Who’s the best painter of all time?

In the next-to-latest New Yorker, staff writer Adam Gopnik discusses the history and contents of the Louvre while nominally reviewing James Gardner’s new book, The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum.  It’s a good piece, and two of Gopnik’s statements intrigued me, inspiring this post. Click on the screenshot to read the piece, which I think is free.

Gopnik points out, rightly, that, if you want to see the best works, the Louvre is a nightmare. When I was last in Paris, in February right before the pandemic struck, I went to the Da Vinci exhibit. A real visit to that show would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but the crowds were so thick that you could barely move, much less get close enough to the drawings and notebooks to contemplate them. The Mona Lisa, of course, is now unapproachable due to the crowds with their selfie sticks, but I saw it almost by myself many years ago and needn’t contemplate it again. Moreover, right outside the room where La Gioconda is displayed are two fantastic Da Vincis that nobody wants to see.  The Egyptian and Asian galleries are thankfully uncrowded, but the layout of the new design, since the Pyramid was built, is hopelessly confusing. (Try finding an exit when you’re done.)

One intriguing fact is that nobody even knows where the name “Louvre” comes from!

But I digress. Anyway, while discussing the acquisition of paintings by Louis XIV, Gopnik proffers his own opinion:

Still, one great picture after another did come into his personal collection for the benefit of France, including what is, for some people’s money, the single greatest picture in the Louvre, that Raphael portrait of the Italian diplomat and author Castiglione. Raphael, the most talented painter who has ever lived, somehow compressed in a single frame all of the easy painterliness and understated humanity of Titian, while fixing, in Castiglione’s mixture of wisdom, intensity, sobriety, and wry good humor, the permanent form for the ideal author photo.

Well, I’d take issue with the assessment of both Raphael and his paintings, but of course these judgments are subjective, and it’s impossible to settle an argument over, say, whether Da Vinci, Rembrandt, or Raphael is the best painter. But I love making lists, and so will offer my own list of the world’s ten best painters below. (I’ve probably done this at some point in the 11-year history of this website, but I can’t find it, and, if I did once publish such a list, it would probably differ from today’s.)

I’ve come to appreciate Raphael more as I get older; I used to ignore his works, but a friend who loves his paintings turned me onto him. I still don’t rank him among the world’s ten best painters, but he’d certainly be in the top twenty. Here, for example, is the painting singled out by Gopnik as the Louvre’s best, Raphael’s Portrait of Balassare Castiglione. 

Now that is a damn fine painting, and is one of the Louvre’s best. But the best? Well, I’d put another Da Vinci above it a tad: St. John the Baptist. This is all, of course, a matter of taste, but it’s fun to have these differences of opinion. Without Gopnik’s note, I probably would have ignored this painting.

At any rate, I decided to make a list of who I consider the ten best painters of all time. I’ll put a specimen of their work below their names, though not necessarily my favorite painting. But they’re all paintings I’ve stood in front of—save the Michelangelo and the Caravaggio. They’re listed in no particular order:

Leonardo da Vinci. Lady with an Ermine (1489-1490).  I saw this in Kraków.

Michelangelo. The Last Judgment (1546-1531)

Johannes Veermeer. The Milkmaid (1567-1568). 

Rembrandt van Rijn. The Jewish Bride (1665-1669)

Pablo Picasso.  Les Demoiselles d’Avignon  (1907).  My favorite is probably Guernica.

Egon Schiele. Self Portrait with Physalis (1912).

Caravaggio. The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600).

J. M. W. Turner. Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829).

Claude Monet. Rouen Cathedral (1894).

Vincent van Gogh. Cypresses (1889).

 

Were the list to be extended, it would contain Raphael, Jackson Pollack, Goya, Kahlo, and—my dark horse—Lyonel Feininger. UPDATE: As I say in the comments, I simply forgot about Dürer. Were I to redo this list now, I’d replace Monet with Dürer. Here’s a lovely Dürer, Self-Portrait at 28, astounding for both his age and the fact that it was painted in 1500. I haven’t seen this one in person, but I think it’s at least as good as Raphael’s portrait above. However, this Dürer is in Munich, not in the Louvre.

 

You are invited of course, to argue with my choices or put your own in the space below.

Finally, in his article Gopnik proposes a kind of Artistic Determinism::

“The Louvre stands as an implicit reproach, a programmatic rejection of the art and architecture that the West favors today, with its asymmetries, its puerile rebellions, its clamorous proclamation of its own insufficiency,” Gardner insists. Must it? Certainly French modernism is impossible to imagine without the Louvre: Picasso and Matisse’s Orientalism is unimaginable without Delacroix, as de Kooning and Francis Bacon would be unimaginable without Rubens—borrowing his stylized armor of life drawing, the extravagant hooks and curves he puts in place of real human form. Wayne Thiebaud pulls into the twenty-first century Chardin’s mission of bringing a halo to ordinary edibles. Even the wilder shores of avant-gardism that Gardner seems to make reference to are often Louvre-linked, inasmuch as it took the Louvre to give the “Mona Lisa” sufficient renown to make Duchamp’s drawing a mustache on her something more than just an insult. And the Master of the Morbid Manner, Jeff Koons, is in spirit very much self-consciously emulating the deliberately overblown pneumatic grandeur of the kind we find in Rubens’s Marie de Médicis series. The Louvre seems far from finished as a fishing ground of form.

Granted, artists take influence from their predecessors, but a statement that Picasso’s “orientalism” is unimaginable without Delacroix is simply untestable. Who knows if Picasso would have hit on “orientalism” from somewhere else? Yes, of course Duchamp’s mustachioed Mona Lisa could not exist without the original, but Francis Bacon unimaginable without Rubens? It is an untestable assertion made post facto. As a scientist, all I can say is that we can’t redo the experiment without Rubens, and one can always cook up imagined influences. (Now if Bacon said he was influenced by Rubens, that’s another matter.)

Adam may well be right here, but it’s like saying that Nirenberg and Khorana’s unraveling of the genetic code would have been impossible without Watson and Crick. That’s simply not true, as someone else would have hit on the structure of DNA had Watson and Crick not existed. Likewise, had Delacroix not lived, Matisse and Picasso may well have taken their “oriental” influence from someone else.

Those are my musings on a lazy Saturday. Weigh in below; I’d be delighted to hear about other people’s favorite artists.

99 thoughts on “Who’s the best painter of all time?

  1. Michaelangelo’s greatest paintings, in terms of technical mastery, creativity and sheer emotional impact, are, I’d argue, the Sistine Chapel frescoes, and I believe that they more than hold their own with any of the greatest work of the other great(est) masters whom Jerry’s quite justly listed as the best-of-the-best.

    1. Agreed. For me, the only questions when it comes to paintings are technique/creativity and how it makes me feel. Nothing will ever astonish me as much as Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel. It’s breathtaking. And the fact that we “discovered” his insertion of the human brain into The Creation of Adam centuries later is an incredible testament to his creativity, attention to detail, and the deep amount of thought that went into his work.

  2. I’ll admit to not being much of an ‘art connoyser’, and I can’t argue with any of PCC’s choices, but my list would also include Dürer, El Greco, and Bosch.

    And a great place to see all of these is the Prado.

  3. It must be tedious, in general, being a Very, Very VIP but I imagine one of the worthwhile perks is the opportunity they get to visit grand art galleries and exhibitions privately thereby avoiding the frustration of being within a few metres of the art-work you have come to see but absolutely unable to appreciate it properly because of all the other heads in the way and the pressure of the crowd forcing you ever onwards with barely a chance to pause in front of the works of art.

    As to a list of the ten best artists I really struggle to nail it down and – as you suggest – any list I did write would be different from one written a month earlier or later. The painters you pick would all be ‘in the mix’ though I probably wouldn’t put Monet in my top ten. Goya and Velazquez would both merit being on the long list. There are of course many others…

  4. Jerry, your picks are all wonderful, and I agree with your choices…but…I still think no one could paint like John Singer Sargent. I visit the Boston MFA whenever I can, just to see his portraits.

    1. When he changed to charcoal I think his portraits became even more wonderful. What he could do with a stick of burnt wood!

  5. Not much of a fancy arts kinda guy. Guess my humble roots are showing, but I especially don’t get the big deal about portraits of dead rich folk. I’m more of a Grandma Moses sort, or when I have a taste for the weird, Hieronymus Bosch. The Brueghels, elder but also younger, are also favorites, especially for their socio-historical aspects.

  6. The GOAT is easier to declaim in endeavours like sport.

    In art? The question hangs on less definable criteria. All the greats were exemplary draughtsmen (and invariably, they are men) – a necessary condition of entry to any canon.

    I like the analogy between, say, Rachmaninov and Mozart or Bach. The impressionist v the classicist. I can’t live without either.

    Da Vinci would be my choice, however. The purist of the pure technicians. And yet the romance of Monet and Van Gogh, like the double note clangour of Rachmaninov, arrests definitive judgement.

  7. Great choices up and down the line. I would add Velasquez and Zurburan. The single best painting I’ve ever seen in person was Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

  8. I like van gogh. My advice to anyone visiting the louve is to get lost and not bother with the mona lisa. When I saw it was surrounded by tourists taking pictures. There is so much to see a few hours is not enough.

  9. My list would be similar to PCC’s, but I would replace Caravaggio, Schiele and Picasso with Rogier van der Weyden, Botticelli, and Matisse. In an extended list, I’d include Durer, Memling and Cranach the Elder.

  10. That is NOT a stoat in ermine, it is a ferret perhaps, but either way is way too big. Could it be a leucistic mustelid of some other species?

    I like individual paintings from lots of artists:
    Bocklin, Cotman & Crome as Norfolk artists, Millais, lots of anonymous mediaeval art…

  11. Velazquez. But I’m almost certainly the least visual art appreciator there is. Anyway, I did spend some time in the Prado in Madrid, summers of 1964 and 1965, but other visits in Paris, Amsterdam etc. didn’t work so well for me later. Too much concern for people in tow maybe.

  12. I’m a sucker for Caravaggio’s paintings. His use of contrast is sublime (stating the obvious), and I’ve seen many of his paintings in person; I stared at them for hours, completely mesmerized. Plus he had an interesting and tumultuous life.

  13. Please don’t take what follows too seriously.

    Ever since I first heard an art critic bring it up in response to “The Da Vinci Code” (Brian Sewell I think), “Da Vinci” has grated with me. The artist’s name was Leonardo, not “Da Vinci”. “da Vinci” isn’t a title, it’s just a qualifier to distinguish the Leonardo who is a talented painter from all the other Leonardos. Obviously, now he is one of the world’s most famous painters, we all know ho we mean by “Leonardo”. It’s a bit like calling Jeremy Pereira from the UK “from the UK” for short.

    While I’m on my hobby horse, I hate the way Americans say “Van Go” but I’m on much less certain ground there because the British say it wrong too (with a hard “G” at the front)

    1. Not a reply really, but
      “…he is one of the world’s most famous painters…”

      and much more too! I read that bio by Walter Isaacson recently, and it reinforced my impression of Leonardo’s overall genius.
      As I recall, in a letter to some nobleman, the bossman of Milano IIRC, which was really a job application by Leonardo, after several pages describing all the skills he had (no, all but one!), he ended up writing something like ‘And I can paint too.’

  14. Jerry, I’m surprised you didn’t list Albrecht Dürer. If I’m not mistaken, I think you’ve said he was one of your favorites.

  15. I’ve always been partial to Titian and Van Dyke, and to American illustrators like Howard Pyle. I was fortunate to go an exhibit of Frederic Church at the short-lived Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago. His Cotopaxi blew me away. It’s a stunning painting, about seven feet wide, and the detail is amazing. You can almost step into the scene.

  16. There is a contentious consensus among art historians that the greatest painters of all times is Velazquez.

    And that the greatest painting is “Las Meninas”.

  17. I don’t know who the best painter was but my favorites are: Dali, Van Gogh, Eakins, Goya.

    When i was a little kid my sister had a game called Masterpiece. It came with a stack of cards with high quality prints of famous paintings. Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters used to give me nightmares.

  18. Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore had some useful hints on the appreciation of art. The sign of a good painting is if the eyes (or the bottoms) follow you round the room!

  19. Our host’s list is perfectly reasonable. However, shouldn’t such a list include the work of Han van Meegeren? He was a brilliant art forger whose counterfeit Vermeers were judged by art critics, cognoscenti, and the Nazi occupation authorities to be among the best Vermeers. His success in swindling the Nazis made him very popular in the post-war
    Netherlands, despite his short stint in jail.
    At least one Dutch art museum has featured an exhibition of Van Meegeren’s forgeries.

  20. “Picasso’s “orientalism” is unimaginable without Delacroix is simply untestable.”

    Not just untestable. I hardly think that can be true. Oriental influence, in the form of Japanese prints, etc., had been absorbed by the impressionists decades earlier, and I doubt they all were directly influenced by Delacroix. I agree that much of the confidence you find in writing on the arts is bullshit.

  21. Great paintings and choices. On the Louvre’s name, Wikipedia says, “According to the authoritative Grand Larousse encyclopédique, the name derives from an association with wolf hunting den (via Latin: lupus, lower Empire: lupara).[10][11]”

  22. My list of greatest painters is somewhat unstable but, as mentioned a year or two ago in response to a similar post, includes Caspar Friedrich.

  23. Tales of the mobs at the Louvre remind me of the old Casey Stengel line: “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

  24. Van Gogh
    Da Vinci
    Veermeer
    Caravaggio
    Durer
    Monet

    Some of my personal favorites:
    Georgia O’Keefe
    Kadinsky
    Maxfield Parrish
    Edward Hopper
    Feininger, Lyonel
    Shafie, Hadieh
    (last two I think I learned from Clair Lehmann)

  25. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot is, I think, one of the ten best painters; he was a superlative landscape artist.

    There are many other painters whose work I love and so could be engaged by them daily, but who could not be considered greatest.

    The artists who Jerry and others have detailed are the greatest painters, but I could not contentedly be gazing daily at a painting by most of them.

    The only greatest painters of all time whose work (reproduction, of course)I could enjoy being around every day:

    Raphael
    Dürer
    Monet
    Corot

  26. I have read every comment (so far posted) here and I agree that every painter mentioned is an excellent painter. But if you are a lover of paint, not just a lover of draftsmanship, then…

    Wayne Thiebaud is a master of the two dimensional surface smeared with colorful pigment. One can tremble with amazement before his mastery of the medium.

    Gerhard Richter is astounding! His variations leave one reeling.

    And, of course, Paul Cezanne! I’d give all of Rubens for one apple painted by Cezanne!

    Cheers,
    KLN

    1. I find lists of favorites fatiguing. My tastes change slowly over decades. My all time favorite painter is Cezanne, but beyond that I only have favorites based on my latest exposure.

      Lately I’ve just been looking at Richard Diebenkorn, an abstract expressionist from the 50s and 60s, California. His late work is restrained and geometrical. Probably a little too austere for most. His colors are also restrained and superbly chosen.

      1. “…beyond that I only have favorites based on my latest exposure.”

        It hasn’t been a feature of this post or the associated comments but this observation does touch on a phenomenon that is often manifest in public polls of “best ever”. Whether it be greatest ever American, Briton, pop song, film, novel or whatever there is usually a strong tendency for over-representation of recent personalities or works.

        1. Not sure if that captures my intent. If you study a painter intensively, you can often come to appreciate him or her far more than you ever did. This happens to me quite a bit, thus, I have a shifting sense of appreciation. Cezanne is still my favorite.

          1. No, I’m sure it doesn’t. Your comment just brought to mind a phenomenon which I did not think applied to the present case but is notable in many ‘best of’ polls.

      2. I didn’t know Richard Diebenkorn, but since you mentioned him I looked him up. What a discovery!
        His Ocean Park series doesn’t thrill me, but some of his less geometric abstract paintings are, in my opinion, superb.
        Thanks for mentioning him!

        1. I remember hearing a lot about him when he was Artist-in- Residence during my last year at Stanford. I seem to remember the Stanford Art Gallery having many of his works.

        2. I find his work personally appealing. As a dabbler myself, I like his style and we probably are kindred spirits. He’s gone now, but left a great legacy.

  27. I am not and was not much of an art person but once upon a time I was wandering around Paris and and dropped in to the Louvre.

    They were having an impressionist exhibition at the time and I was blown away by just how good paintings by the likes of Monet and Manet were. I really had no idea, having only seen them in books as part of school.

    Absolutely amazing. I don’t remember much more. I did see see Mona Lisa but can’t remember a reaction.

    I saw a Salvador Dali exhibition in the George Pompidou center too.

    I come from Melbourne Australia, a bit of a cultural backwater compared to the likes of Paris.

  28. I don’t know who the best painter is but my preference tends to be more to graphic painters.
    Malevich, Feininger, El Lissitzky, Jules Olitski, Laszlo Moholy -Nagy.
    I don’t know if it I would call them the best painters technically but it’s my preference to look at.
    I just seem to gravitate in that direction.
    I guess that’s why I became a graphic designer.

  29. Dunno why I always seem to be the contrarian–but c’mon people, no love for Grunewald? Ok, he didn’t paint much that is extant (not his fault!), but the Eisenheim Altarpiece? Very few works of art have the same ‘wow’ factor.

    1. No love for Grunewald? Not sure I can see any evidence for that. You may or may not be a contrarian but there are many, many artists with a fair claim to ranking amongst the world’s best so it is perhaps not surprising that there are great painters who have only been nominated by a single person in the comments above. Many other great painters have not been nominated at all so far!

  30. I find Picasso’s paintings hideous and doubt they would keep their reputation if people didn’t know who made them.

    I like 19th-century realist painters like Vereshchagin. Guess that makes me a reactionary.

    1. You are perfectly entitled to not like Picasso but your suggestion that those of us who do only do so because of his reputation is more than a little arrogant! (It is also a little nonsensical to suggest that he would not keep his reputation if he didn’t have his reputation, which seems to be what you are saying).

  31. Monet and Turner (pleased to see they’re on PCC’s list, and no I would NOT replace Monet with Durer).

    Honorable mention to Salvador Dali, whose imagination was bizarre (possibly intentionally so), but whose technical execution was first-class.

    cr

    1. Oh, and honorable mention also to Canaletto and Sisley.

      (In case anyone hasn’t figured it out yet, I prefer landscapes to portraits)

      cr

  32. To the approximately three hundred best painters we now have mentioned (glad to see Klimt was included) I’d like to add two personal favourites – Pierre Auguste Renoir and Lawren Harris.

  33. I also enjoyed Gopnik’s article. Actually I have enjoyed every article by him that I’ve read. I hope the New Yorker doesn’t lose him because he’s their best writer by far: incisive, humorous, erudite, and free of woke moralizing.

    I visited the Louvre last year and decided to start with the Egyptian, Islamic, and Greco-Roman galleries. I deliberately skipped the Mona Lisa because of tourists and wouldn’t have had enough time to see her anyway. One needs at least two days to see everything in the Louvre.

    PCC’s list of great artists corresponds to my own tastes, but I would swap out Turner and Schiele for Cezanne and Antonello da Messina.

  34. I know just enough about art to recognize most of the names being discussed here, but not enough to really have an ‘informed’ opinion. Still, there are a few artists/works that really stood out to me.

    Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party is perhaps my favorite painting for as long as I can remember. I first saw a print in art class in kindergarten, and I’ve liked it ever since. I finally had a chance to see the actual painting in DC a few years ago, and it was wonderful (though I hear there’s some controversy over a 1950s restoration thay may have harmed the work).

    I’m not sure if I’d call it my favorite, but I saw Rubens’ Prometheus Bound on an elementary school field trip, and I haven’t forgotten it since (it seemed quite graphic at that age). That’s led me to look into more of Rubens’ paintings as an adult, and I tend to like most of them.

    Based on books and prints, I’d never much cared for Picasso, until I finally saw some of his paintings in person at the National Gallery of Art. I was blown away. Even now, looking up his paintings online doesn’t do much for me, but I know that I like his paintings every time I see them in person.

    Like a lot of people, I liked Salvador Dalí for the novelty of his paintings. That’s kind of worn off as I’ve grown older, but man was that guy talented technically. The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus is a damn impressive painting. I’ve even got a print of The Sacrament of the Last Supper hanging up in my dining room.

    I only discovered Dürer a few years ago, but he’s already gotten enough praise in these comments, so there’s not much for me to add.

    Anyway, those are my standouts. I keep thinking of other artists I’m tempted to add, but this comment’s already long enough, so you have to draw the line somewhere.

    1. I saw a HUGE exhibit of Picasso’s portraits maybe 20years ago at either MOMA or the Met. I was blown away by how well he could draw and paint traditional portraits, before he veered off into Cubism, etc. I mostly like everything he’s done, including sculpture (saw a great goat a few years ago at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

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