and throughout Western Europe.. The Victorian idea of progress as a cumulative process doubtless undergirds this ambitious panorama.

[See Chris Brooks, ed.  The Albert Memorial: The Prince Consort National Memorial: Its History, Contexts, and Conservation.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.]


The American artist Mark Tansey (b. 1949) revels in depicting scenes, often ironic, of contemporary intellectual and cultural figures.  One such is The Triumph of the New York School (1984). The image is puzzling, for at first sight this canvas look like a rotogravure depiction of a military surrender that took place long ago. Representatives of two opposing forces appear on either side of a field desk, on which the defeated commander signs a document in the victor's presence. The losing troops wear French military uniforms of World War I vintage, while the victors are dressed in the GI khakis of World War II. Clearly, the image is not an actual historical event, as the United States and France were not at war on either occasion.  Still, in a sense a battle took place between the schools of Paris and New York in the late forties and early fifties; Tansey has painted an allegory of the latter's triumph. André Breton, leader of the Surrealist movement, ceremonially acknowledges defeat at the hands of the American critic Clement Greenberg. Behind Greenberg, the viewer can discern Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and other New York School stars. Behind Breton, we see Henri Matisse, dressed in a French officer's cape and képi, and Pablo Picasso wearing the fur duster of a World War I flying ace. 


1. The number of artists selected for the top spot varies from two to one  hundred or more.  In the earlier centuries the most common number was between five and nine.  Beginning in the nineteenth century they balloon out considerably.

2. At first the honorees are all Italians; later, especially in the nineteenth century, they are international - but always European only.

3. Exceptions are sometimes made for local favorites (e.g  the Englishman Nicholas Hillyard).

 4. In some literary instances,translations, such as Sir John Harrington’s rendering of Ariosto, allow one to monitor differences in national perceptions.