The 40 Greatest Works of Art
Of course all artwork is subjective, hence the 40 greatest is a meaningless phrase; however, a consensus has emerged over the centuries about what should (and shouldn't!) belong amongst the greatest works of art . . . and by "greatest" we may not mean most aesthetically pleasing, for a child's finger painting is to its parents the most beautiful object in the world, rather we are referring to the most emotionally moving to objective observers, for above all, great art must stir emotion in its viewer--if it has then it can rightfully be called great.
As an aside, one may feel that this list slights certain groups, or exalts others unnecessarily; we must remember--as Will Durant stated on numerous occasions--art is the result of an efflorescence of wealth, a blossoming of money as it were. Whilst Europe after the medieval period exploded with art from its newfound wealth, other parts of the world, such as the Pre-Columbian Americas, were comparatively poor and as a result spent little of their precious resources producing artworks. Nevertheless, every people and every culture produced some art and we shall have ample examples from which to choose. “Every civilization,” writes Durant, “has its own characteristic and predominating art, and must not be judged in terms of other places and other days.” We’ll keep just that in mind.
1. Herd of Horses, (15,000 BC), Lascaux Cave, Dordogne, France. A cave painting by an unknown artist completed about 15,000 BC, has life-size paintings of horses. The sheer vibrancy of the colors are enough to suggest that art has hardly advanced in these millenia. Most often the subjects of these drawings are animals--reindeers, mammoths, horses, boars, bears, etc.; these, presumably, were dietetic luxuries, and therefore favorite objects of the chase. Sometimes the animals are transfixed with arrows; these, in the view of Frazer and Reinach, were intended as magic images that would bring the animal under the power, and into the stomach, of the artist or the hunter. Conceivably they were just plain art, drawn with the pure joy of aesthetic creation; the crudest representation should have sufficed the purposes of magic, whereas these paintings are often of such delicacy, power, and skill. Here is life, action, nobility, conveyed overwhelmingly with one brave line or two; here a single stroke (or is it that the others have faded?) creates a living, charging beast. Will Leonardo's Last Supper, or EI Greco's Assumption, bear up as well as these Cro Magnon paintings after twenty thousand years?
2. Unknown Artists, Karnak Temple, (20th to 4th century B.C.E.) Luxor, Egypt.
Through ancient ruins and modern squalor, a rough footpath leads to what Egypt keeps as its final offering—the temples of Karnak. Half a hundred Pharaohs took part in building them, from the last dynasties of the Old Kingdom to the days of the Ptolemies; generation by generation the structures grew, until twenty-four hectares were covered with the lordliest offerings that architecture ever made to the gods. An “Avenue of Sphinxes” leads to the place where Champollion, founder of Egyptology, stood in 1828 and wrote:
I went at last to the palace, or rather to the city of monuments—to Karnak. There all the magnificence of the Pharaohs appeared to me, all that men have imagined and executed on the grandest scale. . . . No people, ancient or modern, has conceived the art of architecture on a scale so sublime, so great, so grandiose, as the ancient Egyptians. They conceived like men a hundred feet high.
To understand it would require maps and plans, and all an architect’s learning. A spacious enclosure of many courts half a kilometer on each side; a population of once 86,000 statues; a main group of buildings, constituting the Temple of Amen, three hundred by ninety meters; great pylons or gates between one court and the next; the perfect “Heraldic Pillars” of Thutmose III, broken off rudely at the top, but still of astonishingly delicate carving and design; the Festival Hall of the same formidable monarch, its fluted shafts here and there anticipating all the power of the Doric column in Greece; the little Temple of Ptah, with graceful pillars rivaling the living palms beside them; the Promenade, again the work of Thutmose’s builders, with bare and massive colonnades, symbol of Egypt’s Napoleon; above all, the Hypostyle Hall, a very forest of one hundred and forty gigantic columns, crowded close to keep out the exhausting sun, flowering out at their tops into spreading palms of stone, and holding up, with impressive strength, a roof of mammoth slabs stretched in solid granite from capital to capital. Nearby two slender obelisks, monoliths complete in symmetry and grace, rise like pillars of light amid the ruins of statues and temples, and announce in their inscriptions the proud message of Queen Hatshepsut to the world. These obelisks, the carving says,
are of hard granite from the quarries of the South; their tops are of fine gold chosen from the best in all foreign lands. They can be seen from afar on the river; the splendor of their radiance fills the Two Lands, and when the solar disc appears between them it is truly as if he rose up into the horizon of the sky. . . . You who after long years shall see these monuments, who shall speak of what I have done, you will say, “We do not know, we do not know how they can have made a whole mountain of gold.” . . . To guild them I have given gold measured by the bushel, as though it were sacks of grain, . . . for I knew that Karnak is the celestial horizon of the earth.
What a queen, and what kings! Perhaps this first great civilization was the finest of all, and we have but begun to uncover its glory?
3. Thutmose, Head of Nefertiti, (14th century BC), Egyptian Museum of Berlin. This amazing remain was found amongst the ruins of the artist Thutmose's studio at Tell El-Amarna. The find which also included a bust of Akhnaten's head, full of the mysticism and poetry of that tragic king, and this lovely limestone bust of Akhnaton's Queen Nefertiti, and a fine sandstone head of the same fair lady. She was made famous by her bust, for the it is one of the most copied works of ancient Egypt. It is notable for exemplifying the understanding ancient Egyptians had regarding realistic facial proportions. Though it has caused many a diplomatic row between governments, its inestimable beauty more than compensates for any silly quarrel between bureaucrats.
4. The Hunts of Ashurbanipal (c. 645 BC) Relief sculptures from Nineveh, Iraq, British Museum, London. In the heyday of Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, and presumably through their lavish patronage, the art of bas-relief created new masterpieces for the British Museum. Unlike the human reliefs, it is the animal reliefs that stir us; never before or since has carving pictured animals so successfully. The panels monotonously repeat scenes of war and the hunt; but the eye never tires of their vigor of action, their flow of motion, and their simple directness of line. It is as if the artist, forbidden to portray his masters realistically or individually, had given all his lore and skill to the animals; he represents them in a profusion of species--lions, horses, asses, goats, dogs, deer, birds, grasshoppers--and in every attitude except rest; too often he shows them in the agony of death; but even then they are the center and life of his picture and his art. Witness the majestic horses of Sargon II on the reliefs at Khorsabad; the wounded lioness from Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh; the dying lion in alabaster from the palace of Ashurbanipal; the lion-hunts of Ashurnasirpal II and Ashurbanipal; the resting lioness, and the lion released from a trap; the fragment in which a lion and his mate bask in the shade of the trees--these are among the world's choicest masterpieces in this form of art. For bas-relief was to the Assyrian what sculpture was to the Greek, or painting to the Italians of the Renaissance--a favorite art uniquely expressing the national ideal of form and character.
5. Phidias, Parthenon Frieze, (5th century BC) Athens. Pheidias is generally regarded as the finest sculpter of ancient Greece and designed one of the wonders of the ancient world: the statue of Zeus at Olympia. The period after 448 BC, however, marks the period of Pheidias's most outstanding works, when the sculptor was invited by Pericles to collaborate in the manifestation of his vision for the artistic decoration of the Acropolis, and especially the Parthenon, the temple of Athena. The Parthenon was his masterpiece, and though the sculpture which adorned it was also created in part by his students and assistants, his personal inspiration and genius were at the heart of these works, which include the metopes that depict scenes from the Trojan War, the battle of the Athenians with the Amazons, the struggle between Lapiths and Centaurs, and scenes from the battle of the Olympic gods with the Giants. The Parthenon frieze was another stunning work, that stood a meter high, and was 160 meters long, and which depicts the Panathenaic procession, with 360 human figures and many animals. Among the figures are musicians, nobles, priests, gods, ordinary citizens of Athens, old men, women, youths, rams, oxen and horses. Also the work of Pheidias, the two pediments with their sculptures, the final stage of work on the Parthenon, took five years to complete, with more than 50 figures and with themes drawn from myths associated with the goddess Athena.
6. Praxiteles, Hermes, (c. 4th century BC), Olympia Musueum, Olympia, Greece. German excavators digging in 1877 crowned their labors by finding this figure, buried under centuries of rubbish and clay. Descriptions, photographs, and casts miss the quality of the work; one must stand before it in the little museum at Olympia, and clandestinely pass the fingers over its surface, to realize the smooth and living texture of this marble flesh. The messenger god has been entrusted with the task of rescuing the infant Dionysus from the jealousy of Hera, and taking him to the nymphs who are to rear him in secret. Hermes pauses on the way, leans against a tree, and holds up a cluster of grapes before the child. The infant is crudely done, as if the inspiration of the artist had been exhausted on the older god. The right arm of the Hermes is gone, and parts of the legs have been restored; the remainder is apparently as it came from the sculptor's hand. The firm limbs and broad chest show a healthy physical development; the head is in itself a masterpiece, with its aristocratic shapeliness, its chiseled refinement of features, and its curly hair; and the right foot is perfect where perfection in statuary is rare. Antiquity considered this a minor work; we may judge from this the artistic wealth of the age.
7. Nasca Earth Drawings, Peru, (200 BC-600 AD). In 1977, Jim Woodman postulated that the Nazca people had made the lines, but he puzzled over why they would make them so big that they couldn't even have seen them. He hypothesized that the Nazca people used hot-air balloons for "ceremonial flights" to view their creations. Woodman attempted to demonstrate the validity of his theory by constructing a hot-air balloon out of the materials that would have been available to the Nazca. Using cloth, rope, and reeds Woodman and his colleagues assembled the balloon then risked their lives on a balloon ride that reached a height of 300 feet. In recent years, the skeptic Joe Nickell has demonstrated that the drawings would not have been hard to accomplish with only the tools available to the ancient Nazca. Nickell has also shown that although the size of the figures suggests they were intended primarily for the enjoyment of the gods, the drawings can be appreciated from the ground as well.
8. Ajanta Murals, (c. 2nd century BC-7th century AD), Ajanta Caves, India. The paintings of the Ajanta caves, which were done in two phases based on Buddhist themes, have influenced the painting traditions of not only India but Sri Lanka and
9. Obelisk of King Ezana, (4th Century), Axum, Ethiopia. "Of uncertain purpose," writes Martin Gayford, "the great obelisks of Aksum in Ethiopia remain compelling objects. The tallest, that of King Ezana, is 24 metres high and is carved with blank doors and windows. The obelisks, set up by the ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Axum, are towering examples of how monumental art can endow a place with power."
10. Mosaics (715), Great Mosque of Damascus. Islamic architecture raised in Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Transoxiana, India, Egypt, Tunisia, Sicily, Morocco, and Spain an endless chain of mosques in which masculine strength of outward form was always balanced by feminine grace and delicacy
of interior ornament. "Here in the Great Mosque of Damascus," writes Martin Gayford "is decoration that depicts architectural vistas, palaces, villages, landscape, orchards and naturalistic, spreading trees. The subject has been claimed both to be the city of Damascus itself and of paradise. The mosaics have been much damaged by fires and disasters, but the remaining sections are one of the glories of Islamic art."
11. Wu Tao-tzu, Presentation of Buddha (eighth century), Copy. Wu Tao-tzu excelled in every subject: men, gods, devils, Buddhas, birds, beasts, buildings, landscapes--all seemed to come naturally to his exuberant art. He painted with equal skill on silk, paper, and freshly-plastered walls; he made three hundred frescoes for Buddhist edifices, and one of these, containing more than a thousand figures, became as famous in China as The Last Judgment or The Last Supper in Europe. When Wu had lived long enough, says a pretty tale, he painted a vast landscape, stepped into the mouth of a cave pictured in it, and was never seen again. Never had art known such mastery and delicacy of line.nerally the purity of the crystal was judged sufficient in itself.
12. Chartres Cathedral (12th Century), France. This is arguably the finest Gothic cathedral in France. The relatively small city is utterly dominated by the Cathedral which dates from the 12th century and used hitherto novel architectural techniques, such as flying buttresses in its construction which were borrowed from the Islamic world. At the time of its construction, it was the tallest building in France. Today, as in the past, the cathedral is the focal point of the city and a place of pilgrimage. It has survived many attacks on its existence throughout the past 800 years and is justifiably renowned for its stained glass windows (which survived the aerial bombardment of the Second World War)--the most complete set of original medieval stained glass windows in any cathedral in the world. The craftsmanship of the statues throughout the cathedral, which are still in excellent condition today as they were when they were carved 700 years ago, is superlative.
13. Moai (1250 to 1500) Rapa Nui (Easter Island). "The Moai are gigantic stone figures whose heads take up 60 per cent of their length," writes Martin Gayford. "Nearly 900 have been found on this tiny island in the Pacific. They have elongated noses and lengthy oblong ears, which help to give them their extraordinary sense of watchful force. It is believed they represent deified ancestors, in which case the Moai are one of the most remarkable examples of art's power to overcome time, and make the past present."
14. Giotto, Frescoes (c. 1304-13) Cappella Scrovegni aka Arena Chapel, Padua. Moving to Padua, Giotto painted in three years the famous frescoes of the Arena Chapel. It was probably Giotto who planned the subjects and drew the outlines for the lower frescoes of the Upper Church; for the rest he seems to have confined himself to supervising the work of his pupils. These frescoes of the Upper Church narrate in detail the life of St. Francis; Christ himself had rarely received so extensive a painted biography. They are masterly in their conception and composition, pleasant in their gentle mood and flowing harmony; they end once and for all the hieratic stiffness of Byzantine forms; but they lack depth and force and individuality, they are graceful tableaux without the color of passion or the blood of life. The frescoes in the Lower Church, less mangled by time, mark an advance in Giotto's power. He seems to have been directly responsible for the pictures in the Magdalen Chapel, while his aides painted the allegories illustrating the Franciscan vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity. In this duplex church the legend of Francis gave a mighty stimulus, almost a new birth, to Italian painting, and generated a tradition ideally completed in the work of the Dominican Fra Angelico. All in all, Giotto's work was a revolution.
15. Sesshu Toyo, Landscape of the Four Seasons, (1486), Tokyo National Museum. This, says Reiko Chiba, is "one of mankind's greatest works." Sesshu was a Zen priest of Japan who hungered to know the masters of Ming China at first hand, so he sailed across the sea but was disappointed to find that Chinese painting was in decay. But he went back to his own land filled and inspired with a thousand ideas. The artists and nobles of China, says a pretty tale, accompanied him to the vessel to take him back to Japan, and showered white paper upon him with requests that he should paint a few strokes, if no more, upon them and send them back; hence, according to this story, his pen name Sesshu, meaning "Ship of Snow." Arrived in Japan, he threw off, as if each were a moment's trifle, one masterpiece after another, until nearly every phase of Chinese scenery and life had taken lasting form under his brush. Seldom had China, never had Japan, seen paintings so various in scope, so vigorous in conception and execution, so decisive in line. In his old age the artists of Japan made a path to his door and honored him, even before his death, as a supreme artist. Today a picture of Sesshu is to a Japanese collector what a Leonardo is to a European; and legend, which transforms intangible opinions into pretty tales, tells how one possessor of a Sesshu, finding himself caught in a conflagration beyond possibility of escape, slashed open his body with his sword, and plunged into his abdomen the priceless scroll--later found unharmed within his half-consumed corpse. Who says mankind won't die for art?
16. Albrecht Durer, Self Portrait (1500), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. In this work the artist made himself look like Jesus Christ. Durer showed himself formally from the front. The portrait depicts a Christ-like image, with wide staring eyes and long hair and beard. In this self-portrait, Durer compared artistic ability with the creative power of Christ. The painting reflects the Renaissance idea of the artist as a genius; the face elongated between masses of hair falling to the shoulders, the penetrating eyes mystically intent; again, Diirer seems here to have deliberately presented himself in an imagined likeness of Christ, not in impious bravado, but presumably in his oft-voiced opinion that a great artist is an inspired mouthpiece of God.
17. Michelangelo, David (1501-04), Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence. It is a tour de force, and as such can hardly be overpraised; the mechanical difficulties were brilliantly overcome. Aesthetically one may pick a few flaws: the right hand is too large, the neck too long, the left leg is too long below the knee, the left buttock does not swell as any proper buttock should. Piero Soderini, head of the republic, thought the nose excessive; Vasari tells the story--perhaps a legend--how Michelangelo, hiding some marble dust in his hand, mounted a ladder, pretended to chisel off a bit of the nose while leaving it intact, and let the marble dust fall from his hand before the Gonfalonier, who then pronounced the statue much improved. Vasari thought it "surpassed all other statues ancient and modern, Latin or Greek." The total effect of the work silences criticism: the splendid frame, not yet swollen with the muscles of Michelangelo's later heroes, the finished texture of the flesh, the strong yet refined features, the nostrils tense with excitement, the frown of anger and the look of resolution subtly tinged with diffidence as the youth faces the fearsome Goliath and prepares to fill and cast his sling--these share in making the David, with two exceptions, (Praxiteles's Hermes and The Statue of Liberty), the most famous statue in the world.
18. Leonardo, Mona Lisa (c. 1503-1505), Louvre, Paris. This, then, is the face that launched a thousand reams upon a sea of ink. Not an unusually lovely face; a shorter nose would have launched more reams; and many a lass in oil or marble--as in any Correggio--would by comparison make Lisa only moderately fair. It is her smile that has made her fortune through the centuries--a nascent twinkle in her eyes, an amused and checked upcurving of her lips. What is she smiling at? The efforts of the musicians to entertain her? The leisurely diligence of an artist who paints her through a thousand days and never makes an end? Or is it not just Mona Lisa smiling, but woman, all women, speaking to all men? Or was it only the smile of Leonardo himself that Lisa wore--of the inverted spirit that could hardly recall the tender touch of a woman's hand, and could believe in no other destiny for love or genius than obscene decomposition, and a little fame flickering out in man's forgetfulness? When at last the sittings ended, Leonardo kept the picture, claiming that this most finished of all portraits was still incomplete. Perhaps the husband did not like the prospect of having his wife curl up her lips at him and his guests, hour after hour from his walls. Many years later Francis I bought it for 4000 crowns and framed it in his palace at Fontainebleau. Today, after time and restorations have blurred its subtleties, it hangs in the majestic Salon Carre of the Louvre, daily amused by a thousand worshipers, and waiting for time to efface and confirm Mona Lisa's smile.
19. Raphael, The School of Athens (1510-11), Stanza della Signatura, Vatican Palace, Rome. Raphael must have prepared himself by hurried study, by dipping into Plato and Diogenes Laertius and Marsilio Ficino, and by humble conversation with learned men, to rise now to his supreme conception, The School of Athens--half a hundred figures summing up rich centuries of Greek thought, and all gathered in an immortal moment under the coffered arch of a massive pagan portico. There on this wall is the glorification of philosophy: Plato of the Jovelike brow, deep eyes, flowing white hair and beard, with a finger pointing upward to his perfect state; Aristotle walking quietly beside him, thirty years younger, handsome and cheerful, holding out his hand with downward palm, as if to bring his master's soaring idealism back to earth and the possible; Socrates counting off his arguments on his fingers, with armed Alcibiades listening to him lovingly; Pythagoras trying to imprison in harmonic tables the music of the spheres; a fair lady who might be Aspasia; Heraclitus writing Ephesian riddles; Diogenes lying carelessly disrobed on the marble steps; Archimedes drawing geometries on a slate for four absorbed youths; Ptolemy and Zoroaster bandying globes; a boy at the left running up eagerly with books, surely seeking an autograph; an assiduous lad seated in a corner taking notes; peeking out at the left, little Federigo of Mantua, Isabella's son and Julius II's pet; Bramante, and hiding modestly, almost unseen, Raphael himself, sprouting a mustache. There are many more, about whose identity we shall let leisurely pundits dispute; all in all, such a parliament of wisdom had never been painted, perhaps never been conceived, before. And not a word about heresy, no philosophers burned at the stake; here, under the protection of a Pope too great to fuss about the difference between one error and another, the young Christian has suddenly brought all these pagans together, painted them in their own character and with remarkable understanding and sympathy, and placed them where the theologians could see them and exchange fallibilities, and where the Pope, between one document and another, might contemplate the cooperative process and creation of human thought. This painting is one of the ideal of the Renaissance--pagan antiquity and Christian faith living together in one room and harmony. This in the sum of its conception, composition, and technique, is one of the apexes of European painting, to which no man has ever risen again.
20. Titian, Assumption of the Virgin (1518), Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice. This work is considered his greatest. When it was placed behind the high altar, in a majestic marble frame, the Venetian diarist Sanudo thought the event worth noting: "May 20, 1518: Yesterday the panel painted by Titian for...the Minorites was put up." To this day the sight of the Frari Assumption is an event in any sensitive life. Near the center of the immense panel is the figure of the Virgin, full and strong, clothed in a robe of red and a mantle of blue, rapt in wonder and expectation, lifted up through the clouds by an inverted halo of winged cherubim. Above her is an inevitably futile attempt to portray the Deity--all raiment and beard, and hair disheveled by the winds of heaven; finer is the angel that brings Him a crown for Mary. Below are the Apostles, a variety of magnificent figures, some gazing in astonishment, some kneeling in adoration, some reaching up as if to be taken with her into paradise. Standing before this powerful evocation, the unwilling skeptic mourns his doubts, and acknowledges the beauty and aspiration of the myth.
21. Correggio, The Assumption of the Virgin, (1526-1530), Cathedral of Parma, Italy. In 1522 the great cathedral of Parma opened its doors to the young artist, and contracted to pay him a thousand ducats to paint the chapels, apse, choir, and dome. On this assignment he worked at intervals through eight years, from 1526 till his death. For the dome he chose the Assumption of the Virgin, and shocked many of the cathedral canons by making this culminating picture a whirling panorama of human flesh. In the center the Virgin, reclining on the air, floats up to heaven with arms outstretched to meet her Son; around and beneath her a heavenly host of Apostles, disciples, and saints--magnificent figures worthy of Raphael at his best--seems to puff her upward with the breath of adoration; and supporting her is a choir of angels looking remarkably like healthy boys and girls in all the splendor of youthful nudity; these are the loveliest adolescent nudes in Italian art. One of the canons, confused by so many arms and legs, denounced the painting as "a fricassee of frogs;" apparently other members of the chapter were dubious about this melee of human flesh celebrating a virgin; and Correggio's work on the cathedral seems to have been interrupted for a time before finally reaching completed form.
22. Maqsud, Ardabil Carpet, Iran (1539-40) Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Some famous Persian rugs survive from this first half of the sixteenth century. One is a medallion rug with 30,000,000 knots in wool on a silk warp (380 to the square inch); it lay for centuries in a mosque at Ardabil, and is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In a cartouche at one end is a verse from Hafiz, and beneath this the proud words: "The work of the slave ... Maqsud of Kashan, in the year 946" after the hegira--i.e., A.D. 1539. Other famous rugs from this place and period include the Los Angeles Museum's immense "Coronation Carpet" used at the crowning of Edward VII in 1901. The Poldi-Pezzoli Museum at Milan, before the Second World War shattered the building, counted among its greatest treasures a hunting rug by Ghiyath ad-Din Jami of Yazd, the 'Bihzad' of rug design. The "Duke of Anhalt Rug," in the Duveen Collection, won international renown for its golden yellow ground and seductive arabesques in crimson, rose, and turquoise blue. But it is the Ardibil rug that is amongst the unchallengeable titles of Safavid Persia to a high place in the remembrance of mankind.
23. El Greco, Burial of Count Orgaz (1586), Church of Santo Tome, Toledo, Spain. El Greco painted this masterpiece for the Church of Santo Tome and it is one of the high points of pictorial art. The contract stipulated that he should show the clergy commemorating the tradition that saints had descended from heaven to bury Don Gonzalo Ruiz, Count Orgaz; St. Stephen and St. Augustine (in episcopal vestments) were to be shown lowering the body to the tomb, amid a reverent assemblage of notables; and over these figures the heavens, opening, were to reveal the 'Son of God' in glory. All this was done to the letter, and much more, for almost every head is a finished portrait, the robes are a marvel of gold and green and white, the demascened armor of the Count gleams with light; and, for good measure, behind St. Stephen may be seen El Greco himself. The masterpiece of this masterpiece is the bearded, mitered head of St. Augustine. Or should we prefer the handsome corpse? Or the lovely face of St. Stephen? Or the bald priest reading the burial service? Or EI Greco's eight-year-old son Jorge Manuel proudly holding a torch and letting a handkerchief emerge from his pocket to display El Greco's signature? In Francisco de Pisa's History of Toledo (1612) we read what we should have surmised: this Burial of Count Orgaz " is one of the very finest [paintings] in all Spain. Men come from foreign lands to see it, with especial admiration; and the people of Toledo, far from tiring of it, continually find in it new matter to gaze at. In it may be seen, realistically ortrayed, many of the illustrious men of our time." However, the parish council haggled over the fee; the hot-tempered Greek took the matter to court, won his case, and received two thousand crowns.
24. Rubens, Descent from the Cross (1612-1614), O.L. Vrouwekathedraal, Antwerp, Belgium. In 1611, the Arquebusiers--Antwerp's civic guard--commissioned a Descent from the Cross by their illustrious townsman Rubens for their altar in the cathedral. The dean of the guild at that time was Burgomaster Nicolaas Rockox, who appears in the painting. The Descent from the Cross is the second of Rubens's great altarpieces for the Antwerp Cathedral. It shows the Visitation, and the Presentation of the Temple on either side of the Descent from the Cross. (The first triptych of the Raising of the Cross was executed in 1611-12.) His rich painterly Baroque technique incorporated both elements of Venetian design and also the composition and lighting of the Roman period of Caravaggio. But the result is purely Flemish. The center panel of the great triptych shows the Descent from the Cross against a dark sky. Several men--Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, St John and two servants--carefully lower the body of Christ in a brilliant white shroud. They are assisted by several women, including Jesus' mother. Christ's foot rests on the shoulder of Mary Magdalene. Although at first sight the themes presented in the triptych seem extremely wide-ranging, they are actually linked, for St. Christopher was the Arquebusiers's patron saint. When the triptych was closed, all that worshippers could see was this scene from the legend of St. Christopher, whose Greek name 'Christophorus' means 'Christ-bearer.' This fact forms the key to the entire painting, in which the friends and holy women in the center panel, and Mary and Simeon in the wings are also 'Christ-bearers.'
25. The Taj Mahal (1632-1653), Agra, India. The title "most beautiful building in the world " must be reserved for the Taj Mahal for it is simply the most beautiful artifact made by the hands of man in existence. Many an architect has rated it as the most perfect of all buildings standing on the earth today. Three artists designed it: a Persian, Ustad Isa; an Italian, Gieronimo Veroneo; and a Frenchman, Austin de Bordeaux. No Hindu seems to have shared in its conception; it is utterly un-Hindu, completely Islamic; even the skilled artisans were, in part, brought in from Baghdad, Constantinople, and other centers of the Muslim faith. For twenty-two years twenty-two thousand workmen were forced to labor upon the Taj; and though the Maharaja of Jaipur sent the marble as a gift to Shah Jehan, the building and its surroundings cost $230,000,000--then an enormous sum, but a pittance for the sake of a beloved woman.
26. Sir Anthony Van Dyke, King Charles I (c. 1635), Louvre, Paris. Charles I invited Van Dyke to try England again after he had left it under James I. Charles, unlike his father, had a sure taste in art. He surmised that this handsome Fleming was just the man to do for him what Velazquez was doing for Philip IV. Van Dyke came and transmitted the King, Queen Henrietta Maria, and their children to posterity, indelibly marked with the Van Dyke elegance. Most famous of the five royal portraits is the one in the Louvre--the proud incompetent King posing in riding costume, one arm akimbo, sword prominent, jaunty hat, and Vandyke beard; but the tired horse, champing the bit between hunts, can be more easily loved. In Dresden and Turin are rival paintings of Charles's children, as yet harmless and innocent. Charles was more human than he pretended; his capacity for warm affection showed in his fondness for Van Dyke; he knighted him, gave him expensive homes in London and the country, a yearly pension of £200, additional payment for each picture, and every welcome at the court.
27. Rembrandt, The Night Watch, (c. 1642), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Perhaps the greatest picture that Rembrandt ever painted, was the immense canvas (fourteen by twelve feet) that history knows as The Night Watch, but that is more properly named Captain Cocq's Company of Harquebusiers (1642). No detail is unfinished in that vast expanse, no shade of darkness or incidence of light is uncalculated, no contrast of color is unexplored. In the center the proud captain stands in brown and white and red; at his left a lieutenant in golden yellow boots and coat and hat; swords gleam, pikes flash, pennants wave; at the right the fife-and-drum corps; the company emerges from its headquarters, apparently for some festival parade. Rembrandt had signed a contract with each of the sixteen persons to be painted, each paying one hundred florins. Many felt that equal pay had not been rewarded with equal prominence in the picture; some complained that he had put them too deeply in shadows, or had neglected to make them recognizable by their friends. Few further group commissions came to his studio, and his prosperity began to wane. Everyone's an art critic.
28. Diego Valasquez, Las Meninas (c.1656), Prado, Madrid. He made three lovely pictures of the Infanta Margarita before painting her again as the center of one of his master-pieces, Las meninas--The Maids of Honor; servants, dwarf, and dog gather around the Princess, and Valasquez himself is seen in the background, putting them all on canvas. In Las meninas we see Vehalzquez as he saw himself in his final years: hair abounding, proud mustache, slightly somber eyes. The mouth seems sensual, yet we hear nothing, in his record, of those sexual diversions and personal conflicts that use up so much of so many artists. He had a high standing at the court for his fine manners, his sense of humor, and his decent family life. As for this, as a contemporary remarked, it is the "theology of painting"--a reflection on the interaction of art and reality.
29. Thomas Gainsborough, Jonathan Buttall (The Blue Boy) (1770?) Huntington Library, San Marino, CA
About 1770 Gainsborough transfigured Jonathan Buttall, son of an ironmonger, into The Blue Boy, for which the Huntington Art Gallery paid $500,000. Reynolds had expressed his conviction that no acceptable portrait could be done in blue; his rising rival met the challenge triumphantly; blue became henceforth a favorite color in English painting.
30. Sir Joshua Reynolds, The Age of Innocence (1785), Tate Gallery, London. The world knows Reynolds's masterpiece in The Age of Innocence, which he painted in the last years of his deteriorating vision; this picture, presented to the National Gallery in 1847, and subsequently transferred to Tate in 1951, has for many years been among Reynolds's best known works. In the nineteenth century it was deeply admired and
31. Francisco de Goya, Tbe Shooting of the Third of May 1808, (1814), Prado, Madrid. During the Napoleonic Wars Spain found itself embroiled in conflict. Napoleon deposed Spain's king and installed his brother as king. The incensed Spainards took this opportunity to rise up and what followed was a bloodbath. Troops and crowds entered into an all-day battle, the famous Dos de Mayo (May 2, 1808); hundreds of men and women fell. From some nearby vantage Goya saw part of the massacre. On May 3 thirty of the prisoners taken by the soldiers were executed by a firing squad, and every Spaniard found with a gun in his hands was put to death. Nearly all Spain was now in revolt against the French. A "War of Liberation" spread from province to province, disgracing both sides with bestial ferocities. Goya saw some of these, and was haunted by their memory till his death. In 1813 Wellington re-took Madrid; Ferdinand VII was again king. Goya celebrated the triumph of Spain by painting this the most famous of his pictures (1814). We need not ask if the picture is accurate history; it is brilliant and powerful art. The vividness is remarkable, a squad of French riflemen executing Spanish prisoners during the uprising; there is nothing like it by Goya; it is made more impressive by the contrast of terror and defiance in the central figure of that massacre.
32. Hiroshige, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō (1834). The hundred thousand distinct prints that claim his parentage picture the landscapes of his country so faithfully with an art that has earned Hiroshige rank as probably the greatest landscape painter of Japan. Hiroshige loved the world itself in all its forms, and drew these so loyally that the traveler may still recognize the objects and contours that inspired him. About 1830 he set out along the Tokaido or post road from Tokyo to Kyoto, and, like a true poet, thought less of his goal than of the diverting and significant scenes which he met on his way. When at last his trip was finished, he gathered his impressions together in this his most famous work. This print is from the station of Edo or Tokyo, the beginning of his journey. In his work he liked to picture rain and the night in all their mystic forms, and the only man who surpassed him in this--Whistler--modeled his nocturnes upon Hiroshige's.
33. J. M. W. Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835), Phildadelphia Museum. Perhaps the greatest ever landscape painter: his unique style remains enduringly popular. Overshadowed initially by Thomas Girtin, Turner worked exclusively in watercolours until the age of 21; Turner's early style of oil painting was Italianate, rather than Dutch Realist, but his mature works of pale brilliance did not materialize until after his 1819 sketching tour of Italy. His unique genius was his ability to capture the differing effect of light in a revolutionary style of proto-Impressionism verging on abstract expressionism, making him one of the first genuinely "modern" artists, revered by Claude Monet as well as 20th century expressionists. The Turner style of English landscape painting remains, like the frenzied brushwork of Van Gogh, an instantly recognizable contribution to the history of art. He became a full member of the Royal Academy at 27, Professor of Linear Perspective at 32, and Deputy President in 1845. On his death, he left 300 paintings and nearly 20,000 drawings and watercolours to the National Gallery in London.
34. Jean-Francois Millet, The Gleaners (1857), Musée d'Orsay, Paris. True to one of Millet's favourite subjects-– peasant life–-this painting of the realism genre is the culmination of ten years of research on the theme of the gleaners. These women incarnate the rural working-class. They were authorised to go quickly through the fields at sunset to pick up, one by one, the ears of corn missed by the harvesters. The painter shows three of them in the foreground, bent doubled over, their eyes raking the ground. He thus juxtaposes the three phases of the back-breaking repetitive movement imposed by this thankless task: bending over, picking up the ears of corn, and straightening up again. Their austerity contrasts with the abundant harvest in the distance: haystacks, sheaves of wheat, a cart and a busy crowd of harvesters. The festive, brightly lit bustle is further distanced by the abrupt change of scale. The slanting light of the setting sun accentuates the volumes in the foreground and gives the gleaners a sculptural look. It picks out their hands, necks, shoulders and backs and brightens the colors of their clothing. Then Millet slowly smudges the distance into a powdery golden haze, accentuating the bucolic impression of the scene in the background. The man on horseback, isolated on the far right, is probably a steward. In charge of supervising the work on the estate, he also makes sure that the gleaners respect the rules governing their task. His presence adds social distance by bringing a reminder of the landlords he represents. Without using picturesque anecdotes, merely through simple, sober pictorial procedures, Millet gives these certainly poor but no less dignified gleaners an emblematic value free of any hint of miserabilism. The painting was at first received with mixed reviews due to its social commentary, but over the years it has received more than its share of laudatory praise.
35. James Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother (1871), Musée d'Orsay, Paris. In 1863 Whistler's mother moved to England to be with her son. In 1871 his style moved towards greater simplicity when he painted this. The figure sits in profile on a light background. The horizontal lines of the skirting boards are what holds the elements in place. The only decoration seen in the light dabs of paint defining a pattern on the curtain. It occasionally tours worldwide. Although an icon of American art, it rarely appears in the United States.
36. Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night (1889), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Vincent van Gogh's career as a painter was brief but powerful, and he left an oeuvre that reflected his passion and desire to provide a balm for the troubled modern condition. As he famously wrote to his brother Theo: "I want to do drawings which touch some people." In Van Gogh's brilliant use of color and innovative brush strokes, he managed to convey the empathy, emotion, and love for humanity that he so often craved and failed to find in his own short life.
37. Edvard Munch, The Scream (1893) National Gallery, Oslo. "Disease and insanity were the black angels on guard at my cradle," Munch wrote. An early life full of death and struggle traumatized Munch and left him "a human isolate in constant fear of death." Themes of illness and death dominate his paintings as he was so utterly scared of these issues. He also had a deep hatred of women and of hands. Clearly his works reflect his own personal issues, but everyman can identify in part with this image.
38. Paul Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibemus Quarry (c. 1897), Baltimore Museum of Art. One of the key figures in both Impressionism and its successor movement Post-Impressionism, the French artist Paul Cezanne is often called the 'father of modern art.' His in-novation in the fields of composition, perspective and color led to the transition from 19th century to 20th century conceptual art. Influenced by the Impressionist Camille Pissarro, Cezanne was a master of still life, portraiture, genre-painting and landscape. In this work note the dominant structural quality of mountain, trees, and stone. The brushstrokes are unified by their similar structural quality. The painting is solid and has depth, yet is also firmly and flatly placed on the picture plane. Picasso was to say that he was 'my one and only master...Cezanne was like the father of us all.'
39. Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), Museum of Modern Art, New York City. "This painting, more than any other work," writes Martin Gayford, "cracked open the smooth surface of Western art. The picture, ostensibly of five prostitutes, presented the viewer with an image of ferocious sexuality. The cliché is that Picasso was influenced by the 'primitivism' of Non-Western art. More profoundly, it revealed the turmoil within the human psyche. That inner darkness became one of the great themes of 20th-century modernism."
40. Grant Wood, American Gothic (1930), The Art Institute of Chicago. Art critics who had favorable opinions about the painting, such as Gertrude Stein and Christopher Morley, assumed the painting was meant to be a satire of rural small-town life. It was thus seen as part of the trend toward increasingly critical depictions of rural America. However, with the deepening of the Great Depression, the painting came to be seen as a depiction of steadfast American pioneer spirit. Wood assisted this transition by renouncing his bohemian youth in Paris and grouping himself with populist Midwestern painters, such as John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton, who revolted against the dominance of East Coast art circles. Wood was quoted in this period as stating, "All the good ideas I've ever had came to me while I was milking a cow." This Depression-era understanding of the painting as a depiction of an authentically American scene prompted the first well-known parody, a 1942 photo by Gordon Parks of cleaning woman Ella Watson, shot in Washington, D.C.