Thoughts on The Greatest Paintings of All Time
If we don’t know what beauty is without someone telling us, then how do we know what ugliness is? Can we reliably spot cruelty and evil? Looked at in this broader way, a lack of self-confidence in art appreciation is an existential issue.
What, you may ask, am I talking about?
I’ve noticed that art is not really in the eye of the beholder. Instead of deciding for ourselves, we rely on the ‘experts’. For instance, Google tells us that the five greatest paintings of all time are Leonardo DaVinci’s The Mona Lisa, Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.
But wait. Wikipedia’s list of the top 100 greatest paintings doesn’t include the same paintings as Google’s list. How can that be? What’s gone wrong?
Before we despair, let’s note that the variations are minor and the canon remains the same. Instead of Mona Lisa, Wikipedia favors Da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. It lists Van Gogh’s 1889 self-portrait instead of Starry Night. Vermeer’s The Artist in his Atelier is chosen instead of his Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Monet’s Woman in the Garden is favored over Impression, Sunrise. But still, the painters make both lists.
Is it just coincidence that these top five painters of all time happen to be male, white, and European? On the Wikipedia top 100 a few Americans slip in and a handful of painters are women, but almost all of the artists are white European men. China and India each get one slot with unsigned antiquarian works. Africa, the second largest continent after Asia, doesn’t even make the list. You’d think they didn’t do art there!
What’s your favorite painting? Is it Starry Night? The Mona Lisa? I’ve always loved Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, which to my eye is far more animated and engaging than his other portraits, but for some reason the experts rarely mention it–I’d guess because it wasn’t easy for Western European viewers to see it, since it has been in Poland for many decades.
But if I really stop to think, I choose artists who aren’t even on the top lists. For instance, what about Ntombephi Ntobela? Her large ‘paintings’ are made, along with other members of her Ubuhle Collective, out of thousands of colorful beads. They’re on exhibit now at the Queen’s College Museum in Flushing, New York. If you look her up, you might agree that this South African artist makes work of amazing beauty and originality. Or not. Decide for yourself, please.
I also love the work of Kenyan artist Thandiwe Muriu, who trained in fashion photography but creates portraits that to my eye are marvelously painterly. I don’t think it matters whether the artist paints with tempera, oil, beads, or digitally manipulated photographs incorporating traditional African textile patterns. What matters is that you can’t stop staring at their work.
Even when it comes to white men, I don’t agree with The Lists, which favor ‘the classics’-- a term that unconsciously elevates them above all else. But there are plenty of other painters whose work I love. Consider Maxfield Parish’s The Lantern Bearers. This luminous painting shows six boys in white clown costumes hanging paper lanterns against a ‘Parish blue’ night sky. It’s not in The Canon and it’s never been shown in a major museum, but we can view it through its photograph on Wikipedia. (And it reminds me of John Singer Sargent’s painting of his children lighting paper lanterns in a garden at night. For a while, that was my favorite painting.)
Major museums are supposed to collect and show (drumroll) the greatest art. What if it actually works the opposite way? The paintings they happen to own are exhibited and thus become, presumptively, the greatest works. And, because major museum collections were assembled long ago, these collections preserve deep-rooted biases.
Biases and narrow-minded thinking wouldn’t matter if we trusted our own eyes, because online image searches have democratized our viewing—Just as we can look up the facts on any issue in the news instead of relying on politicians or pundits to tell us what to think, even if we usually don’t.
Let’s end with this thought from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance, in which he says, “…learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across [your] mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.”
To practice self-reliance, we might start by selecting our own short lists of great paintings. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if each of us chose our own unique list?
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure, available on Amazon.com, or free to teachers at www.websterpress.com. He has taught at UMass Amherst and North Start Center for Teens, and since moving to Vermont, The Grammar School and Compass School. His ELA curriculum materials are available in the Teacher’s Lounge of the Webster Press website.