Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (2024)

Table of Contents
1. Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) 2. Frescoes, Sistine Chapel Ceiling 3. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 4. Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) 5. Guernica 6. The Scream 7. David 8. The Starry Night 9. The Third of May, 1808 10. Frescoes, Scrovegni Chapel (Arena Chapel) 11. The Birth of Venus 12. The Garden of Earthly Delights 13. The Isenheim Altarpiece 14. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa 15. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte 16. The Raft of the Medusa 17. American Gothic 18. The Terracotta Army 19. The School of Athens 20. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (The Burial of Count Orgaz) 21. Frescoes, Brancacci Chapel 22. The Last Supper 23. The Kiss 24. The Arnolfini Portrait (Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife) 25. Pietà 26. The Persistence of Memory 27. Venus de Milo (Aphrodite of Milos) 28. Girl with a Pearl Earring 29. Les Nymphéas (Water Lilies) 30. Bust of Queen Nefertiti 31. Maestà Altarpiece 32. The Hunters in the Snow (The Return of the Hunters) 33. Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji 34. Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) 35. Nighthawks 36. The Parthenon Frieze 37. Laocoön and His Sons 38. Les Très Riches Heurs du Duc de Berry 39. Descent from the Cross (Deposition of Christ) 40. David 41. The Embarkation for Cythera (Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera) 42. The Thinker 43. Spiral Jetty 44. Discobolus (The Discus Thrower) 45. The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus (St. Ansanus Altarpiece) 46. The Ghent Altarpiece 47. La Primavera (Spring; Allegory of Spring) 48. The Last Judgment (Fresco, Sistine Chapel Altar Wall) 49. The Night Watch (The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch) 50. Bal du moulin de la Galette (Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette) 51. Impression, Sunrise 52. The Kiss 53. Venus of Willendorf 54. Winged Victory of Samothrace (Nike of Samothrace) 55. Pergamon Altar Frieze 56. Lindisfarne Gospels 57. Relief Sculptures, Chartres Cathedral 58. Frescoes, Würzburg Residence 59. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère 60. Unique Forms of Continuity in Space 61. Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun 62. Frescoes, Villa of the Mysteries 63. Trajan’s Column 64. Book of Kells 65. The Holy Trinity 66. The Gates of Paradise (East Doors, Florence Baptistery) 67. The Portinari Altarpiece 68. The Battle of Alexander at Issus (Alexander’s Victory) 69. The Ambassadors 70. Madonna of the Long Neck (Madonna and Child with Angels and St. Jerome) 71. The Rape of the Sabine Women (Abduction of a Sabine Woman) 72. The Swing (The Happy Accidents of the Swing) 73. Oath of the Horatii 74. The Death of Marat 75. Liberty Leading the People 76. Cave Paintings, Lascaux Caves 77. Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions (Lion Hunt Frieze) 78. Mosaics, Basilica of San Vitale 79. The Bayeux Tapestry 80. Relief Sculptures, Reims Cathedral 81. Moai 82. The Well of Moses 83. Holy Trinity Icon 84. The Legend of the True Cross (The History of the True Cross) 85. The Resurrection of Christ 86. Frescoes, Camera degli Sposi 87. Lady with an Ermine 88. Scenes from the Life of St. Matthew 89. View of Delft 90. The Gleaners 91. Olympia 92. Luncheon of the Boating Party 93. The Burghers of Calais 94. The Japanese Footbridge 95. The Large Bathers 96. Nude Descending a Staircase #2 97. Head of an Akkadian Ruler (Sargon, King of Akkad) 98. The Dying Gaul (The Dying Galatian) 99. Murals, Ajanta Caves 100. Arch of Constantine 101. Relief Sculptures, Temple of Borobudur 102. Travelers among Mountains and Streams (Travelers By Streams and Mountains) 103. Santa Trinita Maestà (Madonna and Child Enthroned with Eight Angels) 104. Coatlicue 105. Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece 106. Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin) 107. The Tempest 108. The Deposition from the Cross (The Entombment of Christ) 109. Jupiter and Io 110. The Wedding Feast at Cana (The Wedding at Cana) 111. The Milkmaid 112. The Jewish Bride 113. The Art of Painting (The Allegory of Painting; The Artist in His Studio) 114. Portrait of Louis XIV 115. Marriage à-la-mode 116. The Nightmare 117. The Hay Wain 118. The Death of Sardanapalus 119. Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket 120. Water Lilies 121. Bird in Space 122. Campbell’s Soup Cans 123. Khafre Enthroned (Statue of King Chephren) 124. Victory Stele of Naram-Sin 125. Relief Sculptures, Persepolis 126. Artemision Bronze (Zeus/Poseidon of Artemision) 127. Relief Sculptures, Ara Pacis Augustae 128. Moche Portrait Vessels 129. Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus (Great Ludovisi Sarcophagus) 130. Animal Head Post, Oseberg Viking Ship Burial 131. Ebbo Gospels 132. Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance 133. Capitoline Wolf (Capitoline She-Wolf) 134. Ife Heads 135. The Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government 136. The Battle of San Romano 137. The Melun Diptych 138. The Flagellation of Christ 139. The Fall of the Giants 140. Venus, Cupid, Folly & Time (An Allegory with Venus and Cupid) 141. Charles I at the Hunt 142. Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power (The Triumph of Divine Providence) 143. Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) 144. An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 145. The Death of General Wolfe 146. La Grande Odalisque 147. Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World) 148. The Two Fridas 149. Palette of Narmer (Great Hierakonpolis Palette) 150. Olmec Colossal Heads 151. Ishtar Gate and Processional Way 152. Riace Bronzes (Riace Warriors) 153. Doryphorus (The Spear Bearer) 154. Aphrodite of Knidos 155. Lion Capital of Ashoka 156. Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius 157. Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels (Virgin and Child Enthroned) 158. Descent of the Ganges (Arjuna’s Penance) 159. Early Spring 160. Stained Glass, Chartres Cathedral 161. Our Lady of Vladimir (Virgin of Vladimir) 162. Kuya Preaching (The Sage Kuya; Kuya-Shonin) 163. Pulpit, Pisa Baptistery 164. Madonna Enthroned (Ognissanti Madonna) 165. Porta Magna, San Petronio 166. Portrait of a Man (Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban) 167. The Miraculous Draft of Fishes 168. Lamentation over the Dead Christ 169. Virgin of the Rocks (I) 170. Equestrian Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni (Bartolomeo Colleoni Monument) 171. Rebellious Slave and Dying Slave 172. Venus of Urbino 173. The Ardabil Carpets 174. Perseus with the Head of Medusa 175. The Crucifixion 176. The Laughing Cavalier 177. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews 178. Watson and the Shark 179. The Ancient of Days (frontispiece to Europe: A Prophecy) 180. Charles IV of Spain and His Family 181. Fur Traders Descending the Missouri 182. Ophelia 183. Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of The Artist’s Mother (“Whistler’s Mother”) 184. Portrait of Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) 185. Power Figures (N’kisi N’kondi; Nail Figures) 186. The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit 187. Café Terrace at Night 188. The Night Café 189. Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 190. Self-Portrait 191. The Sleeping Gypsy 192. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? 193. The Dance 194. The Dream 195. The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street 196. Monument to the Third International (Tatlin’s Tower) 197. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) 198. The Human Condition 199. Christina’s World 200. Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) 201. The Lion Man/Woman of Hohlenstein-Stadel 202. Cave Paintings, Chauvet Cave 203. Bison Licking Insect Bite (Bison with Turned Head) 204. Cave Paintings, Altamira Cave 205. Seated Woman of Çatal Hüyük 206. The Thinker of Cernavoda (Ganditorul) 207. Cycladic Figurines 208. Mohenjo-Daro Seals 209. Stonehenge 210. Mask of Agamemnon 211. Lamassu (Human-headed Winged Bulls and Lions) 212. Euphronios Krater (Sarpedon Krater) 213. Kritios Boy 214. The Farnese Hercules 215. Hermes and the Infant Dionysus (Hermes of Praxiteles) 216. Nazca Lines 217. The Battle of Issus (Alexander Mosaic) 218. Augustus of Prima Porta 219. Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus 220. Buddha Preaching the Law (Preaching Buddha) 221. Mosaics, Great Mosque of Damascus (Umayyad Mosque) 222. Pentecost and Mission of the Apostles Tympanum 223. The Bury Bible 224. Relief Sculptures, Amiens Cathedral 225. The Wilton Diptych 226. The Feast of Herod 227. The Mérode Altarpiece (Annunciation Triptych) 228. The Annunciation 229. St. James Led to His Execution (St. James Led to Martyrdom) 230. The Baptism of Christ 231. Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata 232. Penitent Magdalene (Mary Magdalene) 233. The Procession of the Magi (The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem) 234. Lamentation over the Dead Christ 235. The Last Supper 236. Hercules and Antaeus (Hercules Slaying Antaeus) 237. St. John Altarpiece (Triptych of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist) 238. St. Francis in Ecstasy (St. Francis in the Desert) 239. The Adoration of the Magi 240. Delivery of the Keys (Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter) 241. Altarpiece of the Church Fathers 242. San Giobbe Altarpiece (Enthroned Madonna of San Giobbe) 243. An Old Man and His Grandson 244. Self-Portrait 245. The Apocalypse (Apocalypse with Pictures) 246. The Holy Blood Altarpiece (Altar of the Holy Blood) 247. The Sistine Madonna 248. Melencolia I 249. Madonna of the Harpies 250. Pesaro Madonna (Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro) 251. The Four Apostles 252. The Peasant Wedding (The Peasant Wedding Feast) 253. Young Man Among Roses (A Young Man Leaning Against A Tree Amongst Roses) 254. The Last Supper 255. View of Toledo 256. Frescoes, Farnese Gallery (The Loves of the Gods) 257. Judith Slaying Holofernes (Judith Beheading Holofernes) 258. Apollo and Daphne 259. The Return of the Prodigal Son 260. Milo of Croton Attacked by a Lion (Milo of Croton) 261. Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles 262. Le Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons) 263. Portrait of Voltaire, Seated 264. Los Caprichos (The Caprices) 265. La Maja Vestida y La Maja Desnuda (The Clothed Maja and the Naked Maja) 266. The Valpinçon Bather (The Bather) 267. Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth 268. Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway 269. The Third-Class Carriage 270. La Danse (The Dance) 271. Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (The Champion Single Sculls) 272. L’Absinthe 273. The Isle of the Dead 274. Sunflowers 275. At the Moulin Rouge 276. Le Bonheur de Vivre (Joy of Life) 277. The Kiss 278. Le Portugais (The Portuguese) 279. Composition VII 280. The Bride of the Wind (The Tempest) 281. The Cyclops 282. Black Square (Black Suprematic Square) 283. The Gates of Hell 284. Suprematist Composition: White on White 285. Three Musicians 286. Departure 287. Number 1, 1950 “Lavender Mist” 288. Painted Bronze: Ale Cans 289. Marilyn Diptych 290. Floor Burger (Giant Hamburger) 291. Whaam! 292. Angel of the North

This is Part 1 of a meta-list of the most highly-regarded paintings, sculptures and various other works of visual art. For Part 2, go HERE. For Part 3, go HERE. To create the list, I collected more than 34 lists of “Best Works of Art” from websites and books and combined them into one list. This list contains the paintings and sculptures (and several pieces of decorative art) on three or more of the original source lists, organized by rank, that is, with the artworks that were on the most lists at the top. Part 1 begins with the artworks that were on the most lists (28) and ends with the artworks that were on 6 lists. Part 2 includes the works of art on 4 or 5 of the original source lists. Part 3 includes works on 3 of the original source lists.

Notes:

  • This is a meta-list that combines multiple lists made by critics, academics and other experts. These are not my personal opinions.
  • Many of the images are public domain but some are not. I believe that these images are covered by the fair use and educational purpose exceptions.
  • Although I tried to find lists of the best art from all places and all times, most of the lists I found focused on the art of Western Civilization, and some of those lists focused almost exclusively on Western European and North American art. I apologize for the ethnocentric biases of my sources.
  • The heavy emphasis on Western European artists working between 1300 and 1700 also means that many of the most highly regarded works contain Christian religious imagery. At that time, most people viewing the art would have been familiar with these stories and symbols, but today many folks trying to appreciate these works are not Christian, or may not otherwise be as familiar with Christian imagery as the average art-viewing European of that time. The same goes for the mythology of Greece, Rome and other cultures, which often provide the subject matter for works of art. Reading up on Christian religious imagery and Greco-Roman mythology may help to put the art in context.
  • Some of the images portray the unclothed human form. I don’t think there is anything obscene about any of these images, but if you are offended by nudity, please be warned.
  • For a chronologically-organized history of visual art, check out the Art History 101 lists, starting HERE.

On 28 Lists

1. Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Date: Most agree that the painting was begun in Milan about 1503, with major work completed by 1506, but that Leonardo continued to work on the portrait and may not have completed it until 1516-1517. Some scholars believe the painting begun in 1503 has been lost and the surviving portrait was not begun until 1513.
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Italy; secular portrait
Medium: Oil paints on Lombardy poplar panels
Dimensions: 2.5 ft. tall by 1.7 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (1)
The Mona Lisa is probably the most famous painting in the world; it has been studied, copied, parodied and used in thousands of advertisem*nts, memes and cartoons. The small painting is a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (born Lisa Gherardini), the third wife of Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, a Florentine cloth and silk merchant. But although del Giocondo commissioned the work, there is no evidence that he ever paid for it or received it. In fact, Leonardo da Vinci kept the painting with him for years, probably continuing to work on it after he moved from Italy to France. It was eventually purchased by French king Francis I, the patron of Leonardo’s last years. The painting, which follows Leonardo’s favorite compositional model, the pyramid, shows the subject in a three-quarter pose. The subject’s face and clothing (in the fashionable Spanish style) are painted using a technique called sfumato, in which features are blurred into one another using light and shadow instead of being clearly delineated, creating a sense that the painted objects are slightly out of focus. Some aspects of the painting hearken back to traditional Madonna paintings, but the artist distances us from the subject by inserting the arm of a chair between her and the viewer. Also distancing us from the subject is her famous enigmatic expression with the half-smile that, some have said, looks on the viewer with bemusem*nt while she keeps her secrets to herself. Richard Alleyne of The Telegraph writes, “One of the charms of the [Mona Lisa] is that she appears radiant one moment and then serious and sardonic the next”, The landscape behind the Mona Lisa has also attracted attention; Leonardo uses a technique called aerial perspective to show us an idealized landscape. A contemporary drawing of the painting by Raphael shows a different background, with prominent columns. This has led some art historians to speculate that an earlier version of the portrait has been lost and the existing version (without the columns) came later. Random Trivia: Two parodies are shown below: at left, a print by Eugène Bataille (a.k.a. Sapeck) of Mona Lisa smoking a pipe, which was published in Le Rire in 1887; at right, Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (loosely translated by Duchamp as “there is a fire down below”) which was published in 1920 along with a Dada manifesto in the journal 391.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (2) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (3)

2. Frescoes, Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Artist: Michelangelo(full name: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni)
Date: The work began in 1508 and was completed in 1512.
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Rome, Italy; religious
Medium: Frescoes painted on chapel ceiling
Dimensions: 131 ft. long by 43 ft. wide
Current location: Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Vatican City
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (4)
“I am no painter,” Michelangelo wrote to a friend while painting the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Although he was known for his sculptures, Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint religious scenes over the blue ceiling (dotted with stars) of the chapel where the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church met to elect new popes. Michelangelo’s formidable reputation earned him an unusual amount of control over the content of the frescoes. The complex scheme includes a realistic but fictitious painted architecture, complete with putti (or cherubs) in grisaille, portraits of both Biblical patriarchs and prophets and pagan sibyls believed to have predicted the coming of Christ), portraits of Jesus’s ancestors, and scenes from the Old Testament. There are nine large panels in the center of the ceiling, with three panels each for the Creation, the story of Adam and Eve, and the story of Noah and the Flood. The specific scenes, all referenced in the Book of Genesis are (in chronological order): (1) God separates the light from the darkness; (2) creation of the sun, the moon and vegetation (see third image above); (3) God separates the land from the sea; (4) creation of Adam; (5) creation of Eve; (6) original sin and banishment from the garden of Eden; (7) the sacrifice of Noah; (8) the flood; (9) the drunkenness of Noah. Michelangelo set up his scaffolding at the far end of the chapel and began painting the Noah story. When he came back down to see his progress from below, he realized the figures were too small to be seen clearly (the ceiling is 68 feet high) so he simplified his compositions and made the figures larger. The final six panels he painted are the most magnificent. The Creation of Adam (see second image above) is justly the most famous image of the ceiling: God, swathed in an angel-festooned cloud, reaches out his hand, while the waking human being reaches out and their fingers almost touch. Throughout the work, Michelangelo pays tribute to an idealized notion of the human form – perfectly muscled beings (the women’s bodies look male for a reason: nude female models were not morally acceptable in the Renaissance) who seem sculpted rather than painted. The work took five years, with a break in the middle. Contrary to myth, Michelangelo stood upright on scaffolding, not on his back, while executing the work, which required him to tilt his head backward for long periods. Over the years, candle smoke darkened and subdued the frescoes, so much so that when a 20-year restoration was completed in 1999, a few were shocked by the brilliance and vividness of the original colors, although most were astonished by the revelation of the artist’s “jewel like palette.” The images below show: at left, the Prophet Joel; and, at right, the Libyan Sibyl. Random Trivia: In 1509, soon after beginning the project, Michelangelo wrote a poem to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia lamenting his experience of painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which includes the line, “My brush, above me all the time, dribbles paint so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!”
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (7)

3. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Artist: Pablo Picasso
Date: 1907
Period/Style: Modernism; Cubism; Spain/France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 8 ft. tall by 7.7 ft. wide
Current location: Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (9)Spanish painter Pablo Picasso’s deliberately shocking image of five prostitutes from a Barcelona brothel caused nothing less than an artistic revolution; it heralded a new modernism in art. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson calls it “the most innovative painting since Giotto.” Painted in Paris during the summer of 1907, following months of preparatory work and hundreds of preliminary sketches and studies, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon breaks all the rules: Picasso makes no attempt to create the illusion of three-dimensionality; he ignores the rules of perspective and abandons the idea of proportionality. Space in the painting’s world is fragmented and compressed; sharp angles abound – even a slice of cantaloupe becomes a lethal weapon. His women are not beautiful; their sharp-edged bodies seem capable of violence. They stare back at the viewer with “eyes that look out as if at death”, according to John Berger. In perhaps the most shocking of the painting’s shocks, the two figures on the right possess grotesque features influenced by Ancient Iberian sculpture and (although Picasso denied it) African masks. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (not Picasso’s title, he preferred to call it The Brothel of Avignon) was a conscious attempt by the 25-year-old Picasso to shake up the modernist art world. Drawing on influences as diverse as El Greco’s Opening of the Fifth Seal (see image below left);Cézanne’s The Large Bathers, and Paul Gauguin’s primitivist sculptures, Picasso’s large painting was in some ways a reaction to two recent works by his older rival, Henri Matisse: Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life) (1906) and The Blue Nude (1907). As Picasso saw it, Matisse’s art – which had been hailed as revolutionary – maintained a connection with the forms, narratives and mythologies of the past; Picasso sought instead a violent break with those traditions. To emphasize this rupture, he removed any narrative elements from Les Demoiselles (early sketches show that his original conception included two male patrons in the brothel, a sailor and a medical student holding a skull) (see image below right showing early sketch now . While on one level the painting may be about raw female sexuality, Picasso’s complicated and unhealthy relationships with women, and (in a theory propounded by Suzanne Blier) the roles of women in different cultures, it is even more about the act of seeing and the act of making art. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso shows us that attempts to realistically represent the world (particularly its three-dimensionality) on a two-dimensional canvas are illusions and lies, and that perhaps the only way an artist can create truthfully is to expose the nature of that deception. This one painting would force every artist from that point on to either accept the challenge posed by Picasso (Georges Braque took Picasso’s experiments and formalized them into Cubism), or reject it – either way, this new modernist clarion call could not be ignored.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (10) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (11)

On 27 Lists

4. Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor)

Artist: Diego Velázquez (full name: Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez)
Date: The traditional date for the painting is 1656, but some recent scholarship supports a later date of 1659-60.
Period/Style: Baroque; Spain; royal portrait
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 10.4 ft. tall by 9 ft. wide
Current location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (12)
By the time Diego Velázquez painted Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), he had been court painter for Spanish king Philip IV for over 30 years; he lived in the palace with the royal family, had painted dozens of portraits of Philip, his family and entourage, and had numerous other duties, including managing the king’s art collection, and arranging various pageants, festivals and other court events. After two visits to Italy, his unique interpretation of the Baroque style was well established; his loose, economic brushstrokes and consummate skill at portraying human faces would influence painters as diverse as Goya and Manet, while Picasso and Dali both paid tribute to him in their work. Of all Velázquez’s works, Las Meninas has generated the most scholarly debate. What does it mean? On one level, it is a portrait of the Infante Margaret Theresa, daughter of King Philip and his second wife, Mariana of Austria, and her entourage (chaperon, ladies in waiting, and others). But there is so much more going on here. The painting appears to be less a posed portrait than a snapshot of a moment in time. The artist paints himself into the picture (the tallest figure in the composition) working on a large canvas in what we know is his studio at the palace (see image below left). Is this a self-portrait? He is proudly displaying the insignia of the Order of Santiago (which he received in 1659, one of the reasons some scholars believe the traditional date of 1656 is incorrect). Is this painting a thank you to the king for the honor? And what about the mirror in the back of the room? The faces shown there are of the king and queen, who appear.to standing exactly where the viewer would be (see image below right), watching the scene; what does it mean that we, the viewers, are given the perspective of the royals? What does it mean to be outside the painting but also inside it, by means of a reflection? Note that Velázquez would have been familiar with the mirror in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, which hung in King Philip’s palace at the time.) Or is Velázquez painting the portrait of the king and queen, and the mirror is reflecting what is on his canvas? Who is the courtier in the background? Is he pulling the curtain open or is he closing it? And what about the dwarves, one of whom (the jester) has his foot on the dog’s back? While at first glance the composition seems balanced, Velazquez has not established a central point toward which all the perspective lines converge. Why not? One theory says that the painter was painting a portrait of the Infante when the king and queen stopped by for a visit. They explain the behavior of the ladies in waiting as their attempts to persuade the young girl to stand still so the painter can do his work. Another theory says the Infante and her attendants are visiting the artist’s studio while he is painting the king and queen. In raising all these questions, Las Meninas goes far beyond a mere royal portrait to address some of the most important truths about art iself, the nature of perception and its relationship to an objective reality. According to Hugh Honour and John Fleming in their art history textbook, Las Meninas is “Velázquez’s supreme achievement, a highly self-conscious, calculated demonstration of what painting could achieve, and perhaps the most searching comment ever made on the possibilities of the easel painting.”
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (13) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (14)

5. Guernica

Artist: Pablo Picasso
Date: 1937
Period/Style: Cubism; Surrealism; Spain/France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 11.5 ft. tall by 25.5 ft. wide
Current location: Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (15)
An anti-war icon, Guernica was Picasso’s impassioned response to the bombing of a Basque Country village by German warplanes supporting Franco’s Nationalists on April 27, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso painted Guernica for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, where he was living at the time. (Ironically, the theme of the Exposition was a celebration of modern technology.) According to Hugh Honor and John Fleming, Picasso’s aim in painting Guernica was “to press into ideological service all the sophisticated techniques of modern art.” Guernica was painted using a palette of mostly black, white and gray to set a somber tone. Among the elements of the work are: (1) on the left, a bull stands over a grieving woman holding a dead child; (2) in the center, a horse with a gaping wound in its side falls in agony; (3) the bull’s tail becomes a flame with smoke; (4) beneath the horse lies a dead soldier; his severed arm holds a broken sword from which a flower grows; (5) a lightbulb/evil eye/sun (lightbulb is ‘bombilla’ in Spanish, while ‘bomba’ is Spanish for bomb) hangs over the horse’s head (see detail in image below); (6) a woman floats into the room through a window to witness the horror, while her long arm holds a lamp near the lightbulb; (7) a woman stares up blankly at the lightbulb; (8) instead of tongues, daggers emerge from the mouths of the bull, the horse and the grieving woman; (9) there is a drawing of a dove with an olive branch on the wall, and a crack in the wall lets light in from outside; and (10) a man on the far right raises his arms in terror as fire engulfs him from above and below. Interpretations of the mural are many and varied and often contradict one another, although all agree that this is Picasso’s protest against the bombing of Guernica in particular and war in general. Picasso’s response to questions about the meaning of his work was, “This bull is a bull and this horse is a horse.” After the Fascists won the Civil War, Picasso refused to allow the painting to go to Spain as long as the Fascists remained in power. As a result, Guernica was sent to New York and was exhibited at Museum of Modern Art until 1981, after the restoration of democracy in Spain. Upon its arrival in Spain, Guernica was displayed in the Casón del Buen Retiro, part of the Museo del Prado in Madrid. In 1992, the painting was moved to a specially-constructed gallery in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (16)

On 26 Lists

6. The Scream

Artist: Edvard Munch
Date: The first and second versions were created in 1893. A third version was made in 1895 and a fourth in 1910.
Period/Style: Symbolism; Expressionism; Norway
Medium: Version 1: tempera and crayon on cardboard. Version 2: crayons on cardboard. Version 3: pastels on cardboard. Version 4: tempera on cardboard.
Dimensions: Version 1: 3.1 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide. Version 2: 2.1 ft. tall by 1.8 ft. wide. Version 3: 2.6 ft. tall by 1.9 ft. wide. Version 4: 2.7 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. tall.
Current locations: Version 1: National Gallery, Oslo, Norway. Versions 2 and 4: Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway. Version 3: Private collection.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (17)In 2012, a private art collector paid $120 million for one of four versions of Edvard Munch’s iconic image, The Scream, setting a record at the time. This version, made in 1895 (two years after the first two versions) was unique in having a poem by Munch etched into its frame. The poem describes the moment that gave birth to The Scream:

I was walking along the road with two friends. The Sun was setting –
The Sky turned a bloody red
And I felt a whiff of Melancholy – I stood
Still, deathly tired – over the blue-black
Fjord and City hung Blood and Tongues of Fire
My Friends walked on – I remained behind
– shivering with Anxiety – I felt the great Scream in Nature.

Munch painted four versions of The Scream between 1893 and 1910, two with tempera, one with pastels, and one with crayons. Each version contains the same basic elements, but some of the details differ. The version considered definitive is the second one from 1893, which is now in the National Gallery in Oslo (see image above). The three versions in public collections are in Norway. Munch also made approximately 45 black and white prints of the image from a lithographic stone he made in 1895, some of which Munch painted. The Scream influenced art history, notably Expressionism, as well as popular culture. It resonates with so many because it expresses the deep dread that seemed to seep into society about the time it was painted. As art curator Jill Lloyd explained in a 2016 interview, “It presents man cut loose from all the certainties that had comforted him up until that point in the 19th Century: there is no God now, no tradition, no habits or customs – just poor man in a moment of existential crisis, facing a universe he doesn’t understand and can only relate to in a feeling of panic.” The image has now become a pop culture icon, which apparently makes it more attractive to thieves: First, the 1893 version was stolen from the National Gallery in 1994, but was recovered a few months later. Then, in 2004, the 1910 version in the Munch Museum was stolen, but was recovered in 2007. Shown below are:
(1) at left version 1, from 1893, now in the Munch Museum in Oslo;
(2) at center, version 3, from 1895, now in a private collection; and
(3) at right, version 4, from 1910, also at the Munch Museum.
Random Trivia: The 1895 version of The Scream is not the only one with writing on it. Penciled into the sky of the 1893 version of The Scream in the National Gallery are the words (in Norwegian), “Could only have been painted by a madman.” No one knows who scribbled the message there, but Munch never removed it.

On 23 Lists

7. David

Artist: Michelangelo
Date: Begun in 1501; completed in 1504
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Florence, Italy; religious
Medium: Sculpture carved from Carrara marble
Dimensions: 17 ft. tall by 6.5 ft. wide; the statue weighs more than six tons.
Current location: The original sculpture is in the Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy. A replica has stood outside the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence since 1882.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (21)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (22)
In 1501, officials from the Florence Cathedral sought out Michelangelo and asked him to carve a statue of the Biblical hero David from a huge (and expensive) block of Carrara marble that had been sitting in their courtyard since at least 1463. Two other sculptors had begun work on the statue, but abandoned the project. Instead of showing David with the dead Goliath, as was standard, Michelangelo decided to show the Bible hero in the moment after he has decided to fight the giant but before the actual battle – muscles tensed and attention peaked. David stands in a contrapposto pose that is evocative of the sculpture of Ancient Greece, the ideal that inspired so much Renaissance art. The David was originally commissioned to be one of several statues on the roof of Florence’s cathedral, and this upward looking perspective may explain why the figure’s head and hands are oversized compared to the rest of the body. After Michelangelo completed the work, cathedral officials decided it would be impossible to raise the six-ton statue to the roof, and decided to place it in the public square outside the Palazzo della Signoria, where it was unveiled in 1504. Erected during a period when the Medici family was banished from the Republic and democracy was flourishing, the David became a symbol of the power of the common people over tyrants. In 1873, because of weather damage, the statue was moved inside the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, where it remains. Areplica was installed in the original location in 1910 (see image below left). Random Trivia: (1) In 1991, a man smuggled a hammer into the museum and used it to destroy part of theDavid’sleft foot, which was later restored using marble from the same quarry that provided the original stone. (2) The plan to place other statues on the roof of the Duomo never came to fruition, but in 2010, as part of the Florens 2010 forum, a fiberglass replica of the David was installed temporarily on the cathedral’s roof (see image below right).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (23) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (24)

8. The Starry Night

Artist: Vincent Van Gogh
Date: June 1889
Period/Style: Post-Impressionism; The Netherlands/France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.4 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide
Current location: Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (25)
A few months after cutting off almost all of his left ear, Vincent Van Gogh checked himself into a sanitarium in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in southern France in an attempt to cure his ever-worsening mental illness. He was allowed two rooms – one to sleep in and one to paint in – and was permitted to go outside to paint en plein air with supervision. He painted The Starry Night in June 1889 – it is a night scene with a crescent moon and swirling stars over a quiet town that is all straight lines and sharp edges. The scene is imaginary: it contains some of the elements of the view from Van Gogh’s window, but the town is invented (it could be based on a sketch Van Gogh made of Arles or a memory of a Dutch village) and while there were cypress trees in the field outside his window, none of them was so close to the sanitarium. Van Gogh was disappointed with the painting; he felt it was too abstract, too much of the imagination and not enough of nature. (He and Gauguin had often argued about this very dichotomy, with Van Gogh taking the side of nature against Gauguin’s imagined worlds.) Many have found signs of Van Gogh’s mental state in the turbulent swirls in the night sky. Others see religious imagery: the man-made church steeple attempts to breach the gap between the earth and the heavens, but it is only the cypress that truly connects the two realms. Thus nature, not church, is the true pathway to the eternal. Note also that in many parts of Europe, cypress trees were commonly planted in cemeteries and were associated with mourning, death and eternal life. The stars were also symbols of eternal life to Van Gogh, who once wrote that, just as we take a train to travel on Earth, “we take death to reach a star.” Others have analyzed the starry night in astronomical terms. There was no crescent moon that night in June, they note (it was gibbous), but Van Gogh preferred to have one. The brightest star in the sky is not a star at all but the planet Venus. And some point to recently-published drawings of telescopic images from far away galaxies (then called nebulae) to account for the swirling image at the center of the sky.

On 21 Lists

9. The Third of May, 1808

Artist: Francisco Goya
Date: 1814
Period/Style: Romanticism; Spain; history painting
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 8.8 ft. tall by 11.4 ft. wide
Current location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (26)In 1808, during the Napoleonic Wars, French troops occupied Spain and placed Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s older brother, on the throne. The French takeover sparked the Spanish War of Independence, which began on May 2, 1808 with an uprising in Madrid, which was savagely put down with massacres on May 3. In 1814, the Spanish finally expelled Napoleon and his French troops after seven years of occupation and war. It was then that artist Francisco Goya approached the provisional government seeking permission to create artworks that, in his words, would “perpetuate …the most notable and heroic actions of our glorious insurrection against the Tyrant of Europe.” Permission granted, Goya chose to create two works: The Second of May, showing the Madrid uprising (see image below), and The Third of May, showing the aftermath. At dawn the day after the uprising, French troops rounded up hundreds of Spaniards to be shot by firing squads. In The Third of May, 1808, Goya imagines one such firing squad. An unarmed man in a glowing white shirt bravely confronts the rifles of the faceless French soldiers. He holds his arms up in a manner that suggests at the same time a gesture of outrage, a willingness to die for a righteous cause, and the posture of Christ on the cross. Goya presents this man to us as a tragic victim of injustice and cruelty, but also as a martyr and a hero. At the time, the painting was misunderstood; war paintings usually dramatized battle heroics, not the pointless and mechanistic slaughter of the defenseless. We see those who have died before, and those waiting their turn – the focus is on just one, nameless man in inexplicable suffering – he is no one and everyone. The style was also ahead of its time: rushed and chaotic brushstrokes bring a sense of the frenzy of the moment. All the technique is secondary to the emotional message – this is a truly Romantic painting, but it also feels very modern.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (27)

On 22 lists

10. Frescoes, Scrovegni Chapel (Arena Chapel)

Artist: Giotto (full name: Giotto di Bondone)
Date: c. 1305
Period/Style: Medieval period; Proto-Renaissance style; Padua, Italy
Medium: Frescoes painted on chapel walls
Dimensions: The side walls contain 37 frescoes, most of them 6.5 ft. square, with scenes from the Life of Christ and the Life of Mary. The Last Judgment fresco on the west wall measures 32.8 ft. tall by 27.6 ft. wide.
Current location: Scrovegni Chapel (Arena Chapel), Padua, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (28)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (29) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (30)
Like most 14th Century Christians who loaned money in return for interest, Italian banker Enrico Scrovegni was concerned about his salvation. The Bible contained a proscription against usury, and for many centuries the only people willing to lend money were non-Christians. By the early 14th Century, Christians had begun to enter the banking business, but with anxiety. Years earlier, Dante had assigned Enrico Scrovegni’s banker father Reginaldo Scrovegni to the Seventh Circle of Hell in his Inferno. When Enrico Scrovegni built a new family palace in Padua, he made sure that a private family chapel was attached and he commissioned Italian artist Giotto di Bondone to paint frescoes on the chapel walls. Giotto is presumed to have finished the work by the dedication of the chapel on March 25, 1305. Most of the frescoes depict scenes from the life of Christ and the life of Mary, while Giotto painted a larger fresco of the Last Judgment for the wall above the entrance, and various other images throughout the room. The Scrovegni Chapel frescoes mark a significant break with medieval styles and herald the beginning of the new, humanistic style that would blossom in the Renaissance. Giotto is breaking away from the flat, stylized representations of Medieval and Gothic art by infusing the scenes with more emotional intensity, drawing figures with greater solidity (using modeling instead of line), and constructing more naturalistic environments for the characters to inhabit. In theKiss of Judas (see image above at left), part of the Life of Christ cycle, Giotto presents not the kiss but the tense face-to-face confrontation between Jesus and Judas, while soldiers rush in and the apostles fight back in a frenzy of action. Giotto marshals every detail – lighting, expressions, gestures, even the folds of their clothes – to heighten the drama. In the Lamentation of Christ, another panel from the Life of Christ cycle (see image at right), note the way the line of the rock wall leads the viewer’s eye to Christ’s face; the emotional expressions on the faces of the mourners, including the angels; and the inclusion of figures with their backs turned to us – a realistic detail that anchors the composition. Unlike the seemingly weightless medieval/Gothic figures – who seem to inhabit an ethereal realm – Giotto painted more realistic human beings who occupied space in this world. His influence on the history of Western art cannot be overestimated. Random Trivia: It is clear that Scrovegni hoped that the chapel and its religious art would help him overcome the sin of usury and achieve salvation. To emphasize the point, Giotto painted a likeness of Enrico Scrovegni in The Last Judgment fresco, showing him offering a model of the chapel to the Virgin Mary (see image below).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (31)

11. The Birth of Venus

Artist: Sandro Botticelli (born Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi)
Date: 1484-1486
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; mythological
Medium: Tempera paints on canvas
Dimensions: 5.7 ft. tall by 9.1 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (32)Renaissance Humanists found enormous inspiration in all things Classical, including Greek and Roman mythology. Painted for the Medici family of Florence, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, like his Primavera before it, portrays a mythological story with the grand scale previously reserved for Christian religious art. In Roman mythology, Venus was the goddess of love, beauty and sex. In one of her representations, Venus Anadyomene, she was said to have been born from the sea after the god Cronus castrated his father Uranus and threw his genitalia into the ocean; Venus emerged from the resulting foam fully grown. Botticelli shows the wind gods Zephyr and Aura bringing a nude Venus to the shore, while she stands in a contrapposto pose on a scallop shell (symbol of female sexuality). This life-size Venus is probably the first large female nude in a non-Christian setting since Classical antiquity. She poses shyly in the famous Venus Pudica stance, waiting for one of the Graces to cover up her nudity with a cape. Scholars have noted that Venus’s pose defies the laws of physics: she is putting too much weight on one leg to stay balanced, and her position on the seashell would cause it to tip forward. This is consistent with Botticelli’s work generally, which hearkens back in some ways to Medieval styles: his figures often lack a sense of weight, of being fully grounded, and he rarely spends much energy on the use of linear perspective that so fascinated artists like Piero della Francesca and Andrea Mantegna. The dream world of The Birth of Venus is unrecognizable to us, but it beckons nonetheless.

On 21 Lists

12. The Garden of Earthly Delights

Artist: Hieronymous Bosch (born Jheronimus van Aken)
Date: There is no consensus about the date of the work. Published estimates range from 1480 to 1515, with a significant number narrowing the time span to 1490-1510 or (even narrower) 1495-1505.
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Northern Renaissance; The Netherlands; religious
Medium: Triptych make with oil paints on oak panels
Dimensions: 6.75 ft. tall by 12.7 ft. wide
Current location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (33)The work of Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch is filled with enigmas: fantastic creatures, bizarre encounters, unearthly landscapes, and symbols, the meaning of which art historians have debated for centuries. The inspirations for Bosch’s images are not clear; his unique vision appears to have no precursors in Western art. Of all the enigmatic works of art Bosch created, the triptych known as The Garden of Earthly Delights has generated the most commentary and the widest range of interpretations. When the side panels are closed, we see a transparent sphere set in a void (see image below, top row, at left). A tiny God sits at upper left. Inside the sphere, we see a watery earth with plants and rocks but no other living things. Is this the world on Day 3 of Creation, as some believe, or is it a vision of the Deluge, the Flood that washed over the world to cleanse it of sin? The interior panels show:
(1) on the left, the Garden of Eden, with God presenting Eve to Adam amidst some fantastical scenes and creatures; note how both Adam and Eve are in physical contact with God, who is represented not as an old man but as a young, Jesus-like figure (see detail in image below, top row, at right);
(2) on the right, we see the torments and fires of Hell, with demons torturing, eating and defecating humans (see detail in image below, bottom row, at left); note the many musical instruments – unlike many artists, Bosch apparently sees music as a pathway to sin.
(3) in the center, the panel that has generated the most controversy (see detail in image below, bottom row, at right). Does it show an earthly paradise from an innocent time before humans knew shame (note that the center panel shares the landscape and horizon line with the Garden of Eden panel) or does it represent the lustful sinful existence of depraved humanity that must be wiped out by the Flood? Any why all the giant fruit? Art historians are deeply divided on these questions. Bosch had few imitators at the time (although Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Giuseppe Arcimboldo were influenced by him) but in the 20th Century, his vivid illusions and fantastic creations inspired the Surrealists, some of whom populated their dreamscapes with Bosch-like creatures.

Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (35)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (36) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (37)

13. The Isenheim Altarpiece

Artist: Matthias Grünewald (also known as Mathis GothartorNeithardt) (paintings); Niclaus of Hagenau (sculptures)
Date: 1515 or 1516.
Period/Style: Northern Gothic; Northern Renaissance; Germany/France; religious
Medium: Wooden altarpiece with painted and sculpted panels
Dimensions: 9 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide (center panel); 7.5 ft. tall by 2.5 ft. wide (wings); 2.5 ft. high by 11 ft. wide (predella).
Current location: Musée Unterlinden, Colmar, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (38)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (39)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (40)The monks of the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim ran a hospital. When visitors to the chapel of the hospital looked up at the altar, they saw a Crucifixion scene like no other: Christ’s twisted, emaciated torso is afflicted with plague-like sores. The message to the sick and their caregivers is that Jesus shares the suffering of the hospital’s patients. The altarpiece contains a sculpted scene by Niclaus of Hagenau when fully open but is best known for the paintings of Matthias Grünewald, who retained an expressionistic Gothic sensibility even as he adopted the most recent Renaissance techniques. Due to hinged panels, the altarpiece presents several views, which would have been opened on Sundays and holy days. The first view, with the wings closed, shows the Crucifixion in the center, and two protectors of the sick, St. Sebastian (being martyred) on the left wing and St. Anthony on the right wing. The predella below shows the Lamentation over Christ’s Dead Body. The second view shows the Annunciation, the Nativity (with a concert of angels) and the Resurrection. The third view contains two paintings of events in the life of St. Anthony, with sculpted figures of St. Anthony, St. Augustine and St. Jerome in the center. Random Trivia: Matthias Grünewald’s Gothic realism inspired 20th Century expressionists like Otto Dix and George Grosz. The altarpiece also inspired an opera and symphony (Mathis der Maler) by 20th Century composer Paul Hindemith.

14. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

Artist: Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Date: The work was commissioned in 1647 and completed in 1652.
Period/Style: Baroque; Rome, Italy; religious
Medium: The sculptural group of Teresa and the angel is made of white marble as are the figures of the Cornaro family in the balconies. The niche and other elements of the chapel are made of wood, bronze (much of it gilded), and polychrome marble.
Dimensions: The sculptural group of St. Teresa and the Angel is 11.5 ft. tall.
Current location: Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria dell Vittoria, Rome, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (41)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (42)
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is a masterwork of the High Roman Baroque style in its emphasis on theatricality and its appeal to the senses of the viewer. The life-sized white marble sculpture of St. Teresa and an angel is set in an elevated space in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. The statue was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Cornaro, who had chosen the church of the Discalced Carmelite order of nuns and priests for his burial chapel. Teresa of Ávila, who described her experience of religious ecstasy in almost sexual terms, had become the first Discalced Carmelite saint in 1622. St. Teresa appears to lean back on a cloud as she experiences a vision of an angel who has plunged his arrow into her heart, causing her physical pain but spiritual joy. Bernini, who was also an architect, sets the sculptural group in a niche where natural light can filter through a hidden window in the church dome. A moan escapes from St. Teresa’s throat as her face and body express her love of God through the metaphor of physical ecstasy. Meanwhile, at the sides of the chapel, marble statues of Cardinal Cornaro’s family member watch the drama from theater balconies, thus turning a personal religious experience into a public spectacle.

15. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Artist: Georges Seurat
Date: 1886
Period/Style: Post-Impressionism; Pointillism/Divisionism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 7 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide
Current location: Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (43)Unlike Impressionism, Post-Impressionism is not a consistent artistic style but is instead a catch-all term for a number of artists – including Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Georges Seurat – who rejected the Impressionist style that dominated France in the 1870s and 1880s. Seurat’s work was in many ways the antithesis of Impressionism. He based his painting on complex scientific theories about color and he did considerable preparation, including many sketches and preparatory oil paintings, before commencing a major work. Such a work is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte, a large canvas depicting an assortment of Parisians in a park on the Seine. At the time the work was painted, the island of Grand Jatte in the Seine was far from the center of Paris and was known as a recreational retreat for the bourgeoisie. The painting forms a companion piece to the large Bathers at Asnières from two years earlier, which shows working class Parisians on the banks of the Seine across from Grand Jatte (see image below). One of the boys in Bathers at Asnières is calling over to Grand Jatte, creating a link between the two paintings. But what exactly are all these people doing with their leisure time? A man is playing a musical instrument; a woman is fishing; people are wearing the latest fashions; there are plenty of children and dogs (and one pet monkey). But the mood is not festive. There is little sense of movement, no expressions of emotion; in some ways, these figures feel like statues. It is not surprising to learn that one of Seurat’s inspirations for the painting was the Parthenon frieze, with its parade of static, immobile figures frozen in stone. Our only way to pierce the impenetrable veil is the little girl in white (one of the few figures who is not in shadow). She stares directly out at the viewer, as if silently asking us: Who are all these people? Where do they come from and where are they going? A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte is the most famous example of pointillism (also called divisionism), a technique in which Seurat used small dots of complementary colors (usually unmixed) instead of brushstrokes, which the eye would then perceive at a distance as figures and other shapes. Seurat’s style actually changed during the two-year period he was working on the project, going from small dabs of paint to tiny dots. Even after exhibiting the work in 1886, he continued to work on it, adding a painted border consisting of tiny dots in inverse colors in 1888-1889, which gives the viewer the impression that the picture is unraveling from the outside in. Random Trivia: In the John Hughes filmFerris Bueller Day’s Off (1986), one of the characters engages in a cinematic dialogue with the painting that ends with a staring contest with the young girl in white.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (44)

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16. The Raft of the Medusa

Artist: Théodore Géricault
Date: 1819
Period/Style: Romanticism; France; history painting
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 16 ft. tall by 23.5 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (45)Théodore Géricault’s immense canvas, The Raft of the Medusa, served multiple purposes: it established the painter as an artist; it took the side of the Romanticists in the ongoing debate with the Neoclassicists; and it made an antigovernment political statement. The painting depicts the denouement of a recent French sea tragedy. The French Naval frigate Méduse ran aground in 1816 due to the incompetence of its captain, who obtained his position through favoritism and patronage. Lack of adequate lifeboats forced at least 147 passengers and crew to crowd onto a makeshift raft, where lack of food and water led to starvation, murder and cannibalism. After 13 days at sea, the 15 who remained alive spotted a rescuing ship (see detail in image at below left); it was this moment that Théodore Géricault, then a relatively unknown 27-year-old French artist, chose to paint in all of its grisly detail. On the ramshackle raft, which looks ready to collapse, a father mourns his dead son; dead bodies lie outstretched. At the pinnacle, a black man (a hint of Géricault’s anti-slavery sentiments) waves a cloth to the tiny ship on the horizon. In researching the painting, Géricault interviewed survivors and constructed a scale model of the raft. He even visited morgues to accurately depict the skin tones of dead human bodies. When Géricault exhibited The Raft of the Medusa at the 1819 Paris Salon, its vivid representation of suffering and death repelled the then-dominant Neoclassicists (who derided it as a “pile of corpses”), but the rising Romanticists found its emotional message powerful and praised its politics. While its painting style, muscular nudes and semi-nudes (who don’t seem to show the effects of deprivation) and careful composition (using diagonals and pyramids to organize the elements and direct the eye) owe much to the Neoclassical tradition, The Raft of the Medusa is now considered a seminal work in the history of French Romantic art. By refusing to bow to the dogma that history paintings must provide an uplifting moral lesson and identify heroic gestures and personalities, the painting focuses instead on the cruelty of nature and the emotions of ordinary people in extraordinary circ*mstances. Random Trivia: The model for the foreground figure with downturned face and outstretched arm was French painter Eugène Delacroix, a friend of Géricault’s (see detail in image below right).

17. American Gothic

Artist: Grant Wood
Date: 1930
Period/Style: Regionalism; US
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.4 ft. tall by 2 ft. wide
Current location: Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

One of the most recognized pieces of American art, American Gothic depicts two figures standing in front of the Dibble house in Eldon, Iowa. It was the architecture of the house that first caught Grant Wood’s attention and gave the work its title. The house was built in the Carpenter Gothic style; Wood thought that adding a Gothic window to an ordinary frame house was pretentious. Wood made a pencil sketch of the house while visiting Eldon in August 1930; he returned the next day (with the permission of the owners) to make another sketch using oils on paperboard. When Wood returned to his studio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he recruited his sister Nan to pose for the woman and his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby, to pose for the man (see image below left showing the models with the painting). Although there is some evidence that Wood’s initial intent was to portray a husband and wife, Nan insisted that, at her age, she was supposed to be the farmer’s daughter, not his wife; Wood tactfully never disputed her interpretation. Wood entered the painting in a contest at the Art Institute of Chicago; it won third place and a cash prize of $300. According to Wood, he intended to make a statement in support of the traditional values of the American heartland – hard work, stoicism and resilience – as the Great Depression was just beginning. Some saw it that way. Others interpreted the painting as a biting satire of narrow, backward, small town people and attitudes. At some point during the Great Depression, American Gothic acquired a reputation as a tribute to the steadfast pioneer spirit. Wood’s iconic image was even selected for a patriotic poster by the U.S. Government during World War II. In modern times, the painting has been the source of many parodies, mostly affectionate, and is considered a cultural icon. Random Trivia: Perhaps the most powerful critique of American Gothic is Gordon Parks’ 1942 photographic portrait of Ella Watson, an African-American government worker, which he also entitled American Gothic (see image below right).
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18. The Terracotta Army

Artists: Thousands of anonymous government laborers and local craftsmen sculpted and constructed in separate pieces in their workshops.
Date: 246-208 BCE
Period/Style: Qin Dynasty; Xi’an, China
Medium: Most of the figures are made of terracotta, although some items (such as a half life-size team of horses and chariot) are made of bronze, silver and gold.
Dimensions: Approximately 8,000 unique, life-size sculpted soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, 150 cavalry horses, and various pieces of armor, weapons, and non-military figures and implements.
Current location: Xi’an, China, at the site of the Tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. The site is both a museum and an ongoing archaeological dig.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (51)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (52) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (53)
In 1974, a group of farmers digging a well in Xi’an, China came upon fragments of terracotta and some arrowheads, which they brought to the local cultural center. Archaeologists soon determined that the farmers had stumbled upon the vast underground burial complex of Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin Dynasty in the 3rd Century BCE and first emperor of a united China. Buried with the emperor to protect him in the afterlife was an entire army, including 8,000 life-sized soldiers, each one with a unique face and uniform and equipment specific to his position and rank. Producing the army was an enormous undertaking: the figures were constructed in separate pieces in workshops by an army of 700,000 government laborers and local craftsmen, assembled and painted (very little of the paint remains), then arranged in the tomb according to rank and duty (see detail in images above). Although most of the figures are made of terracotta, items such as a half life-size team of horses and chariot are made of bronze, silver and gold (see image below). The tomb is located beneath a pyramidal earth mound at the base of Mt. Li. Much of the 38-square mile necropolis remains unexcavated, but a museum at the site features the partially-excavated Pit 1 (see top image).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (54)

19. The School of Athens

Artist: Raphael (born Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino)
Date: 1510-1511
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Rome, Italy; allegory/portraits
Medium: Fresco painted on the walls of a reception room
Dimensions: 16.5 ft. tall by 25 ft. wide
Current location: Stanza della Signatura, Vatican Palace, Vatican City
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (55)The School of Athens is one of several frescoes that Florentine artist Raphael painted on the walls of a suite of reception rooms in the Vatican Palace. The School of Athens, an allegorical painting on the topic of philosophy, adorns one wall of the Stanza della Segnatura (Room of the Signatura) and bears the inscription “Causarum Cognito” (“Seek Knowledge of Causes”). The frescoes on the other three walls represent Poetry and Music, Theology, and Law. Painted with impeccable attention to the laws of linear one-point perspective, Raphael’s fresco shows an open forum that recedes into the background. At the center, at the perspectival vanishing point, Plato (holding the Timaeus) and Aristotle (with the Nicomachean Ethics) walk and talk together (see detail below left). The remaining figures represent other philosophers, but there is some dispute about their identities. Most scholars agree that Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, Ptolemy and Zoroaster are among those pictured. As models for some of the figures, Raphael drew upon his fellow artists: art historians have found portraits of Raphael’s mentor Leonardo da Vinci (as Plato), Michelangelo (as Heracl*tus), Donatello (as Plotinus), Donato Bramante (as Euclid or Archimedes), and Raphael’s own self-portrait (as Apelles, looking at the viewer – see detail below right). The inclusion of Bramante the architect is particularly apt, as the architecture that surrounds the philosophers imitates his style. The School of Athens is a tribute to Renaissance humanism, the proponents of which saw themselves as continuing the Classical tradition of scholarly investigation embodied in these ancient philosophers. Random Trivia: Rock band Guns n’ Roses used two of the figures on the right side of The School of Athensin the cover art for theirUse Your Illusionalbums.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (57)

20. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (The Burial of Count Orgaz)

Artist: El Greco (born Doménikos Theotokópoulos)
Date: Work begun in 1586 and completed in 1587 or 1588
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Spain; religious/portraits
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 15.7 ft. tall by 11.8 ft. wide
Current location: Iglesia de Santo Tomé, Toledo, Spain
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (58)
Born on the island of Crete, Doménikos Theotokópoulos (known as El Greco) spent most of his life in Spain, where he painted his most-praised work, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. The painting depicts a 14th Century Spanish legend in which St. Stephen and St. Augustine descend from heaven to bury Don Gonzalo Ruíz, a Toledo noble and knight who had been generous to the Catholic Church. El Greco was commissioned to paint the scene in the side-chapel of the Virgin in his parish church of Santo Tomé in Toledo, Spain. The painting was famous in El Greco’s lifetime for its accurate portrayals of many Toledo notables (including a self-portrait – see image below left – and a portrait of El Greco’s illegitimate son, Jorge Manuel – see image below right). Painting in the Mannerist style (with elements that hearken back to the Byzantine), El Greco divides the canvas between the heavens and the earth, but does not ground the scene by providing a horizon line or a perspectival vanishing point, omissions that serve to emphasize the supernatural quality of the events depicted. Scholars have particularly praised El Greco’s adept use of color in the work, from the black and gold of the nobles’ clothing to the grays and ochres in the heavenly scene, and the touch of bright red contrasting with Mary’s deep blue cloak.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (59) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (60)

On 18 Lists

21. Frescoes, Brancacci Chapel

Artist: Masaccio (born Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone)
Date: 1424-1428
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; religious
Medium: Frescoes painted on church walls
Dimensions: The measurements of five frescoes attributed to Masaccio are: (1) The Tribute Money: 8.1 ft. tall by 19.6 ft. wide; (2) The Expulsion of Adam and Eve: 7 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide; (3) The Baptism of the Neophytes; 8.4 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide; (4) St. Peter Heals the Sick with His Shadow and The Distribution of Alms/Death of Ananias both measure 7.5 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide.
Current location: Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy

Of the 15 frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence’s Santa Maria del Carmine church, at least six are generally attributed to Florentine artist Masaccio. Masaccio had begun as the assistant to the commissioned artist, Masolino da Panicale, but he eventually took over the project (although he, too, left it unfinished, to be completed by Filippino Lippi). The majority of the frescoes illustrate stories from the life of St. Peter. Two of Masaccio’s frescoes, The Tribute Money (top image) and The Expulsion of Adam and Eve (above left), are considered his masterpieces. These frescoes mark a revolution in the style of painting that truly announces the arrival of the Renaissance in that art form. The figures are substantial and defined by modeling, not line; lighting (including shadows), scenery and background are more realistic; and the emotional content is highly expressive (particularly in Eve’s despairing moan). Most importantly, Masaccio uses the newly rediscovered rules of linear perspective to create the illusion on three-dimensional depth on the two-dimensional wall. Masaccio’s frescoes, which underwent a substantial restoration in the 1980s, were highly influential among 15th Century Florentine artists. Other Masaccio frescoes from the Brancacci Chapel shown above are: St. Peter Heals the Sick with His Shadow (above center); and (4)The Distribution of Alms and Death of Ananias (above right).

22. The Last Supper

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Date: The work was begun in 1495 and completed in 1498.
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Milan Italy; religious
Medium: Egg tempera paints on a dry wall prepared with a mixture of gesso, pitch and mastic, covered with a layer of plaster and white lead (a brightening agent)
Dimensions: 15.1 ft. tall by 28.8 ft. wide
Current location: Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (65)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (66)
Just because a technique is new doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be better. So when Leonardo da Vinci decided to forego the fresco technique, which limited his color palette, and try something new when painting The Last Supper on the wall of the mausoleum of his patron Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, it turned out to be a big mistake. Instead of mixing pigment with wet plaster, as wall paintings had been done for centuries, Leonardo decided to prepare the wall with a mixture of gesso, pitch and mastic, add a layer of plaster and a brightening agent (white lead), wait for it to dry and then paint on the dry plaster using egg tempera paints. Unfortunately for Leonardo, the Duke and art history, the mixture never set properly and bits of the mural began flaking off almost immediately after Leonardo finished the work in 1498. Add humidity, Allied bombs in World War I, angry anti-clerical French troops, a doorway cut out of the painting in 1583, and numerous botched restorations, and it is amazing there is anything left of Leonardo’s masterpiece. A comprehensive but highly controversial restoration project that ended in 1999 removed much of the paint added by earlier restorations and revealed a somewhat more subdued Last Supper, although it is not clear how much of it is the original (see detail in second image above). The painting adorns the end wall of what is now the dining hall of the convent of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church. It depicts the moment in the Gospel of John when Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. The reactions of the various disciples, painted in groups of threes, are shown with vivid facial expressions and gestures. Without looking at each other, both Jesus and Judas are reaching for the same piece of bread; when their hands meet a moment later, it will be a sign that Judas is the betrayer. The painting is a premier example of single-point linear perspective; all the perspective lines meet at a vanishing point on or just above Jesus’ head (see perspective analysis diagram below left). Random Trivia: The painting has been much imitated and parodied, including tableaux vivant in the filmsViridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961), MASH (Robert Altman, 1970) (see image below right), and Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (67) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (68)

23. The Kiss

Artist: Gustav Klimt
Date: Begun in 1907; completed in 1908.
Period/Style: Vienna Secession; Symbolism; Art Nouveau; Arts and Crafts; Austria
Medium: Oil paints and gold and silver leaf on canvas
Dimensions: 6 ft. by 6 ft.
Current location: Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (69)For Gustav Klimt, a loving physical connection between a man and a woman was not just erotic and sensual, but also provided a pathway to an eternal realm of peace and happiness. It is no coincidence, then, that embracing couples feature prominently in several of his works, including The Beethoven Frieze (1902) (see detail below left), The Stoclet Frieze (The Tree of Life) (1905-1911) (see detail below right) and, most famously, The Kiss (1908). The Kiss is the crowning achievement of Klimt’s Golden Period. The son of a goldsmith and engraver, Klimt was attracted to working with gold, especially after his visit to Ravenna in 1903 to see the mosaics of San Vitale. He provided the lovers of The Kiss with a flat gold background reminiscent of medieval religious paintings, where it symbolized the heavenly sphere. Surrounding the couple is a lighter gold cloak with swirling designs that serves as a kind of halo. The designs of the clothing owe much to both Art Nouveau (with its linear shapes) and Arts and Crafts (with its figures drawn from nature); these movements sought to erase the distinction between what is artistic and what is “merely” decorative. According to art historian Alesssandra Comini, in Klimt’s work, “the anatomy of the models becomes ornamentation and the ornamentation becomes anatomy.” The man in The Kiss is draped in bold vertical rectangles, while the woman’s dress abounds with circular motifs. More than one scholar has pointed out the sexual connotations of these contrasting designs. Most of the painting feels deliberately two-dimensional, like a tapestry or wallpaper, except for the faces and hands, which Klimt has painted with more modeling and three-dimensionality. The man’s face is hidden from us, but his stretching neck and caressing hands express a sense of power and intention, while the woman’s closed eyes and kneeling posture convey a sense of calm (even passivity) as she submits to the man, her own desire, or both. (Note that the kneeling posture creates the illusion that the woman is dominated by the man, but if she stood up, she would tower over him.) The two lovers are situated on a bed of wildflowers and vines, some of which are draped over the woman’s feet. As bucolic as the scene appears, the meadow appears to end abruptly, so that the couple is actually perched on a precipice. What lies below? Oblivion? The death of self, subsumed in an eternal union of two lovers? Or a merging happily into the universal unconscious?
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (70) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (71)

On 17 lists

24. The Arnolfini Portrait (Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife)

Artist: Jan van Eyck
Date: 1434
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders (now Belgium)
Medium: Oil paints on oak panels
Dimensions: 2.8 ft. tall by 2 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (72)
The Arnolfini Portrait is a masterpiece of Early Netherlandish painting, but it is also a bit of a mystery. Wealthy Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini spent most of his life in Bruges, Flanders. He married in 1426 but his wife died in 1433. So who is the couple in the painting? Is it a memorial to Arnolfini’s recently-deceased wife or is it the record of a second wedding? Or is it not Arnolfini but another wealthy Flemish bourgeois couple? We may never know. What we do know is that this work is a tour de force of the skills of the painter, Jan van Eyck (who inscribed his name on the far wall). His adept use of oil painting techniques allows him to mimic many different textures (the fabrics of the clothing and bed linens; the carvings on the wooden bedframe; the metal of the chandelier) and show the way light reflects off different objects (such as the chandelier and the rosary hanging at the rear). As the piece de resistance, van Eyck places a mirror (like a gazing eye) in the center of the composition that reflects all that is going on (but in reverse) and reveals that there are two people in the doorway (one of them the painter himself?) (see detail in image below). The objects in the room have symbolic value; they refer to love and marriage (the dog, for example, is symbol of marital fidelity) or highlight the wealth of the subjects (the oranges near the window would have been very expensive luxury items). And no, the woman is not pregnant: it’s just the way she’s holding up her fashionable dress.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (73)

25. Pietà

Artist: Michelangelo
Date: Commissioned in 1497; completed in 1499.
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Rome, Italy; religious
Medium: Sculpture carved from Carrara marble
Dimensions: 5.7 ft. tall by 6.4 ft. wide
Current location: St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (74)Sculptures of the Pietà (“the pity”), a standard religious subject depicting a seated Mary holding the dead body of her son Jesus, were common in Northern Europe from the 14th Century, but Michelangelo’s late 15th Century masterpiece was the first (or one of the first) Italian sculptures on the subject. (The image below left shows an early German example from c. 1375-1400, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.) Michelangelo depicts Mary as younger, calmer and less sorrowful than in other versions of the scene. According to the artist himself, the youthful appearance of Mary, the mother of a 33-year-old son, was a result of her extreme purity. As he told his friend and biographer Ascanio Condivi:”Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body?” On the other hand, Vatican tour guides tell visitors that the face of Mary is that of Michelangelo’s own young mother, who died when the artist was six years old. The Pietà was originally commissioned by French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères for his funeral monument but was later moved to its current position inside the first chapel on the right as one enters St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pietà is the only artwork Michelangelo ever signed; the story goes that he overheard someone attributed the work to one of his rivals, Christoforo Solari, after which Michelangelo carved his name onto the sash across Mary’s chest. Late in his life, Michelangelo carved a second Pietà, known as The Florentine Pietà (or The Deposition), which includes his self-portrait as Joseph of Arimathea. It is now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence (see image below right). Random Trivia: The statue is now protected behind a plate of thick glass after an incident on Pentecost Sunday in 1972 when Hungarian geologist Lazlo Toth, yelling “I am Jesus Christ! I have returned from the dead!”, did serious damage to the statue with a hammer, breaking off one of Mary’s arms and disfiguring her face. As pieces of marble went flying, some onlookers made off with them, including a piece of Mary’s original nose that has never been returned. The statue was restored using marble from the same quarry, including some taken from the back of the statue.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (75) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (76)

26. The Persistence of Memory

Artist: Salvador Dali
Date: 1931
Period/Style: Surrealism; Spain/France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 9.5 inches tall by 13 inches wide
Current location: Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (77)Small in size but large in its influence, The Persistence of Memory is Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali’s most famous creation (other than perhaps himself). Dali and other Surrealists drew much of their inspiration from the theories of Sigmund Freud, who believed that much of human behavior was motivated by urges in our unconscious minds, and that the unconscious was revealed through dreams. Surrealists rejected the surface reality of day-to-day life and sought instead to depict other, hidden realities, such as those we see in dreams. To do this, they created images that appeared hyperrealistic in some ways but completely unnatural in others. According to Dali, he painted The Persistence of Memory using a “paranoiac-critical” technique that involved placing himself in a self-induced hallucinatory state. The result was an otherworldly combination of objects – some strange and some familiar. The most famous are the three melting watches. The incongruity of seeing something hard and metallic depicted as flaccid and flexible is intended to shock us out of our preconceptions about the nature of reality. Some have sought to connect the melting watches to Einstein’s theory of relativity, which proves the elastic nature of time, but Dali claims he was inspired by watching some Camembert cheese melt in the sun. A dead tree grows out of a man-made platform. Ants swarm over a fourth watch as if they are feasting on its decaying flesh. In the distance, we see cliffs (possibly of Dali’s native Catalonia) and an unnaturally placid sea. In the foreground there is a strange gray creature with a closed eye, a nose and a tongue (?) that may be a self-portrait of the artist. Perhaps he is the dreamer of this quiet nightmare. Random Trivia: More than 20 years after painting The Persistence of Memory, Dali revisited and updated his earlier work on a considerably larger canvas (see image below). Known as The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, the 1954 painting is at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (78)

On 16 Lists

27. Venus de Milo (Aphrodite of Milos)

Artist: Alexandros of Antioch
Date: c. 130-100 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece, Hellenistic Period
Medium: Carved marble sculpture
Dimensions: 6.7 ft. tall
Current Location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (79)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (80)First of all, they gave her the wrong name. The Venus de Milo is a marble sculpture of a nude woman dating from the Hellenistic period that was found on the island of Milos in the Aegean Sea. Art historians believe the statue is a Greek deity, most likely Aphrodite, the goddess of love, but someone began referring to the statue by the name Venus, Aphrodite’s Roman coun-terpart, and the name stuck. The museum label at the Louvre tactfully explains, “Aphrodite, known as Venus de Milo.” The statue was found by a Greek peasant, Yorgos Kentrotas, and a French naval officer, Olivier Voutier, in the ruins of the ancient city of Milos on the Aegean island known variously as Milos, Melos or Milo, then part of the Ottoman Empire. At the time it was discovered, the statue was in several pieces, which included part of the left arm and the left hand holding an apple, as well as a plinth with an inscription by Alexandros. By the time the French bought the statue from the Turks and brought it to the Louvre in Paris, the arms had disappeared. Soon afterwards, the plinth with Alexandros’ inscription also vanished. Some suspect the loss was not an accident because the plinth was evidence that the statue was Hellenistic and not from the earlier (and more prestigious) Classical period. The statue was carved from separate pieces, which were designed to fit together using pegs, a typical technique of that time and place. The exact positioning of the missing arms is a subject of some speculation. Also missing are her metal headband, earrings and bracelet.

28. Girl with a Pearl Earring

Artist: Johannes Vermeer (born Jan Vermeer van Delft)
Date: c. 1665
Period/Style: Baroque; Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands; tronie
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 17.5 in. tall by 15 in. wide
Current location: Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (81)
Girl with a Pearl Earring
is Vermeer’s most famous painting, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1881, when it went on sale, the purchase price was about $25. The small painting is a tronie – a painting of someone in costume intended to represent a character or type. In the 17th Century, Turkish turbans had become fashionable, due perhaps to the recent wars between Europeans and the Ottoman Empire. In fact, when it was first donated to Mauritshuis in The Hague, the painting went by the name “Girl with a Turban. “(Other names given to the work over the years are: “Portrait in Antique Costume”, from a 17th Century catalogue, “The Pearl”, and the generic “Head of a Young Girl.”) The painting now called Girl with a Pearl Earring exhibits many of Vermeer’s trademarks: the lapis lazuli blues set off by yellows, the close attention to the way light reflects off different surfaces, and the variety of brushstrokes. The painting of the turban is atypically lacking in detail, with barely any effort made to highlight folds in the fabric. What has made the painting so popular is not the painting technique as much as the expression of the girl, which is so enigmatic that it has led some to call the painting the Mona Lisa of the north. Some, such as novelist Tracy Chevalier, have read a romantic longing into the girl’s expression, leading to a 1999 novel and subsequent movie starring Scarlet Johansson. Others read her differently: she is mocking, or seductive, or resentful. The inability to pin down the girl’s feelings may be exactly what keeps viewers intrigued with this work of art. Recent high-tech analysis of the canvas have revealed that the girl originally had eyelashes, which have faded, and the background was originally a greenish curtain, which has darkened. The pearl itself has generated a fair amount of scholarship among art historians. Pearls feature in 21 of Vermeer’s 34 surviving works. The curator at the Mauritshuis describes the pearl in this painting as “improbably large” and another scholar has noted the Vermeer never painted anything connecting the pearl to the ear. Finally, one curmudgeonly art historian swears that the earring is not a pearl at all but is a teardrop shaped piece of tin.

29. Les Nymphéas (Water Lilies)

Artist: Claude Monet (born Oscar-Claude Monet)
Date: Monet worked on the last, largest of his Water Lilies paintings between 1914 and his death in 1926. Some sources say that some of the works were started in 1920. Some sources say some of the works begun in 1914 were completed by 1920.
Period/Style: Impressionism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: Most of the murals are 6.5 ft. tall. They vary in width from single-panel works 14 ft. wide to triptychs nearly 56 ft. wide.
Current location: Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris (8 paintings); others are in various collections.

Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (82)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (83)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (84)During the last 30 years of his life, French Impressionist painter Claude Monet created approximately 250 paintings of the water lilies in the ponds of his home in Giverny, France. As a group, the paintings are called Les Nymphéas or The Water Lilies, although many pieces have individual titles. He began with standard Impressionist landscapes, then reduced the elements – first the sky disappeared, then the horizon line, and then finally, around 1905, he began to focus solely on the surface of the pond, with the water lilies and pads sitting on top, and the sky and foliage reflected in the water. Beginning in 1914, Monet began work on a number of very large Water Lily canvases. His goal was to create paintings that would surround the viewers, engulf them in this watery world of surfaces and reflections. Each painting is over six feet tall and depicts a specific place in the gardens at a specific time; the flat surface of the water fills the canvas so we see no ground, no horizon line and no sky (although the sun, clouds and sky are reflected in the water, as are the trees and vines along the banks of the ponds). Monet sought to create the illusion of “an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank.” By showing us only the water’s surface, with no horizon or land, Monet eliminates conventional clues to vantage point, immersing the viewer in the space between the water’s surface and the light. The figures are simplified and the painting is sometimes rough, with multiple layers of paint and obvious brushstrokes. He worked on at least 15 of these large paintings over a number of years, and most of them were still in his studio when he died in 1926. A number of the paintings were so large that they required two or three panels and so became diptychs or triptychs. (The triptych titled Water Lilies: Morning with Willows may be the largest at 6.5 ft. tall and nearly 56 ft. long.) At the end of World War I, Monet offered a number of these paintings to the French government; he worked with them to design a special museum with oval rooms to display the works. The resulting Musée de l’Orangerie opened in 1927 and now shows eight of the paintings, for a total of nearly 2,000 square feet of canvas. Many of the other large water lily paintings sat untouched for many years until the 1950s, when museums began to be interested in them again. The rise of Abstract Expressionism and the action painting of artists like Jackson Pollock had rekindled interest in these late Monet works; Monet’s hands-on encounters with the canvas, building up a geography of thick brushstrokes in what comes very close to abstraction, were seen as a precursor to the style of Pollock and others. The top image, from the Orangerie, shows (from left) The Clouds, Green Reflections, and Morning. The middle image is Setting Sun, also at the Orangerie. The bottom image is Water Lilies, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Random Trivia: Late in life, Monet suffered from cataracts, which blurred his vision and limited his ability to see certain colors (particularly blue and violet). Some critics believe these vision problems had a significant effect on his later work, although others point out that his style did not change markedly after two eye surgeries in 1923.

On 15 Lists

30. Bust of Queen Nefertiti

Artist: Attributed to Thutmose
Date: c. 1345 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Egyptian: 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom (mix of Classical and Amarna styles)
Medium: Painted stucco over a core of limestone
Dimensions: 19 inches tall; weighs 44 pounds
Current location: Egyptian Museum, Berlin, Germany
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (85)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (86)In 1912, while excavating the workshop of Egyptian sculptor Thutmose in Amarna, Egypt, German archaeologists led by Ludwig Borchardt found a painted bust of a royal figure believed to be Nefertiti. She is identified by her distinctive head covering: the Nefertiti cap crown. Nefertiti was the queen (and possible co-ruler) of Amenhotep IV, who reigned from 1352-1336 BCE and who took the name Akhenaten after he became a monotheist. The bust is composed of a limestone core with painted layers of stucco. The lack of an inlay in the queen’s left eye supports that theory that this bust was a sculptor’s modello kept in the studio to be used as the basis for other portraits. CT scans reveal that earlier versions of the bust show a much older queen, with wrinkles on her face and neck and a swelling on her nose, but that the final layers of stucco eliminated these imperfections to create an idealized portrait. The cobra symbol, or uraeus, on her forehead has been damaged. According to experts, the bust with its slender neck and very large head, does not possess many of the attributes of the new Amarna style that developed under Akhenaten, but hearkens back to more Classical forms. After discovering the bust, Borchardt brought it back to Germany, where it has been ever since, despite requests from Egypt to repatriate it since the 1930s. There is considerable controversy over the removal of the bust from Egypt. There are allegations that when Germany and Egypt divided up the finds of Borchardt’s dig, the Germans downplayed or actively disguised the nature and value of the bust, showing Egyptian officials only a poorly-taken photograph and ensuring that it was thoroughly wrapped up when Egyptian authorities conducted an inspection. To complicate matters, at the time, Egypt was under the control of European powers. TheBust of Nefertiti is now in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, where the queen has her own room (see image below).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (87)

31. Maestà Altarpiece

Artist: Duccio (full name: Duccio di Buoninsegna)
Date: 1308-1311
Period/Style: Medieval period; Gothic/Byzantine style with Proto-Renaissance elements; Siena, Italy
Medium: Tempera paints and gold leaf on wood panels
Dimensions: The original altarpiece was 15.4 ft. tall by 16.4 ft. wide and contained painted panels on both the front and back.
Current location: Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy (main front panel and many of the smaller panels). Other small panels are in various collections.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (88)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (89)
On June 9, 1311, a solemn procession led by bishops, monks, and priests escorted an immense painted altarpiece through the streets of Siena, Italy and into the Duomo (Siena Cathedral). The painting was theMaestà Altarpiece. The creator of this masterpiece was Duccio di Buoninsegna, Siena’s foremost painter, The painting indicated a step away from Gothic and Byzantine styles and toward a more realistic representation of people and things, although not quite as far as Giotto’s contemporaneous work. The original altarpiece contained paintings on the front and rear. The front consisted of the large Madonna and Child with saints and angels at center, with a predella (the section below the main image) containing scenes from Christ’s childhood and additional portraits and scenes above. The rear contained 43 small scenes showing the Life of Christ and Life of the Virgin. Unfortunately, in 1711, the altarpiece was dismantled and sawed into pieces, which were distributed to various locations. In 1956, an attempt was made to bring all the extant pieces back together in Siena, but it was only partially successful. Although much of the altarpiece (including the center panel) is in Siena, portions of it may be found in museums around the world. The pictures show an imaginative recreation of the original altarpiece; this is not what it looks like today. Below are two panels from the rear of the altarpiece: at left, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem; at right, The The Crucifixion.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (90) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (91)

32. The Hunters in the Snow (The Return of the Hunters)

Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Date: 1565
Period/Style: Northern Renaissance; Flanders (now Belgium); landscape/genre
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 3.8 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide
Current location: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (92)Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a Flemish artist known for his genre paintings of peasant life made for wealthy and bourgeois patrons. His most highly regarded work, known as The Hunters in the Snow, is one of six paintings commissioned by Niclaes Jonghelinck, a wealthy Antwerp merchant, depicting the seasons/months of the year. Bruegel’s rendering of winter works on both large and small scales. His color palette and rendering of the snow, ice, the gray-green sky (echoing the color of the frozen ponds below), the black crows, and leafless trees convey the cold and oppressive winter months. His imaginary landscape, which matches Flemish buildings and people with craggy Alpine peaks (based on sketches from Bruegel’s trip to Italy) creates a winter scene that seems both comfortably familiar and somehow not quite right (see detail in image below). In the left foreground, the largest figures are the hunters and their dogs, returning with little to show for their efforts (a dead fox is all we can see). The dangling sign on the inn – the Golden Hart, with a picture of a deer and St. Eustace – seems to mock their failure to bring home a larger prize. We can’t see their faces, but their body language communicates defeat (even the dogs – one of whom looks directly at us – hang their heads in shame). In the rest of the composition Bruegel contrasts the negativity of the failed hunting expedition with scenes of Flemish peasants at work and play: cooks singe the hair off a pig in a fire in preparation for a feast; people skate and play games on the ice; someone hunts birds. In what is known as a balcony composition, the space occupied by the hunters in the foreground is high above most of the activities far below. Bruegel creates a sense of movement and guides the eyes with a series of diagonals (the edge of “balcony”, the poles held by the hunters, lines of house and trees). Some art historians have wondered whether there is a deeper religious or political meaning to the painting, a message about how the bucolic life of the villages hides unjust deprivation, or perhaps a warning about complacency in the face of the possibility of eternal damnation – not in fire, but in ice.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (93)

33. Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Artist: Katsuskika Hokusai
Date: 1831 (first edition of 36 prints); 1833 (second edition of 46 prints)
Period/Style: Edo Period; Japan; ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”)
Medium: Polychrome paper prints from carved woodblocks
Dimensions: Each print is 10.1 in. tall by 14.9 in. wide
Current locations: Various collections
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (94) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (96)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (97)
Edo Period Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai revolutionized the artistic genre of ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”). Prior to Hokusai, ukiyo-e prints primarily depicted two subjects: courtesans and Kabuki theater actors. Hokusai expanded the genre immensely to include landscapes, wildlife and views of daily life in the cities and the countryside. Hokusai fused traditional Japanese painting technique, with its unique perspective system, with lessons learned from Dutch art (mostly prints from engravings) that had been smuggled into Japan during the 18th and early 19th Centuries, such as the adoption of a low horizon line. At 69 years old, Hokusai began his most famous series of woodblock prints: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Mt. Fuji, which was visible from many parts of Japan, had important religious and mythological significance in Japanese culture. Hokusai shows the mountain is a variety of settings and seasons; sometimes it is the main feature of the composition, but more often it is a small element in the far distance. The series serves not only as a travelogue of Japanese sights, but also a careful observation of the details of daily life in 19th Century Japan. The first 36 prints were published in 1831; they were so popular that Hokusai printed 10 additional views in the second edition in 1833. The most famous of the original 36 prints is The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which shows three boats being threatened by a large wave (top image). The boats pictured are oshiokuri-bune, fast boats used to transport live fish to market. Each boat has eight rowers and two other passengers. Based on the typical size of such boats and Hokusai’s reduction of the vertical scale by 30%, scholars have estimated the height of the wave to be 32-39 feet. Mount Fuji is seen in the trough of the wave, and appears to be about to be engulfed. Other popular prints include South Wind, Clear Sky (also known as Red Fuji), which shows the mountain turned red from the early dawn light (see image above, middle left), and Thunderstorm Beneath the Summit, with its red streak of lightning (see image above, middle right). Among the more intriguing prints in the series is Mount Fuji Reflected in Lake Kawaguchi, seen from the Misaka Pass: the mountain’s reflection has a snow cap, while the actual mountain does not (see image above, bottom). Is this the mountain as we imagine it? Or as it imagines itself? The popularity of the subject was so great that Hokusai himself published 100 Views of Mount Fuji in 1835. In 1852, another ukiyo-e artist, Hiroshige, revisited the idea with his own Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Random Trivia: Canadian art photographer Jeff Wall recreated No. 10 in the series,EjiriinSuruga Province (see below left) as A Sudden Gust of Wind (1993) (see below right).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (98)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (99)

34. Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass)

Artist: Édouard Manet
Date: 1863
Period/Style: Realism; Impressionism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 6.8 ft. tall by 8.7 ft. wide
Current location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (100)Édouard Manet is a pivotal figure in the history of French painting as his unique style and subject matter moved beyond Realism and into Impressionism. Yet Manet was neither a Realist nor an Impressionist; he was sui generis, and he was not afraid of stirring up controversy. In 1863, two of Manet’s paintings drew fire from traditionalists. The first was Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon in the Grass), which was considered obscene by many contemporaries. This large enigmatic canvas shows four figures in a wooded landscape: two women and two men. One of the women is set far back, as if in another painting, and is bathing while wearing a silky gown. The two men are fully clothed and engaged in conversation. The second woman – who sits with the two men and stares directly at the viewer – is completely nude. (Her clothes may be in the pile next to the still life of a picnic lunch.) There is no indication that the subject is historical, Biblical, or mythological; the scene appears to be fully contemporary, but no explanation is given for the nudity. The 1863 Paris Salon rejected the painting, so Manet exhibited the canvas at the protest exhibition known as the Salon des Refusés. Manet’s utterly new and modern composition consciously relies on more traditional antecedents. He borrowed the grouping of the figures from the lower right side of Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving of Raphael’s drawing The Judgment of Paris (see image below left). While there is precedent for a group of two men in modern clothing with nude women in Titian’s The Pastoral Concert (see image below right), in that case the nudes are clearly depicted as mythic or heavenly beings, not mere mortals. The idea of a nude woman sitting together with two clothed men in a contemporary setting was scandalous to mid-Nineteenth Century viewers, who would assume that she was a prostitute. Some art historians see The Luncheon on the Grass as Manet’s attempt to upset the establishment and expand the narrow limits of acceptable subjects for painting. But this interpretation fails to account for other puzzling aspects of the work, particularly with regard to the bathing woman. She appears to be lit differently than the rest of the figures, and she is out of proportion, violating the laws of perspective. These oddities have spawned multiple theories. The one I find most convincing is set out in the website everypainterpaintshimself.com. The website author suggests that this scene originally took place in the artist’s studio. A woman modeled for the bather (note that the original title of the painting was The Bath) and when the painting session was finished, she took a break to have lunch with the painter and his friend, removing the silky gown (a prop from the studio) in the process. What we are looking at is the painting of the woman in the background and the luncheoners in the foreground. But Manet decided to place the entire scene outdoors and disguise the true nature of the bather (it is a painting, not a real person). If true, this interpretation raises many fascinating issues about the nature of painted reality vs. actual reality, the relationship between the artist and the model, and the relationship between the participants in the creative process (artist and model) and the viewer.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (101) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (102)

35. Nighthawks

Artist: Edward Hopper
Date: 1942
Period/Style: American Scene Painting; US
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.75 ft. tall by 5 ft. wide
Current location: Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (103)
The most famous work by American artist Edward Hopper, and one of the most recognizable American works of art, Nighthawks depicts a much simplified and enlarged version of a restaurant in Hopper’s Greenwich Village, New York neighborhood, rendered in such a way that this could be nearly any city in 1940s America. We see a man and a woman, another man with his back to us, and a diner server. No entrance or exit is visible, so the large windows create the sense of a giant terrarium or zoo enclosure, its occupants trapped inside and put on display. According to notes made by Hopper’s wife Josephine, she was the model for the woman at the counter, and the two men in suits are both Hopper self-portraits. Her notes refer to the man in the suit next to the woman as “night hawk” due to his beak-like nose; she refers to the man with his back turned as “sinister.” Hopper’s treatment of artificial fluorescent light at night here – note the greenish tinge of the light as it hits the sidewalk – is considered masterful. As with so many Hopper paintings, Nighthawks conveys a mood of alienation and loneliness, which the artist has acknowledged. “Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.” The image has been copied and parodied in popular culture, most famously by Gottfried Helnwein, whose best-selling 1984 poster Boulevard of Broken Dreams inserts Humphrey Bogart, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe for the patrons, and Elvis Presley for the waiter, substituting celebrity kitsch for the original’s dangerous and lonely anonymity (see image below).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (104)

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36. The Parthenon Frieze

Artist: According to Plutarch, Ancient Greek sculptor Phidias oversaw the work, but it is not clear how much of the sculpting work he actually did.
Date: c. 443-438 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece – High Classical Period
Medium: Low relief sculptures carved in marble
Dimensions: 114 marble blocks, each 3.3 feet high and totaling almost 44 feet in length
Current location: Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece; British Museum, London; Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (105)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (106)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (107)
TheParthenon Frieze is a low-relief marble sculpture that originally decorated the upper portion of the interior of the Parthenon, a temple on the Acropolis in Athens dedicated to Athena. The frieze consisted of two parallel lines of reliefs depicting 378 gods and humans, including representatives of all the Attic communities, and 245 animal figures. Scholars disagree about whether the scene depicted in the frieze is contemporary, historical or allegorical. According to one theory, the frieze represents an annual Athenian religious ritual known as the Panathenaic Procession. in which the citizens of Athens paraded to the temple to drape the colossal statue of Athena inside the Parthenon in a peplos (a type of garment) woven by the women of Athens (see image below, with section of the frieze possibly showing the peplos). Large portions of the frieze were destroyed by Venetian bombing in 1687, when, during a war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine. In a controversial series of events, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, removed much of the frieze between 1801 and 1812 and brought it to England, where it is on display in the British Museum. Although many have argued for the return of the frieze to Athens, where portions of it remain, most scholars have concluded that the UK acquired it legally. The images above show three portions of the frieze; the section in the first image shows the deities Poseidon, Apollo and Artemis; the second shows men leading horses; and the third shows men riding horses. (Note that by convention, Greek relief sculptors depicted horses as smaller than in reality to balance the compositions.)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (108)

37. Laocoön and His Sons

Artists: Attributed to Agesander, Athenodoros & Polydorus
Date: Some experts believe it is an original sculpture from c. 42-19 BCE. Others believe it is a Roman copy of a lost Greek original dating to c. 200 BCE.
Period/Style: Ancient Greek: Late Hellenistic Period; Pergamene Baroque style
Medium: Carved marble group sculpture
Dimensions: 6.8 ft. tall, 5.3 ft. wide, 3.7 ft. deep
Current location: Vatican Museums, Vatican City
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (109)In his Natural History, Ancient Roman writer Pliny the Elder describes a marble sculpture of Laocoön and His Sons he saw in the home of the future emperor Titus between 70 and 79 CE that was made by Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydoros, three sculptors from the Greek island of Rhodes. In 1506, a marble statue that seemed to match the one described by Pliny was discovered in a Roman vineyard beneath the remains of the Baths of Titus. Art historians disagree about whether the statue is a 1st Century BCE original or a later copy of a 2nd Century BCE original. The group shows Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents in punishment by pro-Greek gods for uncovering the secret of the Trojan Horse during the Trojan War. The style is considered Hellenistic “Pergamene baroque” and a figure in the Pergamon Altar Frieze bears a striking similarity to the figure of Laocoön here. Due to the damaged condition of the sculptural group, various restorations have been proposed and carried out over the centuries. The right arms of the figures, which were missing, were replaced by replicas for certain periods. In 1540, for example, the Vatican gave Laocoön a new right arm that extended upward.In 1906, Ludwig Pollak discovered part of a marble arm in a Roman builder’s yard near the spot where the original statue was found and gave it to the Vatican. In 1957, the Vatican’s experts finally decided that the arm, which was bent, belonged toLaocoön, so it replaced the extended arm that had been added in 1540 (see image at below right showing pre-1957 pose with extended arm). The sculpture had an enormous influence on the Renaissance artists who saw it, particularly in the way it depicted the suffering of the characters. At the time of the sculpture’s discovery, Michelangelo called it the “greatest piece of art in the world.”
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (110)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (111)

38. Les Très Riches Heurs du Duc de Berry

Artists: Paul, Jean and Herman Limbourg (primary work); completed by Jean Colombe and others
Date: 1411-1416 (primary work), completed in the 1480s
Period/Style: International Gothic; Netherlands/France
Medium: Illustrated manuscript (Book of Hours), painted with tempera paints and gold leaf on vellum
Dimensions: 11.8 in. tall by 8.5 in. wide; 206 sheets; 66 large paintings; 65 small paintings
Current location: Musée Condé, Chantilly, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (112) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (113)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (114) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (115)
Les Très Riches Heurs du Duc de Berry is a book of hours (a type of prayer book) that is a paragon of the International Gothic style. International Gothic was a late 14th-early 15th Century style favored by artists in the courts of Europe. According to one art historian, the style’s delicate realism and focus on vibrant color, lively details, and elegant settings “reflects the sophisticated, cosmopolitan nature and pageantry of courtly life.” Les Très Riches Heures was created for John, Duke of Berry. The book begins with a series of calendar pages and a zodiac, followed by numerous prayers. Most of the work was done by the three Dutch Limbourg Brothers (Paul, Jean and Herman) between 1411-1416, but they left the project unfinished, so it was completed by others, including Jean Colombe, in the 1480s. The illustrations depict the daily lives of the aristocracy as well as the peasants, and contains a number of remarkable depictions of medieval architecture.Shown above are four pages attributed to the Limbourgs: (top left) The page for January, showing the exchange of New Year’s gifts among the Duke, his family and friends (note depiction of painted battle mural on the back wall); (top right) the page for February, showing workers warming their feet by a fire; (bottom left) the page for October, with workers in the fields in the foreground and the Louvre Castle in the rear; and (bottom right) the zodiac with the signs displayed on the body of a young man, then again in the frame surrounding the two figures.

39. Descent from the Cross (Deposition of Christ)

Artist: Rogier van der Weyden
Date: c. 1435
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders (now Belgium)
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 7 ft. tall by 8.5 ft. wide
Current location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (116)Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition brought a new level of emotional intensity to religious painting, with its depiction of weeping figures around the dead body of Christ. A student of Early Netherlandish pioneer Robert Campin, van der Weyden was commissioned by the Leuven guild of archers to make this large panel painting to hang in the guild’s chapel. We see a jumbled tableaux of figures and objects placed in an unusually shaped space with very little depth: Christ is lowered from the cross into the arms of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; at left, Mary falls in a swoon, with St. John (shown in left image below) helping her up; at right, Mary Magdelene’s body is contorted with grief (see detail in right image below). In the center, Christ’s body approximates the shape of a crossbow (in honor of the guild); his mother’s pose is an echo of his. The perspectives are odd: try to follow the logic of the ladder, for example – how can it be both behind and in front of the cross? But the impact of the painting is in the vibrant colors (including a sumptuously rendered coat on the figure holding Christ’s legs), the dramatic poses (one art historian compared the “undulating lines, swaying poses and counterposes of figures” to counterpoint in polyphonic music), and most of all the teardrops marking the grieving face of nearly everyone in the frame. The painting was highly influential and was copied many times: weeping figures and swooning Virgin Marys soon became de rigueur elements in Northern European religious art.

40. David

Artist: Donatello (born Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi)
Date: There is much debate about the date, with theories ranging from the 1430s to the 1460s, but most art historians believe the sculpture was created in the 1440s, probably early in the decade.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy
Medium: Freestanding bronze sculpture
Dimensions: 6.2 ft. tall
Current location: Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (119)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (120)Donatello’s David was highly influential: it is the first freestanding bronze statue of the Renaissance and the first nude male sculpture since Ancient Rome, and it opened the door for other artists. The sculpture shows the young hero, having slain Goliath, standing with his foot on the giant’s head (see detail in image below) and carrying Goliath’s immense sword. David’s face shows youth, purity and innocence; his stance is relaxed and natural. The bronze is highly polished and portions of the statue – including David’s hair – were once gilded. The sculpture was probably commissioned by Florence’s powerful Medici family. David was considered a symbol of Florence, and by placing the statue in the courtyard of their villa, the Medicis would have been making a political statement about their place in the Florentine power structure. While the statue’s beauty is undisputed, some have commented on its departures from traditional forms. Some find the boy’s nudity odd, given his hat and boots. Some find the figure too effeminate or androgynous. Others claim that the very aspects some find ‘odd’ are intended to demonstrate that David’s victory over Goliath was not a result of strength, but of God’s will that a boy not yet a man could conquer a giant. Still others find hom*oerotic elements in the composition, such as the way the feather from Goliath’s cap runs up the inside of David’s leg (see image at right above). Adding credence to the hom*osexuality theme is the theory of some art historians believe that David’s face was based on 1st Century CE sculptures of Antinous, a young man who was beloved by (and perhaps lover of) Roman Emperor Hadrian (see image below right showing detail of a sculpture of Antinous (117-138 CE) from the Archaeological Museum in Delphi, Greece.).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (121) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (122)

41. The Embarkation for Cythera (Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera)

Artist: Jean-Antoine Watteau
Date: 1717
Period/Style: Late Baroque; Rococo; France; fête galantes
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.2 ft. tall by 6.4 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (123)
When French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau submitted The Embarkation for Cythera to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture as his required piece upon being granted admission, the academy had to invent a new category to describe the painting. It wasn’t a history painting, a mythological work or a group portrait; Watteau had invented a new genre: the “fête galantes”, an outdoor entertainment featuring numerous individuals. In this case, the individuals are a series of amorous couples who are waiting to board a ship. We see an armless statue of Venus and Cupids in the air and on the ground. Cythera was a Greek island that, according to legend, was the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of romantic love, and Watteau may have been familiar with plays and poems promising that visitors to the island would find their true love there. (Note that not all the couples are romantically involved, at least not yet: the woman on the far right appears unresponsive to the man’s entreaties, although the seducer is getting some assistance from a Cupid tugging on the woman’s dress.) While the title is Watteau’s and there is a tower in the background that appears to be the destination, some art historians claim that it makes more sense to interpret the scene as lovers leaving Cythera after pairing up. Watteau is a transitional figure between the Baroque and the newer, lighter Rococo style that he helped invent. Watteau and other Rococo artists were rebelling against the seriousness of French academic painting, as represented by such painters as Nicolas Poussin. Unfortunately, the Rococo style went out of favor quickly at the time of the French Revolution, when its celebration of the frivolous lives of the aristocracy became anathema. A somewhat different version, usually referred to as Pilgrimage to Cythera, painted in 1718-1719, hangs in the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin (see image below).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (124)

42. The Thinker

Artist: Auguste Rodin (full name: François-Auguste-René Rodin)
Date: The Thinker first appeared in 1880 as part of Rodin’s large piece, The Gates of Hell. In 1881, Rodin made the first plaster cast of the individual figure, separate from the larger piece. He made a larger plaster cast in 1888. The first full-size bronze cast was made in 1902 or 1904.
Period/Style: Realism; Impressionism; France
Medium: Plaster and bronze cast sculptures
Dimensions: Each full-sized cast is 6.2 ft. tall, 3.2 ft. wide and 4.6 ft. deep.
Current locations: There are 28 full-size casts in various locations including: University of Louisville, Kentucky (1904 cast); National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Japan (1904 cast); Legion of Honor, San Francisco (1904 cast); Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan (1904 cast); Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen, Denmark (1904 cast); Musée Rodin, Paris, France (1906 cast); Prince Eugen Museum, Waldemarsudde, Sweden (1908 cast).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (125)
What is The Thinker thinking about? To attempt an answer to the question, we must look at the origins of the statue. The sculpture now known as The Thinker originated as a small part of a large commission for a set of doors for a new art museum, a project that eventually became The Gates of Hell. To adorn the huge bronze doors, French sculptor Auguste Rodin created a series of figures based on The inferno, part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, including Dante himself, who was depicted thinking about and looking down on his masterpiece from the tympanum over the doors. The figure evolved from a thin Dante in Florentine garb (as he was normally represented) to a more allegorical figure of a nude, muscular Poet, sitting on a rock with his head resting on the fist of a bended arm (see detail of The Gates of Hell, below left). According to one source, workers in Rodin’s studio began to refer to the Poet as “The Thinker” due to his resemblance to Michelangelo’s statue of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino in the Medici Chapel in Florence. (Michelangelo’s sculpture, shown below right, had acquired the nickname Il Pensieroso, or “The Thoughtful One.”) Soon after placing the Poet on The Gates of Hell (in about 1881), Rodin (perhaps at the request of a patron) made a separate cast of the figure, now called The Thinker. In 1888, he made a 27-inch-tall plaster version (the same size as the Gates of Hell figure) that he exhibited in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was not until 1902-1904 that Rodin made the first larger-than-life-size bronze casts of the statue. He supervised the creation of 10 such statues in his lifetime; another 18 or so have been made (both full size and miniature) since his death. The Thinker displays Rodin’s characteristic rough treatment of the human form – this is no idealized classical body. Like so many of Rodin’s sculptures, there is a blend of styles, so much so that it confused the French art academy, which rejected Rodin’s application three times. The sculptor is looking back to the Baroque and Rococo, and at the same time looking forward to the Modernist style that was just around the corner. Although some perceive The Thinker to be a man of quiet contemplation, an introspective philosopher, others (including Rodin himself) thought of him as a man who is thinking with every muscle of his body (even the clenched toes) and ready to spring into heroic action at the decisive moment. We will never know with certainty what he is thinking, but given his origins, my guess is that he is thinking about the act of creating great and powerful works of art.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (126) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (127)

43. Spiral Jetty

Artist: Robert Smithson
Date: 1970
Period/Style: Land Art; Environmental Earthworks; US
Medium: Earthwork sculpture in the Great Salt Lake composed of basalt, salt, mud/earth, salt, and sand.
Dimensions: The jetty is 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide. Construction involved moving 6,650 tons of rock and earth from the shore into the lake.
Current location: Great Salt Lake, Utah
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (128)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (129)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (130)American artist Robert Smithson was tired of the antiseptic and elitist halls of art galleries and museums, which he described as “mausoleums.” He wanted art to be out in the open, part of the landscape, like Stonehenge or the pyramids of Giza. Art, he thought, should be experienced in relationship to an actual place in the world, not in anonymous rooms with white walls that could be anywhere. Smithson was also fascinated with the concept of entropy – the notion that everything tends to go from order to disorder. Spiral Jetty is a site-specific earthwork sculpture that Smithson constructed on the northeastern short of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, a site selected because of the presence of salt-tolerant bacteria and algae that turn the water a blood-red color. The environmental sculpture, which Smithson expected to slowly change over time, consists of a counterclockwise coil jutting into the lake like a giant corkscrew. (The spiral is a shape found both in nature and in ancient stone markings in the American West.) In its immensity, which dwarfs the viewer, the piece hearkens back to the ancient monuments of prehistoric times. Construction required moving 6,650 tons of rock and earth, and took six days. Spiral Jetty may be visible or submerged depending on the lake’s water level. The water level rose in the early 1970s to submerge it for most of the next 30 years. The sculpture has been above water – and sometimes far from the water’s edge – since 2002. Spiral Jetty, like nearly every piece of land or environmental art, cannot be hung in a gallery and cannot be bought or sold. To bring his work to a larger audience, Smithson took many photographs of the project – including aerial photography – and made a short film documenting the planning and construction of Spiral Jetty. Sadly, Smithson died only three years after completing Spiral Jetty when a plane he was using to survey sites for his next project crashed in Texas. His wife donated the work to the DIA Foundation in Utah, which maintains access to the site and documents the work as it changes over time. In keeping with Smithson’s beliefs about entropy, the Foundation has no plans to preserve the artwork but will allow the elements to do their work.

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44. Discobolus (The Discus Thrower)

Artist: Myron (Greek bronze original); the sculptor of the Roman marble copy is unknown.
Date: 460-450 BCE (Greek bronze original, now lost); 1st Century CE (marble Roman copy)
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: Classical Period
Medium: The original was a bronze sculpture. The best existing copy (the Palombara Discobolus) is carved from marble.
Dimensions: The Palombara Discobolus is 5.1 ft. tall.
Current location: The Palombara Discobolus is in the Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome, Italy, at the Palazzo Massimo. The Townley Discobolus is in the British Museum, London.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (131)
The originalDiscobolus(also known asThe Discus Thrower) was a bronze mid-5th Century BCE statue made by Classical-era Greek sculptor Myron. As with most Ancient Greek bronzes, Myron’s original sculpture was melted down to reuse the bronze, but the Ancient Romans made many copies. The copy considered to be the most accurate is the Palombara Discobolus, which dates from the 1st Century CE and was discovered in 1781. The statue is known for its depiction of athletic energy and a well-proportioned body as well as rhythmos, a quality of harmony and balance. Myron creates a sense of balance and order by having the discus thrower’s arms and back create two completely congruous intersecting arcs. Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was obsessed with the statue; he bought it in 1938 and brought it to Munich (see photo below left). The statue featured prominently in Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s film about the 1936 Olympic Games. It was returned to Italy in 1948. Random Trivia: Another well-known copy of Myron’s original, the Townley Discobolus, which is now in the British Museum in London, was improperly restored with the facing down instead of looking back toward the discus (see image below right).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (132) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (133)

45. The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus (St. Ansanus Altarpiece)

Artists: Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi
Date: c. 1333-1335
Period/Style: Medieval period; Trecento; Byzantine; International Gothic style; Siena, Italy
Medium: Tempera paints, gold leaf and lapis lazuli on wood panels
Dimensions: 8.6 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (134)
Sienese artists Simone Martini and his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi painted the Annunciation (also known as the St. Ansanus Altarpiece) in the International Gothic style for the side altar of St. Ansanus in Siena Cathedral. The Annunciation scene in the central panel is praised for its realism and symbolic detail, from the dove amidst a mandorla of angels, to Angel Gabriel’s cloak, still whirling from his flight, and the olive branch he carries, and Mary’s arabesque gown, startled expression and reading book (see detail in image below). The Uffizi’s curator notes that “the few elements which are depicted – the marble floor, the elaborately engraved throne, the precious fabrics, the book that Mary was reading before the celestial apparition – can be traced back to the lifestyle of the wealthiest classes in the fourteenth century.” Although many aspects of the painting – the gold background, the use of line to define the figures, and the absence of a truly realistic space for those figures to inhabit – reflect Gothic stylistic traditions, the movement, expressions and interplay of Mary and the Angel anticipate the Renaissance style to come.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (135)

46. The Ghent Altarpiece

Artists: Hubert and Jan van Eyck
Date: 1432
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders (now Belgium)
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels; large altarpiece with hinged shutters
Dimensions: 11 ft. tall by 15 ft. wide when open
Current location: St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (136)The Ghent Altarpiece, which was made for the Church of St. John the Baptist (now St. Bavo Cathedral) in Ghent, Belgium, is an early masterpiece of the Early Netherlandish style and highlights the new artistic effects possible with oil paints. The large altarpiece consists of 12 panels, eight of them with hinged shutters. The commission from merchant and mayor Joost Vijdt was given to Hubert van Eyck, but many scholars believe Hubert’s brother Jan painted most or all of the piece. When closed, the altarpiece shows the Annunciation, imitation statues of two saints in grisaille, and portraits of the donor and his wife, Joost Vijdt and Lysbette Borluut (see first image below). The brightly-colored interior panels show: (top row) God the Father, dressed as the Pope, Mary, St. John the Baptist, two sets of musical angels and Adam and Eve and (bottom row) a grand celebration of Jesus as the Lamb of God, known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (see detail in second image below). The Early Netherlandish style was influenced by the earlier International Gothic, Byzantine and Romanesque styles, but the lack of idealization and the attention to detail in the Ghent Altarpiece indicate a new artistic conception. The altarpiece was also a showcase for the detailed effects of light and texture possible with the use of oil paints.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (137)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (138)

47. La Primavera (Spring; Allegory of Spring)

Artist: Sandro Botticelli
Date: c. 1477-1482
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; mythological
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 6.7 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (139)La Primavera is a celebration of Spring and the blossoming of love that was commissioned by a member of Florence’s powerful Medici clan. At the center, Venus presides over a sort of mythological garden party: Her son Cupid flies above her, blindfolded and arrow ready to strike. On the far right, Zephyr, the March wind, is kidnapping the nymph Chloris (see detail in image below left). Zephyr’s love transforms Chloris into Flora, the goddess of Spring, who is seen in a floral gown scattering flowers. On the left, the Three Graces dance while Mercury protects the gathering from bad weather. As in so many of Botticelli’s mythological works, the figures seem almost weightless, as if they live in a dream world. All the references to Spring and love are consistent with the theory that the painting was a wedding gift, possibly for the 1482 marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici to Semiramide Appiano. The theme of blossoming also extends to the plant life in the painting: Botticelli has accurately depicted hundreds of individual plants from at least 40 different species, including a grove of orange trees (see detail in right image below).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (141)

48. The Last Judgment (Fresco, Sistine Chapel Altar Wall)

Artist: Michelangelo
Date: Begun in 1534; completed in 1541.
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Rome, Italy; religious
Medium: Fresco on wall of Sistine Chapel
Dimensions: 45 ft. tall by 39 ft. wide
Current location: Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Vatican City
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (142)
Twenty-five years after painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo returned to paint a giant fresco of The Last Judgment on the altar wall in the Mannerist style. As with all depictions of the the Last Judgment, Michelangelo shows Christ’s second coming and the division of the saved (on the left) from the damned (on the right). At the top of the composition, angels bring the symbols of Christ’s passion, including the cross and crown of thorns. Due to Michelangelo’s reputation, he was able to negotiate a significant amount of artistic freedom in exercising the commission from Pope Paul III. Nevertheless, the nudity of many of the figures in the fresco alarmed some clerics. Even before the painting was complete, the Pope’s master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, called the work “disgraceful” and said that it was more appropriate for the “public baths and taverns.” In response, Michelangelo painted Cesena’s face on Minos, judge of the underworld, giving him donkey ears and wrapping a serpent around him to cover (and bite!) his genitals (see detail in image below left). When Cesena protested, the Pope reportedly quipped that he could do nothing because his jurisdiction did not extend to Hell. After Michelangelo’s death in 1564, the Vatican ordered Daniele da Volterra to paint over many of the figures’ genitalia. Many of these fig leaves were removed over 400 years later during the extensive cleaning between 1980 and 1994. The restorers relied heavily on a copy of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment commissioned by Cardinal Allesandro Farnese and painted by Marcello Venusti in 1549, before the fig leaves were added. (Venusti’s copy is now in the Museo da Capodimonte in Naples – see image below right.) Unfortunately, the restorers found that in some cases Volterra had scraped off the offending material and painted on fresh plaster instead of merely painting over the original, thus permanently marring the masterpiece.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (143) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (144)

49. The Night Watch (The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch)

Artist: Rembrandt (full name: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn)
Date: 1642
Period/Style: Baroque; Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands; group portrait
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 11.9 ft. tall by 14.3 ft. wide
Current location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (145)Despite its name, Rembrandt’s painting commonly known as The Night Watch does not depict a watch (which only occurs in times of danger) and does not take place at night. The members of a local militia commissioned Rembrandt to paint their portrait as they marched from their headquarters, during the day, in formation. The painting’s unwieldy original title is The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch Preparing to March Out. The work demonstrates Rembrandt’s signature expertise in employing the technique of tenebrism, using dramatic lighting to draws the viewer’s attention to certain elements of the composition, while keeping the rest in shadow or complete darkness. The viewer focuses on the two leaders of the militia and a young girl, who carries the traditional symbols of the militia company (see detail in left image below). This large work has suffered numerous indignities through the years. First, the glazes Rembrandt used have darkened over the centuries, causing the loss of some details, especially in areas outside the brightly-lit focal points, and causing viewers to think that the scene takes place at night. Second, when The Night Watch was moved to Amsterdam Town Hall in 1715, the canvas was trimmed on all four sides so it could fit on the wall between two columns. The trimming cut off portions of figures on the right and eliminated two figures on the left, changing the balance of Rembrandt’s composition. (A 17th Century copy of the untrimmed work by Gerrit Lundens is shown below right.) Finally, on three separate occasions (in 1911, 1975 and 1990), vandals have damaged the painting, although restoration work has repaired most of the damage.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (146)

50. Bal du moulin de la Galette (Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette)

Artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Date: 1876
Period/Style: Impressionism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.3 ft. tall by 5.7 ft. wide
Current location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (148)French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette paints a portrait of a Sunday afternoon at a popular outdoor café and dance hall in Montmartre, then a rural hilltop village an hour’s walk from Paris. The Moulin de la Galette, named after the brown bread made from the flour ground by its historic windmill, was a weekend destination for working men and women, as well as writers and artists. They came dressed in their best clothes to eat galette, drink, dance and gaze down on Paris from a scenic overlook. Like all the Impressionists, Renoir liked to paint scenes of everyday life, but no Impressionist had previously shown average people amusing themselves on such a large canvas, thereby giving an apparently trivial subject heightened significance. Like all Impressionists, Renoir liked to study the effects of light: here, he paints the sunlight filtering through the acacia trees and mixing with lamplight to create a dappled patchwork of bright patches and shadows. Critics then and now marvel at the way Renoir makes the light seem to flicker and dance. Scholars also comment on Renoir’s effective use of bright colors – there is not a touch of black in the canvas – and the resulting tone of carefree celebration. Note that, although Renoir appears to depict a typical crowd at the Moulin, he loaded the canvas with portraits of his friends, as well as a few professional models. One of those friends, writer Georges Rivière (pictured at the table in the foreground), in his review of the 1877 Impressionist Exhibition, described Bal du Moulin de la Galette as a “page of history, a precious and strictly accurate portrayal of Parisian life.” Renoir painted a second, smaller version of the painting (measuring 2.5 ft. tall by 3.7 ft. wide) that is in a private collection; it was purchased at auction for $78 million in 1990.

51. Impression, Sunrise

Artist: Claude Monet
Date: 1872
Period/Style: Impressionism; France; seascape
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 1.6 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. wide
Current location: Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (149)In 1872, shortly after the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian war, French painter Claude Monet visited the Normandy seaport of Le Havre, the place where he grew up. During the visit, Monet made several paintings of the busy harbor, some from the waterside, others from his hotel window. The most well-known of these works is Impression: Sunrise. Monet worked quickly and the work has an unfinished feeling. He explained later that he was not trying to paint the harbor, but to paint the feeling evoked by the view at that particular moment. For this reason, he called it an impression. After Monet included the small canvas in an 1874 exhibition that included work by Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot and Alfred Sisley, critics picked up on the word and used it disparagingly against Monet and other ‘impressionists.’ Not cowed, Monet and his cohort adopted the term and began calling themselves Impressionists. The painting shows an orange sun reflected in the water of the harbor (the reflection forms a vertical line). In the foreground, a dark fishing boat – we see the fishermen, then another, further away and less distinct, and a third, still further, still hazier; the three form a diagonal line. In the far distance, we see the smokestacks of steamers and the rigging of tall-masted ships. The rough brushstrokes evoke the haze and mist of early morning, such that the sky and water are barely distinguishable from one another; the dark horizontal marks in the water in the foreground give a sense of depth. Neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone has analyzed the painting in terms of visual perception. Normally, the sun is the brightest source of light in an outdoor scene, but Monet’s orange sun has the same brightness (the technical term is luminescence – brightness separate from color) as the water and sky. It is only the color that sets the sun apart from the rest of the composition. This means the primitive part of our brain that sees brightness does not distinguish the sun from the clouds, while the more advanced part of our brain that perceives color easily picks out the sun: thus setting up a conflict of vision.

52. The Kiss

Artist: Auguste Rodin
Date: The sculpture first appeared as a relief sculpture in about 1882 as part of Rodin’s large piece, The Gates of Hell. Rodin first made a separate sculpture of the group in the round in 1887. The French government commissioned the first life-size marble version in 1888, which was not completed until 1898.
Period/Style: Realism; Impressionism; France
Medium: Sculptures made from plaster, marble or bronze
Dimensions: The full-size version is 6 ft. tall, 3.7 ft. wide, and 3.8 ft. deep. There are also smaller versions.
Current location: Full-size marble versions are located in various museums, including the Musée Rodin in Paris (original version), the Tate in London, and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (150) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (151)
Rodin’s massive sculpture The Gates of Hell – intended to become the doors of a new art museum – generated several spin-offs. The first was The Thinker, which arose from the figure of The Poet who sat at the top of the doors. The second spin-off was The Kiss, which originated as a depiction of the story of Francesca da Rimini. According to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Francesca was a 13th Century Italian noblewoman who fell in love with her husband’s younger brother Pablo while they were reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere together. Before they could consummate their love, Francesca and Pablo were discovered and killed by Francesca’s husband. At some point, Rodin decided to rework The Gates of Hell and remove the relief sculpture of Francesca and Pablo. But he salvaged the piece by recreating it as a stand-alone sculpture in the round, still called Francesca da Rimini. Rodin shows the two nude lovers embracing, about to kiss, in the moments before their murder. The lovers’ lips never touch and Pablo still holds the book in his hand. After seeing the small version of the sculpture, the French government in 1888 commissioned Rodin to create a larger-than-life-size marble statue, which Rodin finally completed in 1898. When the piece was exhibited for the first time, critics suggested the more generic title The Kiss, which emphasizes the universal nature of the emotions depicted without tying the piece to a particular place and time. Rodin himself was not impressed with the work, calling it “a large sculpted knick-knack following the usual formula”, but the public felt differently. Although some initially were offended by the open eroticism of the sculpture, many more were impressed by its tenderness (without sentimentality), its feminism (the woman and the man are equal partners in their loving embrace), and its ability to convey human sensuality realistically without any hint of baseness or obscenity.

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53. Venus of Willendorf

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 28,000-25,000 BCE
Period/Style: Gravettian culture; Paleolithic, Austria
Medium: Carved limestone figurine
Dimensions: 4.25 inches tall
Current location: Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (152) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (153)
During the Upper Paleolithic era (c. 28,000-18,000 BCE), the Gravettian culture flourished in parts of Europe.The culture is known for its many bone, stone, or clay statuettes of women, usually with large breasts, bellies, thighs, hips and buttocks, that are referred to as Venus figurines,even though they predate the Greco-Roman Venus mythology by many thousands of years. Many of the figurines are either headless or faceless. The carved limestone figurine known as theVenus of Willendorfwas found in 1908 at a Paleolithic site in the Danube valley of Austria, near the town of Willendorf. The figure has the exaggerated features of the typical Venus figurine. It has no face, only streaks which may be hair, and no feet, so it could not stand by itself. There are traces of red ochre on the figurine, indicating it was once painted. The type of limestone used was not found locally, indicating the existence of a trade network. The purpose of the Venus of Willendorfand other Venus figurines is debated, but the sculptor’s emphasis on the female body’s sexual and childbearing characteristics has led many to conclude that this and other such figurines were fertility goddesses or otherwise played a role in fertility rituals.

54. Winged Victory of Samothrace (Nike of Samothrace)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 200-190 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: Hellenistic Period
Medium: The statue is made of white Parian marble. The base and pedestal are made from gray Rhodesian marble.
Dimensions: The statue stands 9 ft. tall; the pedestal is 1.2 ft. tall and the ship-shaped base is 6.6 ft. tall.
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (154)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (155)
Most art historians believe that the sculpture of Winged Victory (the Greek goddess also known as Nike), which was created in Ancient Greece during the Hellenistic Period (331-323 BCE), was intended to commemorate a naval victory. Made from Parian marble, the statue of the goddess measures eight feet from neck to feet. We see the goddess at the moment she descends from the sky and lands on the deck of a ship, her drapery still in motion. The artist balances the sense of dynamic forward movement with a calm stillness and balance. Because the head, arms and other portions of the statue were missing when it was discovered on the island of Samothrace in 1863, experts have speculated about what the original looked like, with differing interpretations (see drawing with artist’s imagined reconstruction below left). Although some reconstructions show the goddess holding something in her right hand, the discovery of fragments of the hand indicate that the hand was not grasping anything (see below right).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (156) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (157)

55. Pergamon Altar Frieze

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 180 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece/Asia Minor: Hellenistic Period (now Turkey)
Medium: Bas reliefs sculpted in Proconnesian marble
Dimensions: The Gigantomachy frieze is 7.5 ft. tall and 370.7 ft. long
Current location: Pergmon Museum, Berlin, Germany
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (158)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (159)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (160)The Pergamon Museum in Berlin is home to one of the finest works of Hellenistic art: the immense Pergamon Altar and its program of relief sculptures. Pergamon (then Asia Minor, now Turkey), had adopted Greek culture and customs when it was part of Alexander the Great’s empire. In 282 BCE, it achieved independence as the center of the Kingdom of Pergamon, which lasted until 133 BCE, when it became part of the Roman Republic. The altar was built during the mid 2nd Century BCE by King Eumenes II. It likely stood outside a temple, possibly dedicated to Zeus and Athena. Carved in high relief around the base of the altar is a frieze depicting the Gigantomachy, a mythical battle between the Greek gods and a race of Giants. Another, smaller frieze on the inner walls of the Altar shows scenes from the life of Telephus, legendary founder of Pergamon. As with almost all ancient sculptures, the frieze was originally painted in bright colors. The altar and friezes were excavated by German archaeologist Carl Humann between 1878 and 1886, who brought them back to Germany with the permission of the Ottoman government. He and his team then reconstructed all the fragments and displayed them in a museum built specifically for the purpose, which opened in 1901. Like so much Hellenistic art, the sculptures display dramatic movements and emotional expression, and seemed to be designed to generate excitement in the viewer, in stark contrast to the Classical Period’s balance and stoic calm. The images show:
(1) (top) the Pergamon Altar; (middle) Athena lifts up the giant Alkyoneus; Nike stands and fights while Earth goddess Gaia (mother of the Giants) rises up from the ground, and
(2) (bottom) Hecate fights the giant Clytius, while Artemis battles Otos.

56. Lindisfarne Gospels

Artist: Attributed to Eadfrith of Lindisfarne
Date: c. 700-715 CE
Period/Style: Hiberno-Saxon/Insular style; England
Medium: Illustrated manuscript
Dimensions: Each page of the book measures 14.4 in. tall by 10.8 in. wide
Current location: British Museum, London, England, UK

Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (161) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (162) The illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels was produced in a monastery on Lindisfarne (also known as Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland in the UK. Eadfrith, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 until his death in 721, is presumed to be the artist. The book was originally encased in a leather binding covered with jewels and precious metals made by Billfrith the Anchorite, but this treasure was looted by the Vikings sometime after their first raid in 793. The original Latin text is written using insular majuscule script and the art is considered an early and prime example of the insular or Hiberno-Saxon art of the British Isles in the post-Roman period. In the 10th Century, Aldred, Provost of Chesterlestreet, inserted a word-for-word Old English translation between the lines of the Latin text and a short history of the book, noting that it was made in honor of 7th Century St. Cuthbert, an earlier Bishop of Lindisfarne. The style of the illuminations incorporates Christian and pre-Christian imagery, including Celtic, Germanic and Irish artistic traditions. Each Gospel is introduced by a portrait of the evangelist. One of the most highly-regarded pages is the cross-carpet page preceding the gospel book of St. Matthew (see image at left above). A carpet page is characterized by mainly geometrical ornamentation, including many animal forms, that reminds viewers of an elaborate carpet. Some carpet pages illustrate a single initial letter of a manuscript; a cross-carpet page illustrates a Christian cross. The image at right above shows the portrait page of St. Matthew the Evangelist.

57. Relief Sculptures, Chartres Cathedral

Artists: Unknown
Dates: 1145-1155 (Royal Portals); 1194-1220 (other reliefs)
Style/Period: Medieval period; Romanesque and French Gothic styles
Medium: Bas reliefs carved in limestone
Dimensions: The reliefs cover much of the exterior of the cathedral, which measures 427 feet long and 121 feet tall at the nave.
Current location: Chartres, France
The cathedral that UNESCO calls “the high point of French Gothic art” only exists today due to the quick thinking of an anonymous late 18th Century architect. During the French Revolution, anti-clerical sentiment ran high: the revolutionaries saw the Roman Catholic church as a supporter of the ancien régime and destroyed many religious buildings and works of art. When the revolution reached Chartres, an angry mob took hammers to the relief sculptures on the exterior of the town’s magnificent cathedral, although locals eventually stopped them. A more potent threat was the local revolutionary government’s plan to demolish the huge structure entirely. They only dropped the plan after a local architect, looking to derail the plan, pointed out the resulting rubble from the demolition would block the streets for months or years afterwards. Officially known as Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Chartres, Chartres Cathedral was begun in 1145 in the Romanesque style, but after an 1194 fire was reconstructed in the French Gothic style. Relief sculptures and carvings decorate the west, north and south entrances (also called portals or porches), with each portal’s reliefs addressing a separate theological subject. The carvings of the west entrance, known as the Royal Portals (which survived from the pre-1194 structure), focus on the nature of Jesus (see top image for detail) and set out what Neil Collins calls “a virtual encyclopedia of Biblical art.” The north entrance (see second image above for detail) celebrates the Old Testament and Christ’s immediate ancestors, while the south entrance (see details in images below) relates the history of the Catholic Church since Christ’s death.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (165) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (166)

58. Frescoes, Würzburg Residence

Artist: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Date: Begun in 1750; completed in 1753.
Period/Style: Baroque, with Rococo elements, Italy/Germany
Medium: Frescoes painted on residential walls
Dimensions: The Apollo and the Four Continents fresco measures 62 ft. by 100 ft. and covers an area of 7,287 square feet. The Marriage of Emperor Frederick to Beatrice and the Investiture of Herold as Duke of Franconia are each 13 ft. tall and 16.4 ft. wide.
Current location: Würzburg, Germany
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (167)

One of the greatest works of 18th Century Italian art is located in Germany. In 1750, in response to a commission from Karl Philipp von Greiffenklau, the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg, Germany, Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and his sons traveled from Italy to paint frescoes on the walls and ceilings of the Würzburg Residence, the palace of the Prince-Bishops the episcopal principality of Würzburg. (Würzburg is now a city in the German state of Bavaria.) Considered the last great Venetian painter, Tiepolo was a master of the Rococo style but without the frothy frivolity often associated with the style as practiced elsewhere (particularly France). Contemporaries praised Tiepolo’s sprezzatura, an untranslatable term that refers to his ability to combine precise rendering of images, dramatic poses and tension-creating (but bright) color schemes to keep the pictures engaging but with a soft, romantic quality that eases tension without sacrificing liveliness. Based on his early works, such as the frescoes in the Ca’ Dolfin on the Grand Canal of Venice, Tiepolo’s reputation spread beyond the borders of Italy. Tiepolo’s first job at Würzburg was the decorate the Imperial Hall of the residence. He and his sons painted the allegorical Apollo Presenting Beatrice of Burgundy to Frederick Barbarossa on the ceiling as well as two historical events on the walls (see image above left): the Marriage of Emperor Frederick to Beatrice (see image above right) and the Investiture of Herold as Duke of Franconia. Based on his success on this first project, Tiepolo was asked to decorate the ceiling over the grand staircase (designed by star-architect Balthasar Neumann); at 7,287 square feet, this may be the largest fresco of all time. Tiepolo first presented the Prince-Bishop with a large painted sketch of his plan, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The theme was The Allegory of the Planets and the Continents (also known as Apollo and the Four Continents) (see top image). Around the tops of the four walls, Tiepolo created scenes of the animals, plants and products of Africa, Asia, Europe and America, with allegorical figures to represent each continent (see detail with Africa below left). In the center of the ceiling, he showed the vast heavens, with Apollo (lover of the arts) at the center, and various mythological figures representing the known planets (see detail below right). The fresco is integrated seamlessly into the architecture, such that visitors report that photographs cannot capture the brilliance of the effect on the viewer. For example, the perspective changes based on where the viewer is standing; based on his patron’s instructions, Tiepolo focused on several viewing spots as one ascends the massive staircase. Included in the fresco are portraits of Balthasar Neumann, the Prince-Bishop, and Tiepolo’s own son, Domenico. The Würzburg frescoes are the pinnacle of Tiepolo’s career and a high point of 18th Century artistic achievement.

59. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Artist: Édouard Manet
Date: 1882
Period/Style: Realism; Impressionism
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 3.2 ft. tall by 4.3 ft. wide
Current location: Courtauld Gallery, London, England, UK
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (172)Édouard Manet loved to upset expectations of the viewers of his paintings – their expectations about their relationship to what is going on in the painting and about the relationships among the figures in the world of the painting. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Manet’s last major painting, plays with all those preconceptions. At first glance, the painting seems relatively straightforward: we see a woman behind a bar with a crowd of partiers behind her. But then we notice that she is standing in front of a large mirror and the people we see are actually behind us (that is, behind the viewer) and in front of the barmaid. So, we see what she sees (Manet of course was familiar with the use of mirrors in such works as Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and Velazquez’s Las Meninas). We even see the feet of an acrobat high up in the air, which gives a taste of the entertainment at the Folies-Bergère. But when we look more closely at the reflection we see that the barmaid’s reflection is not where we would expect it if the painting were being made from the perspective of the viewer. The viewer is standing directly in front of the woman, and so we would expect to see the reflection of both the woman and the viewer (that is, us) directly in front of us. But instead, we see the reflections off to the right side. And there is the reflection of a man in a top hat leaning in to speak to the woman. But where is the man? Is this a massive mistake on Manet’s part? According to one theory (based on a preliminary sketch), the barmaid was originally placed farther to the right, closer to her reflection. According to this theory, when Manet decided to move the woman to the center of the composition, he left her reflection where it was, perhaps to confuse viewers. Another theory is that the reflections make perfect sense if the painter is situated several feet back and to the right of the bar, and then paints what he sees at an oblique angle, with the man just out of the frame on the left. (For a diagram of this theory, see the image below.) The last expectation is about the nature of the woman and the business she is transacting with the top-hatted man. On the surface, it appears that she is selling drinks at a bar. But it was well known that the Folies-Bergère was a place where prostitutes worked, and that at least some of the women working as barmaids were also sex workers. (The bowl of oranges was a symbol of prostitution.) So the conversation between the barmaid and the top-hatted man may have been about a different kind of business transaction. And what of us, the viewers? Are we complicit in the sordid business of sex for money? Or, based on the absence of a reflection in the mirror in front of us, perhaps we don’t exist at all.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (173)

60. Unique Forms of Continuity in Space

Artist: Umberto Boccioni
Date: 1913
Period/Style: Futurism; Italy
Medium: Bronze sculptures
Dimensions: 3.6 ft. tall by 3 ft. long by 15.5 inches wide
Current locations: Bronze casts are found in various collections, including: Museum of Modern Art, New York (1931 cast); Museo del Novecento, Milan (1931 cast); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1949 cast); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1949 cast); Museu de Arte Contemporânea, São Paulo, Brazil (original plaster sculpture and 1960 bronze cast); Tate Modern, London (1972 cast).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (174) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (175)
The Italian Futurists believed that artists should reject the outdated artistic values of the past (they described art museums as cemeteries) and embrace the speed and energy of the machine age. Futurist Umberto Boccioni was a painter until he was exposed to some of the three-dimensional art objects being created by the Cubists in France, when he suddenly decided to become a sculptor. His most successful sculpture is Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. The sculpture depicts a faceless, armless figure – human, super-human or man-machine – striding dynamically through the air. The figure stands on two small pedestals – one for each foot. It appears to be wearing a helmet or headpiece that projects forward with a cross-shaped appendage. To show the true experience of movement, Boccioni shows us not only the legs of the striding figure but the movement of the atmosphere itself as it curls about the striding limbs like flickering tongues of flame. For Boccioni, the energy of movement included not only the moving subject but the space around the subject – both elements make up the Man in Motion. In contrast to Duchamp’s analytical approach to showing motion in Nude Descending a Staircase in disconnected images, Boccioni’s sculpture shows the “synthetic continuity” of motion (as he put it). Boccioni made a plaster cast of the statue in 1913, but a bronze cast was never made in his lifetime. When World War I broke out, he volunteered for the army and died in a training exercise in 1916, trampled by a horse. The first bronze casts were made in the 1930s. Although Futurism as an artistic movement did not last very long, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space has had a lasting legacy; casts are possessed by many museums, and a drawing of the statue was chosen to be the image on the back of the 20-cent Italian Euro coin.

On 11 Lists

61. Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun

Artist: Unknown
Date: 1333-1323 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Egyptian: 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom
Medium: Solid gold mask inlaid with colored glass and semiprecious stones (including obsidian, quartz, and lapis lazuli)
Dimensions: 21 in. tall by 15.5 in. wide
Current location: Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo, Egypt
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (176)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (177)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (178)
In the book of Ancient Egyptian history, Tutankhamun, an 18th Dynasty New Kingdom pharaoh who ruled from 1332-1323 BCE, hardly merits a footnote. For much of his 10-year reign, which began when he was nine years old, King Tut was too young to rule and was under the control of regents. The only notable event of his reign was a coordinated effort to erase the memory of his father and predecessor Akhenaten and return Egypt to its polytheistic religion after an unpopular experiment in monotheism. But Tutankhamen’s importance suddenly skyrocketed in 1922, when British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered that his tomb was almost completely intact. Two millennia of grave robbers had taken nearly every artifact from most of the royal tombs of Ancient Egypt, but the location of Tutankhamun’s tomb – hidden behind other, more prominent architecture served to preserve his tomb and its treasures. The biggest prize in the tomb was the pharaoh’s mummy, which was encased in three wooden coffins fitted inside one another like Russian dolls. Inside the innermost case, Carter found the king’s funerary, or death mask. Made of solid gold inlaid with colored glass and semi-precious stones, the mask includes the nemes (the striped head cloth of the pharaohs), the traditional false beard, and representations of the goddesses Nekhbet (the vulture) and Wadjet (the cobra). The purpose of the mask was to ensure that the pharaoh’s ka (soul) would recognize his body in the coffin and re-turn to allow his resurrection. The other objects found in the tomb were placed there for the pleasure and comfort of the resurrected phar-aoh in the afterlife. Random Trivia: Inscribed on the back of the mask is a protective spell from the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

62. Frescoes, Villa of the Mysteries

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 60-40 BCE
Period Style: Ancient Rome; Second Pompeian (“architectural”) Style
Medium: Frescoes painted on residential walls
Dimensions: The frescoes are nearly 10 feet tall and run around the four walls of the room for a total of 56 feet.
Current location: Pompeii Archaeological Park, Pompeii, Italy

Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (180)The Villa of the Mysteries is the name art historians have given to an Ancient Roman villa located near the ruins of Pompeii in southern Italy. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE covered the residence with many feet of volcanic ash and tufa, preserving it for future generations. When the villa was excavated in 1909, a remarkable series of frescoes was discovered in one of the rooms, the triclinium. The style of the painting is illusionistic, consistent with what art historians have called the Second Pompeian Style. The figures are life size, and when entering the room, one has the illusion of being surrounded by and part of the events taking place on the walls. The meaning of the frescoes is subject to debate: some scholars believe they depict the initiation of a young woman into a Dionysian cult; others say it shows marriage rituals. One scene shows Dionysus lounging; one shows Silenus playing a lyre; another shows a woman (the initiate?) being consoled after being whipped.

63. Trajan’s Column

Artist: The design of the column is attributed to architect Apollodorus of Damascus, but the names of the artists who sculpted the reliefs are unknown.
Date: 113 CE
Period/Style: Ancient Roman; Italy
Medium: Relief sculptures carved into marble
Dimensions: The column, which consists of 20 stacked marble drums, each 11 feet in diameter, is 98 feet tall; with the pedestal included, it rises 125 feet from the ground.
Location: Roman Forum, Rome, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (181)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (183)
Trajan’s Column was built to commemorate Roman Emperor Trajan’s victories in two successive wars against the Dacians (in what is now Romania) in 101-102 and 105-106 CE. A bas relief showing the events of the Dacian Wars spirals around the column for a total of 625 feet, with over 500 individual scenes containing more than 2,500 figures, including 59 representations of Trajan himself (always the tallest one in the scene). In addition to battle scenes, the frieze shows the efficiency and productivity of the Roman army, particularly in building camps and fortifications, and Roman efforts to bring civilization to the conquered ‘barbarian’ tribes. The sculptor has placed the human figures in context by providing a plethora of details: he includes landscapes with plants, animals, architecture and geography and pays special attention to the contrast between the refined clothing of the Romans and the ragged outfits of the Dacian soldiers and civilians. A 185-step spiral staircase inside the column leading to an observation deck is now closed, but was climbed by many earlier generations of tourists, including German author Johann Wilhelm von Goethe, who described the view as “incomparable.” In antiquity, a bronze statue of Trajan topped the column, but it disappeared during the Middle Ages. Pope Sixtus V replaced it with a statue of St. Peter in 1587, an apt symbol of Christianity’s appropriation of Classical culture.

64. Book of Kells

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 800 CE
Period/Style: Celtic Christian; Insular Art; England/Ireland
Medium: Illustrated manuscript
Dimensions: The book measures 13 in. tall by 10 in. wide
Current location: Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (184)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (185) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (186)
The Book of Kells is an illustrated manuscript containing the four Christian Gospels and other writings. The book was created in one or more of the English and Irish monasteries founded by St. Colomba, probably Iona, in England, and then Kells, in Ireland, where it remained until the mid-17th Century, when it was moved to Dublin and eventually to the library of Trinity College. The Book of Kells is considered the most extravagant and complex example of Insular Art. The artist’s finest achievements are the initial pages, in which the first letter of the Gospel is elaborated into a world of figures and designs (see Gospel of John in top image and Gospel of Matthew above left), and the 10 surviving full-page illuminations, such as Christ Enthroned (above right). All 680 pages are viewable online HERE.

65. The Holy Trinity

Artist: Masaccio
Date: 1428
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy
Medium: Fresco painted on a church wall
Dimensions: 21.9 ft. tall by 10.4 ft wide
Current location: Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (187)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (188)When Giorgio Vasari was commissioned to renovate Florence’s Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in the mid-16th Century, he faced a dilemma. On the one hand, Vasari was an artist who wanted to please his patron by updating the church’s decorations into the contemporary Mannerist style. On the other hand, Vasari, who in addition to being an artist was one of the first art historians, knew that Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco, painted on the left side wall of the nave in 1428, was an important work that should be preserved for future generations. So Vasari compromised. He didn’t paint over the fresco and so preserved it for the future; but he constructed a new screen and altar directly in front of Masaccio’s work, hiding it from view. It was not until 300 years later, in 1860, that another round of renovations uncovered the hidden gem. The lower portion of Masaccio’s fresco shows a memento mori: skeleton lying on a sarcophagus and an inscription in Italian reading, “I was once what you now are and what I am, you shall yet be” (see detail in image below). Above, in what appears to be a recessed vestibule, we see God the Father, standing behind his son Jesus, who is hanging on the cross; Mary and St. John stand below them. Below them, and outside the inner sanctuary, kneel the donor and his wife. Masaccio’s use of one-point linear perspective (possibly achieved with the assistance of Brunelleschi himself) is here used to create a tromp l’oeil (“tricks the eye”) effect that astonished contemporary and later artists. Vasari himself wrote: “the most beautiful thing, apart from the figures, is a barrel-shaped vaulting, drawn in perspective and divided into squares filled with rosettes, which are foreshortened and made to diminish so well that the wall appears to be pierced.”
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (189)

66. The Gates of Paradise (East Doors, Florence Baptistery)

Artist: Lorenzo Ghiberti
Date: Work began in 1425; the completed doors were installed in 1452.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy; religious
Medium: Set of bronze doors with gilded relief sculptures
Dimensions: The doors are 17 ft. tall by 10.2 ft. wide and weigh between three and four tons. Each of the 10 panels is 2.6 ft. square.
Current location: The original (recently restored) doors are located in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, in Florence, Italy. The doors on the Baptistery itself are reproductions.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (190)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (191)
The Gates of Paradise is the name coined by Michelangelo when he first saw the gilded bronze relief sculptures carved by Italian artist Lorenzo Ghiberti for the east doors of the Florence Baptistery. This was the second set of door panels carved by Ghiberti for the building. In 1401, at the age of 23, he won a contest (beating such illustrious competitors as Filippo Brunelleschi and Jacopo della Quercia) to create 28 panels with scenes from the New Testament for the north doors, a project he finished in 1423. In 1425, Ghiberti received a second commission for 10 panels with Old Testament scenes for the east doors. This project, which involved a dangerous gilding process, took him 27 years to finish. The second set of doors incorporates the newly-discovered rules of perspective; as a result, the scenes have a naturalism that is absent from the Gothic-style north door reliefs (see full set of doors below left). Each panel tells a Bible story in several scenes, using high and low relief. (Shown above are: The Story of Isaac, at top; and The Story of Joseph, bottom.) Between the 10 panels, narrow borders contain 20 full-length portraits and 24 heads in roundels of prophets and evangelists, including a Ghiberti self-portrait (shown below right). In 1990, the Baptistery doors panels were replaced by replicas to protect the originals from weather damage. The originals were brought to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where they recently underwent a 27-year-long restoration and cleaning.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (192) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (193)

67. The Portinari Altarpiece

Artist: Hugo van der Goes
Date: c. 1475
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Northern Renaissance; Flanders (now Belgium); religious
Medium: Triptych made with oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 8.3 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (194)
The Portinari Altarpiece brought Early Netherlandish painting into the heart of the Italian Renaissance. Italian banker Tommaso Portinari commissioned Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes to create an altarpiece for the chapel in the Santa Maria Nuova hospital in Florence. Portinari served as a banker for the Medici family in Bruges, Flanders (now Belgium), where he became familiar with Flemish painting and painters. Van der Goes depicted the Adoration of the Shepherds in the center panel of the altarpiece, with the Portinari family and their patron saints on the side panels. In a break from traditional iconography, the infant Jesus is placed on the ground, on a ‘blanket’ made of golden rays, instead of lying on a crib or on his mother’s lap (see detail below left). The background of each panel contains additional narratives: (1) the left wing shows Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem; (2) the center panel shows the angel appearing to the shepherds; and (3) the right panel shows the Three Magi on their way to see Jesus (see detail below right). When the painting arrived in Florence in 1483, its technique and style, particularly its naturalistic depiction of the figures, caused quite a stir, particularly among Florence’s painters, some of whom – such as Domenico Ghirlandaio – were strongly influenced by it.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (195) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (196)

68. The Battle of Alexander at Issus (Alexander’s Victory)

Artist: Albrecht Altdorfer
Date: 1529
Period/Style: Northern Renaissance; Danube School; Germany; world landscape painting; history painting
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 5.2 ft. tall by 4 ft. wide
Current location: Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (197)
The Battle of Alexander at Issus is one of eight historical paintings by German artist Albrecht Altdorfer commissioned by Duke William IV of Bavaria to hang in the Duke’s Munich residence. The painting depicts the 333 BCE battle in which Alexander the Great defeated Darius III of Persia. The work is the most famous example of the 16th Century Northern European genre of world landscape painting: by ignoring the normal rules of perspective (and realism), Altdorfer shows us the details of a battle in the foreground (see detail below left), but as we move back, we see a grand overview of a large portion of the world, including the Mediterranean Sea and the lands bordering it. The dramatic sky is significant on metaphorical and symbolic levels. Alexander was said to have drawn his power from the sun, while the crescent moon (at upper left) is a symbol of the East and, later Islam. Although Altdorfer’s grand scale, level of detail and official banner inscription all suggest an intent to depict the historical event accurately, the painting contains numerous inaccuracies and anachronisms, some of which are surely deliberate. For example, Alexander’s men wear 16th Century armor and Darius’s troops are dressed as 16th Century Turks (see detail below right). These elements lead scholars to believe Altdorfer intended to compare Alexander’s victory over the Persians with the contemporary struggle between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, as exemplified by the Siege of Vienna in 1529 (the year of the painting), where an outnumbered collection of Europeans repulsed an attack by Suleiman the Magnificent and his Ottoman warriors.

69. The Ambassadors

Artist: Hans Holbein the Younger
Date: 1533
Period/Style: Northern Renaissance; Germany/England; portraits
Medium: Oil paints on oak panels
Dimensions: 6.75 ft. tall by 6.87 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
Northern Renaissance painter Hans Holbein the Younger was born in Germany but spent much of his career in England, eventually rising to become court painter for King Henry VIII. He is best known for his portraits, the most highly-regarded of which is the double portrait known as The Ambassadors. On its face The Ambassadors is a portrait of two French diplomats, most likely Jean de Dinteville, a landowner (left), and Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur (right). But this painting contains many mysteries. The table between the two men, in the center of the composition, contains numerous symbols of religion and science or commerce, including two globes, a quadrant, a torquetum, a polyhedral sundial, an Oriental carpet, a Lutheran hymn book, and a lute with a broken string (a symbol of discord) (see detail in image below left). A half-hidden crucifix hangs in the upper left and the floor tiles bear a pattern that English viewers would have recognized from Westminster Abbey. Most bizarre is an anamorphically-rendered skull in the bottom center, which can only be seen properly if the painting is approached from the side (see image below right). The skull represents death and mortality, which lurk unrecognized in our midst, but it may also be an example of Holbein showing off his grasp of technique. The entire ensemble raises more questions than it answers, but appears to ask the viewer to enter into a debate about the interaction between science and religion, between the concerns of the rising scientific and merchant class and those of the clergy – are they in conflict or can they coexist?

70. Madonna of the Long Neck (Madonna and Child with Angels and St. Jerome)

Artist: Parmigianino (born Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola)
Date: 1535
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Parma, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 7 ft. tall by 4.3 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Parmigianino’s unfinished Mannerist masterpiece was commissioned by Italian noblewoman Elena Bacardi for her family chapel in a Parma church; it soon acquired the nickname Madonna of the Long Neck for the extra vertebrae the artist added to give Mary’s neck a swanlike undulation. Elongated figures such as Mary’s are a hallmark of Mannerist art, which rejected the naturalism of the High Renaissance in favor of works that took High Renaissance trends to their logical conclusion, even if that meant a tribute became a critique. Other proportions are distorted as well: the baby Jesus, awkwardly posed as in a Pietà, is much larger than any human baby; and the slim upper and extra-wide lower portions of the Madonna’s body don’t match. Most bizarre is the tiny St. Jerome (apparently required for the commission): Parmigiano parodies the rules of perspective, which require distant figures to be painted smaller than close ones, to confuse the viewer into thinking that St. Jerome is not far away but shrunken to the size of a statuette. Because Jerome and the unfinished architecture need the right side of the painting, Parmigianino crammed all the angels into the left, ignoring symmetry, and at the same time eroticizing them in ways that must have scandalized (or perhaps titillated) contemporaries.

71. The Rape of the Sabine Women (Abduction of a Sabine Woman)

Artist: Giambologna (born Jean de Boulogne)
Date: 1581-1583
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Florence, Italy; history/mythology
Medium: Marble sculpture
Dimensions: 13.4 ft. tall (without pedestal)
Current location: Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (204) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (205)
One of the features of the Mannerist style is the celebration of the artist and his (because they were almost always men) special talent. Instead of using their abilities in the service of creating realistic and rational artworks that fit into a sense of universal harmony, Mannerist artists tried to outdo one another and be noticed for their daring feats of artistic derring-do, especially those that would impress sophisticated art lovers. The Flemish artist Jean de Boulogne, who acquired the nickname Giambologna after coming to Italy, was always looking for ways to enhance his reputation as one of Florence’s best sculptors. So when his patrons the Medicis gave him a large block of marble with no specific commission, he decided to sculpt first, and decide on the subject later. He was interested in the aesthetic problems of sculpting three figures in a vertical composition. The sculptural group shows three nudes: an older man crouching in fear below as, above him, a young man grasps onto a struggling woman, whose arms reach out over her head. It was only after the sculpture was complete and placed on display in Florence’s main square that it was decided that the subject was the Rape of the Sabine Women. According to legend, during the early days of Rome, there was friction with the neighboring Sabines. In order to build ties between the two settlements, the Romans invited the Sabines to a feast and then forcibly abducted and married their women, creating blood ties between the groups and eventually ending the feud. The piece is an exemplar of the Mannerist style with its twisting figures and dynamic diagonals. Another Mannerist trademark: there is no obvious front view; the viewer must walk all the way around the sculpture to take it all in.

72. The Swing (The Happy Accidents of the Swing)

Artist: Jean-Honoré Fragonard
Date: 1767
Period/Style: Rococo, France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.6 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. wide
Current location: The Wallace Collection, London, England, UK
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (206)
In the mid-18th Century, French artists rebelled against the heavy seriousness of Baroque art in favor of a lighter style, fond of playful curves and pastel colors that became known as Rococo (after “rocaille”, the shells used to decorate artificial grottoes). The style soon spread north into Germany and Austria. One of the finest Rococo painters was Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and The Swing is considered his best work and a paragon of the style. Originally titled The Happy Accidents of the Swing, the painting reveals a creamy pastel pink and green paradise (one writer describes it as a “confection”), where an elderly man pushes a young lady (possibly his wife) on a swing. She impetuously kicks off her shoe in Cupid’s direction, while giving her young lover, hiding below in the foliage, a scandalous peek beneath her dress at her legs. Cupid (based on a statue by Étienne-Maurice Falconet) holds his finger to his lips, asking us to keep a secret. The young man holds his arm out stiffly with his hat in his hand, a metaphor that most viewers would have understood as sexual (a bare foot and missing shoe also had sexual connotations). Another sculpture with two more putti (riding a dolphin) hides in the shadows and a dog (symbol of marital fidelity) barks at the impropriety. The painting made a name for Fragonard and inspired many imitations. The frivolous nature of this and similar works of the time led to a backlash from some Enlightenment philosophers, who argued for more serious art showing man’s nobility. (The Neoclassicists would heed their call.) Despite these criticisms, Fragonard was a highly regarded artist among the French aristocracy and earned fame and fortune in the decades before the Revolution. After 1789, Fragonard and the Rococo style fell out of fashion, perhaps because it was too closely identified with the decadence of the Ancien Regime and its aristocrats. Random Trivia: The cover art of Little Feat’s albumSailin’ Shoesby Neon Park (a.k.a. Martin Muller) pays homage to both Fragonard’sThe Swing and Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy(see image below).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (207)

73. Oath of the Horatii

Artist: Jacques-Louis David
Date: 1784-1785
Period/Style: Neoclassical; France; history painting
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.3 ft. tall by 5.5 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris. The Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio has a reduced-size replica by David from 1786 made for Comte de Vaudreuil.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (208)
Jacques-Louis David’s history painting The Oath of the Horati, which was commissioned by French king Louis XVI after David returned from five years of study in Rome, is considered a paragon of the Neoclassical style. According to a legend, a dispute between the Roman Republic and the city of Alba Longa was resolved by a ritual duel by three brothers of the Roman family the Horatii and three brothers of the Curiatii family of Alba Longa. To complicate matters, one of the Horatii sisters is engaged to marry one of the Curiatti brothers, and one of the wives of the Horatii is a sister to one of the Curiatii. At the end of the duel, five of the six men would be dead, leaving only one Horatii brother alive. David chose to paint an imagined moment when the Horatii brothers (their expressions stoic and emotionless) give the Roman salute to their father (based on a figure from a Poussin painting), who holds their swords, while their mother and sisters (and two children) weep in sorrow. In keeping with the Neoclassical style, the background is deemphasized in favor of the foreground figures (who are posed as if in a sculpted classical frieze); there is a central perspectival vanishing point at the point where the father holds the swords; the painter’s technique is not emphasized; no brushstrokes are visible; and straight lines, stasis and symmetry (here, groups of three) abound. The subject matter is uplifting, with a moral lesson. Gone are the frivolity and casual movement of the Rococo; Neoclassicism is serious business. Presented at the Paris Salon in 1785, just four years before the revolution, the painting was praised by monarchists and republicans alike. The monarchists saw the message as support for king and country, while others noted that the brothers are pledging allegiance to a republic without a king.

74. The Death of Marat

Artist: Jacques-Louis David
Date: 1793
Period/Style: Neoclassicism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 5.4 ft. tall by 4.2. ft. wide
Current location: Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (209)
Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David and journalist Jean-Paul Marat were both ardent supporters of the French Revolution; both were members of the Jacobins and the Montagnards, radical groups opposed to the more conservative Girondists. Marat published the radical newspaper L’Ami du peuple (The Friend of the People); David held prominent posts in the revolutionary government. On July 13, 1793, Girondist Charlotte Corday lied to gain access to Marat’s room. While Marat was working from his bath (where he spent much of his time due to a chronic skin disease), Corday stabbed him to death. The French government asked David to paint Marat’s portrait. The result is an idealized work depicting the dying Marat (shown with unblemished skin) as a secular martyr to the revolution, holding Corday’s false petition in his hand. As such, it echoes many paintings of Christian martyrs, particularly the various depictions of Christ’s descent from the cross. (The arm draped along the ground recalls both Michelangelo’s Pietà and Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ.) The presentation is stark and elemental: Marat leans towards us, his wound dripping, pen still in hand; we see the green blanket over the tub, the upturned box he used as a desk, the assassin’s knife on the floor. David had visited Marat the day before his death and painted the room from memory. The foreground scene is lit as if on a stage, leaving the background and upper half of the canvas in hazy darkness. The elements of the work combine to make Death of Marat a powerful blend of outrage and compassion – this is art, but it is also propaganda, and David’s students made many copies to distribute among the people. The painting received high praise until the fall of Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror, after which David himself became a target of the Thermidorian Reaction and he had to hide his more politically-charged paintings. The Death of Marat was kept safely hidden by one of David’s students, only to be rediscovered in the mid-19th Century by critics such as poet Charles Baudelaire, who wrote: “[T]he drama is there, alive in all its pitiful horror, and by an uncanny stroke of brilliance, which makes this David’s masterpiece and one of the great treasures of modern art, there is nothing trivial or ignoble about it. … It is the bread of the strong and the triumph of the spiritual; as cruel as nature, this picture has all the perfume of the ideal.” Random Trivia: The image below shows Marat (Sebastião) (2008) from Brazilian artist Vic Muniz’s Pictures of Garbage series.The work, made almost entirely from recycled garbage,is a portrait of a man who earns his living byfinding resellable material in a huge garbage dump.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (210)

75. Liberty Leading the People

Artist: Eugène Delacroix
Date: 1830
Period/Style: Romanticism; France; history painting
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 8.3 ft. tall by 10.7 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (211)
In July 1830, furious with tyrannical acts by French king Charles X, the people of France rose up against their government. After three days of fighting, the king abdicated, to be replaced by Louis-Philippe, who promised to be a constitutional monarch. The events stirred Eugène Delacroix, who was there in Paris during the tumultuous events, to put aside his historical works and address contemporary history. “Although I may not have fought for my country,” he told a friend, “at least I shall have painted for her.” In Liberty Leading the People, we see an allegorical figure of Liberty leading a band of revolutionaries over a government barricade. She carries the tricolor flag of the revolutionaries (which remains the French flag today) and a musket with bayonet, and wears a Phrygian cap. (In ancient times, such caps were given to freed slaves; at the time of the 1789 French revolution, they came to symbolize freedom generally.) Among the band of fighters are representatives of various walks of life: a working class man with a sabre and a beret; a member of the bourgeoisie, with his top hat and coat, carrying his hunting rifle; and two students, one a student of Ecole Polytechnique (wearing a Bonapartist co*cked hat), the other carrying his school bag and brandishing two pistols. (This latter figure, who stands next to Liberty, may have been Victor Hugo’s inspiration for the character Gavroche in Les Misérables.) Beneath the living lie the dead – members of both sides, including government soldiers. In the background, one can just make out a tricolor flag being raised on one of the towers of Notre Dame. Delacroix uses the free brush strokes that characterize the Romantic style to create a sense of energy and forward movement; on the other hand, the work’s pyramidal composition is almost classical in its sense of balance and proportion. The large painting was immensely popular and Louis-Philippe’s government purchased it to display in the palace as a sign of his solidarity with those who put him in power. But when further civil unrest occurred two years later, the king had the painting returned to Delacroix on strict orders that it not be displayed publicly, for fear that it would encourage another revolution. The painting remained in hiding until the revolution of 1848, when it was brought out again, only to be banned again. It finally found its way to the Louvre in the 1870s, where it enjoys a place of honor in the same room as The Death of Sardanapalus and other Delacroix history paintings.

On 10 lists

76. Cave Paintings, Lascaux Caves

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 15,000-13,000 BCE
Period/Style: Magdalenian culture; Upper Paleolithic, France
Medium: Paintings and drawings on cave walls
Current Location: Montignac, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (212)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (213)During the Upper Paleolithic period between 17,000 and 15,000 years ago, humans painted almost 2000 figures in the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France. Most of the paintings depict large grazing animals such as deer and horses using various mineral pigments, particularly black and red. There is one human figure shown next to a dead bull and a bird on a stick (see image below), as well as a number of abstract or geometric designs. The Great Hall of the Bulls (see top image) includes a 17-ft wide black bull or auroch, the largest painted figure in cave art. Many theories have been proposed for the purpose of the paintings, including aiding in religious ceremonies, improving hunting success or documenting past hunts. Some scholars believe there are astronomical charts incorporated in the designs. The caves were discovered in 1940 by 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat and opened to the public in 1948. Due to the damage caused by carbon dioxide from 1,200 visitors per day, the caves were closed to the public in 1963. Since 1998, the art has also been threatened by various types of fungus, including black mold.
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77. Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions (Lion Hunt Frieze)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 645-635 BCE
Period/Style: Neo-Assyrian Empire; Iraq; Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh
Medium: Bas relief sculptures on slabs of gypsum alabaster
Dimensions: I couldn’t find specific measurements but the slabs appear from photos and videos to be 4-5 feet tall and extend over three sides of a large museum gallery.
Current location: British Museum, London, England, UK
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What better way to symbolize a king’s strength than to show him fighting and defeating a lion, the king of beasts? Ashurbanipal was the last powerful king of the Assyrian Empire, which controlled most of the Middle East for over 300 years (c. 950-612 BCE). He reigned from 668 to 627 BCE, during which time he established royal palaces at several locations, including Nineveh, along the Tigris River in what is now northern Iraq. When British archaeologists excavated the ruins of the royal palace in Nineveh in 1853, they discovered an elaborate series of low-relief carvings on gypsum alabaster slabs that once lined the walls of the palace. The carvings – which are considered masterpieces of Assyrian art – show King Ashurbanipal killing lions during a ritualized hunt that took place in a large stadium, into which captive lions were released for the king to slaughter before an audience of his subjects. The frieze not only demonstrates the bravery and strength of the king, but also symbolizes his ability to protect his people from any foe, animal or human. The relief carvings are full of dramatic action, exquisite detail and expressive emotion. The sculptor shows true sympathy for the noble beasts as they struggle to fight back and in their death agonies (see image below).
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78. Mosaics, Basilica of San Vitale

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 527-548 CE
Period/Style: Byzantine, with elements of Ancient Roman and Ancient Greek (Hellenistic Period)
Medium: Mosaic tiles. Mosaics are made of small, flat, roughly square pieces of various materials in different colors, known as tesserae. The tesserae in San Vitale are made from glass, stone, marble, ceramics, and mother-of-pearl.
Dimensions: Approximately 40,000 square feet of mosaics cover the walls and ceilings of the church.
Current location: Ravenna, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (218)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (219)
The Basilica of San Vitale is one of the few Byzantine churches that has survived to the present day essentially unchanged. Built while Ravenna was under the rule of the Ostrogoths, San Vitale contains some of the finest mosaics outside Istanbul. The artistic style is in the Hellenistic-Roman tradition, which includes bright colors, some use of perspective and vivid depictions of plants, birds and landscapes. The program of mosaics includes numerous Bible stories and figures, angels, plants, birds and other animals. The presbytery vault in the apse contains a mosaic of Jesus, robed in purple, sitting on a blue globe and handing the crown of martyrdom to St. Vitale (see top image above). On a side wall of the apse is a mosaic of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and a retinue carrying the traditional gifts for a religious procession (see second image above). To the right of Justinian are clergy, including Bishop Maximian, to whom the Basilica was dedicated. To the left are administration officials and soldiers. The message seems to be that the Emperor is head of church and state. The halo around Justinian’s head and the number of his retinue indicate an even closer connection between the Emperor and the deity. A nearby mosaic shows Empress Theodora, looking like a goddess, and her retinue (see image below), an image that later inspired Austrian artist Gustav Klimt.
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79. The Bayeux Tapestry

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 1075
Period/Style: Norman Romanesque; England
Medium: Linen cloth with woolen embroidery
Dimensions: 224 ft. long and 1.6 ft. tall
Current location: Centre Guillaume le Conquerant, Bayeux, France
The Bayeux Tapestry (which is not a true tapestry, but an embroidered cloth) tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England and events leading up to it by means of an illustrated narrative. The tapestry consists of nine panels with fifty scenes, each with a caption in Latin, embroidered with colored woolen yarns on a linen cloth. The narrative takes up the central portion of the cloth, with top and bottom borders containing various decorative designs, figures and unrelated scenes. The final portion has been lost. Although legend attributes the tapestry to French artists, scholars now believe that skilled Anglo-Saxon seamstresses made the work in England in the 1070s. It was probably commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother Bishop Odo, Earl of Kent and founder of the Bayeux Cathedral in Normandy, where the tapestry was first mentioned in a 1476 inventory. In addition to historical scenes involving William, Duke of Normandy, Harold, Earl of Wessex (later King) and King Edward the Confessor, the tapestry is notable for the first depiction of a harrow, a newly-invented farm implement, and the first image of Halley’s Comet, which appeared in March/April 1066 (see image below). The images above show: (1) William the Conqueror lays siege to Conan at Dinan and (2) Harold crossing the Channel to Normandy. Random Trivia: A Victorian-era replica of the tapestry, with explanatory narrative, may be viewed online HERE.
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80. Relief Sculptures, Reims Cathedral

Artists: Unknown
Date: 1211-1275 (primary work); 1275-1305 (additional work)
Period/Style: Medieval period; French Gothic styles (including Remois Workshop style)
Medium: Relief sculptures carved in Lutetian limestone adorning the exterior of the church building
Dimensions: The sculptures cover much of the exterior of the cathedral, which measures 489 feet long and 377 ft. tall (at the nave).
Current location: Reims, France
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Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (225)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (226)
The place where France crowned its kings, Reims Cathedral (officially titled Notre-Dame de Reims) was built in the French Gothic style primarily between 1211-1275, although some work continued into the early 14th Century. The exterior and interior of the cathedral are covered with hundreds of relief sculptures of religious figures and subjects, with some of the statues almost completely detached from the substrate (see top image above showing Coronation of the Virgin). The sculpture of Reims Cathedral is not mere ornamentation but is integral to the architectural composition. Because the construction extended over such a long period, and because sculptors from different schools and cities were employed, the sculptures present a wide variety of styles. The later reliefs are carved in a graceful, fluid style sometimes referred to as the “beautiful” style. Among the most famous sculptures are two smiling angels (see images below). German artillery shelled the cathedral in September 1914, causing significant damage (some of the gargoyles’ mouths are clogged with molten lead), but after years of restoration work, the cathedral’s doors reopened in 1938. Other images above show the Hall of Kings (middle) and the Communion of the Knight (bottom).
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81. Moai

Artists: Unknown
Dates: c. 1250-1500
Period/Style: Polynesian
Medium: Statues carved from tuff, red scoria, basalt and trachyte; eyes made with white coral and black obsidian or red scoria; pukao (headdresses) made from red scoria
Dimensions: The statues average 13 ft. tall by 5 ft. 3 in. wide at the base; the tallest is 33 ft. tall; the heaviest weights 86 tons.
Current location: Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile
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Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (230) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (231)
Between 1250 and 1500 CE, artists on the Polynesian island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) carved 887 moai, huge human-like statues with oversized heads and no legs. Almost half the moai are located at the main quarry at Rano Raraku, but hundreds were transported to various parts of the island’s perimeter, where they were usually set on stone platforms called ahu. How Rapa Nui’s inhabitants moved these immense rock statues is a mystery. Almost all of the moai faced inland to protect the people, but seven faced the sea to help sailors find the island. During clashes between rival clans, most of the moai were pulled down, but archaeologists have begun restoring them, complete with eyes and sometimes a large hat called a pukao (see image above right). Scholars believe that the moai represented both living faces (aringa ora) or deified ancestors (aringa ora ata tepuna) and they would have possessed both political meaning and sacred religious power.

82. The Well of Moses

Artist: Claus slu*ter (aided by Claus de Werve) sculpted the figures and Jean Malouel painted them
Date: 1395-1405
Period/Style: Medieval period; International Gothic style; Netherlands/France
Medium: Relief sculptures in limestone; originally painted and gilded
Dimensions: The remaining monument is 9.2 ft. across at the top and over 6 ft. tall. Each of the six prophets stands about 5 ft., 8 in. tall.
Current location: Chartreuse de Champmol (Hospital de la Chartreuse), Dijon, France
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In the late 14th Century, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, ordered the building and decoration of a Carthusian monastery just outside Dijon, which would serve as his burial site. A number of artists provided artwork for the monastery, including Dutch sculptor Claus Suter and his nephew Claus de Werve, who created a large well for the center of the main cloister. Standing in the center of the well stood a massive limestone sculpture consisting of a crucifixion scene, with Mary Magdalene (and possibly one or two other figures) at the foot of the cross where Jesus was hanging, and below it, a hexagonal base with statues of six prophets and six weeping angels (see drawing of one possible reconstruction of the original in image below). The sculptures were decorated with paint in vibrant colors and gilding. During the anti-religious fervor of the French Revolution, the upper portion of the sculpture was destroyed (fragments are on display in a nearby museum), leaving the base, which has acquired the name the Well of Moses. In each of six niches, Suter has created life-sized statues of six Old Testament figures who were said to have predicted the birth of Jesus: Moses, David, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Daniel and Isaiah. Each prophet carries his prophecy on a scroll and each one is individually detailed with a unique expression and personality. Although they are sculpted in high relief, the figures appear to be independent of the stone behind them, and there is a sense of movement expressed by the bodies beneath the drapery. The angels, who top the slender colonnettes that separate the planes of the hexagon, also have individualized gestures and expressions.
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83. Holy Trinity Icon

Artist: Andrei Rublev
Date: c. 1408-1427
Period/Style: Medieval period; Russian Orthodox icon painting; Russia
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimension: 4.6 ft. tall by 3.75 ft. wide
Current location: State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
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The Holy Trinity Icon is one of the few existing paintings that can be reliably attributed to painter and Russian Orthodox saint Andrei Rublev. Religious icons differ from other kinds of religious paintings in being less concerned with a specific time and place than with representing a heavenly realm outside time. An icon is intended not as a display of artistic technique or a representation of the earthly world but as an object of religious contemplation. The icon depicts the story from the Book of Genesis in which three angels appear to the elderly Abraham at Mamre to announce that Abraham’s wife Sarah would bear a son. Although traditional depictions of the scene include Abraham and Sarah, Rublev has pared down the composition, giving us the perspective of Abraham and his wife. Believers who viewed the icon would have understood the links between the three angels and the three persons of the Christian trinity (God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). At a 1551 conference on the question of religious art, Russian Orthodox leaders declared that Rublev’s Holy Trinity was an ideal example of an icon and should be a model for other artists. Like many older icons, there has been considerable damage, repainting and other alteration over the years with attempts at restoration beginning in the 20th Century.

84. The Legend of the True Cross (The History of the True Cross)

Artist: Piero della Francesca
Date: The work probably began in 1447-1448 with much of the painting done in the mid-1450s, then a break from 1458-1459. The frescoes were finally completed in 1466.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Arezzo, Italy; religious
Medium: Frescoes painted on church walls
Dimensions: The frescoes cover more than 9,000 square feet. Measurements of specific scenes include: Constantine’s Dream, 10.8 ft. tall by 6.2 ft. wide; Exaltation of the Cross, 12.8 ft. tall by 24.5 ft. wide; Finding and Recognition of the True Cross, 11.7 ft. tall by 24.5 ft. wide; and the Battle between Heraclius and Khosrau, 10.8 ft. tall by 24.5 ft wide
Current location: Cappella Maggiore, San Francesco Church, Arezzo, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (237)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (238)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (239)
Piero della Francesca painted a cycle of frescoes in the main choir chapel of San Francesco Church in Arrezo, Italy on the theme of the Legend of the True Cross. The cycle is considered Piero’s greatest achievement and one of the masterpieces of Early Renaissance painting, with the artist excelling in composition, perspective and use of color. Taken from the popular 13th Century book The Golden Legend, these non-Biblical tales follow the cross that Jesus was crucified on from the time the tree was a seed (at the time of Adam) until the 7th Century CE. In arranging the scenes, Piero eschewed traditional chronological storytelling, opting instead for placing similar scenes across from one another on facing walls – two open air scenes for the lunettes at the top, for example, and two battle scenes in the lowest register (see top image for overall view). These visual echoes increase the dramatic intensity of the artwork. The other images show:
(1) Middle image above: The Battle between Heraclius and Khosrau. After Persian king Khosrau steals the true cross, Eastern Emperor Heraclius goes to war against him to retrieve it. The fresco shows Heraclius’s victory.
(2) Bottom image above: The Exaltation of the Crossshows Heraclius carrying the cross back to Jerusalem, when a group of passersby kneel down to worship it.
(3) Image at left below: Constantine’s Dream, in which the Roman Emperor, on the eve of battle, dreams of a cross and hears the instructions, “By this sign you shall conquer.” Constantine uses the Christian symbol to lead his troops to victory.
(4) Finding and Recognition of the True Cross. This fresco shows Constantine’s mother and others who had been searching for the cross finally find it and recognize it as the true cross when a dead youth is miraculously resurrected.
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85. The Resurrection of Christ

Artist: Piero della Francesca
Date: c. 1463-1465
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Sansepolcro, Italy; religious
Medium: Fresco painted on the wall of a public building
Dimensions: 7.5 ft. tall by 6.5 ft. wide
Current location: Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy
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Visitors to the Tuscan town of Sansepulcro may be surprised to find a street named after English art lover Anthony Clarke. During World War II, Clarke, then a British artillery officer, received orders to bomb the German-occupied town hall. Knowing that the building contained Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection, Clarke refused to carry out the order, and the masterpiece was saved. As it turned out, the bombing would have been pointless, as the Germans had already retreated. The fresco depicts a triumphant Christ after emerging from the tomb, carrying the red cross flag that had become a symbol of his resurrection from the dead. Above him, two trees – one bare and the other in bloom – symbolize the miracle of Jesus’s death and rebirth. Below him sleep four soldiers, one of whom is a self-portrait of the painter. In order to create a harmonious and balanced composition, Piero exercised artistic license to remove the legs of one of the soldiers.

86. Frescoes, Camera degli Sposi

Artist: Andrea Mantegna
Date: Begun in 1465; completed in 1474
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Mantua, Italy; portraits, decorative, sotto in sù
Medium: Frescoes painted on the walls and ceiling of a palace room
Dimensions: The room is 26.6 feet square. The court scene (north wall) measures 26.4 ft. tall by 26.4 ft. wide.
Current location: Castle of San Giorgio, Mantua, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (243)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (244)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (245)
Andrea Mantegna’s frescoes for Ludovico III Gonzaga, Marquis of the Italian city of Mantua served both a political and artistic purpose. Ludovico instructed Mantegna to paint the Camera degli Sposi, or bridal chamber, a room of his house that he used for gatherings and to welcome visitors. Ludovico, the leader of a small city in the midst of such political powerhouses as the Republics of Venice and Florence, wanted decorations that would impress his guests and confirm his power. Mantegna painted the entire room from floor to ceiling (see top image). Two walls show only what appear to be realistic leather curtains, but on other two walls, the curtains are drawn back to reveal Ludovico, his family members and various world leaders engaged in various activities. One scene shows a casually-impressive Ludovico seated at his court, listening to the pleas of his subjects (see second image above). Another wall shows a standing Ludovico meeting with his son (who had just been made a cardinal), the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Denmark (see third image above). Mantegna creates the illusion that there is a space behind the curtains, that the walls have been pierced and we could walk outside. But Mantegna’s most original achievement is the ceiling (see image below). In the center, he has painted an oculus that appears to open directly onto a bright blue sky above, with extremely foreshortened cherubs, animals, and young men and women gazing directly down at the viewer below. A potted plant leans out precariously on the edge. This is one of the first paintings known as “di sotto in sù” (seen from below), a style that would become much more popular years later with Mannerist and Baroque ceiling painters.
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87. Lady with an Ermine

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Date: c. 1489-1490
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Milan, Italy; secular portrait
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 21 inches tall by 15 inches wide
Current location: Czartoryski Museum, Kraków, Poland
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (247)
The first of Leonardo da Vinci’s works using oil paints, Lady with an Ermine is a portrait of Cecilia Galleriani, the 16-year-old mistress of Leonardo’s employer, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Miss Galleriani was not an aristocrat, and her clothing, hair style and veil would have identified her as a commoner to contemporary viewers. The ermine symbolizes purity, for legend had it that it would rather die than dirty its white coat, but it may also be a reference to Sforza, who was a member of the Neapolitan Order of the Ermine. Leonardo’s composition is a spiraling pyramid; the subject is painted in three quarter profile (one of Leonardo’s favorite poses) and appears to be turning to her left. The portrait is also notable for the detailed attention the painter paid to the subject’s hand, down to the flexed tendon in her bent finger, reflecting Leonardo’s interest in human anatomy.

88. Scenes from the Life of St. Matthew

Artist: Caravaggio (born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio)
Date: The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew were completed in 1600. The Inspiration of St. Matthew was finished in 1602.
Period/Style: Baroque; Rome, Italy; religious
Medium: Three paintings made using oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: The Calling of St. Matthew measures 10.6 ft. tall by 10.8 ft. wide; The Martyrdom of St. Matthew is 10.6 ft. tall by 11.25 ft. wide, and The Inspiration of St. Matthew is 9.6 ft. tall by 6.1 ft. wide.
Current location: Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi Church, Rome, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (248)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (249)
When French cardinal Matthieu Cointerel (Contarelli in Italian) died in 1585, he left money to decorate a chapel in Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi Church with scenes from the life of St. Matthew, his name saint. Contarelli’s heirs commissioned Mannerist painter Giuseppe Cesari to paint frescoes but by 1593, Cesari had only completed one of the three walls. In 1599, Caravaggio was commissioned to finish the project by making two paintings for the walls using oils on canvas. By July 1600, Caravaggio had painted two early Baroque masterpieces: The Calling of St. Matthew (top image above) and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (second image above) on facing walls (see first and second images above). The original plan had been that Flemish sculptor Jacques Cobaert would create marble statues of Matthew and an angel for the altar, but when Cobaert delivered the statues, the church elders rejected them and instead commissioned Caravaggio (whose first two paintings had already caused a sensation) to paint The Inspiration of St. Matthew. The church rejected Caravaggio’s first version, but delivered an acceptable representation in about 1602. The Martyrdom of St. Matthew was the first of the St. Matthew paintings. Scholars identify this work as a turning point in the move from Mannerist to Baroque style. Caravaggio expertly uses chiaroscuro to highlight the drama of the precise moment just before the assassin plunges his sword into Matthew, at the same time that the saint reaches out for a palm frond (symbol of his martyrdom) offered by an angel only he can see. The Calling of St. Matthew depicts the moment when Jesus and St. Peter approach Matthew and Jesus beckons the tax collector to “Follow me.” Scholars praise the painting for Caravaggio’s dramatic use of light and shadow; they also note that Jesus’ finger recalls the finger of Michelangelo’s God in the Creation of Man on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. While the men at the table wear contemporary clothing, Jesus and St. Peter are clad in the timeless robes of classical antiquity, thus distinguishing the earthly sphere from the heavenly. The Inspiration of St. Matthew (see image below left) shows an angel in swirling drapery floating above St. Matthew making a point with his fingers, while the saint, kneeling below, watches and learns. The glowing yellows and oranges of Matthews robes pop out of the sea of darkness behind him, while his leg, stool and arm threaten to break the picture plane and enter the viewer’s space, in quintessential Baroque fashion. Random Trivia: The church rejected Caravaggio’s first version of The Inspiration of St. Matthew. which became known as St. Matthew and the Angel (see black and white photo below right). They didn’t like St. Matthew’s crossed legs and bare feet, and disapproved of the angel-muse’s overly familiar attitude toward the saint. The painting was destroyed by bombing in 1945 during World War II.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (250) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (251)

89. View of Delft

Artist: Johannes Vermeer
Date: Dates range from 1658 to 1664, but most art historians place the work in 1660-1661.
Period/Style: Baroque; Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands; landscape
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 3.2 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide
Current location: Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (252)
Of the 34 surviving paintings by Vermeer, the vast majority depict interior scenes. The artist’s landscape view of his hometown, View of Delft, is a rare outdoor subject. Perhaps given the Dutch penchant for landscapes (although usually of country, not city scenes), View of Delft was the most highly-regarded of his works during his lifetime. We view the city from the opposite side of the Lange Geer canal, probably from a second story window, looking down. A small group of people mills about at the lower left. A shaft of morning sunlight illuminates some of the buildings, including the tower of the New Church on the right, which houses the grave of Willem of Orange (see detail in image below left). As usual, Vermeer is masterful at showing how light reflects off various surfaces and how shadow changes not only color but texture. To capture the reflections of the water on the boats on the right, Vermeer uses tiny dots of paint (pointilles) (see detail below right). While the painting appears to be a faithful representation of the cityscape, comparison with contemporary sketches reveals that Vermeer made some changes to enhance the artistic effect he sought, including spreading the buildings more widely along the waterfront. Art historians have long debated how Vermeer was able to capture such a high level of detail in his paintings, with some theorizing that he had help from technology. Art critic Martin Bailey is one of those who believes Vermeer used a camera obscura to paint View of Delft: “The pointillist technique that Vermeer used to suggest reflections flickering off the water, most easily visible on the two herring boats on the right, is evidence that he probably used a camera obscura to help compose the picture; diffused highlights such as these would appear when a partially focused image was obtained from this device.” Random Trivia: French author Marcel Proust was enamored of the painting, calling it “the most beautiful painting in the world.” Proust later incorporated View of Delft into a scene in his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (253) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (254)

90. The Gleaners

Artist: Jean-Francois Millet
Date: 1857
Period/Style: Realism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.75 ft. tall by 3.7 ft. wide
Current location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (255)Jean-François Millet was one of a group of like-minded French painters who became known as Realists. Reacting against the idealism of the Romantics, the Realists eschewed fantasy and believed in creating art that represented reality as they saw it. In the hands of Millet, Realism meant painting the poor rural and urban workers who sustained the economies of Europe. The Gleaners shows three anonymous peasant women near sunset in a just-harvested field who are exercising their right to glean, that is, to collect grain left behind after the harvesters have worked the field. Millet contrasts their lonely, back-straining work with the wealth and abundance of the landlord farmer, shown in the background. The contrast is emphasized with the lighting: bright sunshine lights the harvesters and their huge piles of grain, while the gleaners (whose outlines do not cross the horizon line) are in shadow. The effect of the late afternoon light on their shabbily-clad bodies is to turn them into three-dimensional sculptures, emphasizing the dignity of their difficulty labor. Millet made many sketches of the gleaners he saw near his home in Barbizon for seven years before creating this oil painting. The critics savaged The Gleaners: to the upper classes, drawing attention to the poverty of the lower classes (who far outnumbered them) was inviting a Socialist uprising; for the bourgeoisie, unkempt peasant women were not a proper subject for art. As time passed, however, the painting proved inspirational, inspiring many similar tributes to the working poor, including French filmmaker Agnes Varda’s documentation of modern salvagers in The Gleaners and I (2000).

91. Olympia

Artist: Édouard Manet
Date: 1863
Period/Style: Realism; Impressionism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.3 ft. tall by 6.2 ft. wide
Current location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (256)
French artist Édouard Manet sought to challenge the prevailing artistic convention that the only subjects worth painting on a large scale were mythological, Biblical or historical. Like the Realists, he thought ordinary life was worthy of artistic representation. To make his point, he took the idea of the classical nude – typified by Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) and converted it into a scene of contemporary life. The result was Olympia – a painting he exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon and which provoked outrage. He posed his frequent model Victorine Meurent as a well-to-do courtesan named Olympia (a common name for Parisian prostitutes), who confronts the viewer with a bold stare, ignoring a maid bringing her flowers (a gift from a patron, no doubt). Meurent, who also appeared in Luncheon on the Grass, was well known in Parisian art circles and was herself an accomplished painter. Because Manet refused to idealize the nude figure and instead personalized her as a woman of the world boldly confronting us with her gaze, he forces the viewer to confront her raw sexuality, and not some high-minded allegory of Beauty. French author and critic Émile Zola appeared to grasp Manet’s purpose when he wrote at the time: “When our artists give us Venuses, they correct nature, they lie. Édouard Manet asked himself why lie, why not tell the truth; he introduced us to Olympia, this fille of our time, whom you meet on the sidewalks.” Unlike Titian’s Venus, whose hand coyly invites us, Manet’s Olympia uses her hand to block access (you must pay to play). Instead of Titian’s dog (symbol of marital fidelity), Manet gives us a black cat, symbol of mystical sexuality and nocturnal promiscuity. The figure of the black maid was portrayed by Laure, an art model who appears in several of Manet’s paintings. Her blackness contrasts with the pale whiteness of the nude woman; she would also have invoked a sense of the exotic, recalling paintings of odalisques in foreign settings. (Modern scholars have explored the racist underpinnings of this and other representations of black women as servants and other peripheral figures.) Manet is not only challenging the prevailing conventions in his choice of subject matter, however. His style is also revolutionary. By reducing perspective and presenting the figures in a flat plane against a dark background, by painting with broad, loose brushstrokes, reducing modeling and painting with large flat patches of color, Manet is anticipating modernism, which eventually rejected the idea that the purpose of “good” painting was to create the illusion of three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional surface. Random Trivia: Yasumasa Morimura’s Portrait (1988) engages in a dialogue with Manet’s Olympia by replacing the central figure with a nude man (the artist himself), among other changes (see image below). Morimura has recreated numerous works of art as ironic self-portraits that challenge underlying assumptions about those works.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (257)

92. Luncheon of the Boating Party

Artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Date: 1880-1881
Period/Style: Impressionism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.25 ft. tall by 5.67 ft. wide
Current location: Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (258)
Fashionable Parisians liked to take boating trips on the Seine and when they did so, they would often stop at Maison Fournaise in the town of Chatou for lunch and drinks on the second floor outdoor terrace. French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted one such excursion in The Luncheon of the Boating Party. We see a group of people enjoying a bright summer day, talking, flirting, and generally having a good time. In Renoir’s world, the sun is always shining and no one is ever down in the dumps. As usual, Renoir’s treatment of light is superb: the awning cuts off direct sun, but reflected light bounces off the white shirts and table cloth and onto the rest of the scene. The painting is divided along a diagonal formed by the railing at the left and there is a triangle formed in the foreground – these lines guide our eyes around the canvas, as do the gazes of the standing and sitting figures. Renoir uses his characteristic light touches; just a few brushstrokes define the glasses on the table, for example, or the sailboats on the Seine in the background. But, uncharacteristically, his treatment of the faces and men’s bare arms is more careful, with more attention to detail and modeling. He is using two styles at once. Although the painting has the appearance of a snapshot, Renoir probably sketched out the general composition and then had models pose for the various figures at different times. As usual, he used his friends as models, including: (1) the woman playing with the dog (an affenpinscher) is Aline Charigot, who would later become Renoir’s wife; (2) the woman at the center drinking from a glass is actress Ellen Andrée (the model for Degas’ L’Absinthe); (3) the man in the straw hat on the right is painter and Impressionist benefactor Gustave Caillebotte; and (4) the man and woman leaning against the railing are the son and daughter of Monsieur Fournaise, the owner of the restaurant.

93. The Burghers of Calais

Artist: Auguste Rodin
Date: Rodin received the commission in 1884; he completed the original sculpture in 1889 and it was unveiled in Calais in 1895.
Medium: Sculptures cast in bronze
Dimensions: The sculptural group measures 6.6 ft. tall, 6.7 ft. wide and 6.4 ft. deep.
Current locations: There are 12 full-sized bronze casts in various locations, including: Calais, France (original 1889 cast); Glyptoteket, Copenhagen, Denmark (1903 cast); Royal Museum, Mariemont, Belgium (1905 cast); Victoria Tower Gardens, London (1908 cast); Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA (1919-1921 cast); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (1959 cast); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (1985 cast). A full-size plaster cast from 1889 is located in the Musée Rodin in Paris.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (259)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (260)
During the Hundred Years’ War, English troops under King Edward III laid siege to the port town of Calais, France for over a year, while King Philip VI of France ordered the city not to surrender. By 1347, the people of Calais were starving and ready to give in. According to legend, Edward offered a compromise: he would spare the city if six citizens would surrender to him by walking out of the gates bareheaded, wearing nooses around their necks and carrying the keys to the city. Eustache de St. Pierre, a wealthy town leader, was first to volunteer (see detail showing St. Pierre below); five other burghers soon joined him. The six walked out the city gates together, believing they faced certain death. Instead, Queen Philippa convinced Edward to spare their lives. In 1884, when the leaders of Calais voted to erect a monument to Eustache de St. Pierre, sculptor Auguste Rodin surprised the selection committee by making a model honoring all six burghers, which won the competition. Rodin delivered the first full-sized bronze cast of The Burghers of Calais to the town of Calais in 1889. Seeing the six burghers not as heroes but as ordinary citizens who acted out of a sense of duty, Rodin specified that the sculpture be placed at ground level, so that ordinary citizens could meet the burghers eye-to-eye. Instead, Calais’ town leaders initially placed the statue on a high pedestal, consistent with standard practice. It was not until 1926 that the sculpture was brought down to earth with a low pedestal, as Rodin had specified. Three additional bronze casts were made during Rodin’s lifetime, and eight more since Rodin’s death in 1917, reaching the maximum of 12 casts allowed under French law. Casts of individual members of the group have also been made. Some of Rodin’s contemporaries criticized the sculpture because it did not glorify the heroes and did not include allegorical figures and other classical indicia of heroism, but modern scholars and critics have praised the work for its humanism, its individualized treatment of each figure and its rendering of the burghers’ weary anguish and resignation as a form of heroic self-sacrifice. Over time, Rodin’s unsentimental rendering of ordinary people rising to meet extraordinary circ*mstances has become an icon.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (261)

94. The Japanese Footbridge

Artist: Claude Monet
Date: 1899
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: There are 12 paintings in the series of varying sizes (1.3-3 ft. tall and 1.5-3.3 ft. wide), with either horizontal or vertical orientation.
Current locations: Paintings in the series may be found in museums around the world under a variety of titles, including: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies); National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (The Japanese Footbridge); Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA (Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, Giverny); National Gallery, London, England, UK (The Water-Lily Pond); Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France (Water Lily Pond (Green Harmony)); National Gallery of Australia, Melbourne (The Japanese Footbridge); and Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ (Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (262)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (263) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (264)
In addition to being a painter, Claude Monet was an amateur horticulturalist and landscape architect. In 1883, he moved with his family to Giverny (about 50 miles northwest of Paris) and after several years was able to buy a parcel of land that included a swampy area, where he worked for years, using his own detailed designs, to create a man-made paradise. He obtained permission from local officials to divert a stream into the swamp, creating a pond. He then designed a garden, bringing in bamboo, water lilies and other flora; as a finishing touch, he had a Japanese-style wooden bridge built across the pond. Monet thus created an artificial natural environment to his own specifications that served as the subject of at least 250 paintings in the last decades of his life. The series of paintings of the water lily pond was the culmination of a particular technique that Monet began experimenting with in the early 1890s. Instead of painting a scene once, he would choose a subject and paint it multiple times: at different times of day, in different kinds of weather, or in different seasons. He began with the haystack series in 1891, then Rouen Cathedral in 1892-1894 and continued this method until the end of his life. Monet often worked on multiple canvases at a time – he would work on the morning light painting until the light began to change, then he would switch to the afternoon light canvas. When a series was complete, Monet liked to exhibit the paintings all together, so viewers could compare the changing effects of light and the seasons on the underlying subject matter, whether stacks of hay, a cathedral, the Houses of Parliament in London, or a pond of water lilies. His series of water lily paintings is so large that there are mini-series within the series. One of those subsets is a group of 12 paintings Monet made of the Japanese bridge in 1899. Each painting differs in lighting, time of day and sometimes time of year; some are horizontal, others vertical. The Japanese bridge divides the canvas into two sections: the foliage above and the pond below, with its lily pads, flowers and reflections. We see the line where the pond meets the land, but we don’t see the sky. The bridge is pictured in the top half of each painting; in at least one case (the version in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.) the arches reach almost to the top of the canvas (see image at left above). Each painting shows Monet’s mature style: unmixed colors applied with short thick brushstrokes in layers, creating a three-dimensional effect when seen up close. Monet made paintings of the water lily pond showing the bridge both before and after this series, but the 12 paintings from 1899 were meant to be considered as a whole – Monet exhibited them together at the Durand–Ruel gallery in Paris in 1900. They are now scattered around the world in various collections. The images above show:
(1) at the top, Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge, at the Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ;
(2) above left, The Japanese Footbridge, from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and
(3) above right, Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.
Random Trivia: The image below is a 1917 photograph (using the autochrome color process) of Claude Monet at Giverny with the Japanese footbridge.
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95. The Large Bathers

Artist: Paul Cézanne
Date: Work on the painting began around 1898; it was left unfinished at the artist’s death in 1906.
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 6.9 ft. tall by 8.2 ft. wide
Current location: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (266)
Paul Cézanne admired the Impressionists’ bright palette, treatment of light and emphasis on painting en plein air, but he rejected the notion that painting should represent only the impressions caught by the painters’ eyes. To Cézanne, who sought to infuse the spirit of Impressionism with the classical values of Giorgione, Titian and Rubens (the nude), Poussin (the landscape), and Chardin (the still life), a work of art was a product of both the artist’s eye and mind. The mind exercised control by imposing structure and form, thus revealing a deeper reality. Cézanne’s The Large Bathers is the last and the largest in a series of ‘bathers’ paintings he created around the turn of the century. The size of the canvas invites comparison to works with grand themes: history, religion, and mythology. But while Cézanne may have been inspired by the story of Diana bathing with her maidens (a frequent subject of past art), he makes no attempt to connect the bathers here with any specific identity or preexisting narrative. Instead, he concentrates on the forms: we see a triangle formed by trees (though the apex is cut off), and at the base of each side of the triangle, another triangle of nude women. In the center of the composition, there is a void – we can barely make out a swimmer in the river, and two enigmatic forms on the opposite shore. One art historian described the center of the painting as an empty stage, where the women might perform some ritual. (And we have no sense of motion in this frieze-like assembly; as curator Joseph Rishel noted, “There is a profound sense of eternal calm and resolution.”) The figures themselves are ciphers: flat, angular forms with blank or mask-like faces, in some cases half drawn, lacking sensuality; several of them are turned away from us; others seem to merge with each other or the trees. Cézanne disliked working with live models, so the nudes are based on Cezanne’s life drawings from his student days or his sketches of artworks at the Louvre, where he spent many hours. In emphasizing form over content, Cézanne confuses our normal sense of priorities; for him, the patch of blue water or sky is as important as a human figure. As Jack Flam noted in a 2012 ARTnews article, “[T]he solid forms in his paintings seem to be on the verge of dissolution, and the empty spaces on the verge of becoming solidified….” The work of Cézanne inspired modernist art movements such as Fauvism and Cubism (many critics see the figures of The Large Bathers as precursors to those of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon), but the general consensus at the time was that Cézanne’s works were ugly. Early 20th Century art critic Charles Morice wrote, “Cézanne’s pictures alarm the public and delight artists; all of the public, but not all of the artists.” Even in 1937, when the Philadelphia Museum of Art paid $110,000 for The Large Bathers, there was an outcry from the public and a newspaper suggested the money would have been better spent helping the needy. My guess is that Cézanne would not have been disturbed by these reactions; his goal was to make art that escaped from the bonds of any one particular time period, trend or movement; he did not seek appreciation in the present moment. The Large Bathers is now considered one of the great modernist masterpieces.

96. Nude Descending a Staircase #2

Artist: Marcel Duchamp
Date: 1912
Period/Style: Cubism; Futurism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.8 ft. tall by 2.9 ft. wide
Current location: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (267)
By 1912, Picasso and Braque had abandoned Analytic Cubism for Synthetic Cubism. Other artists like Fernand Léger and Juan Gris adopted, then adapted Cubism, each applying his own individual twist. Robert and Sonia Delaunay and others created Orphic Cubism (also known as Orphism). In Italy, Futurism was a reaction against Cubism; Umberto Boccioni and the other Futurists rejected the still lives, portraits and landscapes of the Cubists and sought instead to infuse art with a sense of movement (especially speed), paying tribute to mechanical energy and technological progress. French artist Marcel Duchamp sought to bring to Cubism some of the Futurists’ interest in motion and machinery. In a series of paintings, he explored how a Cubist would deconstruct movement. Duchamp was inspired in part by the art of photography, which provided new opportunities to observe movement in humans and animals; high speed photography could dissect an action into fragments of a second to reveal what could not be seen by the naked eye. We don’t know if Duchamp saw the 1877 series of photographs by Eadweard Muybridge of a nude woman walking down a staircase (see image below from Muybridge’s book Animal Locomotion), but he had surely seen motion study photographs by Muybridge or Étienne-Jules Marey. Duchamp’s painting – done in Cubist monochrome tones with overlapping fragments – shows a figure descending stairs from upper left to lower right. The sense is of frozen movement, of multiple exposures and of something partly human and partly mechanical. The Cubists rejected the painting for their 1912 Paris Salon des Indépendants exhibition on the grounds that it was too Futurist. According to Duchamp, he was also told by the committee (which included his brothers) that the idea of painting a nude descending stairs was ridiculous; nudes should be reclining, not moving. The criticism reached a fever pitch when Nude Descending a Staircase #2 was included in an exhibition of European art in New York in 1913 (the famous Armory show). Americans, not having much prior exposure to either Cubism or Futurism, were incensed. One art critic called the painting “an explosion in a shingle factory.” An art magazine held a contest to ‘find the nude’, and even Teddy Roosevelt registered his disgust. Ironically, the negative attention made Duchamp famous; some speculated that people were buying tickets to the show just to mock his work. He soon moved on from this Cubo-Futurist experiment to an even more daring concept: the readymades.
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On 9 Lists

97. Head of an Akkadian Ruler (Sargon, King of Akkad)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 2400-2200 BCE
Period/Style: Akkadian empire; Iraq
Medium: bronze sculpted head (possibly once attached to full-body statue)
Dimensions: 12 inches tall
Current location: Iraqi Museum, Baghdad, Iraq
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (269) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (270)
Sargon of Akkad conquered the Sumerian city-states in the 23rd and 22nd Centuries BCE and formed a united empire, based in the city of Akkad, where he reigned from c. 2334-2279 BCE. The dynasty he founded ruled even longer. The Akkadian empire included Mesopotamia, parts of Iran, Asia Minor and Syria. In excavations of the ruins of the Assyrian city of Nineveh in present-day Iraq, archaeologists found a bronze head of an Akkadian king dating to c. 2400-2200 BCE. Some scholars believe the head, which is wearing the traditional wig-helmet of Sumerian rulers, is meant to represent Sargon, and was originally attached to a full-body statue. Others believe it is Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin. There are significant signs of intentional damage to the head, indicating a possible political motivation by subsequent conquerors to deface symbols of Akkadian power.

98. The Dying Gaul (The Dying Galatian)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 230-220 BCE (Ancient Greek bronze original); 1st-2nd Century CE (Ancient Roman marble copy)
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: Hellenistic Period
Medium: The lost original was a bronze sculpture; the existing copy is carved marble.
Dimensions: 3 ft. tall by 6.1 ft. long by 2.9 ft. deep
Current location: Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (271)
The statue known as The Dying Gaul commemorates the victory of Attalos I, in defense of Greeks living in Pergamon (on what is now the Turkish coast) against Celtic migrants from Gaul who settled in nearby Galatia. It shows a mortally wounded Gaul (a puncture wound is visible in his lower right chest) lying on his shield, with a sword, belt and trumpet beside him. He is nude except for a metal neck ring, or torc. While the sculpture reminds the viewer that the Greeks were victorious, it also shows respect and compassion for the fallen adversary, who hovers between life and death. The Dying Gaul has undergone a number of revisions since its discovery at the Villa Ludovisi outside Rome in the early 1600s: for example, the left leg has been reassembled from several pieces, and the figure’s original long hair had broken off, leading 17th Century artists to rework it (see detail in image below – for more on the restorations, gohere.) The emotional depth of the piece made it a favorite of artists and art lovers.Artists engraved and copied it, thus giving many more a chance to see it.Lord Byron commented on it inChild Harold’s Pilgrimageand Thomas Jefferson included it on a list of potential acquisitions for a planned Monticello art museum. Despite Jefferson’s dream, theDying Gaul remains in Rome.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (272)

99. Murals, Ajanta Caves

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 200 BCE to 650 CE (first phase: c. 200 BCE-100 CE; second phase: c. 300-650 CE)
Period/Style: Classical Period, India: Satavahana Dynasty (1st phase), Vakataka Dynasty (2nd phase)
Medium: Frescoes (a secco) painted on cave walls prepared by plastering and covering with a smooth paste.
Dimensions: Ajanta consists of nearly 30 caves carved into a basalt cliff; the caves stretch for nearly 1000 yards along the cliffside. Many of the caves have paintings on their walls, amounting to many thousands of square feet of artwork.
Current location: Aurangbad district, Maharashtra, India
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (273)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (274)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (275)
The Ajanta Caves, which contain some of the earliest examples of Indian Classical painting, served as a residence and resting place for Buddhist monks for more than 800 years. Most of the nearly 30 caves served as viharas, residence halls for Buddhist monks (each of which includes a small shrine), while five of the caves are chaitya-grihas, which contain larger shrines and stupas. Each cave contains numerous works of religious art, including fresco wall paintings. Most scholars believe the caves were built and decorated in two phases: the first phase probably lasted from 100 BCE to 100 CE and the art reflects the Hinayana (Theravada) form of Buddhism; the second phase probably took place from 300-650 CE and follows the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Some of the frescoes show Hellenistic Greek influences in the painting style. The caves were used on and off in later centuries, possibly as shelter for travelers, with scattered references to them in medieval literature and as late as a 17th Century survey during the reign of Akbar the Great. The Western world rediscovered the caves in 1819 when British soldier John Smith stumbled upon them during a tiger-hunting expedition. The Ajanta Caves became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. The images above show: (top) Bodhisattva Padmapani, from Cave 1 (second phase); (middle) A scene from the Life of the Buddha, showing two kings, from Cave 10 (first phase) (photo by Prasad Pawar); (bottom) Scene from the Mahanipata Jataka: In his palace, King Mahajanaka announces his decision to renounce the worldly life From Cave 1 (second phase). The image below shows an overall view of the Ajanta Caves site.
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100. Arch of Constantine

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 315 CE
Period/Style: Ancient Roman triumphal architecture and late Roman Era sculpture
Medium: Triumphal arch made from marble and brick, with relief sculptures
Dimensions: The arch is 68.9 ft. tall, 84.9 ft. wide and 24.3 ft. deep. There are three archways: the center archway is 37.7 ft. high and 21.3 ft. wide; each of the two lateral archways is 24.3 ft. tall and 11.1 ft. wide.
Current location: Roman Forum, Rome, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (277)
The Arch of Constantine is a triumphal arch built in 315 CE to commemorate the victory of Emperor Constantine over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 CE. The original carving on the arch, particularly the historical frieze along the tops of the lateral archways, shows a decline in artistic skill and technique since the 1st Century CE. Either to associate Constantine with good emperors of the past, or in recognition of their own inadequacy, the artists incorporated medallions with relief sculptures from the reign of Emperor Hadran, dating to 131-138 CE, reworking the faces of the emperor to resemble Constantine. (see two images with details below). The skill of the carving in the medallions provides a telling contrast with the less-skillfully executed friezes below them. A bronze inscription has been lost, but the remaining spaces for the letters allow one to read the Latin statement. The inscription’s statement that Constantine was “inspired by the divine” has been interpreted by some as a politic way of referencing the emperor’s use of Christian symbols at Milvian Bridge.
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Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (279)

101. Relief Sculptures, Temple of Borobudur

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 800-825 CE
Period/Style: Mahayana Buddhism; Sailendra Dynasty; island of Java, Indonesia
Medium: Relief sculptures carved in andesite stone slabs
Dimensions: There are 2,672 bas relief panels (1,460 narrative panels and 1,212 decorative panels) covering nearly 27,000 square feet
Current location: Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia
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Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (281)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (282) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (283)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (284)
Borobudur is a Mahayana Buddhist temple built in the 9th Century CE during the Sailendra Dynasty on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia (see image below for aerial view of the temple). It was abandoned some time after the 11th Century and rediscovered in 1814 during the British occupation of Java. The temple walls contain nearly 27,000 square feet of narrative and decorative bas relief panels. The narrative panels tell the story of Sudhana and Manohara, from the Avatamsaka Sutra, as well as the life of the Buddha, including his past lives. The panels also depict various aspects of daily life in Java and have been useful to historians in learning about the architecture, weaponry, economy, fashion, and modes of transportation of Southeast Asia in the 8th-century CE. The Temple of Borobudur was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. The top image above shows Siddhartha Buddha seeking enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. The last image above shows a merchant ship. I was not able to obtain identification of the other three images. For photos and explanations of the relief panels, go HERE.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (285)

102. Travelers among Mountains and Streams (Travelers By Streams and Mountains)

Artist: Fan Kuan
Date: c. 1000-1020
Period/Style: Song Dynasty, China; monumental landscape painting
Medium: Ink and color on silk scroll
Dimensions: 6.75 ft. tall by 2.5 ft. wide
Current location: National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
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Chinese landscape painter Fan Kuan is best known for the large hanging scroll entitled Travelers Among Mountains and Streams. Little is known about Fan, who spent much of his life as a recluse in the mountains of Shanxi. His love for the mountains and his Neo-Confucian belief that nature is the source of absolute truth are evident in this work. The large scale of the painting gives the viewer a sense of the immensity of nature, which dwarfs the human elements, including men leading a pack of mules out of a wood, and a temple in the forest on the cliff (see detail in image below). Yet Fan also manages to capture the way that all these parts fit together to form a harmonious whole. Scholars have noted a paradox in the style of the Travelers Among Mountains and Streams: on the one hand, it is a seminal work that established an ideal in monumental landscape painting to which others aspired; on the other hand, Fan Kuan’s composition, which relies on a central massive element, and his mechanical brush strokes used for the foliage are archaic techniques that look backward instead of breaking new ground.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (287)

103. Santa Trinita Maestà (Madonna and Child Enthroned with Eight Angels)

Artist: Cimabue (born Cenni di Pepi)
Date: c. 1280-1290
Period/Style: Medieval period; Gothic/Byzantine style with Proto-Renaissance elements; Florence, Italy
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 12.7 ft. tall by 7.3 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (288)Cimabue was a key figure in the transition from Byzantine artistic styles to those of the Renaissance. The altarpiece Cimabue painted for the main altar of the Santa Trinita Church, which shows the Virgin Mary on a throne with the infant Jesus on her lap, surrounded by eight angels. Although the work is considered part of the Byzantine/Gothic tradition, Cimabue takes steps toward a more naturalistic approach that would blossom in the work of his pupil Giotto di Bondone. In the Santa Trinita Maestà, Cimabue retained many characteristics of Byzantine art, including figures that lack volume and solidity, a composition that lacks depth and consistent perspective, an abundance of gold, stylized faces; elongated noses and fingers; and a reliance on line to define shapes. Cimabue is moving beyond the Byzantine tradition, though, in providing the faces with softer expressions and creating a sense of depth through the architecture. The space beneath the throne from which the four prophets peer at us seems to have real dimensions. The Madonna’s right foot, resting on (and extending beyond) the throne’s step possesses a hint of three dimensionality.

104. Coatlicue

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 1400-1500
Period/Style: Aztec culture; Mexico
Medium: Statue carved from andesite
Dimensions: 8.9 ft. tall
Current location: Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, Mexico
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (289) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (290)
During a construction project in colonial Mexico in 1790, workers uncovered a large statue of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, a savage primordial earth goddess and the patron goddess of women in childbirth. Coatlicue plays a crucial role in Aztec mythology: her children include the moon and stars, and the gods Quetzalcoatl (god of wind, air, and learning), Xoloti (god of fire and lightning) and Huitzilopochtli (god of the sun and war). The statue, which was carved in the 15th Century before the arrival of Europeans, depicts a myth in which Coatlicue picked up a ball of feathers that had descended from the sky and tucked it into her skirt, after which the ball miraculously impregnated her. Her children, enraged by this illicit sexual behavior, hatched a plot to kill her; they struck off her head but were surprised when her son Huitzilopichtli emerged from her neck, fully grown and fully armed, to kill his sister and brothers. The statue depicts Coatlicue post-decapitation, with blood gushing from her neck in the form of two serpents. She wears a necklace of severed hands and human hearts, with a large skull pendant, and a skirt made from entangling snakes. After discovering the statue, Spanish colonizers – worried that local people would revive Aztec religious practices that the Spanish had suppressed in favor of Christianity – buried the statue. In 1823, the statue was unearthed and brought to England for an exhibition. Eventually it was returned to Mexico and placed on display.

105. Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece

Artist: Gentile da Fabriano
Date: 1423
Period/Style: Medieval/Early Renaissance period; International Gothic style; Italy
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 10 ft. tall by 9.25 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (291)The often eye-dazzling International Gothic style favored brilliant color and abundant detail over realistic depictions of figures and space. In his Adoration of the Magi altarpiece, Italian painter Gentile da Fabriano brought the International Gothic style to its culmination, just a few years before the Early Renaissance style emerged in the works of Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio. The altarpiece was commissioned by Palla Strozzi, a wealthy Florentine patron of the arts, for a chapel in the Santa Trinita church. (He and his son are depicted among the retinue of the Three Kings.) The ornate frame is crammed full of figures in elaborate 14th Century costumes, rich in scenery and populated by many animals, including exotic specimens like leopards and lions. The backstory of the Magi is told in the three arches: first, they see the star (left), then they go to Jerusalem (center), then to Bethlehem (right), and finally (in the foreground), they present gifts to the baby Jesus. The predella (the supporting panels at the bottom of the main frame) contain three additional scenes: two of them (the nativity scene and the flight into Egypt) include some novel experiments with night lighting and multiple lighting sources (see image below showing Nativity scene).
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106. Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin)

Artist: Jan van Eyck
Date: 1434-1435
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders (now Belgium)
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 2.2 ft. tall by 2 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (293)Flemish artist Jan van Eyck was known for his exquisitely detailed compositions, achieved through his careful eye and mastery of oil painting technique. The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin is a prime example of van Eyck’s skills. The painting was commissioned by Nicolas Rolin, the chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy, for his parish church in Autun, France. In contrast to the Gothic tradition, in which the donor is painted on a smaller scale than the religious figures, Rolin is shown here on the same scale as the Virgin Mary – an indication, perhaps, of the influence of Renaissance Humanism in Northern Europe. The baby Jesus sits on his mother’s leg holding a cross, while an angel holds an elaborate crown over Mary’s head. Outside, there is a wide landscape, with an enclosed garden (symbol of Mary’s virginity), a town (perhaps Autun) and a wider view of mountains (see first image below). The figures at the edge of the garden may be a portrait of van Eyck himself (note the chaperon on his head) and his assistant. As an example of van Eyck’s attention to detail, scholars have identified three scenes from the Book of Genesis “carved” on the columns above Rolin’s head: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise; the Killing of Abel by Cain; and the Drunkenness of Noah (see second image below).
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Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (295)

107. The Tempest

Artist: Giorgione (born Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco)
Date: c. 1506-1508
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Venetian School; Venice, Italy; landscape with figures
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.7 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide
Current location: Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy
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Giorgione was one of a school of Venetian painters who pioneered a High Renaissance style that differed from that of Florence and Rome in its focus on creating form through color instead of drawing. Giorgione, who is only known from about six existing works, created the enigmatic painting known as The Tempest for the Venetian noble Gabriele Vendramin. Considered the most representative of Giorgione’s surviving works, The Tempest has been called the first true landscape painting. There is no scholarly consensus on how to interpret the painting, which was listed in a 1530 catalog as “the little landscape on canvas with a tempest, gypsy woman and a soldier.” The most common theories include: (1) a shepherd or a soldier ignores a Gypsy woman nursing a baby, while a storm brews behind them; (2) after being expelled from Eden by God (represented by the lightning), Adam and Eve stop so that Eve can nurse her son Cain; (3) Joseph, Mary and Jesus rest during their flight into Egypt to escape Herod; (4) Giorgione paints a family portrait of himself, his wife and their child; (5) the goddess Demeter nurses one of the twins she had with Iasion, who stands and looks, unaware that Zeus is preparing to kill him with a thunderbolt; and (6) Paris the shepherd watches as his wife Onenone, the mountain nymph, nurses their son Corythus. Each interpretation has its own meaning for the lightning, the stork/crane on the roof and the broken columns. As one critic pointed out, however, “none of [the interpretations] is totally convincing.” To add to the mystery, X-ray analysis shows that Giorgione had originally painted a nude female in place of the man on the left.

108. The Deposition from the Cross (The Entombment of Christ)

Artist: Jacopo Pontormo (born Jacopo Carucci)
Date: Begun in 1525 and completed in 1528
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Florence, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 10.25 ft. tall by 6.3 ft. wide
Current lcation: Capponi Chapel, Santa Felicità Church, Florence, Italy
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How do you follow Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci? At the end of the High Renaissance, it seemed as if these masters had done everything that could be done in painting and sculpture and done it better than it could be done again. Like so many younger generations, the artists of the Late Renaissance, known to art historians as Mannerists, decided to do something completely different. Instead of creating idealized Classical forms, they elongated the figures, or posed them in impossible positions. They expanded the somewhat subdued High Renaissance color palette and dared to combine hues that seemed to clash. Instead of subjugating their artistic egos to rational humanism and universal mathematics, they tried to outdo one another in outlandish experimentation and technical achievements that would draw attention to the skills of the artist. Jacopo Portormo was a genius of early Mannerism who was drawn to the most experimental aspects of Michelangelo’s work (for example, his twisting Libyan Sibyl from the Sistine Chapel). His masterpiece, set back in a tiny chapel in a dark Florentine church not far from the Ponte Vecchio, depicts either the Deposition of Christ or the Entombment of Christ. The confusion about the title results from the almost complete absence of the traditional iconography. There is no cross, no tomb, no ladder and almost no landscape – only a swirling, dancing mass of figures. At left of center, two young men (or are they angels?) in awkward poses prop up the dead body of Jesus. The green and pink palette is bizarre, as are the figures, which seem flat and weightless, almost Medieval. The overall arrangement is anything but rational and mathematic and there is no real attempt at a sense of perspective or of setting the people in a realistic space. What we do see are the strong emotions of the characters (especially Mary, who has been separated from the body of her son), and a disorienting mass of odd colors and shapes that is charged with emotional energy.

109. Jupiter and Io

Artist: Correggio (born Antonio Allegri da Correggio)
Date: c. 1530-1533
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Parma School; Mantua, Italy; mythological
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 5.4 ft. tall by 2.3 ft. wide
Current location: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
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Correggio was a High Renaissance artist who worked in Parma, a backwater compared to Rome and Florence, so his influence at the time was negligible. But later generations of Baroque and Rococo artists found inspiration in his Rubenesque women and his openly sensual treatment of mythological subjects. Jupiter and Io is Correggio’s voluptuous late Renaissance oil painting illustrating a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which Jupiter, the king of the gods, envelops himself in a smoky gray cloud to seduce Io, a mortal river nymph. Jupiter and Io was one of a series of paintings on the subject of The Loves of Jupiter commissioned by Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. The series of paintings was most likely intended for a private room in the Duke’s palace, but they were given instead to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V during a visit to Mantua. Jupiter and Io, the most highly regarded painting in the series, has a dreamlike sensuality. Jupiter’s face emerges from the cloud to give Io a kiss on the cheek, while Io, her substantial body twisted in the throes of passion, pulls Jupiter’s cloud-engulfed hand closer around her waist. Other paintings in the Loves of Jupiter series include: Ledawith the Swan (1531-1532) (see image below left); Danaë (c. 1531) (see image below right); and Ganymede Abducted by the Eagle (1531-1532) (see image below bottom).

110. The Wedding Feast at Cana (The Wedding at Cana)

Artist: Paolo Veronese (born Paolo Caliari)
Date: 1562-1563
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Venetian School; Venice, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 22 ft. tall by 32.5 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
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Venetian painter Paolo Veronese created The Wedding Feast at Cana in response to a commission from the Benedictine Monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice to paint the Gospel story in which Jesus changed water into wine. Veronese painted the work in the Venetian style but with elements of the Mannerism of the late Renaissance, Veronese combines ancient and contemporary details; some of the 130 guests are intended to represent current religious and political figures such as King Francis of France, Queen Mary of England, Emperor Charles V and Ottoman leader Suleiman the Magnificent (see detail below left). Presumably because the Benedictine monks took a vow of silence, no one in the painting is speaking. The only guest looking directly at the viewer is Jesus, who sits at the center (see detail below right). The painting hung in Venice from 1563 to 1797, when Napoleon looted it and brought it to Paris; it is now at the Louvre, where it holds the distinction of being the largest painting in the collection. The Louvre began restoring the painting in 1989, but two mishaps occurred in 1992 – a leaking air vent spattered the canvas with water, and then a support collapsed and the metal framework tore five holes in the canvas. The damage has since been repaired. Many visitors to the Louvre overlook the painting because it shares a room with a more famous neighbor, the Mona Lisa.

111. The Milkmaid

Artist: Johannes Vermeer
Date: Painted between 1657 and 1661, with most sources narrowing the date to 1657-1658.
Period/Style: Baroque; Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands; genre painting
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 18 inches tall by 16 inches wide
Current location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (305)
Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes (Jan) Vermeer rejected the dramatic light/dark compositions of Baroque masters like Rembrandt and Caravaggio, choosing instead to celebrate the effects of light in a different way. His detailed paintings, with their myriad textures and lovingly-rendered objects and surfaces, harken back in some ways to the Early Netherlandish style of Jan van Eyck and others. But Vermeer has added new elements: his tiny white dots (pointilles) emphasize the way light punctuates uneven surfaces; his palette of yellows and blues (the latter using expensive lapis lazuli pigment) are unique in this period; also, he varies his brush strokes to highlight differences in textures – the rough leather of the maid’s upper garment is painted very differently than the silky blue wrap beneath. Despite the title, Johannes Vermeer’s small painting known as The Milkmaid portrays not a milkmaid but a kitchen maid, who is pouring milk while making bread pudding from leftover bread (the saying “waste not, want not” comes to mind). Vermeer establishes a pyramidal composition, with two diagonals that meet at the maid’s right wrist. The light streaming from the window (note the broken pane) leads the eye from the objects hanging on the wall (see detail below left) down to the maid’s face – half hidden in shadow, we wonder what she is thinking about – and then down to the pouring milk. The overall tone is one of respect for the dignity of hard work and other domestic values. In this respect, Vermeer’s Milkmaid differs from the typical Dutch genre stereotype of female domestic workers as objects of male sexual fantasies. There are some elements that may pay tribute to this notion, although they are subjugated to the main theme: there is a Cupid barely visible on one of the baseboard tiles (see detail below right), the rolling up of the maid’s sleeve to reveal whiter skin could have been titillating to some; the shape of the milk jug could echo female anatomy, and the footwarmer on the floor (which held coals to warm the worker in a cold room) was sometimes given sexual meaning. On the other hand, these same symbols, and the tile showing a man with a stick on a journey, could imply that the maid is thinking about a romance with someone far away. The high level of detail has led some scholars to speculate that Vermeer used a camera obscura to trace the scene before painting it, but the recent discovery of a pinhole in the canvas, which could have been used to anchor a string to determine perspective lines, argues against this theory.
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112. The Jewish Bride

Artist: Rembrandt
Date: 1667
Period/Style: Baroque; Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands; portraits/religious
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4 ft. tall by 5.5 ft. wide
Current location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
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Late in his career, Rembrandt’s style changed significantly. His palette became warmer, with more use of reds; he often laid his paint on the canvas in thick, impasto layers, using a knife instead of a brush; his backgrounds became more perfunctory; and, most importantly perhaps, his paintings acquired a deeper emotional intensity than was evident in his early work. The painting known as The Jewish Bride exhibits all these late-Rembrandt qualities. Like The Night Watch, the title is a misnomer. Apparently a 19th Century cataloguer decided this was a portrait of a man and his daughter on her wedding day, but that interpretation has almost no support among scholars. Instead, most believe that this is a portrait historié, a genre in which individuals had their portraits painted while dressed up as characters from history, mythology, or – in this case – the Bible. The Rijksmuseum curators have solved the name problem by labeling the work “Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca, known as ‘The Jewish Bride’.” The story of Isaac and Rebekah is one of the most romantic in the Old Testament. A husband and wife pretend to be brother and sister to escape danger, but are discovered having an intimate moment by the king. Fortunately for them, the king recognizes their true love and rewards them instead of punishing them. Earlier in his career, Rembrandt had drawn a sketch of the Biblical scene in which the couple is discovered in an embrace – the poses in that sketch are nearly identical to those in The Jewish Bride. As art historians have pointed out, it is the couple’s hands, not their faces, that show their romantic attachment. The faces show detachment, even worry, but the gentle placement of the couple’s hands on each other tells us volumes about the loving kindness they feel towards one another. Rembrandt focuses all our attention on the man and his wife – the background is negligible, and he has omitted the element of the observing king entirely. What remains is a tender portrait of mature romantic love.

113. The Art of Painting (The Allegory of Painting; The Artist in His Studio)

Artist: Johannes Vermeer
Date: 1670
Period/Style: Baroque; Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands; allegory/self-portrait (?)
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 3.3 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide
Current location: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (309)
In The Art of Painting, the artist Johannes Vermeer allows the viewer a privileged look at the process of making art and in so doing, seeks to elevate the status of art and the artists who make it. A colorful tapestry curtain (a framing device known as a repoussoir) is drawn back to reveal the creative act in progress. An unusually well-dressed artist (probably a Vermeer self-portrait), appears to be painting his model as Clio, the Muse of History. A highly detailed depiction of Claes Janszoon Visscher’s 1636 map of The Netherlands hangs on the back wall (see detail in image below). The light enters the room from the back left and illuminates portions of the room, highlighting certain details and creating shadows elsewhere. The square tiled floor allows Vermeer to demonstrate his control of linear perspective. The painting held a special place in Vermeer’s heart – he never sold it, even when he was in debt – but his family lost control of it after Vermeer’s death in 1675. In 1813, it was purchased for 50 florins by Bohemian-Austrian Count Czernin, whose descendant Count Jaromir Czernin sold it (possibly unwillingly) to Adolf Hitler in 1940 for 1.65 million Reichsmarks. During World War II, the Nazis protected the painting from Allied bombs in a salt mine. The Americans retrieved it in 1945 and gave it to the Austrian government. The Czernin family has sought the return of the painting since the 1960s, without success.
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114. Portrait of Louis XIV

Artist: Hyacinthe Rigaud
Date: 1701
Period/Style: Baroque; France; royal portrait
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 9.2 ft. tall by 6.25 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
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When French noble Philip, Duke of Anjou, became king of Spain during a successional crisis, he asked his grandfather, French king Louis XIV for a portrait to bring with him to Madrid. Philip recommended French artist Hyacinthe Riguad to paint the portrait. Rigaud, who painted four generations of Bourbon monarchs, their family, friends and officials (as well as a few less prestigious subjects) knew how to present royalty in the best light. The 63-year-old Louis XIV was short of stature and suffering from gout, but you could never tell from Rigaud’s larger-than-life portrait, painted in 1701. Although the Sun King was somewhat past his prime in 1701, Rigaud’s portrait shows a confident king at the height of his powers. To emphasize his royal power, Louis wears his coronation robes (adorned with the fleur-de-lys, symbol of the House of Bourbon) and carries the scepter (upside down) from his grandfather Henry IV, with his crown nearby. He pulls back his robes to reveal the Sword of Charlemagne, which was used in coronation ceremonies. Louis XIV, who had strong opinions on fashion, wears an immense wig, red high-heeled shoes (with diamond buckles) and silk stockings with garters. The painter’s loving emphasis on the monarch’s legs is intentional: Louis XIV danced in many court ballets as a young man and prided himself on both his dancing ability and his dancer’s legs. Note how Rigaud was careful to drape the large column in the rear in such a way that it does not appear taller than the king, who dominates the composition. The Portrait of Louis XIV was so popular that, after delivering the original, the king asked Rigaud for a copy to keep at his palace in Versailles. Legend has it that when the king was away, the portrait was hung above his throne as a substitute, and those who entered the throne room were prohibited from turning their back on it.

115. Marriage à-la-mode

Artist: William Hogarth
Date: 1743-1745
Period/Style: Rococo; England
Medium: The six original paintings were made with oil paints on canvas. The prints are made from copper engravings.
Dimensions: Each painting measures 2.3 ft. tall by 2.9 ft. wide. The paper prints measure approximately 15.5 inches tall by 19 inches wide.
Current location: The original paintings are in the National Gallery, London, England, UK. The prints may be found in various collections.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (312)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (313)Marriage à-la-mode is a series of six satirical paintings by 18th Century English artist William Hogarth that the artist used as the basis for making engraved copper plates and ultimately paper prints. The series satirizes the upper classes, particularly marriages arranged between the bankrupt old guard seeking funds (symbolized by the Earl of Squanderfield) and the nouveau riche, seeking status (symbolized by the miserly merchant). The chapters of the story are: 1. The Marriage Settlement: The Earl, whose building project is bankrupt, arranges for his dissolute (and syphilitic) son to marry the daughter of the wealthy merchant (see painting in top image above). 2. The Tête à Tête: A morning scene after some months of marriage makes it clear that both members of the couple have been unfaithful (see painting in second image above). 3. The Inspection: The husband and his ‘girlfriend’ receive bad news at the physician’s office regarding their venereal diseases. 4. The Toilette: The Earl having died, the son ascends, but is also clearly a cuckold thanks to Silvertongue, the lawyer who arranged the marriage. 5. The Bagnio: The son walks in on the Countess and her lover and is killed (see print in image below). 6. The Lady’s Death: The lover is hanged for murder, and the Countess commits suicide. Each frame contains many symbolic and allegorical details that support the theme of the painting and add to the satirical impact.
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116. The Nightmare

Artist: Henry Fuseli
Date: 1781
Period/Style: Romanticism; Switzerland/Great Britain
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 3.3 ft. tall by 4.2 ft. wide
Current location: The original is at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan. A 1791 version is at Goethe House in Frankfurt, Germany
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (315)Visitors to Sigmund Freud’s office in Vienna would have noticed a print on his wall of a sleeping woman with a gruesome incubus sitting on her chest and a horse peering through a set of curtains. The engraving was based on Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting The Nightmare. Born in Switzerland and trained as a minister, Fuseli decided on art instead, and he moved to London in 1779 to pursue painting. Ever since Fuseli exhibited the The Nightmare at the Royal Academy in 1782, viewers have been fascinated and disturbed, while critics and scholars have offered multiple interpretations. At the most simple level, we see a woman sleeping, throat exposed and vulnerable, in a position commonly believed at the time to produce nightmares. Two of the elements of her nightmare are visible: the creature sitting on top of her and the horse with devilish white eyes. The whites and golds of the woman’s body and clothing shimmer brightly against the much darker, shadowy room and figures surrounding her, thanks to Fuseli’s expert use of the chiaroscuro technique and a Gothic-Romantic style. Viewers then and now sense a smoldering sexuality pervading The Nightmare. Some have suggested that the incubus is Fuseli and the woman his unrequited love, Anna Landholdt. Others say it speaks generally to sublimated sexual instincts. Some even interpret the horse piercing through the curtains as a phallic symbol. The incubus gazes directly at us, perhaps seeking our conscious complicity in some heinous act. The painting was Fuseli’s most renowned. Prints from a 1783 engraving of the work by Thomas Burke were very popular with the public, including Dr. Freud (see image of print, below left). Fuseli himself painted a number of versions, with variations. The 1791 version, now at Goethe House in Frankfurt, includes a sexually suggestive statue of a man and a woman on the night table (see image below right).
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117. The Hay Wain

Artist: John Constable
Date: 1821
Style/Period: Romanticism; UK; landscape
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.3 ft. tall by 6.1 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
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When British painter John Constable presented his large Landscape: Noon at the 1821 Royal Academy summer exhibition, it failed to find a buyer and the English public were only mildly impressed. Constable, who grew up in the Suffolk countryside and had detailed personal knowledge of the English landscape and the implements of agriculture, painted with a realism and emotion that apparently offended those who preferred the idealized landscapes of Claude Lorrain and his school. He had the nerve to make a six-foot wide painting with no mythological, historical or religious figures – just ordinary farmers! “The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth,” Constable once said. But French artist Théodore Géricault attended the 1821 exhibition and came away with the understanding that Constable was revolutionizing landscape painting with his dedication to realism and his fresh handling of color, texture, and light. (Constable’s study of the new science of meteorology is reflected in his skyscapes.) Three years later, Constable exhibited the same painting, renamed The Hay Wain, at the 1824 Paris Salon, where Delacroix saw it. Here in France, the work’s true beauty was recognized, and Charles X awarded The Hay Wain the exhibition’s Gold Medal. (Seeing Constable’s work in Paris also inspired the landscape painters who would become known as the Barbizon School.) In the painting, Constable depicts a large farm cart, or hay wain, crossing the River Stour, which forms the border between Suffolk and Essex counties (what is now called “Constable country”). The farmer may be stopping in the river to allow the water to cool the wheel rims, which would shrink under the hot sun. The painting style is rough – brush strokes are visible – but the elements of the composition, although they appear to show an actual scene, have been manipulated for the best effect. Although on the one hand, Constable is presenting a picturesque scene of his beloved English countryside, there are other themes: the effect of the Industrial Revolution on the agrarian lifestyle; finding one’s purpose through working with the land; the idea of England as an earthly paradise. Constable was keenly aware that those who viewed the painting in bustling London had less and less contact with this agrarian lifestyle. As was his practice, Constable made a full-sized oil sketch of the scene on site (the sketch, shown in the image below – is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London), and then returned to his London studio to paint the final work. Random Trivia: The farmer’s cottage at left still stands, although most of the trees are gone, and the spot is now a tourist attraction.
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118. The Death of Sardanapalus

Artist: Eugène Delacroix (full name: Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix)
Date: 1827
Period/Style: Romanticism; France; history painting
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 12.1 ft. tall by 16.2 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
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In Lord Byron’s 1821 play Sardanapalus, the last king of the ancient Assyrian Empire was at war with the Medes when he realized that he was facing imminent military defeat. To avoid the humiliation of capture or death at the hands of his foe, Sardanapalus decided to commit suicide by immolation. First, however, he ordered the destruction of all his worldly possessions, including the murder of his many slaves and concubines. French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus depicts the chaotic scene in Sardanapalus’s lush private chambers as his orders are carried out. While the canvas is full of activity, two of the concubines stand out: one, in the lower right, is being stabbed in the chest by a bearded man in a turban; another, almost in the center, splays her nude upper body on the king’s bed in a last desperate plea for mercy. One man has a self-inflicted sword wound; another is attempting to kill a bejeweled horse. Sardanapalus, reclining near the top of the canvas in shadow, is nonplussed, his mind made up – he only watches and waits for his turn. Delacroix’s large canvas is a Romantic feast for the eyes. Full of bold, vivid colors (particularly red), exotic clothing and decoration (including the elephant heads at the foot of the bed), the painting is essentially tragic. To ensure the emotional reaction he seeks, Delacroix deliberately disorients the viewer: the only visible architecture is the wall on the right – there are no floors or ceilings to anchor us in a solid space. The composition, while carefully organized, has no clear symmetry and seems to pull in many directions at once; the lines of perspective too, are difficult to discern. Visible brushstrokes emphasize a sense of movement. The unsettling feeling induced in the viewer by the subject matter and the technique contrasts strongly with the numb, silent, motionless and emotionless figure who set all this chaos in motion, Sardanapalus. At first glance, The Death of Sardanapalus appears to depict the death of everyone but the titular king. But maybe Delacroix’s title is telling us that, in a way, Sardanapalus is already dead.

119. Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: Painted between 1872 and 1877. Most sources date it to 1875.
Period/Style: Tonalism; US/UK
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 23.7 in. tall by 18.3 in. wide
Current location: Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan
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An American artist living in London, James McNeill Whistler believed in “art for art’s sake” – the notion that true art should stand on its own, apart from any moral, didactic, political or utilitarian purpose. Whistler went even further, rejecting the idea that narrative was integral to works of art; instead, he believed the purpose of art was not to represent physical reality but to use visual phenomena as the inspiration for artistic arrangements that plumbed deeper truths and evoked personal emotional reactions. He ridiculed the notion of representational painting in the era of photography, saying, “If the man who paints only the tree, or flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer. It is for the artist to do something beyond this.” His series of night paintings, or Nocturnes, sought to capture the sense of space and the void that arises in the darkness. Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket was inspired by a fireworks display at Cremorne Gardens in London. Yellow dots and flashes, billowing smoke, water and land, and vague figures all coalesce into an almost abstract impression of a moment that anticipates many of the innovations of modernism, although the first truly abstract paintings would not arrive for nearly 40 years. The palette is restricted, dominated by greens and blues, with spots of yellow for the fireworks. Not all appreciated Whistler’s sense of the void, however. Respected London art critic John Ruskin wrote that, with his Nocturne, Whistler was “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Ruskin’s opinions tarnished both Whistler’s reputation and the value of his works, so Whistler sued for libel. He eventually won, but received only a token farthing as damages, and the damage had already been done. The loss of reputation and court costs eventually forced him to declare bankruptcy. Whistler recovered from the episode and his reputation rose again in later years. He got his revenge against Ruskin (and anyone else who had crossed him) in his scathing 1890 memoir The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.

120. Water Lilies

Artist: Claude Monet
Date: 1905
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.9 ft. tall by 3.3 ft wide
Current location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
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Beginning in the late 1890s, Monet’s water lily pond and surrounding garden at his home in Giverny became the subject of an increasingly large proportion of his paintings. He began with somewhat standard Impressionist renderings of sky, foliage, and water, but as time went on, he began to restrict his subject matter, one by one abandoning the rules of conventional landscape painting. First, he eliminated the sky (see the Japanese bridge paintings from 1899, for example). Then, some time after the turn of the century, he eliminated the land and began to focus exclusively on the reflective surface of the water. There is no horizon line to anchor the viewer to a universe outside this patch of water. Instead, the artist asks us to explore the interplay of the real and the reflected. Although we are accustomed to seeing these paintings, it is important to recognize how radical was Monet’s decision to eliminate sky, land, and horizon line. In some ways, what Monet is doing is similar to what Picasso and the Cubists would do a few years later: challenging the illusion of three-dimensionality, choosing instead to paint a two-dimensional subject (the surface of a pond) on the two-dimensional canvas. In 1909, Monet exhibited 48 of these paintings of the water lily pond’s surface, with its lily pads, lilies, and reflections of the unseen sky, clouds and trees, in Paris, including the 1905 painting now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which is one of the earliest examples of Monet’s new perspective. As time went on (and he developed cataracts), Monet’s visions of the water lily pond would become more and more abstract.

121. Bird in Space

Artist: Constantin Brâncuși
Date: 1923
Period/Style: Modernism; Abstract Art; Romania/France
Medium: Sculptures made from white marble, black marble, or bronze
Dimensions: The sculptures range in size from 4.5 ft. tall to 6 ft. tall
Current locations: Various collections, including: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (1923, white marble); Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA (1923, white marble; 1924, bronze), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA (1925-1926, bronze; 1927, bronze); Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington (1926, bronze); Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (1928, bronze; 1941, bronze); Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena, CA (1931, bronze); National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (c, 1931-1936, white marble and black marble).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (323) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (324)
In 1926, Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși shipped a sculpture entitled Bird in Space to the United States. When it arrived at customs, officials refused to categorize it as a sculpture because to them it did not resemble anything, certainly not a bird. This meant it was subject to a 40% import levy (from which artworks were exempt). Brâncuși sued and won, after a federal judge conceded the existence of a “so-called new school of art, whose exponents attempt to portray abstract ideas rather than imitate natural objects.” Brâncuși’s Bird in Space series of sculptures was his third and most abstract attempt to capture the essence of a bird in flight. First came the Maiastra sculptures of 1910 through 1918), then the Golden Bird of 1919. By 1923, he had eliminated almost all the attributes of a bird – wings, beak, claws, feathers – leaving only a representation of the bird’s movement, of the concept of flight itself. Brâncuși said that Bird in Space reduced reality to the essential, but critics have noted that achieving the grace and balance to transform a piece of marble or bronze into a soaring abstracted concept of a bird requires both skill and inspiration. Ironically, Brâncuși was among the most hands-on of sculptors – he rarely allowed assistants or machines to do what he could do by hand, yet his painstaking approach resulted in surfaces (whether marble or bronze) that look machine-made. His human hands worked to erase the evidence of the human work his hands had done. The original Bird in Space was made from white marble in 1923. After that, Brâncuși made six more marble sculptures and cast nine bronze versions, which can be found in museums and collections around the world. The images above show a white marble version from 1923 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a 1928 bronze version at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

122. Campbell’s Soup Cans

Artist: Andy Warhol
Date: 1962
Period/Style: Pop Art; US
Medium: Synthetic polymer paint on 32 separate canvases
Dimensions: Each of the 32 prints is 20 in. tall by 16 in. wide
Current location: Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
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It was 1961 and American pop artist Andy Warhol was looking for a subject for his next series of artworks. He wanted to get away from his comic book series (featuring Popeye, among others) as it was too similar to the work being done by Roy Lichtenstein. A friend suggested that Warhol paint “something you see every day, like a Campbell’s Soup can.” Warhol, a big fan of Campbell’s soup, thought it was a great idea. He went to a supermarket, bought one can of every one of the 32 varieties of Campbell’s Soup then on the market, and began painting them. He projected the images onto a canvas and painted what he saw, stenciling the lettering, with some alterations (he simplified the design for the gold medallion, for example). For the row of fleur-de-lis at the bottom, he created a rubber stamp, and stamped the image on the canvas. The results shocked the art world, while at the same time establishing Warhol as a leader in the Pop Art movement. Warhol’s celebration of the lowly can of soup challenged the notion that only certain things – of the sort approved by elitist traditions – were the proper subjects for art. For Warhol, a mass marketed consumer good was as worthy a subject as a still life, a landscape or a portrait. Presented together, the 32 canvases were also a challenge to abstract expressionism. Warhol’s careful renderings of the soup cans and their labels obliterated the notion of personal expression and negated the notion of authorship. For all that one could tell, these might be products made by an unthinking machine. The mechanized process and the sameness of the results blurred the distinction between art and commerce. If someone could reproduce a commercial product’s label and sell it as their own, then what was the role of originality, creativity and technical skill in making art? Warhol’s work brought all those assumptions into question, and the questions he and other Pop artists raised in the early 1960s still generate controversy today. When they were first exhibited in a Los Angeles art gallery in July 1962, the 32 canvases were displayed along a narrow shelf, one by one. (A snarky rival art gallery nearby put actual soup cans on display and advertised them as cheaper than Warhol’s.) Five of the paintings were sold, one to a young actor named Dennis Hopper. But fortunately for art history, the gallery owner recognized that this was a set that should be kept together, and he bought back the five canvases that had sold, then purchased the entire set for $3000. When the Museum of Modern Art obtained the artwork, it first displayed them in a box shape, arranged in the order that the varieties had been first issued. (Tomato soup was the first, issued in 1897.) Warhol returned to the soup can theme many times over the years, usually making silkscreen prints (his preferred method from late 1962 onward). The subsequent soup can prints include a number of variations; some use unrealistic color schemes, others show torn labels or crushed cans. Although Warhol staunchly refused any commercial tie-in for his soup cans while alive, in 2012, Campbell’s Soup, in collaboration with the Andy Warhol Foundation, created a limited edition set of Andy Warhol commemorative soup cans. And a quick search online reveals a number of actual soup cans signed by Andy Warhol up for sale.

On 8 lists

123. Khafre Enthroned (Statue of King Chephren)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 2570-2550 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Egyptian: Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom
Medium: Life-sized statue carved in the round from diorite gneiss
Dimensions: 5.5 ft tall, 3.1 ft deep and 1.9 ft wide
Current location: Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo, Egypt
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (326)
The fourth Egyptian Pharaoh of the Old Kingdom’s Fourth Dynasty, who built the second pyramid at Giza, is known by many names, including Khafra, Khafre, Khefren and Chephren. Little is known about him except that Egypt was peaceful, prosperous and united during his reign. Some believe the face on the Great Sphinx belongs to Khafre. The life-size diorite gneiss Khafre Enthroned was designed as a vessel for the pharaoh’s ka (soul) after death. The statue, which is carved in the round, is not a portrait but a timeless ideal of an ageless, perfect, man-turned-god. Protecting Khafre’s head from behind is Horus the hawk-god (see detail in image below). Khafre wears the nemes headdress and the uraeus (symbol of the cobra-god) on his forehead. His throne is made of two stylized lions and engraved on it are the symbols of a united Egypt: lotus plants (for Upper Egypt) and papyrus plants (for Lower Egypt). The dark stone used to carve the statue came from quarries 400 miles away – proof of Khafre’s power, influence and ability to coordinate the work of hundreds.

124. Victory Stele of Naram-Sin

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 2350-2200 BCE
Period/Style: Akkadian empire; Iraq
Medium: Relief sculpture carved into pink sandstone
Dimensions: 6.6 ft. tall
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
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The grandson of Sargon of Akkad, Naram-Sin led the mighty Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia at its height, c. 2254-2218 BCE. TheVictory Stele of Naram-Sin commemorates Naram-Sin’s defeat of the Lullibi, a tribe in the Zagros Mountains. Naram-Sin towers over his enemies (including one who is attempting to remove a spear from his neck) and his own troops and wears the horned helmet of a deity. The story is told in successive diagonal narrative lines, an innovation over the boxed stories that were then standard. During a raid in the 12th Century BCE, the Elamites stole the stele from Mesopotamia, breaking off a portion in the process, and brought it to their capital city of Susa, in what is now Iran, where it was discovered in 1898.
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125. Relief Sculptures, Persepolis

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 518-465 BCE
Period/Style: Achaemenid Empire, Persia (now Iran)
Medium: Bas reliefs carved in gray limestone
Dimensions: Hundreds of feet of carvings
Current location: Many of the reliefs are located at the original site of the city of Persepolis near Shiraz in Fars Province, Iran. Fragments are located in various collections.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (330)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (331)
Persepolis was the capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire from about 515-330 BCE. Cyrus the Great selected the site of the city, but Darius I began construction of many of the city’s buildings, some of which were completed during the reign of Darius’s son, Xerxes the Great. In the center of the city is a large stone terrace with staircases leading to the top, on which several buildings were located. At the center of the terrace, on an elevated platform, stood the Apadana Palace, an immense audience hall, with 72 columns with sculpted capitals and two monumental staircases. Throughout the city, relief sculptures are carved into the limestone, particularly along the various staircases. The stairs to Apadana Palace depict a ceremonial procession of vassal states bringing culturally-appropriate gifts to the king. Despite the efforts of Darius, Xerxes and his son Artaxerxes, the glory of Persepolis was short-lived. In 330 BCE, Alexander the Great invaded the city and looted it, after which he burned it down. The images above show: (1) Darius I receiving tribute, a relief from the Treasury Building, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Tehran; (2) relief on the Apadana stairs showing the earth (shown as a bull) fighting with the sun (shown as a lion) on Nowruz, the vernal equinox when, according to the Zoroastrian religion, the powers of the lion and bull are equal. The image below, from the Apadana staircase, shows three registers of processing guards, staff-bearers, and dignitaries.
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126. Artemision Bronze (Zeus/Poseidon of Artemision)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 460 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: Early Classical Period; Severe style
Medium: Bronze sculpture (the figure’s eyes, eyebrows, lips and nipples would likely have been filled with various materials (bone, silver, copper, etc.)
Dimensions: 6.9 ft. tall
Current location: National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece

Archaeologists have discovered very few Classical Greek sculptures because most of the statues from that period were made of bronze, which was a valuable commodity that nearly every bronze statue was later melted down for reuse. The bronze statue known as the Artemision Bronze survived because it was lying at the bottom of the Aegean Sea, where it was found in 1926 at the site of an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Cape Artemision in Greece. The figure represents either Zeus about to fling a lightning bolt or Poseidon about to pitch his trident. Most scholars favor the Zeus interpretation based on the angle of the arms and the concern that a trident would obscure the god’s face. The lightning bolt/trident was never found. Scholars praise the work for the sense of strength, balance and movement and the close attention to the anatomy of the nude male body. To emphasize the sense of imminent movement, the unknown sculptor has made the arms longer than they would be if anatomically correct. The figure’s head has become a Greek cultural symbol, featuring on a postage stamp and bank note.

127. Relief Sculptures, Ara Pacis Augustae

Artist: Unknown
Date: 13-9 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Roman
Medium: Relief sculptures and friezes carved in Luna marble decorating an altar
Dimensions: The reliefs cover most of the four exterior walls of the altar, which is 15.1 ft. tall, 34.8 ft. wide, and 38 ft. long.
Current location: The Ara Pacis Augustae is located in Rome, Italy near the banks of the Tiber. It is housed in a new museum designed by architect Richard Meier that opened in 2006.
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Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (336)The Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Augustan Peace, was commissioned by the Roman Senate in 13 CE to commemorate the return of Emperor Augustus from military victories in Hispania and Gaul. The altar is dedicated to the goddess Peace, and sends a message that Augustus has brought a Golden Age of peace, prosperity and abundance, with a subsidiary message that the Emperor is pious and supports the state religion. Two tiers of relief sculpture friezes adorn each side of the outer precinct walls. The lower portion of the friezes on all four sides consists of spiraling vegetation in coherent patterns, along with frogs, lizards, birds and other wildlife, to show harmony in nature. The upper panels on the front and back (east and west) walls consist of allegorical or mythological scenes of peace and abundance, including a panel on the east wall interpreted as a goddess (possibly Peace, Italia, Tellus, or Venus) with twins amid a scene of fertility and prosperity (see second image above). The upper friezes on the north and south walls consist of a procession of figures, possibly representing the event dedicating the altar itself. The figures in the procession are not idealized but are individual portraits of Augustus and his family (see image below showing members of the imperial family), members of the Senate and members of the priestly colleges. There are non-Romans depicted, and also children, which was unusual in Roman art.
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128. Moche Portrait Vessels

Artists: Unknown
Date: 100-800 CE
Period/Style: Moche Culture, Peru
Medium: Painted ceramic vessels
Dimensions: The vessels range in size from 2 inches to 18 inches tall, with most ranging from 6-12 inches tall.
Current locations: Various collections.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (338)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (339)
The Moche culture that flourished in present-day Peru between 100-800 CE produced ceramic vessels carved into individualized and naturalistic three-dimensional representations of human faces. Close to 1000 vessels have been discovered, representing nine basic mold types. The vast majority of the portraits are of adult men; the artists have achieved a considerable level of realism, and the portraits occasionally reveal physical defects such as harelips, missing eyes, or in one case, an apparent paralysis. Many of the portrait vessels contain stirrup spouts, a feature of ceramic vessels in a number of Pre-Columbian cultures. The typical portrait vessel is painted with red on a pale cream background, but some are painted with white over a red and black background. The purpose of these elaborately decorated vessels is a subject of debate. While some experts believe they were designed to be placed in tombs, there is evidence that they were used in everyday life to hold liquids. The portrait vessels shown in the images are:
(1) (top left) Portrait of a Ruler wearing headgear with two birds, Museo Nacional Antropologia in Lima, Peru;;
(2) (top right) Portrait Vessel measuring 8.3 in. tall, 6.5 in. wide and 5.5 in. deep, c. 50-800 CE, at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland;
(3) (bottom left) Portrait Vessel, showing earflares, c. 100-500 CE, Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts; and
(4) (bottom right) Portrait Vessel of a Ruler, c. 100 BCE-500 CE, Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois.
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129. Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus (Great Ludovisi Sarcophagus)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 250-260 CE
Period/Style: Late Roman Empire; “Anti-Classical” style
Medium: Relief sculptures carved in Proconnesian marble on the front of a sarcophagus
Dimensions: The sarcophagus is 5.1 ft. tall, 8.9 ft. wide, and 4.5 ft. deep.
Current location: Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (342)
The Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus is a Roman burial container made of Proconnesian marble with a remarkable set of relief sculptures carved into the front panel. A scene of Romans battling Goths is sculpted in very high relief, with overlapping figures and many elements completely free of the background surface. The sarcophagus was discovered in 1621 and takes its name from its first modern owner, Ludovico Ludovisi. Carved at a time when the Roman Empire was in crisis, the design and details are considered anti-classical, with highly expressive facial expressions and postures (especially among the defeated barbarians), and a sense of chaos and disorder in contrast to the rational stoic clarity of the Classical style. Note the lack of any background – all the figures are crammed into a frontal plane with no regard for position in three-dimensional space. Details include: a central Roman soldier whose forehead is marked by an X (possibly indicating initiation into a Mithraic cult) (top center); a cornicen, a soldier who communicated military signals by blowing a horn (top right); and a barbarian being pierced by a lance (bottom left).

130. Animal Head Post, Oseberg Viking Ship Burial

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 815-825 CE
Period/Style: Viking Age Art/Norse Art; Oseberg Style; Norway
Medium: Carved maple wood
Dimensions: approximately 20 in. tall; the head is 5 in. tall
Current location: Viking Ship Museum, University of Oslo, Bygdoy, Norway
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (343) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (344)In 1904, archaeologists discovered an intact Viking burial ship under a mound of earth in Oseberg, Norway. The ship, which dates to the early 9th Century, contained two women’s bodies and a significant number of grave objects. Among the objects were five wooden posts carved into the heads of animals, which appear to have been carved by different artists. They have slots for handles indicating they were carried and may have had some magical or religious significance, although there is no consensus about the purpose of the objects. The most highly-regarded of the posts, known as the “Academiciian’s head-post” bears the head of a roaring animal (perhaps a lion) with protruding eyes, while the intricate carving shows tightly interwoven animals in an interlacing serpentine pattern (see images above). According to art historian Andrea Snow: “The Oseberg style shows a strong interplay between zoomorphic and geometric patterns that continues artistic traditions predating the Viking Age. These schematic figures are situated within fields that divide surfaces into clear segments and emphasize the balance and organization of images.”

131. Ebbo Gospels

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 816-835 CE
Period/Style: Carolingian (“shivering style”); France
Medium: Illustrated manuscript
Dimensions: The book is 10 in. tall by 8 in. wide
Current location: Bibliothèque Municipale, Épernay, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (345)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (346)The Ebbo Gospels is an illuminated manuscript produced at the Benedictine abbey at Hautvillers, France in the 9th Century; it takes its name from a poem to Ebbo, the Archbishop of Rheims, that is printed in the manuscript. The book contains a number of illuminated pages, including portraits of the Evangelists. The unknown artist has drawn the figures in an energetic style (sometimes called the shivering style) in agitated poses, which generates a level of emotion new to Carolingian art. As a result of these innovations, the Ebbo Gospels became very influential. The figure of St. Matthew, in particular, is considered a masterpiece (see image above left). He writes with one hand while the other holds an ink horn; a tiny angel hovers in the upper right corner. (See also the portrait of St. Mark, above right.) The pinks and greens of the portrait are new colors for Carolingian art. The figures and landscapes are influenced by the Late Classical style, which may have come to France from Greek artists fleeing Byzantine iconoclasm, but the frenzied energy and emotion are new.

132. Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 950-1200 CE
Period/Style: Tamil culture; Chola Dynasty; India
Medium: Bronze sculptures
Dimensions: The sculptures range in size from c. 24 in. tall to 5 ft. tall.
Current locations: Various collections.
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Images of the Hindu god Shiva dancing are found in India as early as 5th Century CE, but it was during the Chola Dynasty (c. 860-1279 CE) in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home to the Tamil people, that the classical iconography developed. Ancient Sanskrit writings tell the story of Shiva dancing as Nataraja in Chidambaram, the golden hall in the center of the universe, for the other gods. In his dance, Shiva shows with movements his power to create and destroy: (1) in his lower right hand he holds the damaru, a drum whose vibrations created the world; (2) in his upper right hand, he makes the abhaya gesture, which protects, preserves and removes fear; (3) his upper left hand holds the fire of destruction, or agni; (4) his right foot tramples apasmara purusha, the personification of illusion; and (5) he lifts his left leg and points to it with the gaja hasta gesture, to show it is a refuge for troubled souls. Surrounding the dancing Shiva is a flaming halo. The Shiva Nataraja iconography was propagated through many bronze statues produced during the Chola Dynasty; all share certain basic features, but may differ in small ways. They make up part of the large production of Hindu religious statuary known as Chola Bronzes. Many such icons are located in temples and museums throughout the world. Most were made small enough for individual worshippers to carry. The largest Chola bronze, dating from 1100-1200, is located at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and measures 5 ft. tall by 3.75 ft. wide (see image above). More typical in size is Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a Chola bronze statue from the 11th Century, measuring 26.9 in. tall by 22.2 in. wide (see image below left). One variation to the basic design is a non-circular halo that tapers at the base, as in the Shiva Nataraja in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a Chola Dynasty bronze dating from 950-1000 CE and measuring 30 in. tall by 22.5 in. wide (see image below right).

133. Capitoline Wolf (Capitoline She-Wolf)

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 1100-1300 (wolf); c. 1450-1470 (Romulus and Remus)
Period/Style: Medieval (wolf); Renaissance (Romulus and Remus); Italy
Medium: Bronze sculptures
Dimensions: 2.5 ft. tall by 3.75 ft. long
Current location: Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (350)
The bronze sculpture of a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, has been a symbol of Roman and Italian heritage for centuries, based in part on the traditional belief that the work was created in the 5th Century BCE by an unknown Etruscan artist to commemorate the founding of Rome. Although the wolf came to the Capitoline Museums in 1471 as a gift of Pope Sixtus IV, the work’s Etruscan origin was supported by references to a bronze wolf sculpture in Classical literature, including Cicero’s De Divinatione, and by the analysis of Johann Winckelmann, an 18th Century German art historian. But cracks in this theory soon appeared. Even Winckelmann recognized that the figures of Romulus and Remus were from the Renaissance and were created in the late 15th Century (possibly by sculptor Antoino Pollaiuolo) (see detail in image below). Beginning in the late 19th Century, some art historians began questioning the early date, proposing a Carolingian or Medieval time frame, but their concerns were ignored. In 2006, however, Italian art experts made a strong case that the wolf was Medieval in origin, based in part on evidence that the bronze wolf was cast in one piece, a technique that wasn’t invented until later. Preliminary results of radiocarbon testing announced in 2008 indicated an 11th or 12th Century date for the sculpture.
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134. Ife Heads

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 1100-1500
Period/Style: Yoruba Culture, Ife, Nigeria
Medium: Heads sculpted from brass (copper alloy)
Dimensions: The sculptures range in size from 11-14 in. tall
Current location: Most of the sculptures are in the National Museum of Antiquities in Ife, Nigeria or the National Museum in Lagos, Nigeria. One of the heads is in the collection of the British Museum in London.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (352)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (353)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (354)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (355)
In 1938, workers digging a foundation for a house in the Wunmonije compound in Ife, Nigeria discovered a cache of 18 brass sculpted heads. They were made by artists of the Yoruba culture between 1100 and 1500, when Ife was the capital of a thriving and powerful city-state in West Africa. The heads – which are life-size or near life-size – are remarkable for their depiction of individual facial features. The technical sophistication and beauty of the sculptures surprised some at the time who believed African artists were not capable of such high achievements. Scholars believe that some or all of the heads represent royalty or members of the upper classes; some have even been identified with specific named rulers.

135. The Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government

Artist: Ambrogio Lorenzetti
Date: c. 1337-1340
Period/Style: Medieval period; Trecento; Gothic/Byzantine styles, with some Proto-Renaissance elements; Siena, Italy
Medium: Frescoes painted on the walls of the Palazzo Pubblico
Dimensions: Each of the three frescoes is 25.3 ft. tall; they have a combined width of 47.2 ft.
Current location: Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (356)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (357)
In the early 14th Century, the Republic of Siena commissioned Ambrogio Lorenzetti to decorate the walls of the Council Room (also known as the Sala dei Nove, or Salon of Nine), where the city’s elected leaders met. The specified topics were “good government” and “bad government” – to remind the magistrates of their duties. Lorenzetti painted three frescoes: (1) the Allegory of Good Government (see top image above) (2) the Effects of Good Government on the City and the Country (sometimes called Peace) (see second image above – City – and first image below – Country); and (3) the Allegory of Bad Government and its Effects on the City and the Country (sometimes called War) (see Allegory of Bad Government in second image below). At a time when most Italian art commissions came from the Catholic Church, the paintings are unusual for their secular subject matter. Lorenzetti, who was strongly influenced by fellow Sienese artist Simone Martini, combines Byzantine/Gothic style with some references to Ancient Classical art, with more naturalism than his mentor. The frescoes include experiments with perspective (Lorenzetti makes an effort to reduce the size of figures that are intended to be farther away from the viewer) and efforts to portray physiognomy realistically. Lorenzetti’s depictions of places and figures combine idealization and realism; for example, the depiction of Siena in the Effects of Good Government on the City is accurate in parts, and fanciful in others. Some experts believe the frescoes contain a second narrative involving the children of the gods for whom the planets are named; this theme may explain the dancers in the center of the City, who may be interpreted as the children of Venus. With regard to perspective, experts have pointed out that the perspective of theAllegory of Good Governmentappears to be a mistake, unless one assumes that the scene is being perceived from the point of view of the figure of Justice. For theBad Governmentfresco, Lorenzetti unsettles viewers by requiring them to read the narrative from right to left. This fresco, which was originally on an exterior wall, has suffered considerable moisture damage.
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Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (359)

136. The Battle of San Romano

Artist: Paolo Uccello
Date: c. 1438-1440 (Part I); c. 1435-1455 (Part II); c. 1455 (Part III)
Period/Style: Early Renaissance, Florence, Italy
Medium: Egg tempera paints with walnut and linseed oils on poplar wood panels; gold and silver leaf added
Dimensions: Each painting measures 6 ft. tall by 10.5 ft. wide
Current locations: National Gallery, London, England, UK (Part I); Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy (Part II); Musée du Louvre, Paris, France (Part III)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (360)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (361)
Florentine painter Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano consists of three paintings depicting events from Florence’s 1432 military victory over Siena. The first panel shows Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino, the Florentine military leader (see top image above). The second panel (and presumably the centerpiece of the triptych) shows Niccolò da Tolentino unseating Siena’s Bernardino della Ciarda (see second image above). The final painting depicts the counterattack of Florence’s Michelotto da Cotignola against the Sienese (see image below). The paintings show advances in the use of linear perspective (including the use of foreshortening), but those advances are not always obvious when looking at the paintings in museums; they were designed to be hung high on three walls of a room, and Uccello’s use of perspective presumes that viewers are looking up, not straight ahead. All three paintings were commissioned by the Bartolini Salimbeni family, although once Florentine leader Lorenzo de’ Medici saw them, he decided he had to have them, so he bought one and forcibly confiscated the other two. Time has changed the appearance of the paintings: much of the soldiers’ armor was covered in silver leaf which must have created a dazzling effect back in the 15th Century; unfortunately, the silver has oxidized over time to a dull gray or black.

137. The Melun Diptych

Artist: Jean Fouquet
Date: Art historians date the work between 1450 and 1455, with a number of sources dating it to 1452.
Period/Style: Northern Renaissance; France
Medium: Egg tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: Each of the two wings measures 3 ft. tall by 2.8 ft. wide. The medallion is 2.4 inches wide.
Current locations: The left wing is in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany. The right wing is at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium. The artist’s self-portrait medallion is at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (363)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (364)
The Melun Diptych was created by French artist Jean Fouquet for Étienne Chevalier, treasurer to King Charles VII, to hang over the tomb of Chevalier’s wife. The name of the piece comes from the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame in Melun, where it originally resided. The left wing contains a portrait of Chevalier beside his patron saint, St. Stephen, shown with a rock to remind us that he was stoned to death (to drive the point home, blood drips from a wound on the saint’s head – see detail in image below left). Fouquet uses perspective to create the illusion of space receding into the background. The truly bizarre right wing, which is entitled Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, depicts the Virgin Mary ‘sitting’ on an ornate throne with the baby Jesus on her lap. Mary, who may be a posthumous portrait of the king’s mistress Agnès Sorel (called by some ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’) has ghostly marble skin, a fashionable shaved hairline and is wearing the equivalent of 15th Century haute couture. And there is the problem of the exposed breast; one commentator described it as “pneumatic”, another termed it “gravity-defying.” Dutch historian Johan Huizinga described the panel as creating an “air of decadent impiety.” In an attempt to explain the unnatural color scheme, one scholar theorized that Fouquet meant to honor the red, white and blue of the French flag. To further disorient the viewer, in depicting the heavenly space in the right panel, Fouquet completely abandoned the rules of perspective he employed so well on the left. Ironically, the unnatural and otherworldly aspects of the painting make it seem much more modern than a typical 15th Century religious painting. One commentated noted that it would not look out of place on the cover of a 1950s sci-fi magazine. A small medallion with Fouquet’s portrait was originally attached to the frame (see image at right below).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (365)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (366)

138. The Flagellation of Christ

Artist: Piero della Francesca
Date: The majority of art historians date the painting between 1455 and 1460 but some say it could be as early as 1450 and others say as late as 1470.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Urbino, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil and tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 1.9 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide
Current location: Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Palazzo Ducale di Urbino, Urbino, Italy
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Referred to by art critic Kenneth Clark as “the greatest small painting in the world”, Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation of Christ is notable for the artist’s deft use of perspective in contrasting the three men in the right foreground with the scene in the open air building, left rear, which almost certainly depicts the whipping of Christ as described in the Gospels. As for the identities of the three men on the right, and some of the figures on the left, there are a plethora of theories. Many scholars believe that the figures on the right are contemporaries of Piero, or represent other men from the recent past. The theory that the right and left sides of the painting occur in different eras finds support in the unusual lighting: the flagellation scene is lit from one direction, while the three men are lit from another. The time warp theory might also explain why the men on the right are ignoring the violence going on behind them. One common explanation is that the young man in the middle is Oddantonio da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, with his two advisors, all three of whom had been murdered in 1444. Other scholars point to evidence contradicting that theory and suggest other identities for the figures. As for the less controversial left side, most scholars agree that the sitting man is Pontius Pilate, and the man with his back turned is Herod, but this is not accepted by all. One art historian believes that the person being flogged is not Jesus but St. Jerome.

139. The Fall of the Giants

Artist: Giulio Romano (born Giulio Pippi)
Date: 1530-1532 or 1532-1534
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Mantua, Italy; mythological
Medium: Frescoes on walls and ceiling of a residential palazzo
Dimensions: The frescoes cover all four walls and the ceiling of the Sala dei Giganti in the Palazzo del Te.
Current location: Sala dei Giganti, Palazzo del Te, Mantua, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (368)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (369)The immense Fall of the Giants fresco in Mantua, Italy is a high point of early Mannerism. The Mannerists were not interested in the serene, restrained and balanced compositions of High Renaissance masters such as Raphael. They believed in grand gestures, in creating works of art that showcased the skill of the artist and if that led to excess or lack of realism, then so be it. Mannerism has a “rebelling against our teachers” flavor generally so it should come as no surprise that the artist who painted the Fall of the Giants, Giulio Romano, was a student of Raphael himself. The fresco takes up two walls (see top image) and the ceiling (see second image above) of a room in the Palazzo del Te, the home of Ludovico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. It relates the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which giants attempt to overthrow the gods on Mt. Olympus by piling up mountains to reach them. In response, Jupiter sends down a hail of thunderbolts, throwing the rebellion into chaos. Romano’s captures the action at the moment when the rebellion begins to collapse. Romano’s use of fictive architecture and illusory effects make it seem that the entire fresco is collapsing in on the viewer. This effect is enhanced by a gradual downslope in the floor as one approaches the walls, which depict the jumbled scene of desperate giants scrambling to stay alive amid the tumbling boulders dislodged by the gods’ thunderbolts (see detail in image below).
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140. Venus, Cupid, Folly & Time (An Allegory with Venus and Cupid)

Artist: Bronzino (born Agnolo di Cosimo)
Date: c. 1545
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Italy; mythological
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 4.8 ft. tall by 3.8 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (371)
Florentine Mannerist Bronzino’s most highly-regarded work, Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici (for whom Bronzino worked as court painter) as a gift for Francis I of France. The allegorical painting possesses many Mannerist features: the twisting figura serpintinata poses of the central characters, which seem almost impossible; the busy, jumbled composition; and the ambiguous narrative. Some scholars have even suggested that – consistent with the Mannerists’ interest in intellectual games – the painting creates a puzzle that requires inside knowledge to solve. There are multiple theories about the identities of the characters and the story Bronzino is telling. All agree that the central figure is Venus, whose son Cupid is engaging her in an incestuous embrace. This transgressive act appears to be eliciting a strong reaction from the others, who may include Folly (right center, about to shower the couple with rose petals), Time (right top, holding a drapery or pulling back a curtain), Jealousy or Syphilis (left center, screaming in agony), Oblivion (left top, with a mask-like head); and Pleasure or Fraud (between Venus and Folly, with honeycomb and body of a dragon). Random Trivia: Animator Terry Gilliam took Cupid’s right foot, reversed it, and used it in the opening animation sequence for the Monty Python’s Flying Circus television show (see image below).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (372)

141. Charles I at the Hunt

Artist: Anthony van Dyck
Date: 1635
Period/Style: Baroque; Flanders (now Belgium); royal portrait
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 8.7 ft. tall by 6.8 ft. wide
Current location: Musée duLouvre,Paris, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (373)
At less than five feet tall, diminutive English monarch Charles I was looking for an artist who could make him look like a king and court portraitist Daniel Mytens was not getting the job done. Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck (a student of Rubens) had gained a reputation in Italy and Flanders as a superb portraitist, and he had gained Charles I’s attention by assisting his agents in building the king’s art collection and by sending Charles a few of his own works, including a portrait of Charles’s sister, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia. In 1632, Charles I made van Dyck his new principal court painter, granting him a knighthood and an annual salary of 200 pounds. Given van Dyck’s specialty, it is not surprising that his finest works during this period are his portraits of the king, which are accurate depictions but never reveal his below average stature. Charles I at the Hunt is a 1635 portrait of Charles I in an informal setting. The king appears to be taking a break from a hunting trip to survey his domain – the lands and sea spread out below – when he turns to the viewer with a look of both supreme confidence and utter indifference. Van Dyck deliberately chose a low angle to depict the king to avoid drawing attention to his height, and placed him in the left, brighter side of the canvas, away from the shadows that engulf the bowing horse and courtiers. To ensure that the king’s face stands out against the bright sky, van Dyck used a black hat as a frame. While there are few definitive royal accoutrements (except for the cloak the groom holds and the statement, “Charles I, King of Great Britain” inscribed on a rock), there is no doubt that this is not just a nattily dressed aristocrat, complete with fashionable teardrop earring, but a king who knows how to play at the aristocrats’ sports without compromising his power and majesty. It is, perhaps, a sign of his confidence in himself and his power that he allowed himself to be portrayed in this informal manner. Van Dyck died in 1641, while Charles I was still on the throne; eight years later, the Puritans overthrew the king and eventually beheaded him.

142. Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power (The Triumph of Divine Providence)

Artist: Pietro da Cortona
Date: Begun in 1633; completed in 1639
Period/Style: Baroque; Rome, Italy; mythology/allegory; “di sotto in sù”
Medium: Fresco painted on palazzo ceiling
Dimensions: 4,300 square feet
Current location: Palazzo Barberini (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica), Rome, Italy
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Italian artist Pietro da Cortona painted the massive fresco titledThe Triumph of Divine Providence(also known asAllegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power) on the ceiling of the grand salon in the Palazzo Barberini, home of Rome’s powerful Barberini family, between 1633 and 1639. The fresco was intended to celebrate the family’s power and good fortune, particularly the election of Maffeo Barberini to pope (as Urban VIII) in 1623. In true Baroque fashion, the work as a whole is filled with a swirling, ecstatic energy. Allegorical figures abound in the crowded composition: scholars have identified Truth, Beauty, Peace, Chronos (Time, eating his children), the Three Fates, Immortality (carrying a crown of stars), Hercules, Vulcan, Minerva and St. Peter, to name a few. (See detail in image below left Divine Providence, Immortality, Time and the Three Fates.) The mythological content is so complex that visitors to the Palazzo receive a detailed guidebook to help them decipher the many symbols, including those specifically referring to the Barberinis: the family’s coat of arms and squadrons of giant bees, the family mascot (see detail in image below right). Cortona also added plenty of trompe-l’oeil effects, including the apparent crumbling of the marble frame due to the weight of Providence, in one case, and Vulcan at his forge, in another. Some art historians have suggested that the fresco was intended to dispel any notion that Maffeo Barberini’s election to the papacy was rigged, a powerful rumor at the time. Instead, the fresco shows that Pope Urban VIII is in his place because of Divine Providence. The fresco may also have been intended to demonstrate the supremacy of Catholicism over its rival religions, although the reliance on figures from classical mythology may have undermined that message somewhat.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (375) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (376)

143. Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers)

Artists: Gian Lorenzo Bernini (overall design, flora and fauna); Jacopo Antonio Fancelli (Nile/Africa); Antonio Raggi (Danube/Europe); Claude Poussin (Ganges/Asia); Francesco Baratta (Rio de la Plata/America).
Date: Work began in 1648; the completed fountain was unveiled in 1651. The obelisk was made in Rome in 81 CE.
Period/Style: Baroque; Rome, Italy; allegory
Medium: The fountain’s sculptures (including the large figures symbolizing the four rivers) are carved from travertine marble. Atop the fountain stands an Ancient Roman obelisk made of porphyry.
Dimensions: The obelisk is 115 ft. tall.
Current location: Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (377)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (378)According to a 17th Century account, when Pope Innocent X sought proposals for a new fountain in the Piazza Navona in Rome, across from the Palazzo Pamphili, Innocent’s family palace, he contacted every major architect and sculptor in Rome except Gian Lorenzo Bernini, arguably the most famous sculptor in Italy at the time. Bernini’s support of Innocent’s predecessor (and rival) Pope Gregory XV may have soured the new pope, or it may have been a rumor campaign by Bernini’s enemies. A powerful friend of Bernini’s convinced the artist to ignore the snub, create a design and make a model of it, and then arranged for the model to be displayed anonymously in a room in the Palazzo Pamphili. When the Pope saw the design, he publicly judged it the best and had no choice but to commission Bernini to make the fountain, reportedly saying at the time, “He who desires not to use Bernini’s designs, must take care not to see them.” The centerpiece of the fountain is an Ancient Roman copy of an Egyptian obelisk, topped with the Pamphili family emblem of a dove with an olive branch. The structure below consists of what one critic called “a mountainous disorder of travertine marble” adorned with numerous sculptures, including a palm tree, a lion and a horse, and anchored at the corners by semi-prostrate river gods, one each for the four continents where Christianity had spread. Bernini selected different sculptors for each river god, each of which is identified by an attribute: (1) The god of the Nile River (Africa) wears a cloth over his face in recognition that the source of the Nile had not yet been discovered (see left side of image below). (2) Because, of the four rivers, the Danube is closest to Rome, its god of the Danube River (Europe) displays Pope Innocent X’s coat of arms. (3) The god of the Ganges River (Asia) carries an oar to show that the Ganges is navigable (see image above). (4) The god of the Rio de la Plata (America) sits on a pile of coins to show the potential for riches in the New World, but the god shows fear of a serpent, reminding us that those who are rich fear thieves (see right side of image below). Scholars have praised the revolutionary design of the fountain, and its dynamic fusion of architecture and sculpture. It embodies the Baroque style: realistic yet theatrical, full of ornamentation and a dynamic sense of movement.Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (379)

144. An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

Artist: Joseph Wright of Derby
Date: 1767-68
Period/Style: Elements of Baroque and Neo-Classical; precursor of Romanticism; Great Britain
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 6 ft. tall by 7.9 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
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Like many of his time, English artist Joseph Wright of Derby was fascinated with science and progress and he wanted to use his art to celebrate the intellectual advancement of mankind in the 18th Century. In particular, he wanted to invest painted scenes of scientific discovery with the same reverence accorded to historical and religious scenes. An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump depicts a man – possibly an itinerant lecturer in natural philosophy – recreating Joseph Boyle’s 1659 vacuum (or air) pump experiment, in which air is removed from a container for a group of spectators. To demonstrate the vacuum, a bird is placed in the container – when all the air is removed, the bird dies. (The idea that a rare and expensive co*ckatoo would be used in the experiment, as shown here, is probably a bit of poetic license on Wright’s part.) Consistent with Wright’s beliefs about the importance of science, while he shows some of the spectators expressing concern about the bird (and two love-birds making eyes at each other), most of them seem in awe of the scientific discovery. An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump was one of a number of candlelit scenes that Wright painted in the 1760s. He excelled at painting the dramatic chiaroscuro effects resulting from the unusual and challenging lighting choice and used this technique to great effect in other artificially-lit indoor scenes.

145. The Death of General Wolfe

Artist: Benjamin West
Date: 1770
Period/Style: Neoclassicism, British America/Great Britain
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.9 ft. tall by 7 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (381)
Neoclassical painter Benjamin West was born in Colonial Pennsylvania but moved to London in 1763; there he co-founded the Royal Academy of Art, taught numerous American painters, and painted the king’s portrait. Before Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe, most history paintings depicted events from the distant past and draped the characters in the togas of classical antiquity, thus imparting a timeless quality to the events. But West, disregarding the advice of artist friends and mentors, rejected those traditions. For his large history painting, he chose a recent historical event – the death of British general James Wolfe at the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec during the Seven Years’ War – and he dressed his figures in historically accurate clothing. The break with tradition is particularly stark here, where Wolfe is shown (accurately) wearing the somewhat plain red uniform of a field officer, not a major-general’s dress finery. Ironically, however, for all West’s attention to historical accuracy, the painting contains numerous fictions. The majority of the individuals pictured at the death scene are identifiable, and they were not present at the battle. The messenger fortuitously arriving to tell the dying Wolfe that the French are defeated (symbolized by the fleur-de-lys) is also a fiction. So is the Native American warrior, although West’s intention in adding a representative of the indigenous people was probably to place the scene definitively in the New World. Perhaps most outrageous was West’s decision to pose Wolfe in a manner that reminds us of Jesus in various Lamentations and Depositions, and implies that Wolfe was a martyr to a good cause. West’s new conception of history painting was popular: prints made from an engraving of the painting were soon best sellers in England and elsewhere. As for the future of history painting, the popularity of The Death of General Wolfe meant that recent events were fair game and togas were no longer de rigueur.

146. La Grande Odalisque

Artist: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Date: 1814
Period/Style: Neoclassicism (with aspects of Romanticism); France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.9 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (382)By 1814, the battle lines were sharply drawn between the Neoclassicists, with their invisible brush strokes and noble subjects, and the Romanticists, who sought to communicate emotional immediacy and human individuality with a style that did not insist on realism. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, who studied with Neoclassicist icon Jacques-Louis David, identified with the Neoclassicists, but his paintings include elements of Romanticism. La Grande Odalisque is Neoclassical in its almost photorealistic painting style, but the subject matter and presentation are pure Romanticism. (See image below for David’s Portrait of Madame Récamier (c. 1800), also at the Louvre, from which Ingres may have gotten the idea for the pose: the differences are striking.) The viewer sees a nude woman who is presented to us as an odalisque, a concubine and member of a Middle Eastern (then called Oriental) harem. She is gazing at us as if we just walked into the room with a mixture of allurement and disdain. The Eastern furnishings, decorations and jewelry – with a hookah, no less – tell viewers that this is a strange, exotic world completely unlike our own, thus giving them permission to gaze upon the nude female form. The bizarre (and racist) compromise reached by Western Civilization in the early 19th Century was that it was immoral to present nudity in art unless it involved religious or mythological figures (e.g., Titian’s Venus of Urbino) or “exotics”, such as the odalisque. Ingres’ Neoclassicism gave way to his Romantic impulses in painting the nude figure; his desire to create flowing lines and sensual curves overrode his commitment to anatomical realism and so he added five vertebrae to the odalisque’s spinal column, reduced the size of her head, made one arm longer than the other, and placed her legs in positions that no contortionist could recreate. These distortions – criticized at the time as lack of skill – were deliberate attempts by Ingres to transcend the merely real and capture an ideal beauty he saw in his imagination.
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147. Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World)

Artists: Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (statue); Gustave Eiffel and Maurice Koechlin (internal structure); and Richard Morris Hunt (pedestal).
Date: Work on the statue began in the mid-1870s and was completed by 1884. The pedestal was completed by 1886 and the statue was dedicated on October 28, 1886.
Period/Style: Neoclassicism; France
Medium: The exterior of the statue is made from sheets of copper.
Dimensions: The distance from the ground to the tip of Liberty‘s torch is just over 305 feet, including the 65-ft. tall foundation, the 89-ft. tall pedestal by Richard Morris Hunt and the statue itself, which measures slightly more than 151 ft. tall.
Current location: Liberty Island, NY (formerly Bedloes Island)
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Officially titled Liberty Enlightening the World by its French designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the Statue of Liberty was a gift from the French government to the American people. The idea of such a monument was first proposed by French abolitionist and politician Édouard René de Laboulaye, who thought it was appropriate to celebrate the America founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” now that slavery was abolished. Bartholdi envisioned an immense statue standing at the gates of the New World, raising a torch for freedom. Liberty had frequently been depicted as a woman in both France and America, so it made sense to make the figure female. Lady Liberty is a Neoclassical-style allegorical figure, dressed in the stola and pella (gown and cloak) worn by Roman goddesses, and crowned with a seven-rayed diadem. (Bartholdi rejected the pilaeus head covering of the French revolution as too controversial.) In her right hand she raises a torch (symbol of progress) and her left hand holds a tabula ansata inscribed with the date of American independence in Roman numerals. She stands on a broken chain, a detail not visible from ground level. The dimensions of the work are on a colossal scale. As a result, Bartholdi limited the amount of detail, reducing the design to its simplest elements. As Bartholdi wrote at the time: “The model, like the design, should have a summarized character, such as one would give to a rapid sketch.” The exterior of the massive statue consists of copper sheets (which have developed a greenish patina over time), with an internal support structure and spiral staircases designed by Gustave Eiffel and Maurice Koechlin (see image below). Although Laboulaye and Bartholdi conceived of the idea in the early 1870s, it took many years to fund and realize the project. During a visit to New York, Bartholdi himself selected the site, a piece of federal property then called Bedloes Island (now Liberty Island). (President Grant quickly approved the project.) He oriented the statue to face ships arriving from the Atlantic Ocean. After Bartholdi designed and built the statue’s right arm with its torch in 1876, he brought it to Philadelphia to exhibit in the Centennial Exhibition, after which it stood for several years in New York City’s Madison Square Park before returning to France. Work on the statue was completed in 1884; it was then disassembled and shipped to New York, but it could not be reassembled until the Americans raised funds for and built the granite and concrete pedestal, designed by Richard Morris Hunt. The pedestal was completed in April 1886; reassembly of the statue took several more months. With Bartholdi standing by his side, President Grover Cleveland dedicated the monument on October 28, 1886. In honor of the occasion, Emma Lazarus, a poet who had been working with European refugees, wrote the famous sonnet, The New Colossus, which is engraved on a plaque in the museum at the base of the statue.
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148. The Two Fridas

Artist: Frida Kahlo
Date: 1939
Period/Style: Surrealism; Folk Art; Naïve Art; Mexico
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 5.7 ft. square
Current location: Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, Mexico
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Of the many self-portraits painted by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas is the largest and most highly regarded. The double self-portrait was painted shortly after the artist’s divorce from Mexican muralist Diego Rivera after 10 tempestuous years of marriage. (The couple later remarried.) The double images represent the two sides of Kahlo’s heritage. Born in Mexico to a German father and a Mexican (Spanish/Indigenous) mother, Frida Kahlo was torn between two identities. When she married Rivera, he encouraged her to explore her traditional heritage. Against a backdrop of stormy clouds, two Frida Kahlos sit together on a bench. The Frida on the right is the one Rivera loved; she wears the traditional Tehuana huipil and skirt, with her heart exposed but intact. In one hand she holds a small medallion with a picture of Rivera as a child (see detail in image below). An artery leads from the medallion to Frida’s heart and then to the heart of the Frida on the left, the one that Rivera did not love. She wears the white dress of European colonials and her heart is broken. She tries to cut off the flow of blood from the artery, but it continues to drip, creating a pool on her dress. (The blood may also represent the miscarriages Kahlo suffered, and her lifelong struggle with physical pain from childhood polio and a serious accident). The two Friedas, already connected by the blood of Rivera’s memory, hold hands, echoing a portrait of Kahlo and Rivera at the time of their wedding. The message seems to be that, damaged heart or not, Frida can put her trust in herself, no matter how turbulent her life becomes and how much pain she must endure. Kahlo’s representational style is difficult to categorize. Her work has been characterized as Folk Art or Naïve Art due to its heavy reliance on symbols and images from native Mexican cultures, but she was also embraced by the Surrealists, who admired her dreamlike imagery and irrational juxtapositions. Kahlo rejected the label, saying, “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
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On 7 Lists

149. Palette of Narmer (Great Hierakonpolis Palette)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 3100-3000 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Egyptian: Pre-Dynastic Period
Medium: Carved siltstone
Dimensions: 2.1 ft. tall
Current location: Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo, Egypt
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T
hePalette of Narmer (also known as theGreat Hierakonpolis Palette) is a carved piece of siltstone takes the shape of a palette for grinding cosmetics but is considerably larger than a typical palette, indicating that it may have been a votive offering. The palette, which shows the victorious Pharaoh Narmer wearing the crown of upper Egypt on one side and the crown of lower Egypt on the other, appears to celebrate the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, although it is unclear if the images depict an actual historical battle or serve as mythical or symbolic representation of unification. The palette also contains one of earliest examples of hieroglyphics. Art historians point out that even at this early date, the conventions of Egyptian art (legs and head in profile; body facing forward; mathematical precision) are already well established. With few exceptions, the Egyptian artistic style would remain static for nearly 3,000 years.

150. Olmec Colossal Heads

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 1500-1000 BCE
Period/Style: Olmec culture; Mexico
Medium: Carved basalt boulders
Dimensions: 5-11 feet tall; weight: 6 to 50 tons
Current locations: Museo de Antropología de Xalapa in Xalapa (7 heads); Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City (2 heads); Museo Comunitario de San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán in Texistepec (1 head); Villahermosa (4 heads); Santiago Tuxtla (2 heads), and Tres Zapotes (1 head).Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (391)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (392) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (393)
The Olmecs of Gulf Coast Mexico were the first civilization of Mesoamerica. Flourishing from 1500-400 BCE, the Olmecs were the precursors of the Maya and the Aztecs. The artistic legacy of the Olmecs includes 17 basalt boulders carved into colossal heads, most of which were made between 1500 and 1000 BCE. Each head has individualized facial features and a unique headdress. Most scholars believe they represent Olmec leaders. The heads, all of which are still in Mexico, range from 5 to 11 feet tall and from 6 to 50 tons. They were found at four locations, including San Lorenzo, where 10 heads were found lined up in two rows. The facial characteristics of some of the heads have led some to speculate that the Olmecs had roots in Africa, although there is little evidence to support this theory. Scholars have traced the source of the basalt boulders to the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas, nearly 100 miles away. How the Olmecs transported the massive stones through forests and swamps without wheeled vehicles is a mystery.

151. Ishtar Gate and Processional Way

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 575 BCE
Period/Style: Babylonian Empire (Iraq); reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II
Medium: Double gate and walls constructed of glazed bricks (mostly blue), with animals and deities in low relief; the original gate had huge cedar doors.
Dimensions: The reconstructed front gate is 46 ft. tall and 100 ft. wide. The back gate (which has not been reconstructed) was even larger. The processional way may have been as much as half a mile long.
Current location: The reconstructed Ishtar Gate (front gate only, using the original bricks) is located at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. Sections of the processional way are located in various collections.
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In about 575 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II, king of the Babylonian Empire and destroyer of the First Temple in Jerusalem, ordered the construction of a new gate in the north section of the city of Babylon, to be dedicated to the goddess Ishtar. The gate had two sections – the front gate smaller than the one behind it – and was constructed of glazed blue bricks, with bas reliefs of aurochs (young bulls) and dragons with giant cedar doors. The road leading into and out of the gate, known as the Processional Way, was lined by 50-ft.-tall walls made of glazed brick and decorated with lions and geometric designs. In an inscription plaque on the gate, Nebuchadnezzar II explained the purpose of the project: “Both gate entrances of Imgur-Ellil and Nemetti-Ellil following the filling of the street from Babylon had become increasingly lower.Therefore, I pulled down these gates and laid their foundations at the water table with asphalt and bricks and had them made of bricks with blue stone on which wonderful bulls and dragons were depicted.I covered their roofs by laying majestic cedars length-wise over them. I hung doors of cedar adorned withbronzeat all the gate openings.I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that people might gaze on them in wonder.” The animals depicted on the Ishtar Gate represent various Babylonian gods. The dragons for Marduk (see image below left); the aurochs (bulls) for Adad; and the lions (see image below right) for Ishtar. Once a year, religious officials and others celebrated the beginning of the agricultural season by parading along the Processional Way and entering Babylon through the Ishtar Gate. Beginning in 1902, a German expedition led by Robert Koldewey began excavating the ruins of Babylon in Iraq and found the remains of the fabled Ishtar Gateand the processional way leading into the city. Over the next 12 years, the material was brought to Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, where the smaller, frontal portion of the gate was reconstructed using the original bricks, with the project completed in 1930. The reconstructedIshtar Gate does not include the cedar doors. The components of the larger, second gate remain in storage.
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152. Riace Bronzes (Riace Warriors)

Artist: Unknown
Date: Warrior No. 1: c. 460-450 BCE; Warrior No. 2: 430-420 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: Early Classical Period
Medium: Bronze sculptures with calcite, silver and copper accessories
Dimensions: Warrior No. 1: 6.7 ft. tall. Warrior No. 2: 6.4 ft. tall
Current location: Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia, Reggio Calabria, Italy
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Vacationing Roman chemist Stefano Mariottini was snorkeling off the coast of Calabria, near Riace, in 1972 when he saw an arm sticking out of the sand at the bottom of the sea. When he touched it, he realized it was made of metal, and he called the police. Mariottini had stumbled upon two 5th Century BCE bronze statues made in Ancient Greece, in near perfect condition. How the sculptures arrived at Riace is unclear: they may have been booty from the Roman occupation of Greece, or perhaps they were being brought to a Greek temple in Italy. The two statues are named simply Statue A (dated to 460-450 BCE) and Statue B (dated to 430-430 BCE). They are prime examples of the transition period between the Archaic and early Classical styles of Greek sculpture. The statues may come from a group of statues representing the legend of the Seven Against Thebes at Argos or they may depict Athenian warriors in the Battle of Marathon monument at Delphi. Both figures are nude, bearded males portrayed in contrapposto poses with their weight on their back legs. Their eyes are made of calcite, the teeth of silver and lips and nipples of copper. They are missing their spears and shields, as well as helmets or other headgear. The sculptor has included so many realistic features that the idealized geometry and anatomical anomalies are not obvious. The images show: Statue A (above and below left); Statue B (above and below right).
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153. Doryphorus (The Spear Bearer)

Artist: Polykleitos created the original Ancient Greek bronze (now lost); the identities of the artists who made the Ancient Roman marble copies are unknown.
Date: The lost Greek original is dated to c. 450-440 BCE. The Roman marble copy in Naples dates to 120-50 BCE.
Period/Style: Ancient Greece; High Classical style
Medium: The original statue was sculpted from bronze; the copies are marble.
Dimensions: The Naples statue is 6.9 ft. tall.
Current locations: The most highly-regarded marble copy is in the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale in Naples, Italy.
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In the mid-5th Century BCE, Greek sculptor Polykleitos created a bronze statue of an athletic young man carrying a spear (The Spear Bearer, orDoryphoros) which exemplifies his theory of the canon, in which each part of the human body is proportional to every other part. The figure stands in an anatomically realistic contrapposto stance, with the body in motion and all the weight on the front (right) foot. (The spear would have been in the figure’s left hand and resting on his left shoulder.) Art historian Frederick Hartt analyzes Polykleitos’s achievement as follows: “Regardless of the fact that the figure is at rest – as never before – the dynamism of the pose transforms it into an easy walk and is expressed in the musculature by means of the differentiation of flexed and relaxed shapes, producing a rich interplay of changing curves through the powerful masses of torso and limbs.” The original bronze has long been lost but it is known by the many marble copies, including a number from Ancient Rome. The copy in the Archaeological Museum in Naples is considered the best-preserved marble copy from the Roman era. It may have been found in Pompeii or Herculaneum, although there is some dispute about this. Other Ancient Roman copies include a full-size marble in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minnesota (see image below left) and a fragmentary torso in black basalt at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence (see image below right). Random Trivia: The weight of the marble requires a carved tree trunk support at the base and a connecting rod at the wrist, neither of which would have been necessary in the much lighter bronze original.
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154. Aphrodite of Knidos

Artist: Praxiteles created the original marble statue, which has been lost. It was possibly moved to Constantinople and destroyed in a fire about 475 CE. Many copies were made, but the names of those sculptors are not known.
Date: c. 350-330 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: Late Classical Period
Medium: Both the lost original and the Ancient Roman copies are sculpted from marble.
Dimensions: The best Roman copy, the Colonna Venus, is 6.9 ft. tall.
Current location: The Colonna Venus is in the Vatican Museums in Vatican City. The Kaufmann Head is at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

The lost marble statue known as Aphrodite of Knidos was considered the crowning achievement of Late Classical Greek sculptor Praxiteles. Made for a temple in the Greek city of Knidos, the marble statue is believed to have been the first life-size nude female sculpture. The goddess Aphrodite has just laid her drapery aside as she prepares for a ritual bath that will restore her purity. The figure stands in a contrapposto pose, and the statue is designed to be viewed from all sides. Famous even in the 4th Century BCE, the statue’s home of Knidos became a tourist destination. Based on descriptions of the original, scholars believe that the copy most faithful to the original is the statue known as the Colonna Venus, located in the Vatican Museums. The Kaufmann Head, now in the Louvre, is considered a very faithful marble copy of the head of Praxiteles’ original. Random Trivia: Visitors to the Vatican Museums may now observe the Colonna Venus in her full glory, although during the 19th and early 20th centuries, in an excess of modesty, the Vatican covered Aphrodite’s legs with tin draperies (see image below). The statue was not uncovered until 1932.
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155. Lion Capital of Ashoka

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 250 BCE
Period/Style: Mauryan Empire; India
Medium: Statues and reliefs carved from a single block of sandstone
Dimensions: 7 ft. tall
Current location: Archaeological Museum, Sarnath, India
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Ashoka the Great ruled (and expanded) the Mauryan Empire, which, at its peak, encompassed almost all of what is now India and Pakistan, as well as parts of current-day Iran and Afghanistan. During Ashoka’s 36-yr. reign (268-232 BCE), he erected a series of stone pillars at important Buddhist sites. The pillars average 40-50 ft. tall and weigh up to 50 tons each. Many of the pillars contain inscribed edicts and were topped with capitals in the form of carved animals, including the Lion Capital of Ashoka, which consists of four lions standing back to back on a base with an elephant, a bull, a horse, a lion and 24-spoked chariot wheels in bas relief, atop a bell-shaped lotus. Read from bottom to top, the capital contains several Buddhist symbols: the lotus and animals remind us of the cycle of samsara, which keeps souls in the material world; spoked wheels (cakras) represent the Eightfold Path to enlightenment, and the lions represent the Buddha himself, who possesses the knowledge to release souls from samsara. The four lions may also represent the spread of Dharma or the Maurya Empire in all four directions; or the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The Lion Capital is the national emblem of India, and the base on which the lions are standing is depicted on the Indian flag.

156. Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 173-176 CE
Period/Style: Ancient Rome; Imperial Era; royal portraiture; equestrian statue
Medium: Gilded bronze equestrian statue
Dimensions: 13.9 feet tall
Current location: Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy
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Once Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, pagan symbols were subject to dismantling (in the case of architecture) or melting down (in the case of bronze statues) to be reused in the service of new, Christian monuments and statues. Fortunately some ancient masterpieces survived. The Pantheon was converted to a Christian Church, saving that paragon from destruction. The bronze statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius on horseback probably avoided being melted down because early Christians mistakenly believed it depicted Constantine, the first Christian Emperor. Scholars disagree about the date of the , which was originally fully gilded (see detail in image below, showing some remaining gilding) and placed in a public space. The emperor and the horse are not sculpted to the same scale, leading to the impression that either Marcus Aurelius is a giant or his horse is a miniature. Some believe the Emperor’s gesture is one of clemency and that the original monument included a kneeling defeated enemy, a reference to a Marcus Aurelius’s defeat of the Germans and Sarmatians for which he received a triumphant parade in 176 CE. Supporting this interpretation is the horse, which is depicted with Sarmatian blankets instead of a Roman saddle. But the lack of armor or weapons sends a message of peace, not war, which is consistent with this philosopher-emperor’s view of himself. The statue has been placed at various locations in Rome and was installed in the center of Michelangelo’s Piazza di Campidiglio in the mid-16th Century (against Michelangelo’s wishes). It remained there until 1981, when it was moved into the Capitoline Museums to protect it from the elements and replaced by a replica.
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157. Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels (Virgin and Child Enthroned)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 550-600 CE
Period/Style: Byzantine; Egypt; religious icon
Medium: Encaustic paints on prepared wood panel. (Encaustic painting involves mixing pigments with hot beeswax.)
Dimensions: 2.2 ft. tall by 1.7 ft. wide
Current location: St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt
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Christian religious art from the 6th and 7th Centuries CE is very rare due to two waves of iconoclasm that swept through the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th Centuries CE. Iconoclasts believed that images of Christian religious figures were heretical, and they destroyed untold numbers of artworks. Fortunately for us, the iconoclasts did not reach St. Catherine’s Monastery, which is isolated in the Egyptian desert, nestled at the base of Mt. Sinai. Many rare religious icons and illustrated manuscripts, including the 6th Century icon Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels, have been preserved at St. Catherine’s. The icon depicts two soldier saints (George and Theodore), feet planted firmly on the ground and staring blankly forward, flanking the Virgin Mary, who holds the baby Jesus on her lap. Behind them, two other angels, with near transparent haloes, stare in awe at the hand of God reaching down from heaven, sending a shaft of holy light onto Mary and her son, who look off to the right, failing to meet our gaze. The viewer’s eye is drawn first to the soldiers (the most ordinary and most like us), then to the central Virgin and Jesus, and up to the second set of angels, who direct our gaze to the hand of God, thus showing the believer the path to salvation.

158. Descent of the Ganges (Arjuna’s Penance)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 650 CE
Period/Style: Pallava Dynasty; reign of Narasimhavarman I
Medium: Relief sculptures in two pink granite boulders separated by a fissure
Dimensions: At 43 ft. tall by 96 ft. wide, this is one of the largest relief sculptures in the world.
Current location: Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India
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The enormous bas relief at Mahabalipuram in India includes over 100 figures, many of them life size, representing humans, animals, Hindu gods and other mythological figures. Many scholars believe the sculptures depict the story of the descent of the holy river Ganges at the order of Shiva, with Bhagiratha leading the way. Under this interpretation, the emaciated figure shown doing penance outside his hermitage is Bhagiratha (see detail in image below). A half-snake/half-man figure in the fissure may represent the spirit of the Ganges. The remains of a cistern have been found atop the fissure that was used to create a waterfall effect supports the Descent of the Ganges interpretation, Others believe the carvings tell the story of Arjuna, one of the major protagonists of the Mahabharata, performing a penance in order to obtain a weapon called the Pashupatastra from Lord Shiva. Some have theorized that the sculptors intended to depict both legends. As Edward Fosmire points out, the reliefs contain many amusing and fantastic elements that provide an entry point into the complex mythology for uninitiated viewers. In 1984, UNESCO designated theGroup of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, including the reliefs known asDescent of the Gangesreliefs,as a World Heritage Site.
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159. Early Spring

Artist: Guo Xi
Date: c. 1072
Period/Style: Northern Song Dynasty, China; monumental landscape painting
Medium: Ink and color on silk scroll
Dimensions: 5.2 ft. tall by 3.5 ft. wide
Current location: National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
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Guo Xi was a master 11th Century Chinese painter and highly-educated court professional. He wrote an influential treatise on painting entitled The Lofty Message of Forest and Streams and developed a new system of brushstrokes that was adopted by many succeeding painters. His 1072 masterpiece, Early Spring, is a monumental landscape, the most common type of painting in the Northern Song dynasty. Guo signed and dated the work, which was very unusual. Although at first, the painting appears to contain only trees, water, clouds, rocks and various land formations, on closer inspection, the landscape reveals not only a temple and several other buildings, but also various human figures (see detail in image below). Early Spring is an example of Guo’s innovative technique known as floating perspective (or as Guo called it, “the angle of totality”), which allows the artist to present multiple visual viewpoints simultaneously. In 1759, Emperor Qianlong added a poem to the upper right portion of the painting, with verses describing the scene below.
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160. Stained Glass, Chartres Cathedral

Artists: Unknown
Dates: 1145-1180; 1200-1235
Period/Style: Medieval period; Romanesque and French Gothic styles
Medium: Stained glass
Dimensions: 167 windows of varying sizes
Current location: Chartres, France
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Nearly every window in Chartres Cathedral is filled with stained glass. This decision by the designers of the church has resulted in a darker than usual interior (in other churches, some windows are filled with clear glass, which improves lighting inside but detracts from the effect of the stained glass), but has produced the most spectacular collection of stained glass ever seen. For much of the cathedral’s history, the multicolored light filtering through these stained glass windows was the primary light source for the interior. Despite weather, wars and revolutions, 152 of the original windows are intact. Construction of Chartres Cathedral took place in 1145, but a fire in 1194 destroyed much of the older building and required an almost complete reconstruction during the early 13th Century. The majority of the stained glass windows visible today were made and installed between 1200 and 1235, but four lancet windows contain stained glass from c. 1145-1160, including three windows underneath the rose window in the west facade: the Passion window to the south, the Infancy of Christ window in the center and the Tree of Jesse window to the north. The fourth pre-1194 window is known as The Blue Virgin, in the south ambulatory. The subjects depicted in these windows include stories from the Old and New Testament, the lives of the saints as well as typological cycles, signs of the zodiac, labors of the months and other symbols. In addition to the many tall, thin lancet windows, the cathedral boasts three large circular rose windows. The images show:
(1) (top) The north transept rose window (34.4 ft. in diameter), which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the center (the oculus) sit the Virgin and Child, who are surrounded by 12 small oval windows, four of them depicting doves symbolizing the four gifts of the spirit, and the rest showing angels with candles. The lancet windows below the rose show Saint Anne (in the center) and Old Testament kings Saul, David, and Solomon.
(2) (above left) Detail from the Good Samaritan window, a typological lancet window, in which God warns Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
(3) (above right) Detail from a clerestory window depicting the burial of St. Mary by Zosimus, with help from a lion.
(4) (below) Detail from The Blue Virgin window, from 1194.
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161. Our Lady of Vladimir (Virgin of Vladimir)

Artist: Unknown
Date: 1100-1130
Period/Style: Byzantine; Comnenian Period; Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey); religious icon
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 3.3 ft. tall by 2.3 ft. wide
Current location: State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
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The Virgin of Vladimir is an early 12th Century religious icon that was probably painted in Constantinople, then capital of the Byzantine Empire. It has been in Russia since 1131 and is venerated by the Russian Orthodox Church as the protectoress of Russia. The icon is of the Eleusa type, in which the infant Jesus nestles tenderly against his mother’s cheek. It was sent to the town of Vladimir by Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky and the Assumption Church was built to house it. The icon came to Moscow in 1480. Over the years, the icon has suffered serious damage, including fires in 1195 and 1238. Much of the painting of the clothing is from restorations in the 13th, 15th and 16th centuries. The icon has been copied many times over the centuries and is one of the few that survive from the early 12th Century.

162. Kuya Preaching (The Sage Kuya; Kuya-Shonin)

Artist: Kosho
Date: c. 1185-1206
Period/Style: Kamakura Period; Japan
Medium: Wood sculpture
Dimensions: 3.8 ft. tall
Current location: Rokuharamitsu-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan
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The statue of Kuya-Shonin depicts the 10th Century Japanese itinerant Buddhist priest who founded the Rokuharamitsu-ji temple in Kyoto in 951 CE. Kuya pioneered a new way of practicing Buddhism that would become known as Jodo (New Land). According to New Land Buddhism, one could achieve rebirth through faith and by reciting the name of Amida, the celestial Buddha, using a six-syllable phrase called the nembutsu: “Namu Amida Butsu.” Two hundred years after Kuya’s death, one of the great sculptors of the Kamakura Period, Kosho, created his portrait in wood. Kuya Preaching was originally painted and had inset crystal eyes. He is sculpted in a realistic style – even his veins are visible. Dressed as a pilgrim, he wears wrinkled peasant’s clothing and straw sandals and carries an antler-topped staff and a gong with a stick to strike it. Most importantly, however, Kosho depicts Kuya in the act of reciting the nembutsu, as symbolized by the six tiny Amidas emerging from his mouth (see detail in image below). The statue is kept in the temple in Kyoto that Kuya-Shonin himself founded over a thousand years ago.
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163. Pulpit, Pisa Baptistery

Artist: Nicola Pisano
Date: 1255-1260
Period/Style: Medieval period; Gothic and Byzantine styles with Classical Revival and Proto-Renaissance elements; Pisa, Italy
Medium: Marble pulpit with relief sculptures
Dimension: 15.25 ft. tall
Current location: Baptistery, Pisa, Italy
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The marble pulpit in the Pisa Baptistery by Italian sculptor Nicola Pisano is considered one of the precursors of the Renaissance, particularly in its incorporation of Classical Greco-Roman elements into the Gothic style. The heavily carved pulpit stands on seven marble columns, three of which rest on lions. The octagonal base of the center column shows lions vanquishing prey. The columns are topped with Corinthian capitals, which in turn form the bases for deep relief sculptures of personified virtues, prophets and evangelists. The virtue of Fortitude is represented by a nude Hercules, a Classical figure in a modified contrapposto posture (see image below left). Between the columns are Gothic trefoil arches. The uppermost register consists of a hexagonal series of relief panels, separated by small columns that represent episodes from the life of Jesus, including the Annunciation and Nativity (see above image, with very Juno-esque Mary) and The Adoration of the Magi (see image below right). These scenes recall the crowded carvings on Roman sarcophagi, which Nicola had studied.
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164. Madonna Enthroned (Ognissanti Madonna)

Artist: Giotto
Date: c. 1306-1310
Period/Style: Medieval; Gothic/Byzantine with Proto-Renaissance elements; Florence, Italy
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 10.7 ft. tall by 6.7 ft. wide,
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
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Visitors to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence can stand in one spot and view Cimabue’s Santa Trinita Maestà(1280-1290) on the right, Duccio di Buoninsegna’sMadonna Rucellai(c. 1285) on the left, and Giotto’sOgnissanti Madonna in the center. When the large altarpieces are placed together in this fashion, the contrast between Giotto and the two other artists is staggering. While all three paintings follow many of the traditions of the Byzantine/Gothic style, such as the gold background, and the standard iconography of Mary in Majesty with the child Jesus, a comparison of the Mary figures quickly distinguishes Giotto’s work from that of Cimabue or Duccio. His Mary is solid, substantial and of our world – real flesh and blood (note the way Mary’s breasts and knees press against her drapery), unlike the waiflike two-dimensional Marys of the other paintings, who seem more of the heavenly sphere than the earthly. Also somewhat new are the expressions of the figures, who seem more lifelike and emotional than the more staid, even generic figures of other Byzantine and Gothic art. The Ognissanti Madonna is so named because it was originally painted for the altar of the Ognissanti (All Saints) church in Florence.

165. Porta Magna, San Petronio

Artists: Jacopo della Quercia (initial work); completed by Domenico da Varignana (St. Petronius), Antonio Minello (prophets), Anthony Ostiglia (prophets) and Amico Aspertini (Moses).
Date: Jacopo della Quercia began the work in 1425 and left it unfinished in 1434. The work was completed by other sculptors after 1510.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance, Sienese; Bologna, Italy
Medium: Bas relief sculptures carved in Verona marble
Dimensions: Each of the 10 panels with stories from the Book of Genesis measures 3.2 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide
Current location: Basilica of San Petronio, Bologna, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (426)The bas reliefs decorating the central portal of the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, Italy are considered the crowning masterpiece of Sienese sculptor Jacopo della Quercia. Della Quercia, who began his career in the Gothic style, was one of the first sculptors to adopt the new Renaissance style, with its focus on more realistic human figures and a truer sense of how objects and humans occupy space. The San Petronio commission was significant – 10 panels with stories from the Book of Genesis; portrait busts of 18 Prophets; the Madonna and Child with Sts. Ambrose and Petronius in the bezel; and five scenes from the New Testament on the lintel – and della Quercia only completed a portion before his death. The remainder was only finished by others after 1510. Art historians have praised the “directness and power” of the reliefs, their “wide gestures, eloquent poses and dynamic compositions”, and the sculptor’s “concentration on man’s psychic and physical energy.” Michelangelo famously acknowledged his debt to della Quercia in influencing some of his frescoes for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The images shown below are (at left) The Creation of Adam; and (at right) Original Sin, showing Adam, Eve, the serpent and the apple.
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166. Portrait of a Man (Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban)

Artist: Jan van Eyck
Date: 1433
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 10 inches tall by 7.5 inches wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
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Is Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban a self-portrait? Although there is no direct evidence, there are many circ*mstantial clues. On the frame of this small painting, Jan van Eyck has painted an inscription in Latin (“Jan van Eyck Made Me on October 21, 1433”) and a motto in Greek at the top (“As I Can”, a pun on “As Eyck Can”). The personal motto only appears on a small number of paintings and never as prominent as here. The clothing is appropriate for van Eyck’s social position. The subject gazes directly, almost confrontationally, at the viewer, in stark contrast to the tradition of portraiture at the time. In addition, the way the subject’s headgear (not a turban but a chaperon, a common form of 15th Century male headwear) is tied up on the subject’s head would be a sensible precaution for a painter. A more technical clue is the fact that the subject’s left eye is sharply focused on some object in front of him, while the right eye appears only vaguely engaged in the act of looking (see detail in image below). This effect would result if van Eyck was painting his own eyes by looking at them in a mirror. Some scholars have speculated that van Eyck used this small portrait as a calling card or advertisem*nt of his skills, so that customers could compare it with the face of the living artist standing before them. Whether a self-portrait or not, the painting is a masterpiece of oil painting in the Early Netherlandish style. Light enters the painting from the left, and the subject, with his direct gaze and bright red headpiece, appears to emerge from the dark background, an early use of the technique known as tenebrism. In addition, the painting of the intricate folds in the chaperon indicates a prodigious talent, evidence of Jan van Eyck’s position as one of the most highly regarded artists of his day by both contemporaries and current art historians.
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167. The Miraculous Draft of Fishes

Artist: Konrad Witz
Date: 1444
Period/Style: Northern Renaissance; Switzerland
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 4.3 ft. tall by 5 ft wide
Current location: Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva, Switzerland
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The Miraculous Draft of Fishes, by German-born Swiss artist Konrad Witz, depicts a story from the Gospel of John: after Jesus died and rose from the dead, seven of his disciples spent all night fishing without luck. In the morning, a man called from shore and asked if they had caught anything. When they said no, he told them to put the net on the right side of the boat; when they did, they caught 153 large fish. One of the disciples recognized the man as Jesus and called out, at which point Peter jumped in the water to meet him. The painting is one of four surviving wings from an altarpiece that Witz painted for St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva. The painting’s importance to art history is based not on its figures, but on the realistic landscape. Witz substituted Lake Geneva for the Sea of Galilee, and in doing so, was able to paint an accurate and realistic depiction of an actual landscape, not the imaginary, idealized landscape found in so much earlier art. Furthermore, the landscape has been promoted from a minor element seen through a window to a major component of the composition. In addition to his landscape painting prowess, Witz used the work to examine the properties of reflections on water. Note, however, that the resurrected Jesus casts no reflection.

168. Lamentation over the Dead Christ

Artist: Andrea Mantegna
Date: The date of the painting is much debated. Everyone agrees it was painted between 1457 and 1501. A large number of sources date it to c. 1480. A substantial minority date it to c. 1490, while still others believe it was painted in the 1470s.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Milan, Italy; religious
Medium: Tempera paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.2 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide
Current location: Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (432)
Do artists paint for themselves or for others? Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation raises this question. There was no known commission for the piece, which was found unsold in the artist’s studio after his death; it is not known if Mantegna ever showed the painting to anyone else. An atypical treatment of a commonplace religious subject, Mantegna’s Lamentation presents Christ’s body at a highly unusual angle that required a dramatic use of the technique of foreshortening, forcing the artist to bend the laws of perspective somewhat by, for example, reducing the size of Christ’s feet so they would not block our view of Christ’s body. Our eyes are drawn to Christ’s bare upper chest, his privates (modestly covered by linens), and the holes in his hands and feet. The weeping Madonna and St. John barely make it into the frame, and unlike most lamentation scenes, none of the mourners is in physical contact with Christ’s body. Instead, Jesus’s body lies alone, untouched, on a cold marble slab, perhaps to remind Christians of the bleak reality of death. After Mantegna died and the painting was discovered, the artist’s son sold it to pay off some of his father’s debts.

169. Virgin of the Rocks (I)

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Date: 1483-1486
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Milan, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels (later transferred to canvas)
Dimensions: 6.5 ft. tall by 4 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
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For reasons that are still unclear, Leonardo da Vinci painted two nearly identical versions of the painting called Virgin of the Rocks. The version that is at the Louvre, Virgin of the Rocks (I), was probably painted first and is considered the primary version. The painting shows the Madonna, the young Jesus, the young John the Baptist and the angel Uriel, within the pyramidal composition that Leonardo preferred, with Mary at the apex. They sit in a strange, rocky landscape that feels mystical, even unearthly. The central event of the painting – a common theme of Renaissance Christian iconography – is John’s adoration of Jesus, who makes the sign of Benediction in return. Two paintings of angels playing musical instruments are associated with the work, although they are believed to be painted by Leonardo’s assistants; all three were commissioned for an altarpiece by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan. Leonardo has broken with tradition and painted the religious figures without haloes, yet he communicates their divine or saintly natures through idealization; as the Early Renaissance ended and the High Renaissance began, artists sought to achieve not realism but something more perfect. Virgin of the Rocks (I) is also an excellent example of the sfumato technique, which Leonardo described as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.” Consistent with Leonardo’s polymath interests, scholars have determined that the geological and botanical details of the painting are scientifically accurate.

170. Equestrian Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni (Bartolomeo Colleoni Monument)

Artist: Andrea del Verrocchio (born Andrea di Michele di Francesco de’ Cioni)
Date: Wax model completed in 1488; cast in bronze and erected in 1495-1496
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence/Venice, Italy; military portrait
Medium: Bronze sculpture
Dimensions: 12.9 ft. tall (excluding the pedestal)
Current location: Campo di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (434)Andrea del Verrocchio’s sculpture of Bartolomeo Colleoni on horseback was the second great equestrian statue of the Italian Renaissance. Like Gattamelata, who was the subject of Donatello’s 1453 equestrian statue, Bartolomeo Colleoni was a condottiero who served as a military leader in the service of the Republic of Venice. In his will, Colleoni provided the funds for an equestrian monument in his honor to the Republic of Venice, even specifying the location of the monument, Piazza San Marco. (The government chose instead to place the statue in nearby Campo di Santi Giovanni e Paolo.) Art historians praise the sense of energy, power and movement in both horse and rider. Verrocchio was the first sculptor to solve the mechanical engineering problems raised by depicting a horse with one foot off the ground. (Donatello had ducked the issue by placing his horse’s raised foot on a bronze sphere.) Unfortunately, the artist died before his creation was cast in bronze.
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171. Rebellious Slave and Dying Slave

Artist: Michelangelo
Date: Michelangelo began work in 1513 and abandoned the unfinished figures c. 1516.
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Rome, Italy; religious
Medium: Marble sculptures
Dimensions: The Rebellious Slave is 6.8 ft. tall; the Dying Slave is 7 ft. tall
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
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The pair of unfinished marble statues known as the Dying Slave (see image above at left) and Rebellious Slave (see image at right)were originally meant to be part of Michelangelo’s elaborate Tomb of Pope Julius II, a project that consumed the artist for nearly 40 years. He conceived an enormous three-tiered monument including over 40 statues (see drawing of one version of the plan below left). After the pope’s death, however, the new pope (Leo X, a member of the Medici family) ordered the tomb scaled down to a simple wall tomb (now located in Rome’s San Pietro in Vincoli) and much of Michelangelo’s work had to be abandoned. Many of the other planned figures, including the Dying and Rebellious slaves (now at the Louvre), the Genius of Victory (at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence – see image below right) and four other unfinished slaves at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence were no longer necessary. (The term “slave” is a 19th Century term; documents from Michelangelo’s time refer to the figures as “prigioni”, or prisoners.) The Rebellious Slave strains to release his fettered hands from bondage, twisting his body and forcing his head and knee toward the viewer. The Dying Slave appears to be at the moment of death – letting himself slip away from this world into the next with something like acceptance. Both figures embody (literally) Michelangelo’s knowledge of and devotion to the nude male form, its sensuality as well as its dignity. Random Trivia: In 1546, long after it was clear that the statues would never be used for their original purpose, Michelangelo gave them to his friend Roberto Strozzi in gratitude for allowing the artist to convalesce in Strozzi’s Roman home during a serious illness. Today they stand in the Louvre.
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Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (439)

172. Venus of Urbino

Artist: Titian
Date: 1538
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Venetian School; Venice, Italy; allegory/mythological
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 3.9 ft. tall by 5.4 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (440)Venetian master Titian painted the canvas known as Venus of Urbino for Guidobaldo II Della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, probably for his 1534 wedding, to adorn a cassone, or bridal chest. In determining the subject and pose, Titian drew from Sleeping Venus, of 1510 – which was begun by Titian’s mentor Giorgione but finished by Titian himself (see image below) – but with dramatic changes. Titian’s Venus is no ideal goddess or allegory of Beauty (there are no Classical indicia, for example): she is a real woman, sensual, alluring and comfortable with her body. She gazes directly at the viewer, confident in her physicality while exuding amorous feelings. Venus carries posies in one hand – a gift from her lover – and shyly hides (or casually draws attention to?) her private parts with the other. The love being celebrated is marital, Titian reminds us, by including the dog (symbol of fidelity) and the maids looking for a trousseau in a cassone that may have been similar to the one the painting was created for. The maid scene balances the composition, given Titian’s bold decision to bisect the painting with a featureless screen, which serves the purposes of emphasizing Venus’s light head and torso against a dark background and also creating a private space for Venus and those who dare to meet her gaze.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (441)

173. The Ardabil Carpets

Artist: Attributed to Maqsud of Kashan
Date: 1539-1540
Period/Style: Safavid Dynasty; Persia (now Iran); decorative art
Medium: Carpets made from silk and wool
Dimensions: Each carpet was originally 34.5 ft. long by 17.5 ft. wide
Current locations: The better-preserved carpet is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England, UK. The other carpet is in the Los Angeles County Museum, Los Angeles, California.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (442)In about 1539-1540, during the reign of Shah Tahmasp I, of the Safavid Dynasty in Persia, Maqsud of Kashan (along with 8-10 assistants) made two carpets, probably in Tabriz in what is now Iran. Each carpet had a silk foundation with a wool pile, 300-350 knots per square inch. The subtle, almost abstract design includes a central medallion, at the center of which is a roundel shaped like a geometrical pool from a traditional Islamic garden. Maqsud signed and dated each carpet and added a couplet from a ghazal by poet Hafez Shirazi. After completion, the carpets were taken to the shrine of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili (d. 1334) in the town of Ardabil, where they remained for at least 300 years. After an earthquake in the 1870s, the shrine sold the carpets. By 1890, when British carpet broker Ziegler & Co. bought the carpets, they were in horrendous condition. The carpet broker decided to cannibalize one of the carpets to obtain material to repair the other. When he had completed the job, he sold the restored Ardabil Carpet to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (see image above). The other carpet, which is incomplete, was sold on the private market until finally J. Paul Getty bought it and eventually donated it to the Los Angeles County Museum in 1953. Random Trivia: For years, scholars were puzzled by the difference in size between the two lamps in the rug pattern. Eventually, they realized that it was a trick of perspective: when one looks at the larger lamp from the position of the smaller lamp, both lamps appear to be the same size.

174. Perseus with the Head of Medusa

Artist: Benvenuto Cellini
Date: Work began in 1545 and was completed by 1554.
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Florence, Italy; mythological
Medium: Bronze sculpture with four-sided carved marble pedestal containing niches with bronze statuettes, and below that a panel with relief sculptures.
Dimensions: The entire sculpture with the pedestal is 17 ft. tall; the statue of Perseus alone is 10.5 ft. tall.
Current location: Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (443) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (444)
When Florentine sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini proposed a large bronze sculptureof Perseus with the Head of Medusa to Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Duke recognized a political opportunity. The marble statues of David and Hercules in the Loggia dei Lanzi, in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, were symbols of the Republic, which the Medicis had overthrown. Placing a statue of Perseus in the Loggia holding up the head of the snake-headed Gorgon Medusa, which turned all who looked upon it to stone, and facing it toward the statues of the Republic, would make a political statement as well as a clever joke. Cellini’s Mannerist masterpiece has three separate parts: At the top is Perseus, sword in hand, weight on one foot, holding up the Medusa’s head while bowing his own. The hero is nude but for his winged cap, winged sandals and sash. He stands on Medusa’s headless body, which gushes blood from the neck, and the reflective shield that allowed him to outsmart the Gorgon. Directly beneath Medusa’s body (her arm hanging down links the two registers) is a four-sided marble base with four niches, containing bronze statuettes of Jupiter, Athena, Mercury and Danaë (the statuettes in the Loggia dei Lanzi are replicas; the originals are in the Bargello museum). Carved in the marble are goats’ heads, to represent the Duke’s zodiac sign, Capricorn, while on the corners are carved images of Diana of Ephesus. The marble base continues below the niches, where Cellini has installed a bronze panel containing a relief sculpture of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from Cetus (the original – see image below – is in the Bargello. Scholars believe this is the first time since Ancient Rome that the base of a sculpture included figurative sculpture integral to the work as a whole.Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (445)

175. The Crucifixion

Artist: Tintoretto (born Jacopo Comin)
Date: 1565
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Venetian School; Mannerism; Proto-Baroque; Venice, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 17 ft. tall by 40.2 ft. wide
Current location: Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy
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After winning a competition to create paintings for the interior of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco – a Venetian charitable guild – Venetian painter Tintoretto chose to cover one enormous wall with a painting of the Crucifixion of Jesus. This Crucifixion is like no other in art history – it teems with characters, many of them onlookers, whose movements give the painting a swirling frenetic energy. Workers are erecting the crosses for the two thieves that the Gospels tell us were crucified with Jesus: one is being lifted up, the other is still on the ground. A soldier on a ladder is getting a vinegar-soaked sponge to give to Jesus as a mocking response to his cry for water. Yet the center of the composition is strangely calm. At the base of the cross are the mourners – Mary and others – who huddle close together against the raucous crowd surrounding them (see detail in image below). Most calm of all is Jesus himself, looking very fit; he gazes down from the very top of the canvas on the spectacle below with knowing attention. A light surrounds him – it is perhaps a light he generates; it looks a bit like wings, that might take him up to heaven. Tintoretto’s habit of painting over a dark background layer gives the painting a haunted quality, but close inspection reveals that he has learned Titian’s use and control of color, even if his palette is somewhat less varied. Tintoretto admired Michelangelo’s work with the musculature of twisting figures, a passion that is evident here. (Tintoretto apparently made small wax models of some of the figures before painting them.) Although Venetian painting did not follow the same path as that of Roman and Florentine art, Tintoretto is probably the Venetian painter most influenced by Mannerism and The Crucifixion is his most Mannerist work.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (447)

176. The Laughing Cavalier

Artist: Frans Hals
Date: 1624
Period/Style: Baroque; Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands; portrait
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.7 ft. tall by 2.2. ft. wide
Current location: The Wallace Collection, London, England, UK
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We know very little about the subject of The Laughing Cavalier, the famous portrait by Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals, except that he was 26 when Hals painted him in 1624. There is no evidence that he was a cavalier, and he is definitely not laughing. The current title arose in the late 19th Century during an exhibition in London and has stuck. Hals animates the portrait by having the subject turn and smile while looking straight at the viewer, and by choosing a low angle. The angle also emphasizes the subject’s elaborate outfit, and gives the viewer a close-up look at the cupids and other love symbols on his sleeves. A close look at the painting shows that, foreshadowing the Impressionists, Hals often used quick, broad brushstrokes, sketching out details in a way that creates an illusion of realism at a distance. Hals’ visible brushstrokes were both innovative and controversial; while a few criticized his work as unfinished, his technique brought a new sense of immediacy to the art of portraiture. Hals’ innovations proved highly influential on his fellow Dutch Golden Age artists.Random Trivia: The logo for McEwan’s, a Scottish-based brewer, is loosely based onThe Laughing Cavalier, with the addition of an actual smile and a frosty mug of ale (see image below).
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177. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews

Artist: Thomas Gainsborough
Date: 1748-1750
Period/Style: Romanticism; Great Britain; portrait/landscape
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.3 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London
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At the time of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, the French hosted an art exhibition in Paris to celebrate and asked the royal family to send some paintings to represent British art. Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews – with its depiction of genteel respectability in the agrarian countryside – was chosen as one of only four paintings sent. Members of the landed gentry, Robert Andrews, aged 22, married Frances Carter, age 16, in November 1748. As part of Frances’ dowry, she brought to the marriage a portion of her father’s estate near the town of Sudbury, and when they had their portrait taken a year or two later, they made sure that the extensive property was included. Mr. Andrews’s rifle and dog imply that his crops and livestock are so well managed, he has plenty of time for a relaxing hunting break. By devoting so much of the canvas to the well-groomed estate, Gainsborough drew upon the trend of less formal ‘conversation piece’ portraits, in which a group of subjects engages in an activity instead of sitting in a formal pose. This portrait is a hybrid, since Mr. and Mrs. Andrews do pose for the artist, although in a less formal setting. (The married couple probably posed in a studio with their fine bench and dog and were placed in the landscape through the magic of painting.) Gainsborough grew up in the same neighborhood as Robert and Frances, but somewhat further down the social ladder, which may explain the disdainful expression on Mrs. Andrews’s face. What is not explained is the patch of bare canvas on Mrs. Andrews’s lap. Gainsborough apparently intended to show her holding something – freshly-killed game, a baby, a dog, flowers – but for some reason delivered the painting to the family unfinished (see detail in image below). (One source theorizes that the painting was delivered unfinished because Gainsborough had a falling out with the couple.) The unusually shaped portrait (most were vertical, not horizontal) stayed in the Andrews family’s private collection until 1960. The work came to the attention of the public in 1927 when it was exhibited in Ipswich and caused a sensation with its charm and freshness.
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178. Watson and the Shark

Artist: John Singleton Copley
Date: 1778
Period/Style: American realism; Neoclassical; portraiture; Colonial America/Great Britain
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 6 ft. tall by 7.5 ft. wide
Current location: The original is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. A full-size copy by the artist is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A second, smaller copy by the artist with a vertical instead of horizontal orientation is at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
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Born in colonial Boston (where Copley Square is named for him), John Singleton Copley first made a name for himself as a painter of American portraits, but he moved to England in 1774, in part to escape the Revolution, and there he began to take up history paintings. One of his first was Watson and the Shark, which tells the story of Brook Watson, a British merchant of Copley’s acquaintance, who lost his right leg to a shark in the waters off Havana, Cuba in 1749, when Watson was a 14-year-old cabin boy. The attack occurred while Watson was swimming alone, and it took three attempts by rescuers before he was saved. Copley’s canvas, which was commissioned by Watson himself, depicts the third, successful rescue attempt. The artist plays down the gore of the true story: there is a trace of blood, but the loss of the leg is merely hinted at. In order to see Watson’s body in the surf, Copley made the water translucent. Watson’s body is modeled on the Hellenistic sculpture known as the Borghese Gladiator (100 BCE), now at the Louvre (see image at right below). The men in the boat show a range of facial expressions. Marine biologists have pointed out that shark, while frightening, is not rendered realistically: sharks have no lips, their eyes don’t face forward, and they don’t blow air from their nostrils. Copley exhibited Watson and the Shark at the Royal Academy in 1778, where it caused a sensation and helped secure his reputation as the best artist to come from the American colonies. (The image above shows the original; the image below left shows the vertical version now in the Detroit Institute of Arts.)
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179. The Ancient of Days (frontispiece to Europe: A Prophecy)

Artist: William Blake
Date: 1794
Period/Style: Romanticism; Symbolism; Great Britain; book illustration
Medium: Print made from etching, then handcolored with watercolors and ink
Dimensions: 9.2 in. tall by 6.6 in. wide
Current locations: There are 13 known copies in various collections
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William Blake was an original in every way. His writing style, his painting style and his religious beliefs are all unique to him, with little or no precursors and few if any followers. During his lifetime, he was not well-known for his artistic talents, but is now recognized as a part of the larger Romantic movement taking shape in the late 18th Century. The Ancient of Days was originally published as the frontispiece to William Blake’s 1794 poetic polemic Europe a Prophecy. It shows Urizen – a figure in Blake’s complex mythology who represents conventional reason and law – crouching in or before a sun-like circular design, while he stretches his left arm downward with an open compass in his left hand, held at a 70-80 degree angle. Golden rays emanate from the yellow circle/sphere, as dark clouds either part or encroach. According to Blake, he saw the image in a vision. Some have linked the painting to a statement about God in the Book of Proverbs, “when he set a compass upon the face of the earth.” Blake created prints from his own engraving but then used watercolors and ink to hand-colored every print of Europe a Prophecy, so that each existing copy contains a somewhat different version of The Ancient of Days. The images show four of the 13 known versions:
(1) Copy D, British Museum, London, England, UK (top left)
(2) Copy K, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England, UK (top right)
(3) Copy B, Glasgow University Library, Glasgow, Scotland, UK (bottom left)
(4) Copy E, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (bottom right)

180. Charles IV of Spain and His Family

Artist: Francisco Goya
Date: 1800
Period/Style: Romanticism; Spain; royal portraiture
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 9.2 ft. tall by 11 ft. wide
Current location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
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Court painter Francisco Goya’s unflattering group portrait of Charles IV of Spain and 12 members of his family has baffled critics and scholars for centuries: did Goya intend to create a realistic but neutral portrayal of the royals, or did he have some surreptitious goal of some combination of parodic caricature and critical political commentary? If the latter is the case, it would have taken a lot of nerve for Goya to bite the hands that fed him. In fact, it was the king’s idea to have a group portrait. Instead of scheduling everyone to visit Goya in his studio (which is apparently the setting of the portrait, with Goya’s giant canvases on the walls), Goya went to court and sketched 10 portraits separately, then obtained approval from each adult subject for their portrayal. Based on the results, it appears that the royal family was comfortable with being portrayed in a realistic manner – ‘warts and all’, in other words. Goya arranged the figures in a shallow space on the canvas, in what some scholars have described as a frieze. But what appears to be either a straight line of figures or mere chaos, is actually carefully organized according to political realities. Although the queen is in the center (as she would be in a portrait of any Spanish family), the two men closest to the picture plane are the monarch Charles IV, on the right, his head against the lightest background, and, waiting to emerge from the shadows, his son and successor, the future Ferdinand VII, on the left. Other family members are arranged according to importance. Two women family members were not available to Goya so he painted one turning her head and another is seen in profile. While the faces certainly vary in attractiveness, Goya made sure that the clothing, jewelry and medals were all stunning; the artist’s treatment of the light reflecting off the silver of the military medals and jewels creates a royal constellation of gleaming stars from one end of the canvas to the other. Almost all the women are wearing arrow-shaped hairpins, which may have been designed by the court jeweler, Leonard Chopinot. (See detail in image at left below showing Charles’s daughter María Isabel). Art historians have noted Goya’s homage to Velázquez’s Las Meninas. He has even included a shadowy self-portrait at a tall easel nearly identical to the one in that earlier portrait of Spanish royalty (see detail in image at right below). A significant difference, of course, is that the king and queen are inside the picture this time, not outside looking in, leading some to wonder if Goya imagined that he and his portrait subjects were all looking out at a mirror that was reflecting back the image Goya was painting.
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181. Fur Traders Descending the Missouri

Artist: George Caleb Bingham
Date: 1845
Period/Style: Hudson River School; Luminism; US
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.4 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide
Current location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
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Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham, who was best known in his day as a painter of portraits, is now remembered for an atypical genre painting depicting a man, a boy and an animal in a canoe. Ever since he was a boy, Bingham had spent a great deal of time watching boats on the Missouri River. In 1845, when he came to New York City after a winter stay in central Missouri with a number of paintings and sketches to sell at the American Art Union, one of them was Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. The work depicts a French trader and his son in a dugout canoe containing a pile of furs, a dead duck and an animal on a leash. The older man wears a Phrygian liberty cap (popular during the time of the French Revolution) and glares at the viewer. His son, with the rifle that presumably shot the duck, is smiling. (Bingham called the painting French Trader and Half-Breed Son, but the American Art-Union thought some might be offended, and changed the titled.) The style is known as Luminism, an offshoot of the Hudson River School, and is characterized by attention to detail, focus on the effects of light, aerial perspective, a lack of visible brushstrokes, calm and tranquil scenes, and reflective water. Although the water must be moving, it gives no appearance of doing so – the river could just as easily be a sheet of ice. The entire scene appears still and placid and there is a mild, even light over everything. The dominant horizontals are broken here and there by a number of snags that are visible sticking out of the water and almost appear to be hemming the canoe in. As for the leashed animal, there is furious debate about its identity. Most lay viewers believe it is a cat, but most art historians have concluded that it is a bear cub. One website makes a strong case that it is a black fox, which had the most valuable fur of all (see photo of black fox below). Don’t be fooled into thinking that Bingham’s subject is historically accurate, however. The painting is nostalgic, not realistic; by 1845, the days of solo fur traders was over and large companies had taken over the trade. Bingham’s canvas returns the viewer to that rougher pioneer period and that more romantic lifestyle.
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182. Ophelia

Artist: John Everett Millais
Date: 1851-1852
Period/Style: Pre-Raphaelite; UK
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.5 ft tall by 3.7 ft. wide
Current location: Tate Britain, London, England, UK
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (464)In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia goes mad after Hamlet kills Ophelia’s father, Polonius. While she is gathering flowers by the river, a branch snaps and she falls into the water. Instead of trying to save herself, she sings “snatches of old tunes” while her dress fills with water and drags her under to her death. English Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais chose to paint Ophelia afloat in the river in the act of singing, hands aloft, “as if incapable of her own distress,” in Shakespeare’s words. To do so, he found a spot along the Hogsmill River in the County of Surrey that approximately matched the description in Hamlet. He then painted the landscape, up to 11 hours a day, six days a week, for five months in 1851. In the process, he confronted insects, wind, cold and even a farmer who said Millais was trespassing and called the police. The result was a brilliantly colorful and botanically accurate depiction of the riverbank. He then brought the picture to his studio, where his model (and future wife) 19-year-old Elizabeth Siddal, put on an elaborate silvered gown that Millais had bought and lay in a heated bathtub while Millias painted his Ophelia in the Hogsmill. The resulting work was not immediately accepted as a masterpiece, although it has since developed almost iconic status. Ophelia was made consistent with the principles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of which Millais was a founding member: it contains abundant detail, intense colors and a complex composition, and it acknowledges that mimesis, or imitation of nature, is central to art’s purpose. The Pre-Raphaelites despised the brown tones that prevailed in many Academic-style landscapes, and one of their most important technical innovations was to replace the dark background such as bitumen used by most artists with a white ground, or even a wet, white ground, to bring out a shimmering brilliance in their colors, as seen particularly in the greens of Ophelia.

183. Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of The Artist’s Mother (“Whistler’s Mother”)

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1871
Period/Style: Tonalism; US/UK
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.7 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide
Current location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
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Once artists release a piece of visual art into the world, they have little control over the way the viewing public will treat their work. Such is the case with the 1871 painting by James McNeill Whistler known by its nickname, “Whistler’s Mother.” For Whistler, an American artist living in Europe, the most meaningful aspects of a painting were not the people or objects depicted but the arrangements of color and form on the canvas and the emotions they aroused in the viewer. In an attempt to connect painting with the more abstract art form of music, Whistler often named his works with musical terms: symphony, harmony, nocturne, or, as here, arrangement. The painting Whistler titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 explores the tonal gradations of the colors gray and black; as a result, his palette is very limited but precise. Whistler had scheduled a model to pose for the painting but she did not appear and so he asked his 67-year-old mother, Anna McNeill Whistler, to substitute. (Anna had moved in with her son in London in 1864, forcing Whistler to evict his live-in girlfriend and model Jo Hiffernan.) The original plan was for a standing portrait, but Anna was unable to stand for the long periods required and they eventually agreed to have her sit. She is seen in profile, staring into the middle distance, her feet propped on a footrest. (Some critics have noted that Whistler has drawn his mother with abnormally long legs.) Critics have praised the detailed depiction of the lace work, particular on Anna’s sleeves. Behind the sitter on the wall is a framed print of Black Lion Wharf, an 1859 engraving by Whistler himself (see image below). The composition is uncluttered and somewhat static; the only lively element is the purplish curtain with its floral print (including a butterfly) at the left. Whistler did not intend this to be seen as a portrait, but the public disagreed, and exhibitors soon added a subtitle, “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.” Despite Whistler’s objections, the painting became an iconic portrayal of motherhood. It is his most recognized work. It was purchased by the French government and is considered the most important American painting outside the U.S. After the painting toured the United States in the 1930s, the public fell in love with it, the Postal Service issued a stamp with a likeness of Whistler’s Mother, and a sculptor in Pennsylvania created a three-dimensional version as part of a memorial to mothers. In acquiring iconic status, the painting some have called the Victorian Mona Lisa has acquired a sentimental patina that Whistler surely would have objected to. It ranks with Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks as one of the most famous (and most parodied) American paintings.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (466)

184. Portrait of Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic)

Artist: Thomas Eakins
Date: 1875
Period/Style: Realism; US
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 8 ft. tall by 6.5 ft. wide
Current location: The painting is co-owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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Some experts have called The Gross Clinic, by Thomas Eakins, the most important American painting of the 19th Century. The painted scene takes place in the surgical amphitheater of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Renowned physician and professor of medicine Samuel D. Gross, with bloodstained hands, is conducting surgery on a patient with osteomyelitis of the femur with the assistance of four other surgeons. Eakins personally observed the surgical procedure, a more conservative approach to treating the ailment than the traditional response of amputating the leg. The patient’s leg is exposed and the incision is visible, but it is hard for the viewer to determine the exact position of the rest of the anesthetized patient’s body, or whether the patient is a man or a woman. In the stadium-style seats behind Gross sit medical students, including one who is a self-portrait of Eakins. Behind Gross, a woman, presumably the patient’s mother, covers her face with her hands in anxious distress. Although all acknowledged the excellence of Eakins’ talent, the committee for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition rejected the painting, apparently because of the graphic nature of the images. Others found that the inclusion of the crying mother was overly melodramatic. Modern critics find the contrast between the mother’s emotional reaction and the calm rationality of the doctors sends an important message about the growth and advancement of medicine into a true science. Having been rejected for the Centennial, the painting was exhibited in an army hospital until Jefferson Medical College finally purchased it. Recently, the Medical College was forced to sell the painting and for a time it looked as though it would leave Philadelphia. In response, a public campaign raised enough funds (along with the sales of some lesser known works) to keep The Gross Clinic in Philadelphia as a co-possession of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. The painting recently underwent a significant restoration, in part to undo damage done by a 1917 restoration.

185. Power Figures (N’kisi N’kondi; Nail Figures)

Artists: Unknown
Dates: c. 1864-1920
Period/Style: Kongo culture; Democratic Republic of Congo/Angola
Medium: Wooden figures with iron nails and other elements such as glass, ceramics, metal, resin, pigment, and natural fibers
Dimensions: The figures range in height from less than 16 inches to nearly 4 ft.
Current location: Various collections


At least as far back as the 16th Century, religious leaders of the Kongo peoples (including the Yombe and Vili groups), who lived in what is now Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola in Central Africa, utilized carved figures known as N’kisi N’kondi to aid their people with their spiritual and physical needs. The figures were carved in the shape of human beings, usually but not always male, and were used to protect the community, prove guilt or innocence, heal sickness, end disasters, take revenge, settle legal disputes, and witness and record vows, treaties and other agreements. The figures obtained their supernatural power from medicinal substances (called bilongo) deposited into cavities carved into the head or stomach of the statue. The nganga (religious specialists) who commissioned the figures and supervised the artists who made them often used reflective glass for the eyes and medicine cavity covers, through which the spirits (n’kisi) of the dead could see potential enemies. When a particular result was achieved or agreement reached, the parties would drive a sharp object into the figure. Beginning in the 1860s, after Europeans brought iron nails to Africa, nails were hammered into the figures to commemorate each important act. The figures’ mouths are usually open to allow them speak the truth, and their expressions, stances and gestures are usually aggressive, to alert viewers that they have the potential to hunt down wrongdoers. (The word ‘nkondi’ comes from the verb ‘to hunt.’). Nineteenth Century Christian missionaries would confiscate and destroy the power figures in an attempt to foster conversion, but after the turn of the century, scholars, anthropologists and art historians began to appreciate the artistic quality and cultural significance of these important objects. Some scholars believe that the tradition migrated with enslaved Africans to the West Indies, where the figures evolved into voodoo dolls and other objects with mystical importance. Six examples are shown:
(1) male figure, made by Yombe people in present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo with wood, iron and ceramic; measuring 3.8 ft. tall,late 19th century-1904, now in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin (top row left above);
(2) female figure, made by Vili people, late 19th Century, now in the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama (top row right above);
(3) male figure, made by Kongo people in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, with wood, iron, glass mirror, resin and pigment, measuring 2.8 ft. tall by 1.1 ft. wide by 0.9 ft. deep, now in the Brooklyn Museum in, New York (second row left above);
(4) male figure, from what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, c. 1880-1920, now in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (second row right above);
(5) male figure, made by Kongo people in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo with wood, natural fibers, nails, glass and metal, measuring 15.75 in. tall, 9.75 in. wide, 7.25 in. deep, early 20th century, now at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minnesota (image at left below); and
(6) male figure, made by Kongo people in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola with wood, paint, metal, resin and ceramic, measuring 3.9 ft. tall, late 19th Century, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (image at right below).

186. The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

Artist: John Singer Sargent
Date: 1882
Period/Style: Realism; Edwardian; US/France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 7.5 ft. by 7.5 ft.
Current location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (474)
John Singer Sargent and Edward Darley Boit were both American expatriates in Paris, so it was not unusual that in 1882 Sargent would receive a commission to paint the four young daughters of Boit (a lapsed lawyer) and his heiress wife Isa in the foyer of their Paris apartment. What was unusual was the painting that resulted. Despite paying tribute to Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit breaks many of the rules of portraiture: the painting is square, but its composition is asymmetrical (one critic called it “four corners and a void”). Sargent does not place the girls in a formal arrangement but shows them separated from one another and not interacting. Two giant Japanese vases tower over the girls, such that one observer quipped that Sargent had painted a portrait of the vases and a still life of the daughters. Most unsettling are the figures of the two oldest girls: both are partly hidden in shadow, and one is turning to the side, her face obscured. While the white pinafores (worn to protect fine clothes) indicate that the girls may be at play, the overall tone is anything but playful. Some scholars have interpreted the dark space in the center of the painting as adulthood, into whose shadowy uncertainty the girls gradually recede as they age, no longer able to bask in bright sun of childhood. The BBC’s Sister Wendy Beckett has even suggested that Sargent may have intuited the Boit girls’ futures: none of the four ever married (although that is not necessarily a bad thing!), and the oldest two were plagued by mental illness. The painting stayed in the family until 1919, when the daughters of Edward Darley Boit donated it to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; years later, their heirs donated the pair of Japanese vases, which now stand on either side of the painting as silent sentinels (image below).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (475)

187. Café Terrace at Night

Artist: Vincent Van Gogh
Date: September 1888
Period/Style: Post-Impressionism; The Netherlands/France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.6 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. wide
Current location: Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands
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Van Gogh was living in Arles, France in 1888, when he became attracted by the idea of painting en plein air (outdoors) at night. He had read a passage by Guy de Maupassant describing the bright cafés on the boulevard in Paris and was inspired to translate that imagined scene onto canvas. A café on the Place du Forum in the Arles village center, with its large outdoor seating area and bright yellow lamp that lit up even the cobblestones in the road, seemed like the perfect spot, so one day in September 1888, van Gogh set up his easel. The result is the painting known as Café Terrace at Night (or The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night). “Here you have a night painting without black,” van Gogh announced in a letter to his sister. The dark blue sky with swirling stars above is van Gogh’s first attempt to paint the night sky as he envisioned it, a project that would lead him to The Starry Night a year later. At first glance, Café Terrace at Night appears to be a random, snapshot-like rendering, but at least one art historian has theorized that the composition (with a cross in the background and 12 figures, a tall waiter with long hair) is meant to refer to the Last Supper, when Jesus (the waiter?) ate his last meal surrounded by his disciples (with Judas the dark figure leaving through the door) (see detail in image below with annotations from the blog think.IAfor.org). Other scholars, less religious minded, have pointed out that the configuration of the stars in the sky is so accurate it can be used to date the painting. Tourists may now visit the spot, which has been restored to its 1888 appearance and has changed its name to Café Van Gogh.
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188. The Night Café

Artist: Vincent Van Gogh
Date: September 1888
Period/Style: Post-Impressionism; The Netherlands/France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.4 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide
Current location: Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut
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In September 1888, Vincent Van Gogh was in debt to the owners of Café de la Gare in Arles, where Van Gogh was renting a room in the back. Van Gogh described the place to his brother Theo as “a ‘café de nuit’ (they are fairly frequent here), staying open all night. ‘Night prowlers’ can take refuge there when they have no money to pay for a lodging, or are too drunk to be taken in.” On three successive nights, Van Gogh stayed up all night (sleeping during the day) to paint the café interior, with owner Joseph-Michel Ginoux standing next to the pool table under the agitated yellow lights of the ceiling lamps. Van Gogh shows the night prowlers, drinking or asleep, but he made no attempt to represent the colors accurately. Instead, Van Gogh anticipates the Fauvists and Expressionists by choosing colors for their emotional effect, as he himself explained in another letter: “I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood red and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four lemon-yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens… .” The simplified composition and large swaths of a single color are reminiscent of Van Gogh’s beloved Japanese woodblock prints, but the swirling maelstroms of light around the lamps are pure Van Gogh. Van Gogh also created version of the scene using watercolors (now in a private collection) that is even more stripped down in its composition (see image below). Joseph-Michel Ginoux and his wife eventually accepted the oil painting to settle Van Gogh’s debt, at the time a gesture of faith in a then mostly unknown artist.
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189. Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889

Artist: James Ensor
Date: 1888
Period/Style: Symbolism; proto-Expressionism; Belgium
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 8.3 ft. tall by 14.1 ft. wide
Current location: Getty Center, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
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Although Belgian Symbolist James Ensor was an atheist, he identified with Jesus as both an advocate for the poor and oppressed and as another humiliated visionary. In the controversialChrist’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, Ensor imagines a near future in which the coming of Jesus to Belgium becomes an excuse for a parade of horribles: a sea of gruesome masked faces representing the herdlike masses and their opportunist leaders almost completely obscures the figure of Jesus (an Ensor self-portrait) riding on a donkey (see detail in image below). Ensor’s parents owned a store that sold, among other things, Shrove Tuesday masks, which played an important role in his mature work – here it is difficult to distinguish the masks and the faces beneath them. Leading the parade is atheist social reformer Emile Littré, dressed as a bishop, with a drum major’s baton. Also visible are Belgian politicians, Ensor’s friends and family, and historical figures, including the Marquise de Sade at lower right. Slogans on banners and posters praise Jesus but also cynically promote political agendas and commercial products (including a brand of mustard!). The message is the second coming of Jesus would become a tawdry spectacle manipulated by those in power for their own purposes. Ensor’s style is often deliberately crude, especially in the foreground figures. Ensor opposed the latest trend of pointillism and chose instead to use palette knives, spatulas and both ends of his brush to slap on large patches of color. The heads of the crowd, which become smaller and smaller as they fade into the background, mock the tiny dots of Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte, which had recently visited Belgium. Disgusted with traditional art societies, Ensor had joined the more radical Les XX, but that group had fallen under the spell of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and rejected Ensor’s masterpiece. Instead, Ensor hung the enormous canvas (measuring) in his studio. Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 was not displayed publicly until 1929, when it was recognized as a precursor of Expressionism.

190. Self-Portrait

Artist: Vincent Van Gogh
Date: September 1889
Period/Style: Post-Impressionism; The Netherlands/France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.1 ft. tall by 1.8 ft. wide
Current location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (482)
In December 1888, while living in Arles, France with fellow painter Paul Gauguin, Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh was experiencing a mental breakdown; after an argument with Gauguin, Van Gogh cut off almost all of his left ear. After several hospital stays to recover from the ear injury (and the massive loss of blood), he committed himself to a mental asylum in Saint-Rémy in May 1889. He began painting again in September 1889, but remained at the asylum (with a number of visits to Arles) until discharged in May 1890. On July 29, 1890, he committed suicide. During the last 10 years of his life, Van Gogh created at least 43 self-portraits. A form of visual diary, the paintings record the changes in Van Gogh’s painting style as well as his physical and mental decline. Scholars have noted the critical self-analysis and questioning of identity that Van Gogh undertakes in these highly revealing portraits. Van Gogh’s letters indicate that he was consciously seeking to capture something in these painted works that could not be captured by photography, then a relatively new technology. He looked to the brutal honesty of his fellow countryman Rembrandt’s self-portraits as a model. Van Gogh painted the September 1889 Self-Portrait nine months after he cut off his ear and four months after he arrived at the asylum. Unlike Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe (see image below left) and Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (see image below right) from January 1889, which draw attention to the self-mutilation, here he paints himself from the left, hiding the injury. He wears a suit, not his usual working pea jacket. There is an anxious inward stare in his eyes; as one art historian put it, he has the look of “a man trying to hold himself together.” The dominant green and turquoise blue, normally calming colors, conflict jarringly with the blazing orange of his beard and hair, whose undulations are amplified by the churning energy of the swirls of the background, which are reminiscent of the turbulent sky in The Starry Night.
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191. The Sleeping Gypsy

Artist: Henri Rousseau
Date: 1897
Period/Style: Outsider Art; Primitivism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.2 ft. tall by 6.6 ft. wide
Current location: Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
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Henri Rousseau was an amateur. A toll collector, he knew nothing about perspective, anatomy, or the various artistic movements. Yet without knowing any of this, he managed to create some truly fascinating, often beautiful paintings. Art historians label him a primitivist, a practitioner of outsider art, who did not fit into any particular category. At the same time, they note that his work has elements of the work of Paul Gauguin, as well as hints of Symbolism, Surrealism and Cubism, the latter two of which hadn’t even begun in 1897! The avant-garde artists of fin-de-siècle Paris eventually discovered Rousseau and adopted him as one of their own, but at the time of The Sleeping Gypsy, he was essentially an unknown. The painting is a fantasy: a Gypsy woman (from a culture now known as Romani) lies asleep (but with teeth showing!) on the bare earth, her mandolin and water bottle by her side, her walking stick in her hand, and a colorful cloth under her head. There is an eerie full moon and a bleak treeless landscape. And there is a lion, who appears to sniff her but doesn’t seem intent on harm. Is she dreaming of the lion or is he really there? Some have even suggested that he is the woman’s traveling companion and protector. Rousseau creates stylized figures with odd geometries whose relationship to real things in our world is sometimes tenuous. But the viewer is nevertheless drawn into these fantasy-scapes and their haunting sense of symbolism, even if we can never quite discern what is being symbolized. To the curator at the Museum of Modern Art, which owns the painting, Rousseau is looking both backward and forward: “With its flat planes of pure color, simple geometric forms, dreamlike atmosphere, and exotic subject, The Sleeping Gypsy at once conjures a desire for a preindustrial past and asserts its status as a new kind of modern art….”

192. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Artist: Paul Gauguin
Date: 1897-1898
Period/Style: Post-Impressionism; Symbolism; France/French Polynesia
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 4.6 ft. tall by 12.3 ft. wide
Current location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
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When French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin was a young man attending Catholic school in Paris, his religious catechism contained the following three questions: “Where does humanity come from?” “Where is it going to?” and “How does humanity proceed?” Many years later, Gauguin was living in Tahiti, part of French Polynesia, having left decadent and bourgeois France (abandoning his wife and children in the process) in order to create art in a more “primitive and savage” environment. Unfortunately, by 1897, Gauguin’s Tahitian experiment was going badly. He was suffering from a number of serious ailments (including something he called eczema but which many now believe was syphilis), he was deep in debt, and he was no longer as productive artistically as he had been. He decided to paint a masterpiece, a culminating artistic statement, and then end his life. Echoing his childhood catechism, the large canvas (his largest ever), entitled Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, Incorporates aspects of local Tahitian custom and mythology as well as references to other “primitive” cultures, the painting should be read from right to left, like an ancient scroll. At the far right, we see infancy, followed by young adult life, and finally on the left an old woman reconciled to death, with a white bird that, according to Gauguin, “represents the futility of words.” The blue idol at rear left represents The Beyond (see detail in image below). (Most of the statues depicted in Gauguin’s Tahitian works are based on photographs of Buddhist and Hindu statues from Asia; indigenous Polynesian religious imagery had been almost completely eradicated by Christian missionaries by the time Gauguin arrived.) The painting is symbolic, not naturalistic; anticipating the Fauvists, the bold colors are designed to evoke emotional reactions and access deeper truths, not represent superficial surface reality. The same can be said of the figures, who are not grounded, but appear to float about without paying attention to the rules of perspective. When he was finished, Gauguin was pleased; he described the painting as a “philosophical work on a theme comparable to that of the Gospel.” The work is considered a masterpiece, but it was not a final statement. Gauguin did attempt suicide soon after completing the piece by taking arsenic, but he was unsuccessful (although some believe it was a publicity stunt); he lived on until 1903, when he finally succumbed to syphilis.
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193. The Dance

Artist: Henri Matisse
Date: The Dance (I) was made in 1909. The Dance (II) was made in 1910.
Period/Style: Expressionism; Fauvism; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 8.5 ft. tall by 12.8 ft. wide
Current locations: The Dance (I) is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. The Dance (II) is at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
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Art historians are obsessed with influence: where did Artist A get the idea for X? Did it come from Artist B? The art historical approach to Henri Matisse’s The Dance begins with a 1786 watercolor by William Blake, Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing., which shows a circle of five dancers (see third image below); the composition resembles The Dance, although no one really knows if Matisse ever saw the Blake. Others relay a story by Matisse or someone who knew him that he was inspired by watching a group of fisherman dancing a traditional Catalan dance in the south of France. In any case, a circle of dancers (six, not five) first appears in the background of Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life) in 1906. The next chapter in the story comes from Russia, where art collector Sergey Shchukin commissioned Matisse to paint two large canvases for the stairway of his new home representing Dance and Music (Matisse’s Music is shown below right). First Matisse made a full-size preparatory sketch, which is now in New York (see image at below left). He reduced the circle of dancers from six to five and placed them in a featureless landscape with a pure green earth and a pure blue sky. To create the final, commissioned version, he drew the figures with more internal markings, changed the flesh tones of the dancers to red and changed some of their postures (see image above). (Matisse’s role as one of the founders of Fauvism comes through in the choice of colors; for the Fauves, color should express not the surface reality, but the emotional reality beneath the surface.) The changes turn the playful (even joyful) ambiance of the sketch into frenzied primitive energy of the final version. In both versions, the two dancers close to us reach out for one another but do not touch. (By having this gap take place over another dancer’s leg, Matisse maintains a consistent band of color.) The bold simplified color scheme and loosely drawn figures, together with the lack of genuine perspective (the dancers farthest from the viewer are the same size as the closest figures), create a sense of flatness and two-dimensionality. The lack of individuality and absence of any detail that would place the scene in reality lead us to wonder if we are seeing mythical Golden Age, or a glimpse into an otherworldly realm. Some have made comparisons to the orgiastic rituals depicted in Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. As the curator at the Hermitage Museum wrote, “The frenzy of the pagan bacchanalia is embodied in the powerful, stunning accord of red, blue and green, uniting Man, Heaven and Earth.” Scholars and art historians have long debated the meaning of the gap in the circle, where the hands of the dancers closest to us do not meet. Some say it is a tribute to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Others propose that it signals an unresolved tension among the dancers – a sense of incompleteness. I prefer the interpretation that the opening in the circle at the spot closest to the viewer is an invitation for us to join in the dance.Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (489) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (490)
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194. The Dream

Artist: Henri Rousseau
Date: 1910
Period/Style: Naïve Art; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 6.7 ft. tall by 9.8 ft. wide
Current location: Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (492)
Picasso and other modernists celebrated Henri Rousseau as a French-born primitive, whose naïve folk art, with its ignorance of human anatomy and the rules of perspective, unconsciously aligned with their own theories about art. But the art establishment and the public at large ridiculed Rousseau’s work and derided the retired tax collector as a no-talent amateur. All this changed in the spring of 1910, when Rousseau exhibited The Dream, a large canvas showing a jungle scene. Rousseau’s only experience of the jungle consisted in his frequent visits to the museums, zoos and botanical gardens of Paris, where he could see lions, monkeys and exotic plants from around the world. According to Rousseau himself, who wrote a poem to accompany The Dream, the nude woman lying on the sofa is a woman from his past – a Polish émigré named Jadwigha – who is asleep in her Paris apartment dreaming of a jungle filled with wild beasts and a snake charmer playing a tune on a musical instrument. As with Rousseau’s prior work (which included at least 25 jungle scenes), the animals and plants are not realistic; instead, he has stylized them into decorative motifs in a way that reminds us of advertising and interior design. The surreal juxtapositions of objects (the sofa in the jungle) was later admired by the Surrealists, who sought to paint dream landscapes. Unlike his earlier works, Rousseau’s The Dream attracted widespread praise from all corners. It is not clear whether the change resulted from the nature of the painting – with its grand simplicity of composition and generous attention to detail and color (there are dozens of shades of green, for example) – or whether it was just that the time was right for the public to appreciate Rousseau’s style. The acclamation came too late, however. Rousseau died a few months after the 1910 exhibition; The Dream was the last canvas he ever painted.

195. The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street

Artist: Giorgio de Chirico
Date: 1914
Period/Style: Metaphysical Art; Italy
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.8 ft. tall by 2.3 ft. wide
Current location: Private collection
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Before Surrealism, there was Metaphysical Art. Founded by Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà, Metaphysical Art contrasted a crisp, classical approach to painting (rejecting both Impressionism and Cubism) but invested their scenes with a sense of mystery, melancholy, enigma, and foreboding. Unrelated and incongruous objects inhabit desolate city squares with stark contrasts between light and shadow. Raised in Greece to Italian parents, Giorgio de Chirico adored classical art and architecture. He attended art school in Germany, where he became acquainted with (but ultimately rejected) the Symbolism of artists like Arnold Böcklin. He moved to Paris in the 1910s and began painting eerie views of imaginary Italian piazzas, such as the one we see in Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. De Chirico presents the viewer with an Italian square that looks real and unreal at the same time. A girl, who appears in silhouette, almost a shadow of herself, rolls a hoop past an abandoned train car with open doors toward the source of the light, but also toward an ominous shadow of what may be a friend, an enemy, or just a statue. De Chirico deliberately chose very different perspectival vanishing points for the Renaissance-style arched buildings on the right and left, and while the only source of light appears to be the late afternoon sun coming from the top of the painting (casting dark, ominous shadows), there is a second, unseen light source illuminating the open-doored vehicle. The overall effect is that of a dream (or nightmare), an effect that the surrealists would adopt in their works.

196. Monument to the Third International (Tatlin’s Tower)

Artist: Vladimir Tatlin
Date: 1919-1920
Period/Style: Constructivism; Soviet Union; architectural model
Medium: The planned building would have been made of glass, wood and steel. The scale model was made of wood.
Dimensions: The scale model was 13.8 ft tall and 9.8 ft in circumference. The planned building would have been 1,300 ft. tall.
Current location: The monument was never built and the original scale model has been dismantled.
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The greatest work of Soviet architecture was never actually built. In 1919, Vladimir Tatlin designed theMonument to the Third International – a huge structure that would have served as both a monument to the Bolshevik Revolution and also as the headquarters for the International Communist Party. Made from glass, wood and steel, the building would have housed four separate rotating modules suspended within a massive outer framework, each with its own designated function. The lowest level would be a cube for meetings and conferences that completed one rotation in a year; above it, a pyramid with executive offices that would take a month to rotate; the next level would be a cylindrical information center that completed a rotation every day; the top would have been a hemisphere housing radio equipment. The entire structure would have been over 1,300 ft tall. In 1920, Tevel Shapiro, Sofia Dymsh*ts-Tolstaia, Iosif Meerzon, and Pavel Vinogradov constructed a scale model of the structure under Tatlin’s direction, which only survives in photographs (see image above). Several attempts to reconstruct Tatlin’s Tower (as some have called it) have been made, including a 1979 version as part of the Moscow-Paris exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art at the Pompidou Center in Paris (see image below left) and a 1:42 scale model at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London, from 2011 (see image below right).
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197. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)

Artist: Marcel Duchamp
Date: 1915-1923
Period/Style: Dada; Conceptual Art; France
Medium: Construction made with oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, dust, and glass panels
Dimensions: 9.1 ft. tall by 5.8 ft. wide by 3.4 in. deep
Current location: The original is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Three authorized replicas are at: Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden (1961); the Tate Modern in London (1966) and the Komaba Museum in Tokyo.
Marcel Duchamp worked on The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass), for eight years before finally concluding that it was “definitively unfinished” but ready to exhibit. The artwork was the result of conscious planning and chance events, and although Duchamp created an elaborate explanation for it, he also believed that the viewer’s judgment on the meaning of art was more important than the artist’s intentions. (One art history textbook describes the work as an “insoluble enigma” that was “intended to be so.”) When the piece sat unfinished in his studio for years, it accumulated dust. Duchamp brushed a layer of varnish over the dust to memorialize the passage of time. Then, after a 1926-1927 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, the large piece was damaged in transport, creating swirls of cracks in the glass. Now, Duchamp concluded, after the fortuitous intervention of chance, the piece was truly finished. He patched up the pieces, added a clear layer of glass to each side and enclosed it all in an aluminum frame. According to Duchamp’s (intentionally?) obscure notes, the work represents a conflict between the insect-like Bride in the upper panel (the Bride’s Domain), who is separated from the nine Bachelors (who look like hanging suits of clothes) in the lower panel and their odd machine (the Bachelor’s Apparatus). Duchamp’s notes speak of a state of perpetual desire and various erotic proceedings. The work, not truly either sculpture or painting (although some of the pieces are painted), changes with the changing light and based on who or what is visible on the other side of the glass (such as a Vogue model – see image below for a 1945 magazine cover featuring The Large Glass.) Like a window, the Large Glass blocks our passage (to go past it we must go around it), allows us to see it for itself, to see what is on the other side of it, and to see ourselves in its reflection.
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198. The Human Condition

Artist: René Magritte
Dates: Version I: 1933; Version II: 1935
Period/Style: Surrealism; Belgium
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: Each canvas is 3.2 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide
Current locations: Version I: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Version II: Simon Spierer Collection, Geneva, Switzerland
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (500)
The paintings of Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, whose hyperrealistic painting style owes its origin in part to Magritte’s early years as an advertising artist, are both witty and eerily unsettling. Magritte gave the name The Human Condition to two different paintings with the same theme (and the same size), made two years apart. In both works, we see what is apparently a completed painting on an easel. In the first, we are looking through a curtained window (windows feature in many of Magritte’s works, almost always seen from inside looking out) onto a somewhat bland landscape; in the second, we are looking through an archway onto a (also somewhat bland) seascape. In both works, the painting on the canvas both blocks our view of the actual landscape, while also recreating and blending with that landscape perfectly, an effect achieved through a deft manipulation of the rules of linear perspective. The paintings ask questions about both the nature of perception and the nature of art. Magritte draws on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein to posit that when we look at the world, what we see is not the reality (Kant’s noumena, or “thing-in-itself”), but a mental representation of that outside world that exists only inside our heads. Yet we persist in taking the mental picture for the real thing. This conflict – the impossible desire to perceive the world outside our minds, and the lie we tell ourselves that our perceptions put us in contact with that external reality – is the human condition. But Magritte is also commenting on the issues raised by Matisse and Picasso and their modernist followers. We assume that the landscapes on the canvases in these paintings block the “real” landscape behind them, but do they? Why do we believe that we know what we will see if the easels are removed? Both the “real” landscape and the landscape on the easel are painted. Neither is real and so neither needs to follow any of the physical rules that apply to external reality (that is, external to the painter’s canvas). Just as a mental picture of a thing is not the thing-in-itself, a painting of that thing is also a kind of lie. Magritte is reminding us that traditional perspectival painting (the kind that Magritte is using here) is a lie – not only is it impossible for a two dimensional canvas to reproduce nature’s three-dimensionality, but any attempt to represent external reality in a work of art must fail. Art, then, merely makes overt a delusion that is normally covert: we cannot gain direct access to the world of our perceptions, whether we perceive reality or artistic representations of reality.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (501)

199. Christina’s World

Artist: Andrew Wyeth
Date: 1948
Period/Style: Contemporary Realism; US
Medium: Egg tempera on a gessoed wood panel
Dimensions: 2.7 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide
Current location: Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (502)
Why is it that, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York not long ago published a list of the most important works of art in its collection, American artist Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting Christina’s World (which MOMA bought in 1948) was not mentioned? Probably because, although Christina’s World is beloved by many members of the public as a beautifully understated and profoundly moving painting, many critics and art historians find the work drab, kitschy and overly sentimental. Wyeth met Anna Christina Olson in the 1940s on one of his summer trips to Cushing, Maine, where Olson and her brother lived in a picturesque farmhouse on a hill. When Wyeth first saw Olson, he watched from a window while she, 55 years old at the time, slowly crawled across a field up to the house. Wyeth and his wife Betsy befriended Christina, who had a degenerative muscle disorder (possibly polio), and did not want to use a wheelchair, and he eventually decided to paint a scene with a composite figure that would represent Christina’s dignity and struggle. For the figure’s legs, torso and head, Wyeth used Betsy, then in her mid-20s, as the model. An aunt sat as the model for the figure’s hair, and Christina herself modeled for the figure’s arms and hands. Wyeth rearranged the buildings of the farm to more properly balance the asymmetrical composition. Employing a style known as magic realism, Wyeth recorded the arid landscape, rural house, and shacks with great detail, painting minute blades of grass, individual strands of hair, and nuances of light and shadow. Known for his muted palette, Wyeth’s use of pink in Christina’s dress, while conservative by Expressionist standards, emerges as a shock of vibrant color against the surrounding landscape. Wyeth’s subdued tones were in part a result of his choice of materials. In 1942, he switched from oil paints to quick-drying egg tempera, the medium of choice in Medieval Europe.

200. Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)

Artist: Jackson Pollock
Date: 1950
Period/Style: Abstract Expressionism; Action Painting; New York
Medium: Oil paints, enamel and aluminum on an untreated canvas
Dimensions: 7.25 ft. tall by 9.8 ft. wide
Current location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (503)
The center of artistic innovation moved across the Atlantic from Paris to New York after World War II, and the dominant style (really a collection of styles) of the postwar years acquired the name Abstract Expressionism, because, like the Expressionists, these artists used art as a means to express ideas and emotional truths without concern for realistic representation, and because, like the Abstract artists, their artworks rarely depicted figures or objects from the external world. Jackson Pollock was one of a subset of Abstract Expressionists known as Action Painters, because they believed that the act of creating the artwork was the artwork. The resulting painting or sculpture was, in effect, a byproduct of the process, like a documentary film of a performance. Pollock grew up in the American Southwest and he was fascinated by Navajo sand painters, for whom the meticulous creation of abstract patterns with sand served a religious purpose. Pollock eventually gave up traditional painting methods and began to lay unprimed canvases on the floor of his studio and stand over them, flinging or dripping paint onto the surface. Nineteen fifty was a watershed year for Jackson Pollock and his new way of painting. His solo exhibition at Betty Parsons’ gallery in 1951 included the painting shown above, then entitled Number 30. When the same painting was exhibited at Sidney Janis Gallery in 1955, Pollock had changed the title to Autumn Rhythm. Pollock beganAutumn Rhythm and his other large paintings from 1950 by first laying down a linear architecture with black paint on an unprimed canvas, and then applying successive overlayers using various colors. Autumn Rhythm‘s palette is limited to black, white, and muted shades of gray, brown, green and turquoise. The emphasis is less on color than on the interplay of line and the contrasts between the linear structure and the areas of overlapping and pooling paint.

On 6 Lists

201. The Lion Man/Woman of Hohlenstein-Stadel

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 38,000 BCE
Period/Style: Aurignacian culture; Upper Paleolithic, Germany
Medium: Ivory from mammoth tusk
Dimensions: 11.7 inches tall, 2.2 inches wide and 2.3 inches deep
Current location: Ulmer Museum, Ulm, Germany
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (504)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (505)
In 1939, Dr. Robert Wetzel was excavating caves in the German Alps where people of the Aurignacian culture lived 45,000-35,000 years ago during the Upper Paleolithic Era when he noticed something unusual. In theStadel-Höhle Cave in Hohlenstein, Wetzel andOtto Völzingfound approximately 200 fragments of ivory from a mammoth tusk that showed signs of carving, but due to the outbreak of World War II they had little time to study their find. No further study occurred for 30 years when, in 1969, Dr. Joachim Hahn was able to reassemble the ivory fragments into a standing figure with the characteristics of both a human and an animal (specifically, a cave lion). Hahn believed it was a male figure. Carbon dating of nearby organic material placed the approximate date of the figurine at 30,000 BCE. After more fragments were found in the previously-excavated material, archaeologist Elisabeth Schmid conducted additional reconstruction in 1989. Schmid believed the figure was female. Then, in 2010, scientists returned to the original cave and found 1000 additional fragments. Scientists removed the glue and filler from the 1989 reconstruction and put the figurine together again with the new fragments included. The development of more sophisticated dating techniques has led scientists to revise the date of the figure to about 38,000 BCE, which would make theLion Mannot only the oldest zoomorphic sculpture ever found, but one of the oldest known figurative sculptures of any kind. TheLion Man, which was carved using a flint stone knife, is one of the largest figurines from this era. As for the purpose of the figurine, scholars have put forth various theories: some say it represents a man-lion god; others say it is a charm for hunting or avoiding predation; others believe it represents a shaman wearing a lion mask; but there is no consensus..

202. Cave Paintings, Chauvet Cave

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 30,000-28,000 BCE
Period/Style: Aurignacian culture; Paleolithic, France
Medium: Paintings and drawings on rock cave walls
Dimensions: 750 square feet
Current location: Ardèche, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (506)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (507)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (508)
The Chauvet Cave, which contains hundreds of paintings by Paleolithic humans, was discovered by three French speleologists led by Jean-Marie Chauvet in 1994. Due to the fragile nature of the art, the cave is closed to the public, although Werner Herzog was able to bring in a film crew to make his mesmerizing 2010 documentaryCave of Forgotten Dreams. Almost all the paintings are of animals: 13 species are depicted, including some that are extinct. Unlike most cave paintings, a significant number of predator animals are depicted (e.g., cave lions, panthers, bears and cave hyenas), and there are scenes of animals interacting, such as two woolly rhinoceroses fighting. Some of the techniques used are also unusual. For example, the artists prepared the rock surface before painting by scraping off debris; they also etched around the outlines of some figures to create a three dimensional effect. In addition to animal figures, the artists made red hand prints and hand stencils, and painted abstract markings throughout the caves. While theories for the purpose of the paintings abound, the scientific community has been unable to reach consensus.

203. Bison Licking Insect Bite (Bison with Turned Head)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 18,000-10,000 BCE
Period/Style: Magdalenian culture; Upper Paleolithic, France
Medium: Carved reindeer antler made into spear thrower
Dimensions: 4.1 inches long
Current location: Musée des Antiquités Nationales, St. Germain-en-Laye, France.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (509)
At some point between 18,000 and 10,000 BCE, a member of the Upper Paleolithic Magdalenian culture made a spear thrower out of a reindeer antler. In 1912, three boys found a fragment of the spear thrower at Abri de la Madeleine in the foothills of the Pyrenees, at the spot where the Volp River disappears underground, near Tursac in Dordogne, France. The artist used the natural contour of the antler to carve a bison – one of a now-extinct species known a a steppe wisent(Bison priscus) – with his head turned back and its tongue sticking out in light relief so it appears that it is licking or biting an insect bite on its back. In the words of art historian Frederick Hartt, “the head, turning to look backward, is convincingly alive, with its open mouth, wide eye, mane, and furry ruff indicated by firm, sure incisions. The projections are so slight that the relief approaches the nature of drawing.”

204. Cave Paintings, Altamira Cave

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 13,000-11,000 BCE
Period/Style: Lower Magdalenian culture; Paleolithic, Spain
Medium: Paintings and drawings on cave walls
Current location: Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain
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Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (511)
In 1879, amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola brought his eight-year-old daughter Maria while exploring the recently discovered Altamira Cave, near Santillana del Mar in Cantabria in the north of Spain. At one point, Maria shouted, “Daddy, there are painted bulls on the ceiling!” Together, the de Sautuolas had discovered the first known prehistoric cave paintings. The sophistication of the artwork was such that the traditional archaeological establishment rejected the notion that these remarkable paintings were made by primitive humans and de Sautuola was accused of forgery. It wasn’t until after other cave paintings were discovered that, in 1902, the Altamira cave paintings were accepted as authentic. Scholars believe that the cave was inhabited during two periods: the Upper Solutrean, about 16,500 BCE, and the Lower Magdalenian, between 14,500 and 12,000 BCE, and that most of the painting occurred during the latter period. The cave is best known for its polychrome paintings of bison and other animals on a ceiling, using pigments made from charcoal, ochre and haematite. By using the contours of the cave and using water to dilute the pigments into lighter and darker shades, the artists manage to create three-dimensional and chiaroscuro effects that were not rediscovered until the Renaissance. While most of the painting dates from between 13,000 and 11,000 BCE, when a rock collapse closed the entrance of the cave, scientists recently dated a claviform (club-shaped) marking to 33,600 BCE, long before the other dates given for habitation and painting of the cave. After years of tourism, the carbon dioxide in the breath of visitors began to damage the paintings, and Spain closed the cave in 1977, only to reopen it in 1982 with much restricted access. Recently, the associated museum created a complete replica of the cave and its paintings for safer viewing.

205. Seated Woman of Çatal Hüyük

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 6000 BCE
Period/Style: Çatalhöyük settlement; Neolithic; Turkey
Medium: Baked clay (head and right arm rest are restorations)
Dimensions: 6.5 inches tall
Current location: Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey
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The figurine known as theSeated Woman of Çatal Hüyük is made of baked clay and was sculpted in a large Neolithic settlement in southwestern Turkey. Archaeologist James Mellaart discovered the sculpture in 1961 while excavating Çatal Hüyük (also spelled Çatalhöyük), which was occupied from 7500-5700 BCE. Most scholars agree that the sculpture depicts a fertile Earth Mother goddess in the act of giving birth, as she sits on a throne with arm rests in the shape of leopards or panthers. The head and right arm rest were missing from the original, and have been replaced with restorations. The Çatal Hüyük figure bears a striking resemblance to images of the Earth Mother goddess Cybele, a focus of worship in the 1st Millennium BCE (see 4th Century BCE statue of Cybele from Turkey in image below). There is no consensus among scholars about whether there is a direct link between Cybele and the Çatal Hüyük figure.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (513)

206. The Thinker of Cernavoda (Ganditorul)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 5000 BCE
Period/Style: Hamangia culture; Late Neolithic; Romania/Bulgaria
Medium: Terracotta (unglazed clay ceramic)
Dimensions: 4.5 inches tall
Current location: National Museum of Romania, Bucharest, Romania
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (514)
TheThinker of Cernavoda(also known as theThinker of HamangiaandGanditorul) is a sculpture of a sitting human figure resting his head on his hands in what appears to be a contemplative gesture. This and a companion figurine of a sitting woman (see image below) were made by one or more artists of the late Neolithic Hamangia culture, which occupied much of what is now Romania and Bulgaria between 5250 and 4500 BCE. The Hamangian settlement at Cernavoda, where the figurines were found in 1956, contained a large necropolis, or cemetery. The Thinkeris made of terracotta, a ceramic made of clay, and is unglazed. Unlike many sculptures from the same period, theThinkerand theSitting Womancontain no ornamentation or engravings; instead, their surfaces are smooth. They are also among the few prehistoric art objects that do not appear to relate to either fertility or hunting.
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207. Cycladic Figurines

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 3300-2300 BCE
Period/Style: Early Cycladic I & II, Cyclades Islands/Aegean (Greece)
Medium: Marble figurines
Dimensions: c. 12-24 inches tall
Current location: Various collections
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (516)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (517)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (518)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (519)
The people living in the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean Sea began sculpting human figures out of marble some time after the year 5000 BCE and they continued to make the objects for the next 3000 years. Different styles and subjects evolved, but the most typical Cycladic figurine is a female with her arms folded in front of her and an etched pubic triangle. Some of the figures are naturalistic but many of them are stylized and schematic. Experts debate the meaning and use of the figures. All were found buried in tombs. Some link them to the older Venus figurines and call them idols, but most dispute that characterization. Four examples are shown:
1. (top left) Marble figurine from Naxos, Louros type (3200–2800 BCE); Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England, UK;
2. (top right) Marble figurine from Crete, Koumasa variety (2800–2200 BCE); Archaeological Museum of Chania, Crete, Greece
3. (bottom left) Marble figurine, attributed to the Bastis Master, Spedos type (c. 2600-2400 BCE), measuring 24 3/4 inches tall; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
4. (bottom right) Marble figurine from Syros, Greece (2600-2300 BCE); 18 inches tall; National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece.

208. Mohenjo-Daro Seals

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 2600-1900 BCE
Period/Style: Bronze Age; Indus Valley Civilization
Medium: Carved squares, mostly made of baked steatite
Dimensions: The seals range in size from 0.75 to 1.75 in. square.
Current locations: Various collections, including the National Museum, New Delhi, India
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (520)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (521)
A highly urbanized culture known variously as the Indus Valley, Harappa or Indus-Sarasvati civilization flourished in what is now India and Pakistan from 2600-1900 BCE. In 1922, Indian archaeologist Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay discovered the ruins of the city of Mohenjo-Daro, a major Indus Valley civilization urban center, in what is now Pakistan. Excavation of these ruins uncovered thousands of small square seals containing carvings of pictographic scripts and bas relief carvings, usually of animals, occasionally humans or animal-human composites (see top image). There are at least 400 different signs on the seals, but scholars have so far been unable to decipher the script. Some seals have a loop on the reverse side, allowing users to carry the seals around their necks. Scholars believe that the seals were used to make impressions in wax to identify one’s possessions or were used in commercial transactions. The Pashupati Seal (see second image above) depicts a man or god surrounded by animals. Some believe the seal is one of the earliest depictions of the Hindu god Shiva, or is a proto-Shiva precursor.

209. Stonehenge

Artists: Unknown
Date: 3100-2600 BCE (earthworks and timber works); 2600-2400 BCE (major stone work); 2400-1600 BCE (later phases of stone work)
Period/Style: Neolithic, England
Medium: dressed and carved bluestone and limestone
Dimensions: 108 ft diameter stone circle; each standing stone is 13 ft. tall, almost 7 ft. wide, 3.5 ft. thick and weighs 25 tons; the lintels are 10 ft. long, 3.2 ft. wide and 2.6 ft. thick; the bluestones are 6.6 ft tall, 3-5 ft wide, and 2.6 ft thick.
Current location: Salisbury Plain, England, UK
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (522)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (523)
Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument composed of earthworks and stones that is set on Salisbury Plain in the west of England. The original circular earth bank and ditch, with an opening to the northeast, date to 3100 BCE, while erection of most of the stones probably occurred between 2600 BCE and 2400 BCE. Further rearrangements of the smaller bluestones continued until 1600 BCE. The purpose of Stonehenge is much debated among scholars. Some say it is an astronomical observatory due to its alignment with the summer solstice; others that it is a temple for sacred rites of healing or death. There is evidence of many prehistoric burials at or near the site and a long avenue that connects it with another prehistoric site. The standing stones at Stonehenge appear to be descended from an earlier tradition of standing timber structures, remnants of which have been found at Stonehenge and elsewhere. The builders switched from timber to stone in about 2600 BCE, beginning with bluestones measuring about 6.6 ft. tall, 3-5 ft. wide and 2.6 ft. thick. Later, the builders began using much larger sarsens, made of limestone, to create the famous sarsen circle. Given this history of working with wood, it is not surprising that the techniques used to link the stones come directly from carpentry. Mortise and tenon joints allow the horizontal lintel stones to fit snugly atop the standing stones. In addition, the lintels themselves were fitted to each other using tongue and groove joints. The stones were dressed to create either a smooth or dimpled surface. The surfaces of the stones that face the inside of the circle are smoother than the outer surfaces. To maintain perspective, each standing stone widens toward the top and the lintels are shaped to curve slightly. There are 30 standing stones and 30 lintels (many of them fallen) in the circle. Those who have studied the ruins do not believe that the circle of stones was ever completed, despite numerous imaginative paintings to that effect. Inside the stone circle were five trilithons (each consisting of two standing stones capped by a lintel) arranged in a horseshoe shape. These are larger than the stones in the circle, ranging from 20-24 ft. tall. At the very center lies a stone known as the Altar Stone, which dates to the time of the bluestones. At the northeastern entrance stood Portal Stones, only one of which remains, although it has fallen. Farther from the circle are four Station Stones and the Heelstone, which is located beyond the entrance (see aerial view below). How the prehistoric people moved the heavy stones from locations that ranged from 10-125 miles away is the source of much speculation but no certainty.
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210. Mask of Agamemnon

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 1550-1500 BCE
Period/Style: Bronze Age; Mycenaen culture; Greece
Medium: The mask consists of a thick sheet of gold that was heated and then hammered against a piece of wood, then carved with a sharp tool.
Dimensions: 12 inches tall
Current location:National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (525)German-American businessman and self-taught archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann became famous in 1873 for finding the ruins of a city in Turkey that he claimed was Troy, the scene of the Trojan War and Homer’sIliad. On his next expedition, he went to the ruins of Mycenae, where, according to Ancient Greek historian Pausanias, the remains of Agamemnon, the Greek leader against the Trojans, were buried. In 1876, Schliemann discovered two large graves at Mycenae containing the remains of a number of individuals, as well as weapons and other artifacts. Five of the bodies had sculpted gold funeral masks covering their faces. Holes in the ears probably held twine to attach the mask to the head. One of these masks was more elaborately carved than the others. Schliemann decided that this more sophisticated mask, with the beard and handlebar mustache, was the face of Agamemnon himself. Unfortunately for Schliemann, the date of the graves is about 300 years prior to the probable date of the Trojan War. (Nevertheless, the object is traditionally referred to as the Mask of Agamemnon.) In recent years, some scholars have questioned the authenticity of the mask, based on Schliemann’s prior unethical behavior (for example, the ‘Troy’ he found was probably not the real Troy) and significant differences between the mask and other Mycenaen funeral masks and sculpture. Others have defended the mask as a genuine example of Mycenean art.

211. Lamassu (Human-headed Winged Bulls and Lions)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 883-859 BCE (Ashunasirpal II’s palace); c. 710-705 BCE (Sargon II’s palace)
Period/Style: Neo-Assyrian Empire; Iraq
Medium: Carved gypsum alabaster
Dimensions: A pair lamassu from Ashunasirpal’s palace are 10.3 ft. tall by 10.1 ft. long. The lamassu from Sargon’s palace range from 13.8 ft. tall by 14.3 ft. long to 16 ft. tall by 16 ft. long.
Current locations: The Musée du Louvre in Paris has a pair of forward-facing lamassu and a sideways-facing lamassu from Sargon II’s palace; the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago has a sideways-facing lamassu from Sargon II’s palace. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a pair of lamassu (one bull and one lion) from Ashurnasirpal II’s palace at Nimrud.
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Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (527)
A lamassu or shedu is a winged, human-headed bull or lion god whose image was used to protect the entrances to the palaces of Assyrian kings during the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which flourished in northern Mesopotamia (parts of modern day Iraq, Syria and Turkey) from 911-605 BCE. The intimidating lamassu were intended to frighten intruders and convey the king’s power as well as serve as architectural supports. Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal (reigned 883-859 BCE) had lamassu carved in high relief from blocks of gypsum alabaster for the entrance to his palace in his capital city of Nimrud. When Sargon II (reigned 722-705 BCE) build a new capital city at Dur-Sharrukin (modern day Khorsabad), the main entranceways to Sargon II’s palace were protected by pairs of even larger lamassu than those from Nimrud. While the lamassu at Sargon’s palace all follow the same basic pattern, there are some variations. Some of the lamassu look straight ahead, while some look to the side. Some have the hooves of bulls, while some have lions’ paws. In all cases, the lamassu have five legs – this allows them to appear steady and firm when viewed from the front, but striding forward when seen from the side. Sargon II’s plans for Dur-Sharrukin were never completed. The king was killed in battle in 705 BCE and his successor moved the capital to Nineveh, abandoning Dun-Sharrukin to the desert sands. The images show:
1. (top) a pair of forward-facing lamassu bulls from Sargon II’s palace, now at the Louvre in Paris;
2. (second image above) a sideways-facing lamassu bull from Sargon II’s palace, now at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; and
3. (below) a forward-facing lamassu lion from Ashuirnasirpal’s palace, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
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212. Euphronios Krater (Sarpedon Krater)

Artists: Euphronios (painter) and Euxitheos (potter)
Date: c. 515 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: late Archaic period; Pioneer Group style
Medium: Painted terra cotta krater (a krater is a bowl used to mix wine with water)
Dimensions: 18 in. tall and 21.7 in. in diameter
Current location: National Etruscan Museum, Rome, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (529)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (530)
Ancient Greek artist Euphronios was famous in his day for painting scenes on pottery, but only one of his works has survived intact: the Euphronios Krater (also known as the Sarpedon Krater). The terracotta krater (a krater is a bowl used to mix wine with water), which has a 12-gallon capacity, was made by the potter Euxitheos. Painted in the red-figure style (red figures on black background), one side of the krater depicts the death of Sarpedon, a son of Zeus who fought for Troy in the Trojan War, showing the god Hermes directing Sleep and Death to carry Sarpedon’s body to Greece for burial (see top image above). The other side shows 6th Century Athenian youths arming themselves for war (see second image above). Euphronios was considered a late Archaic painter and member of the Pioneer Group, known for its naturalistic style and anatomical accuracy. The krater was found in an Etruscan tomb near Cerveteri, Italy in 1971 (evidence of Greek-Italian trade networks) and was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1972. In 2006, after it became clear that the item had been looted, the Met agreed to return the krater to Italy, where it was put on display in 2008.

213. Kritios Boy

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 480 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: Early Classical/Severe Period
Medium: Marble sculpture
Dimensions: 3.8 ft. tall
Current location: Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece
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The free-standing marble nude known as Kritios Boy (for its resemblance to the work of Greek sculptor Kritios) marks the end of the Archaic Period in Ancient Greek art and the beginning of the Classical Period. Kritios Boy embodies a significant development from the Archaic kouros statues of a century before, with their stiff stances, idealized symmetry, direct gazes and impersonal smiles (see image below of a kouros, dated 590-580 BCE, from Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Kritios Boy is the first statue known to stand in a naturalistic contrapposto pose, with the weight on one leg, the other free to bend, and all the anatomically accurate shifts of muscle and bone that accompany such a stance. The non-smiling figure does not meet the viewer’s eye, but seems lost in thought, perhaps about to move. According to art historian Thomas Sakoulas, “With the Kritios Boy the Greek artist has mastered a complete understanding of how the different parts of the body act as a system.” Some art historians have connected the rise of lifelike sculpture celebrating the perfectability of the human form at about this time with political developments in which the city-state of Athens has developed democratic government and, in 490 BCE, united the other Greek polities to defeat the Persians.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (532)

214. The Farnese Hercules

Artist: Lysippos (Greek bronze original); Glykon (Roman marble copy)
Date: 370-310 BCE (Greek bronze original); c. 216-218 CE (Roman marble copy)
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: Late Classical or Early Hellenistic Period
Medium: bronze sculpture (Ancient Greek original); marble sculpture (Ancient Roman copy)
Dimensions: The Roman marble copy is 10.3 ft. tall; the Greek bronze original was probably closer to life-size.
Current location: Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (533)
The original 4th Century BCE Greek bronze statue of Hercules by Classical Period sculptor Lysippos was melted down by the Crusaders in the 13th Century. Of the many copies (in both bronze and marble) from Ancient Rome, the one considered closest to the original in quality is theFarnese Hercules, a marble statue that was made by Glykon of Athens in the early 3rd Century CE for the Baths of Caracalla in Rome (see image above). The sculpture shows a weary Hercules resting on his club, over which is draped the skin of the Nemean lion (referencing his first labor); behind his back he holds the immortality-giving apples of the Hesperides (referencing his eleventh labor) (see detail in first image below). The sculpture balances the heroism of the mythic figure with his humanity. It was rediscovered in 1546 (in various pieces) and was soon thereafter purchased by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who placed it in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. It remained there until 1787, when it was moved to its current home in Naples. When the Farnese Hercules was first discovered, it was legless, so Guglielmo della Porta was commissioned to sculpt legs in 1560. Even though the original marble legs were soon discovered nearby, Michelangelo persuaded the Farnese family to keep the new legs to prove that contemporary sculptors were just as good as those of ancient times. The Farnese Hercules with della Porta’s legs can be seen in a print made from an engraving by Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius, who visited Rome in 1592 (see image below left). The original legs were not restored to their owner until 1787. An older but much smaller bronze copy (1.4 ft. tall), from either 3rd Century Hellenist Greece or 1st Century CE Rome, known as Hercules Resting, was found at Fogliano, Umbria, Italy in the late 19th Century and is now in the Louvre (see image below right).
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (534)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (535) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (536)

215. Hermes and the Infant Dionysus (Hermes of Praxiteles)

Artist: Some art historians attribute the sculpture to the renowned Ancient Greek sculptor Praxiteles, but others disagree.
Date: c. 350-330 BCE
Period/Style: Ancient Greece: Late Classical Period
Medium: The statue is sculpted from a single block of Parian marble; the base is made of limestone and marble blocks
Dimensions: The statue stands nearly 7 ft. tall; the base is 5 ft. tall.
Current location: National Archaeological Museum, Olympia, Greece
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Near the end of the 3rd Century CE, an earthquake struck the Temple of Hera at Olympia, Greece, collapsing the roof and burying the artwork within under tons of rubble. In 1877, archaeologists exploring the site uncovered a Classical Period Greek marble statue of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus. According to myth, Hermes protected Dionysus (son of Zeus and the mortal woman Semele) from the wrath of Zeus’s wife Hera. The sculpture shows Hermes playing with the young Dionysus by dangling something (probably a bunch of grapes) just out of his reach. The front of the head and torso are very highly polished, although the back and other areas are unfinished. There is evidence that the statue was painted and that parts were covered in gold leaf. The sculpture displays a naturalism and intimacy (almost sentimentality) that are absent from earlier Classical Greek art. Hermes stands in an unbalanced, exaggerated contrapposto that is almost an S-curve and the entire composition shows a sensuousness of form and playfulness of subject that was not previously associated with portraits of the gods.

216. Nazca Lines

Artists: Unknown
Date: c. 200 BCE to 500 CE
Period/Style: Nazca Culture; Nazca Desert, Peru
Medium: The designs were made by removing reddish iron-oxide-coated pebbles from the ground, uncovering the lighter lime-filled clay beneath. The clay combined with mist to form a hard erosion-resistant layer.
Dimensions: The artworks are spread over a 190 sq. mi. area. The monkey is 310 ft. by 190 ft.; the condor is 446 feet long; and the spider (ant?) is 150 ft. long.
Current location: Nazca Desert, southern Peru.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (538)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (539)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (540)Over a period of 700 years, members of the Nazca culture in southern Peru drew 70 depictions of animals and plants, 300 geometric figures, and over 800 straight lines in the Peruvian desert. Although some of these geoglyphs can be made out from nearby hills, the full effect of the figures can only be obtained from the air. The purpose of the lines is unclear: some of the lines may mark the rising and setting of the sun and other heavenly bodies; others may have been designed to communicate with gods living in the sky, to designate paths to places of worship, or to plead with the gods for water. Erich von Daniken’s theory that the lines were made by alien astronauts has been thoroughly debunked. The Nazca Desert was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

217. The Battle of Issus (Alexander Mosaic)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 100 BCE
Period/Style: Hellenistic Greek
Medium: Floor mosaic made from tesserae (small square pieces) made from colored marble
Dimensions: 8.9 ft by 16.8 ft,
Current location: Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (541)
Visitors stepping into the entrance hall of the House of the Faun in Pompeii between 100 BCE and 79 CE (when the city was buried in volcanic ash) would have seen an enormous floor mosaic showing the victory of Alexander the Great over Darius III, King of Persia, in 333 BCE at the Battle of Issus. Certain elements of the style of the mosaic have convinced experts that it is a copy of a 3rd Century BCE Hellenist painting, possibly by Philoxenos or Helen of Egypt. Because almost no Ancient Greek paintings have survived, the mosaic is an important source of information about that lost art. A stoic, determined Alexander (at left – see detail in image below) has speared Darius’s bodyguard (at center), causing Darius (at right) to turn back with a look of distress and compassion. Both the original painter and the mosaicist copier have managed to show how the figures occupy and move in space (including foreshorten, represent in detail the effects of light on people, horses, and weapons, and evoke realistic emotions through facial expressions and bodily gestures. The damaged mosaic was discovered in Pompeii in 1831. Random Trivia: Roman mosaics of this period are known for their bright colors, but because mosaics are not painted, but are composed of tiny square tesserae of colored stone (in this case, marble), the palette of the artist was dependent on what colored stones naturally exist. Later mosaicists adopted the practice of using colored glass tesserae, which vastly expanded their palette.
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218. Augustus of Prima Porta

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 20 BCE; or 14-37 CE
Period/Style: Roman Empire; elements of Hellenistic Greek style
Medium: Marble sculpture
Dimensions: 6.7 ft. tall
Current location: Vatican Museums, Vatican City
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (543)
In 1863, a 6.7 ft tall marble statue of Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar was discovered in the ruins of the house of his wife Livia, near the main gate (Prima Porta) of ancient Rome. The anonymous sculptor was much influenced by theDoryphoros of Classical Greek artist Polykleitos. Augustus raises his arm in what is known as an oratorical gesture; his features are idealized in the Hellenistic style The date of the statue is much debated. Some believe it is a contemporary marble copy of a bronze original that was made during Augustus’s lifetime, c. 20 BCE. But certain features point to a later origin, during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (14-37 CE), Livia’s son by a prior husband. For example, Augustus is shown with some divine attributes, including bare feet, although he was not considered divine until after his death. Also, the scene on his breastplate depicts the return to the Roman Legionary eagles (aquilae) by Mark Antony and Crassus (see detail below left), an event in which both Augustus (then Octavian) and Tiberius played roles, thus perhaps signaling that Tiberius had commissioned the work to emphasize his connection with Augustus. Like most Greek and Roman marble sculptures, the original would have been brightly painted (see image below right for a painted reconstruction prepared for the 2014 Tarraco Viva Festival in Tarragona, Spain). Random Trivia: The figure hanging onto Augustus’s toga is Cupid, who is riding on a dolphin (Venus’s patron animal), a reference to the claim that Julius Caesar (and Octavian, his nephew) were descended from Venus.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (544)Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (545)

219. Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 359 CE
Period: Ancient Rome; Late Imperial era; Early Christian era; Italy
Medium: Marble sarcophagus with relief sculptures
Dimensions: 4 feet tall by 8 feet wide by 4 feet deep
Current location: Treasury Museum, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (546)
Junius Bassus was a senator and official of Emperor Constantius II (son of Constantine the Great). He is said to have converted to Christianity on his deathbed and his sarcophagus is one of the earliest examples of Christian art. The relief sculptures, which exhibit a less-well-executed version of the Classical style, include scenes from both the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible. According to Dr. Allen Farber: “In both its style and iconography, the Junius Bassus Sarcophagus witnesses the adoption of the tradition of Greek and Roman art by Christian artists. … [For example], the artists have taken conventions from Greek and Roman art and converted it into a Christian context.” Farber also notes that the figure of Christ is prominently represented on the sarcophagus, which is a sign of the new prominence of Christianity after Constantine. Prior to Constantine, Christ was rarely directly depicted in Christian art. The image below shows a detail from the sarcophagus showing Christ in giving a scroll to St. Peter; the image hearkens back to the traditio legis (“giving of the law”) formula in Roman art, which was used to give visual testament to the emperor as the sole source of the law. Here the Roman formula is adapted to Christianity. The image of Christ here owes much to the pre-Christian depictions of Apollo, and the bearded figure with the billowing cloak below Christ’s feet may represent Caelus, the Classical personification of the heavens.
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220. Buddha Preaching the Law (Preaching Buddha)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 465-485 CE
Period/Style: Ancient India; Buddhist era; Gupta Empire
Medium: Carved sandstone
Dimensions: 5.1 feet tall, 2.8 feet wide and 10.6 inches deep
Current location: Archaeological Museum, Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, India
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (548)
According to Buddhist tradition, after Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, he went to the Deer Park in Sarnath, India and preached his first sermon to his first five disciples, thereby setting in motion the Wheel of the Dharma, or Dharmachakra. There are many artistic representations of the Buddha preaching the first sermon, but a sandstonePreaching Buddha is one of the most highly regarded. The Buddha sits in front of a large Wheel of Dharma with his hands in the traditional preaching position. The carvings on either side of the Buddha include deer, thus establishing the location as the Deer Park. Below the Buddha’s crossed legs are his five disciples, along with a woman and child. Commentators have noted that this representation of the Buddha combines his compassion and spirituality with his inner bliss.

221. Mosaics, Great Mosque of Damascus (Umayyad Mosque)

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 705-715 CE
Period/Style: Islamic; Ummayad Caliphate; Syria
Medium: Mosaic tiles. Mosaics are made of tesserae, which are very small, flat, roughly square pieces of various materials (e.g., stone, glass, ceramics) in different colors.
Dimensions: The mosaics cover much of the interior of the 117,000 square foot mosque
Current location: Damascus, Syria
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (549)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (550)
Muslim Arabs captured the city of Damascus from the Christians in 635 CE, just three years after Mohammad’s death. In 661 CE, the Umayyad Caliphate made Damascus the capital of the growing Islamic State. The sixth Umayyad caliph, al-Walid I, ordered the building of a mosque large enough to accommodate the city’s entire congregation for Friday prayers. He enlisted builders and artists from the entire region. The interior and exterior of the mosque were decorated with elaborate mosaics. In addition to the geometric designs familiar from earlier holy buildings, such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the mosaics in Damascus depict fanciful landscapes and architecture: trees, flowers, rivers, castles, houses, gardens and fountains. In keeping with Islamic tradition, there are no images of humans or animals. Not long after the completion of the Great Mosque, the Umayyad Caliphate came to an end, and their successors in the Abbasid Caliphate ignored the mosque. It was not until the 11th Century, under the Seljuk Turks, that the neglected mosque received much-needed renovations. Two centuries later, the Mamluks conducted extensive renovations, with a particular focus on restoring the mosaics. Unfortunately, the mosque was damaged by serious fires in 1339, 1400 and 1893. While some of the original 715 CE mosaics still exist, many of the designs are restorations of varying quality.

222. Pentecost and Mission of the Apostles Tympanum

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 1120-1132
Period/Style: Medieval; Burgundian Romanesque; France
Medium: Relief sculptures carved in stone on exterior of church
Dimensions: The tympanum is 30.4 feet wide
Current location: Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, Vézelay Abbey, Vézelay, France
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (551)
The Basilica Church of of Saint Mary Magdalene, in Vézelay, France boasts one of the most topical (one might even say propagandistic) set of sculptural reliefs in medieval Europe. The basilica (also known as the Church of La Madeleine) served as the church of Vézelay Abbey, a Benedictine (and Cluniac) monastery in the Burgundy region, which, since the mid-11th Century, claimed to possess numerous relics of St. Mary Magdalene, who is referred to in the Gospels as one a disciple and close associate of Jesus and this claim drew many religious pilgrims to Moissac, many of whom used the church as a starting point for a journey to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Unlike most sculptural programs adorning medieval Roman Catholic churches, the tympanum of this Burgundian Romanesque-style pilgrimage church’s central portal does not depict traditional timeless subjects such as the Last Judgment, Christ Enthroned in Majesty or the Coronation of Mary. Instead, most experts interpret the reliefs as showing the moment when Jesus told his Apostles to spread the gospel throughout the world, as symbolized by the rays of light streaming from his hands to the Apostles on either side of him (see detail in first image below). Some believe the scene represents the Pentecost, when the Apostles were said to receive the Holy Spirit and the gift of tongues, but the standard iconography for the Pentecost shows a dove or other representation of the Holy Spirit, not Jesus. The lintel of the Vézelay portal depicts the pagan world that the Apostles must convert to Christianity. The sculptor portrays unbelievers as less than human: some have pig snouts, others are misshapen, and several are depicted as dwarves, including one who needs a ladder to mount a horse (see detail showing lintel in second image below). One man sports a pair of enormous ears, while another is covered in feathers. Art historians connect the message of the tympanum and other reliefs relating to conversion of non-Christians to that of the Crusades, the first of which began in 1095, less than 10 years before construction began on the Romanesque church at Vézelay. When Pope Eugene III decided to launch a Second Crusade, it is no coincidence that he instructed French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (later St. Bernard) to announce the Second Crusade at Vézelay, where, in 1146, French King Louis VII, Eleanor of Aquitaine and a host of nobles fell at Bernard’s feet to accept the challenge and take up the sword on behalf of the Pope. Vézelay continued to be a place of significance for crusaders when, in July 1190, England’s King Richard the Lionheart of England and French King Philip Augustus met there with their armies to set off on the Third Crusade.
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Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (553)

223. The Bury Bible

Artist: Master Hugo
Date: c. 1135
Period/Style: Romanesque; Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England
Medium: Illustrated manuscript
Dimension: 20 in. tall by 14 in. wide
Current location: Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, England, UK
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Master Hugo was a 12th Century lay English artist and may be the first professional artist in English history. He spent most of his career at the Benedictine Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk County, England, where he illuminated the first (and possibly the second) volume of the Bury Bible in the Romanesque style. Only the first volume of the Bible, containing the Old Testament through the Book of Job, survives. The Bury Bible had a powerful influence on English art. Scholars see the color patterns, Byzantine draperies and the haunted eyes and expressive gestures of some of the figures as evidence of a new style drawing from the art of southern Italy, Cyprus, Byzantium and possibly Palestine. The image above shows a page with two scenes of the life of Moses. The image below shows is the frontispiece for the Bible with the opening initial. The entire Bible may be viewed HERE. Random Trivia: The Bury Bible, like many Christian paintings and sculptures, depicts Moses with horns. The basis for this imagery is a verse in the Hebrew Book of Exodus stating that after coming down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, Moses had “keren”, which in Hebrew means either “radiating light” or “growing horns.” When Jerome translated the Hebrew to Latin in the early 5th Century, he referred to horns, although most Biblical scholars now believe that the intention of the original Hebrew was that Moses was radiating light from his face.
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224. Relief Sculptures, Amiens Cathedral

Artists: Unknown
Date: 1220-1240; 1240-1260
Period/Style: Medieval period; French Gothic; Antique Revival style and High Gothic style; France
Medium: Relief sculptures carved in stone on the exterior of the cathedral
Dimensions: The reliefs cover much of the exterior of the building, which measures 476 feet long and 139 feet tall at the nave.
Current location: Amiens, France
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Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (557) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (558)
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (559)
Amiens Cathedral (officially titled Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens), is a 13th Century French Gothic structure that is home to an enormous array of relief sculptures. The three portals in the western façade of the cathedral were designed and carved between 1220 and 1240 in a simplified version of the Antique Revival style. The central portal presents the Last Judgment (see top image above). The north portal celebrates locally-important saints, particularly St. Firmin (see image above left), while the south portal focuses on the Virgin Mary. The south portal tympanum shows Mary’s death, assumption into heaven and coronation.The south transept portal also has impressive relief sculptures from 1240-1260 with scenes from the life of St. Honoré (see image above right). Other sculpture on the west façade includes a large number of quatrefoils in groups that highlight certain topics, such as the Prophets (see last image above). Higher up on the western façade are larger than life size sculptures of 22 kings beneath the rose window. Researchers have discovered that the west façade was once painted in multiple colors. Through sophisticated technology, it is possible to project the colors onto the cathedral to approximate what it would have looked like with the painting in place (see image of central portal below).

225. The Wilton Diptych

Artist: The artist is unknown. Art historians have suggested an English, French, Italian or Bohemian painter; particularly someone who specialized in illuminated manuscripts.
Date: c. 1395-1399
Period/Style: Medieval period; International Gothic Style; England (?)
Medium: Egg tempera paints and gold leaf on Baltic oak wood panels
Dimensions: Each side of the diptych is 20.9 in. tall and 14.6 in. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (561)The International Gothic-style Wilton Diptych (named for Wilton House, where it was kept for many years) was most likely painted for English king Richard II, who reigned from 1377 to 1399. The interior left panel (shown above) shows a kneeling King Richard, in a vermilion and gold cloak adorned with his two emblems: the white stag and sprigs of rosemary. Standing next to him are two English kings who became saints (Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor) and John the Baptist, Richard’s patron saint. (The presence of the three kings on the left worshiping Christ may allude to the three magi, whose visit to the baby Jesus was celebrated on January 6, Richard’s birthday.) Following Richard’s gaze, we look to the right panel, where Mary holds Jesus, and 11 angels surround them in a flowery meadow. Jesus appears to give a blessing, either to Richard directly or to the pennant with the flag of St. George (England’s patron saint) and a tiny globe with a castle on an island in a silver seal. The symbolism appears to indicate God’s blessing of Richard’s kingship. All the angels wear Richard’s white stag emblem, as if they are part of his entourage. The unusual number of the angels – 11 – may refer to Richard’s age when he ascended to the throne. The extensive use of expensive pigments such as lapis lazuli for the blue pigment of the garments in the right panel and vermilion on the left for Richard’s robe shows that no expense was spared to make this small object with both religious and political overtones. The much-damaged outer panels show a white stag with a crown around its neck and a chain on one side, and coats of arms of Richard (including those of Edward the Confessor), on the other (see image below). The existence of the Wilton Diptych is considered remarkable given that few religious images survived a campaign of iconoclasm by the Puritans in the 17th Century.
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226. The Feast of Herod

Artist: Donatello
Date: 1423-1427
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Siena, Italy
Medium: Bronze relief sculpture set in the base of a hexagonal baptismal font
Dimensions: 1.97 ft. square
Current location: Battistero di San Giovanni, Siena, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (563)Donatello’s The Feast of Herod is one of six bronze panels set in the base of the hexagonal baptismal font in the baptistery of the Siena Cathedral. (The font, which was designed by Jacopo della Quercia and includes bronze panels by Donatello, Della Quercia, Lorenzo Ghiberti and others, is shown in the image below.) Donatello’s panel – one of the first sculptures identified with the new Early Renaissance style – is remarkable for its use of the principles of linear perspective, recently rediscovered by Filippo Brunelleschi, to create the illusion of depth, a particularly difficult achievement in a relief sculpture. The story takes place on three levels and chronologically follows the dance of Salome, after which Herod grants her any wish and she, at her mother’s bidding, asks for the head of John the Baptist. In the far background, in low relief, an executioner shows the head to someone, perhaps Salome. In the middle background, also in low relief, two men watch a woman playing a musical instrument. In the foreground, in high relief, Herod and his family react in horror to the head of John the Baptist, while Salome, sinuous in her dance costume, watches and gloats. The use of orthogonal lines in the floor tiles emphasizes the sense of real space. Donatello also demonstrates his ability to depict true human emotion, particularly in the faces and gestures of Herod and the young men sitting at the table.
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227. The Mérode Altarpiece (Annunciation Triptych)

Artist: The authorship of the triptych is much disputed. It was originally attributed to the Master of Flémalle, who is now generally believed to be Robert Campin. But after the discovery of an earlier version of the central panel (now in Brussels), many scholars attribute the Mérode triptych to Campin’s assistants in his workshop.
Date: c. 1425-1428
Period/Style: Medieval period; Late Gothic/Early Netherlandish style; Flanders (now Belgium)
Medium: Oil paints on oak panels
Dimensions: The entire triptych is 2.1 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide; the center panel is 2.1 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. wide; and the wings are each 2.1 ft. tall by 0.9 ft. wide.
Current location: The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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The Mérode Altarpiece is a seminal work of the Early Netherlandish style that developed in Northern Europe in the 15th Century, while the Renaissance was being born in Italy. It is also one of the earliest masterpieces of the new technique of oil painting. The center panel shows the Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is to be the mother of Jesus. The left wing shows the donor, his wife and a messenger (the wife and messenger were probably added later, after the donor married) and the right wing shows Mary’s future husband Joseph in his workshop, making a mousetrap (see detail below right). The small size of the triptych leads experts to believe that it was intended for private devotional use. The painting includes many examples of Early Netherlandish attention to detail, and the technique of applying thin layers of oil paint over an opaque base allowed the artist to create illusionistic effects. The triptych abounds with religious symbolism. The center panel actually shows the Virgin Mary at the moment before she recognizes the Angel Gabriel is present. At the same time, a tiny Jesus flies down from the window with his cross, a sign of the Incarnation (see detail below right). The just-snuffed candle may symbolize the transformation of God into man. Similarly, the mousetrap Joseph is making may allude to St. Augustine’s writings, in which he describes the Incarnation of Jesus as a mousetrap to catch the Devil. The triptych seems to imply – presumably unintentionally – that Joseph and Mary were living together before they were married.
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228. The Annunciation

Artist: Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro; also known as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole)
Date: c. 1441-1446
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy
Medium: Fresco painted on a convent wall
Dimensions: 7.5 ft. tall by 10.5 ft. wide
Current location: Convent of San Marco (San Marco Museum), Florence, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (568)In 1439, Dominican friar and artist Fra Angelico transferred to the priory of San Marco in Florence, which was sponsored by the Medici family. It was at San Marco that Fra Angelico painted some of his most important works, many of them frescoes painted on the walls for the benefit of the other monks. Standing at the bottom of the staircase to the second floor, a monk looking up would have seen a large fresco of the Annunciation, the story from the Gospel of Luke in which an angel visits Mary to inform her that, although she is a virgin, she will bear a child who will be the Son of God. The fresco’s unusual perspective lines are based on a viewer looking up from the bottom of the stairs. The work is remarkable for its spare quality – it is free of the clutter of objects and symbols common in other Annunciations, maybe because the monks already knew the story and did not need guidance. The left side of the painting is almost two-dimensional in its flatness. Even Angel Gabriel and the Madonna are less substantial than some figures from earlier Renaissance works. It is as if Fra Angelico is aware of the new styles but is not quite ready to adopt them fully (although the architecture of the space where Mary and the Angel meet owes a debt to Brunelleschi). The lighting is also odd, with a strong light source at the upper left, but few shadows. Still, the moment at the center contains much for the monks to contemplate, including the way the angel and Madonna lean in toward each other, their mirrored hand gestures, the expressions in their eyes, and even the rainbow of color in the angel’s wings.

229. St. James Led to His Execution (St. James Led to Martyrdom)

Artist: Andrea Mantegna
Date: Estimates range from c. 1453-1457, but most sources believe the work was painted in 1455.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Padua, Italy; religious
Medium: Fresco painted on church wall
Dimensions: 14 ft. tall by 11 ft. wide
Current location: The fresco was painted on the wall of the Ovetari Chapel of the Eremitani Church, Padua, Italy but it was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II.
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In the mid-15th Century, Andrea Mantegna painted six frescoes showing scenes from the life of St. James on a wall of the Ovetari Chapel of the Eremitani Church in Padua, Italy, the most highly-regarded of which was St. James Led to His Execution. In the fresco, Mantegna – who loved to give himself perspectival problems to solve – deliberately ignored the strict rules of one-point linear perspective in having no single point where all lines meet. He presented what has been called a “worm’s eye view” – looking up at the figures from below – while also preserving the sight lines from the chapel so that viewers would not be disoriented. Art historian Frederick Hartt calls the lost fresco “a triumph of Renaissance spatial construction and Renaissance Classicism.” He points out, the strict laws of perspective would require the vertical lines of the architecture to converge as we look up, which would have destroyed the overall effect of the six frescoes on the wall. This and the other five frescoes are only known from black and white photographs, however, because on March 11, 1944, during World War II, Allied bombs hit the church, leaving only fragments of Mantegna’s artwork. A preparatory study for the fresco by Mantegna (c. 1455) in the collection of the British Museum (see image below).
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230. The Baptism of Christ

Artist: Piero della Francesca
Date: Art historians have dated the painting as early as 1438 and as late as 1460, with a majority of sources dating it to between 1448 and 1450. The label at the National Gallery says “After 1437.”
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Sansepolcro, Italy
Medium: Egg tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 5.4 ft. tall by 3.8 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
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Like so many Renaissance artists, Piero della Francesca saw the rationality of mathematics as a reflection of the perfection of the universe, and he sought to embody the beauty of math in his artwork. The Baptism of Christ, which was commissioned by the Camaldolese Monastery in Sansepolcro, Italy, contains many examples of Piero’s fascination with perspective, geometry and other aspects of mathematics: (1) John the Baptist’s hand, the bowl, Christ’s hands and the dove (representing the Holy Spirit) form an axis that divides the painting into two symmetrical halves; (2) the large tree divides the painting according to the Golden Mean; (3) the angles made by John’s arm and leg are equivalent; and (4) a horizontal line runs from the man taking off his shirt on the right, through John’s belt and Christ’s waist to the belts of the angels. Although on its surface, the painting appears to be a straightforward representation of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, it may have contained symbolism with a contemporary meaning to the Camaldolese monks. Piero was painting at the time of the Council of Florence, an attempt by certain Christian leaders (including Camaldolese monk and theologian Ambrose Traversari, the future St. Ambrose) to reunite the Eastern and Western Christian churches. Some art historians have suggested that the angels holding hands and the figures at the right background wearing Byzantine clothing may be references to the healing of the schism.

231. Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata

Artist: Donatello
Date: c. 1453
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Padua, Italy; military portrait
Medium: Bronze sculpture
Dimensions: Horse and rider measure 11.1 ft. tall by 12.8 ft. long. The base is 26.5 ft. tall by 13.4 ft. long.
Current location: Piazza del Santo, Padua, Italy
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Donatello and other Early Renaissance artists saw their mission, at least in part, as reviving the Classical cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome. With the David, Donatello revived the tradition of freestanding nude sculptures. With Gattamelata, Donatello revived the tradition of life-sized equestrian statues. The Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata is a bronze equestrian statue that has stood in the Piazzo del Santo in Padua, Italy since Donatello completed the commission in 1453. The Republic of Venice commissioned Donatello to create a monument to a revered military leader (“condotiero”) Erasmo da Narmi (1370-1443), known by his nickname Gattamelata (“speckled cat”). The sculpture, which is the earliest extant equestrian statue of the Renaissance, revived the Classical iconography of depicting heroes on horseback. In order to create a sense of movement, Donatello angled the head of the horse and lifted its left foreleg, but concerns over balancing the horse on three legs led him to place a sphere beneath the lifted leg.
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232. Penitent Magdalene (Mary Magdalene)

Artist: Donatello
Date: Most art historians date the sculpture to c. 1453-1455, although some believe it was made much earlier, in the 1430s.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; religious
Medium: Carved white poplar wood
Dimensions: 6.2 ft. tall
Current location: Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy
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Donatello’s ultra-realistic Mary Magdalene, shown suffering the symptoms of abstinence and fasting, shocked and awed contemporaries and stands apart from the rest of Donatello’s oeuvre in both style and substance. Although the story of Mary Magdalene going into the desert to fast and repent from her life as a prostitute has no basis in the Gospels, it was a popular subject for artists in the Renaissance and afterwards. Scholars believe that concept of the penitent Magdalene resulted from a conflation of the character in the Gospels with St. Mary of Egypt, a 4th Century CE former prostitute who fasted in the desert while repenting her sins. Probably originally placed in the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral, the sculpture was originally painted and gilded. Experts are divided over whether the statue’s dominant feature is the pathetic weakness of the emaciated penitent or the inner emotional strength she displays despite her condition. In support of the latter view, art historian Martha Levine Dunkelman wrote: “She can be read as a representation of continuing physical and emotional tenacity in the face of adversity – her suffering having increased her power.”

233. The Procession of the Magi (The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem)

Artist: Benozzo Gozzoli
Date: c. 1459-1462
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; religious
Medium: Frescoes (both true [wet] fresco and dry [a secco] painting) painted on the walls of the chapel of a Florentine palazzo, with some gold leaf added.
Dimensions: The frescoes take up three walls of a small chapel in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi.
Current location: Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, Italy
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After renowned architect Michelozzo di Bartolomeo designed and built a new Florentine home for the powerful Medici family, Palazzo Medici, the family commissioned Fra Angelico’s former student, Benozzo Gozzoli, to paint frescoes on the walls of the Palazzo’s chapel. Gozzoli paintedThe Procession of the Magi on three walls of the large hall, which is now known as the Magi Chapel. Each of the three kings and his retinue receives a wall, with Caspar, the youngest king, leading the procession on the east wall (see detail in top image and image below), Balthasar following on the south wall (see image above left) and Melchior, the oldest, bringing up the rear on the west wall (see image above right). Among the kings’ entourages are portraits of the Medicis, their friends and business associates, political and religious leaders as well as at least one Gozzoli self-portrait. The style is International Gothic, but in creating the sumptuous landscapes (which contain scenes of hunting and other activities), Gozzoli may have been influenced by the Medicis’ large collection of Early Netherlandish tapestries. When the Riccardi family moved into what is now called the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in the mid-17th Century, they made architectural changes that required cutting a hole in the south wall of the Magi Chapel to make a new door. The fresco was saved by removing part of the wall, cutting it in two pieces and building a new, jutting corner wall, but gone was the simple symmetry of Gozzoli’s original design. Random Trivia: One of the reasons the 15th Century frescoes are so well preserved is that the walls are hollow – the Medicis had a maze of secret passageways built into the Palazzo to allow quick escapes. The unusual construction significantly reduced moisture, which is a fresco’s worst enemy.
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234. Lamentation over the Dead Christ

Artist: Niccolò dell’Arca
Date: Most art historians date the piece to c. 1462-1464; others say it was made more than 30 years later, c. 1485-1490.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Bologna, Italy; religious
Medium: Group sculpture in seven pieces; sculpted from terracotta
Dimensions: Seven life-size figures
Current location: Church of Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna, Italy
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There are few marble quarries near Bologna, Italy, so Bolognese sculptors used other materials, such as terracotta. This limitation proved a benefit for Niccolò dell’Arca’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ; the more pliable terracotta allowed him to provide his grieving figures with highly detailed, often powerfully emotional facial expressions that would not have been possible in the less forgiving marble. Dell’Arca sculpted seven life-size figures: six mourners (the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary Clopas, Salome, John the Apostle, and Joseph of Arimathea) gather around the dead body of Jesus, lying at their feet. Each figure has a different, individual reaction, as expressed in their face and bodily stance; one figure looks as if she had just run over to see, her gown still flowing in the wind (see detail in image below). The overall effect is one of extraordinary drama and pathos. The combination of realism and expressionism in the figures, which were originally painted (traces of paint still remain), was unusual for the Early Renaissance. Art historians have noted some Burgundian influences in the carving, derived either from the influence of Catalan sculptor Guillem Sagrera, who worked on the Castel Nuovo in Naples in the 1450s or from a possible trip dell’Arca took to France in the 1460s.
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235. The Last Supper

Artist: Dieric Bouts
Date: c. 1464-1467
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Northern Renaissance; Flanders (now Belgium); religious
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 5.9 ft. tall by 4.9 ft. wide
Current location: Church of St. Peter, Leuven, Belgium
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The Last Supper is the central panel of an altarpiece painted by Flemish painter Dieric Bouts for St. Peter’s Church in Leuven. The altarpiece (known as the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament) was commissioned by the Leuven Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament. The wings of the altarpiece contain painted scenes from the Old Testament (see image below showing the entire altarpiece ). The Last Supper is one of the first northern European examples of the strict application of the rules of linear perspective: the main room has a single vanishing point on the mantle above Christ’s head; the small room and outside landscapes also have vanishing points. The composition and color scheme are highly unified, but the apostles are not individualized or emotionally expressive. Instead, they seem frozen in space and time as Jesus consecrates the host. The minor characters are somewhat livelier; note the four servants dressed in Flemish attire looking on, including two who peek through a window from the kitchen. Bouts, who was influenced by both Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, also provides us with glimpses of outdoor landscapes through narrow windows.
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236. Hercules and Antaeus (Hercules Slaying Antaeus)

Artist: Antonio Pollaiuolo
Date: c. 1470-1475
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; mythological
Medium: Bronze sculpture
Dimensions: 18 inches tall
Current location: Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy
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The myth of Hercules and the giant Antaeus was a favorite subject for artists. According to the legend, Antaeus challenged every passerby to a wrestling match, which Antaeus always won, resulting in the death of his opponent. Antaeus’s secret? He was the son of Mother Earth, and as long as he maintained contact with the ground, he was invincible. Hercules needed to get past Antaeus as part of his 11th labor, so while wrestling the giant, he picked him off the ground and held him in the air, squeezing the life out of his now defenseless foe. Florentine sculptor and painter Antonio Pollaiuolo depicts the dying scream of Antaeus as Hercules (wearing the pelt of the Nemean lion) holds him off the ground and literally squeezes the life out of him. Pollaiuolo’s knowledge of human anatomy (possibly gained by dissecting cadavers) allows him to depict accurately the straining muscles of both Hercules and his foe in dynamic motion. The innovative in-the-round composition leads the viewer’s eye to move from one vantage point to the next.

237. St. John Altarpiece (Triptych of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist)

Artist: Hans Memling
Date: The work was commissioned c. 1474 and completed in 1479
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Northern Renaissance; Flanders (now Belgium); religious
Medium: Triptych painted with oil paints on oak panels
Dimensions: The center panel measures 5.7 ft. tall by 5.7 ft. wide; each wing is 5.8 ft. tall by 2.6 ft. wide.
Current location: Memling Museum, St. John’s Hospital, Bruges, Belgium
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Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (586) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (587)German-born Flemish painter Hans Memling created the St. John Altarpiece for the chapel of St. John’s Hospital in Bruges; it is dedicated to the patron saints of the hospital, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. The center panel takes the form of a sacra conversatione with saints gathered around the Virgin Mary and Jesus. John the Baptist stands at left, while events from his life shown in the outdoor space behind him; John the Evangelist stands on the right. St. Catherine sits at the left, while St. Barbara sits on the right. Mary sits on a throne with an intricately-rendered Oriental carpet (known as a Memling carpet) beneath her, reaching almost to the picture plane, while above two blue angels hold her crown (see detail above left). The infant Jesus puts a ring on St. Catherine’s finger, symbolizing her spiritual commitment to God, a standard trope known as the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. Scholars have noted that the composition of two standing and two sitting saints around the Virgin was very unusual. Also unusual was the breaking up of the architecture to allow almost continuous views of the background landscape, which allowed Memling to paint scenes from the saints’ lives there. (Even the carvings at the top of each capital represent aspects of the saints’ lives.) The left wing shows the beheading of John the Baptist: the executioner, his back to us, places the head on Salome’s platter, while the headless body lies on the ground. The right wing (see detail above right) shows John the Evangelist writing the Apocalypse on the island of Patmos, with the key events of the Book of Revelation depicted. This may be the first time that the entire Apocalypse story was presented in a single painting. Two concentric rainbows show God enthroned, with four beasts and 24 elders, while the Lamb of God breaks the seven seals on God’s lap. Elsewhere, Memling shows a giant angel emerging from the water, while a seven-headed dragon in seen in the background. When the doors of the triptych are closed, it reveals portraits of the four donors (two priests and two nuns) kneeling before their patron saints (see image below).
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238. St. Francis in Ecstasy (St. Francis in the Desert)

Artist: Giovanni Bellini
Date: c. 1480
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Venetian School; Venice, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on poplar wood panels
Dimensions: 4.1 ft. tall by 4.7 ft. wide
Current location: The Frick Collection, New York, NY
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (589)By choosing to use oil paints – which were very new to Italy – to paint a portrait of St. Francis, Giovanni Bellini proved to his fellow Italian painters that the new medium could render light and the effects of light in ways that could not have been achieved with tempera. In St. Francis in Ecstasy, Bellini uses natural lighting effects to create the sense of a heavenly visitation upon the founder of the Franciscans. Some believe the painting is meant to tell the story of St. Francis receiving the stigmata, or wounds of Christ, in his side and on his hands and feet, while on a solitary retreat near Mt. La Verna in the Apennines in 1224 and point to the marks on his hands and one foot. Others some argue that St. Francis, who is shown with his mouth open, is singing the Canticle of the Sun, a song he composed, in response to the presence of God. They note that in typical representations of saints receiving the stigmata, we usually see an angel shooting dart-like rays of light. The work is unusual in other ways: consistent with the Renaissance’s celebration of the natural world, St. Francis is almost dwarfed by the vast landscape around him such that if he were removed, the painting could stand on its own. Bellini has taken care to depict many of the plants and animals that share the world with St. Francis (see details in images below left and right). In addition, many of the objects in the painting double as references to Christian stories or teachings. To choose just a few examples related to Moses, the dry tree at left may represent the burning bush that spoke to Moses; the water issuing from the rocks at right may remind us of Moses striking the rocks at Horeb to start water flowing; and St. Francis’ bare feet and nearby sandals recall God’s words to Moses to take off his sandals on holy ground. Followers of St. Francis would have made many other connections.
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239. The Adoration of the Magi

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Date: 1481-1482
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 8.1 ft. tall by 8 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
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Leonardo da Vinci was in his late twenties in 1481 when he received a commission for an altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi from the Augustinian monks of San Donato a Scopeto in Florence. He worked very hard on the preliminary drawings and completed an underdrawing but he never finished the painting. The Duke of Milan made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and Leonardo left Florence. Someone, probably not Leonardo, added the groundwork layer of brown and yellow ocher paint to the underdrawing and in so doing altered some of the original design. What remains is an unfinished Adoration of the Magi that, if completed, would have been atypical for the subject. The figure of the Virgin establishes the peak of a triangular composition that draws many features from Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden’s Entombment of Christ, from 1460 (see image below left). In Christian lore, the date of the Adoration, also the Epiphany, signaled the triumph of Christianity over the pagan world. This may explain the Classical building in the left rear (possibly based on the 4th Century Basilica of Maxentius, which legend has it would stand until a virgin gave birth), and the battle raging in the right rear (see detail below right). Nothing in prior depictions of the event prepares us for the grotesque and emaciated forms of some of the figures. Some art historians believe that the young man on the bottom right is a self-portrait of the artist, copied from an earlier bust. After Leonardo left for Milan, the monks reassigned the commission to Filippo Lippi, who provided his Adoration of the Magi altarpiece, based largely on Leonardo’s design (without the grotesque elements), to San Donato a Scopeto in 1496.
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240. Delivery of the Keys (Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter)

Artist: Pietro Perugino
Date: 1481-1482
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Rome, Italy; religious
Medium: Fresco painted on the wall of the Sistine Chapel
Dimension: 10.8 ft. tall by 18.3 ft. wide
Current location: Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Vatican City
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Most visitors to the Sistine Chapel spend their time looking up at Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes (and for good reason), but there are masterpieces on the side walls, too, painted 25 years earlier by Florentine artists Botticelli and Pietro Perugino, including Perugino’s Delivery of the Keys. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Peter that he will give him (and through him according to Catholic tradition, to the Roman Popes) the keys to the kingdom of heaven, that is, the authority to be his representative on earth. Taking the Bible passage literally, Pope Sixtus IV commissioned Perugino to paint a fresco on the wall of the Sistine Chapel showing Jesus giving an actual set of keys to St. Peter. Perugino’s fresco presents a master class in linear one-point perspective. The diagonal lines dividing up the foreshortened pavement tiles reach a vanishing point in the doorway of the central building, creating the illusion of depth and distance. The use of aerial perspective sustains the illusion of reality, leading the eye back to a distant horizon. The line (almost a frieze) of figures in the far foreground spreads out from the central pair of Jesus and the kneeling St. Peter; Perugino keeps them below the horizon line. The other apostles and various contemporary Roman figures are rendered with specificity and elegance, but with feet firmly planted on the ground. Some experts believe that Perugino included a self-portrait in the fifth figure from the right edge. Unusually, Judas is pictured with the other apostles (fifth figure to the left of Jesus). Somewhat incongruously, Perugino sets out two other New Testament stories in the middle distance: The Tribute Money on the left (see detail in first image below), and The Stoning of Jesus on the right (see detail in second image below). The central building is an imaginary octagonal Temple of Solomon, flanked by two triumphal arches that would have been familiar to Romans as the Arch of Constantine (echoed by Botticelli in his fresco on the opposite wall). Scholars believe that Perugino relied heavily on the work of Andrea del Verrocchio in painting the figures, and one expert believes that Perugino has repeated the poses of the foreground figures on one side of the painting on the other side, only in reverse.
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241. Altarpiece of the Church Fathers

Artist: Michael Pacher
Date: Some date the work, c. 1477-1480; others say it was made c. 1483-1484.
Period/Style: Northern Gothic; Northern Renaissance; Austria/Italy; religious
Medium: Triptych created with oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: The center panel measures nearly 7 ft. tall and 6.5 ft. wide; each side panel measures 7 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide.
Current location: Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany
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Austrian artist Michael Pacher created the Altarpiece of the Church Fathers, a triptych, for the Augustinian monks of the Neustift Monastery near Brixen in northern Italy. When closed, the outer painted panels show St. Augustine liberating a prisoner (see image below right) and St. Sigisbert having a vision (see image below right), but the true masterpieces are the interior panels from which the piece draws its name (see image above). Pacher has set up four fathers of the Early Christian church in separate rooms, with projecting canopies and foreshortened floor tiles, creating a trompe-l’oeil effect of true depth. Each church father is accompanied by a dove (the Holy Spirit) and a memento of one of his legends. From the far left: (1) St. Jerome, who was said to have taken a thorn from a lion’s paw, pets a lion; (2) St. Augustine sits with the boy from a story in which Augustine saw the boy on the beach trying to transfer the ocean into a small pool using only a clam shell; the boy told Augustine that it was as likely that he would move the ocean as it was that Augustine would understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity with his rational mind; (3) Pope Gregory I, who was so impressed by a story of Roman Emperor Trajan’s kindness that he prayed for Trajan to be released from purgatory to be baptized, here gets his opportunity as Trajan rises from the flames; and finally, (4) St. Ambrose, shown with a rocking baby who refers either to a story from St. Ambrose’s infancy, when a swarm of bees landed on his face, leaving a drop of honey, thus ensuring his sweet tongue for oratory, or to the child who told Ambrose that he must be made a bishop. Throughout the piece, Pacher’s painting shows many sculptural elements (Pacher was also a sculptor) and combines elements of both Northern Gothic and Northern Renaissance styles.
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242. San Giobbe Altarpiece (Enthroned Madonna of San Giobbe)

Artist: Giovanni Bellini
Date: Most art historians date the work to 1487, but some claim a date in the early 1470s.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Venetian School; Venice, Italy; religious (sacra converzatione)
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 15.4 ft. tall by 8.5 ft. wide
Current location: Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy
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To satisfy his commission for an altarpiece for the San Giobbe (St. Job) Church in Venice, Venetian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini painted a sacra converzatione of Mary and Jesus surrounded by an informal grouping of saints (left: St. Francis, John the Baptist, Job; right: St. Sebastian, St. Louis, St. Dominic). The work was almost immediately recognized as a masterpiece. Bellini creates an illusion of depth in the space and gives substantiality to the figures. To enhance the realism – the illusion that there is an actual niche in the wall – he painted the columns to match the real columns in the church, and chose a light source that appears to be coming from the actual windows of the church. Art historians marvel at Bellini’s ability to paint reflected light and to show modeling and shadows so they give form and substance to the figures and architecture. Although all the saints with their colorful garments occupy the lower half of the painting, the stunning gold half dome above them creates a sense of balance and draws the eye up to see how it catches the light. On a human level, St. Francis (with the stigmata wounds) gestures for us to join the conversation, as does the Madonna. Even the musical angels are positioned so they form a triangle pointing up at Jesus and Mary (see detail below left). Random Trivia: Bellini painted another portrait of St. Job onto the church garment worn by St. Louis (see image below right).
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243. An Old Man and His Grandson

Artist: Domenico Ghirlandaio
Date: 1490
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Florence, Italy; secular portrait
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 2 ft. tall by 1.5 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
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Despite the title (which is not original), there is no direct evidence about the identity of the man and boy in the double portrait by Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio known as An Old Man and His Grandson. Their clothes indicate that the man and boy come from the aristocracy, and the entire composition indicates that they have strong feelings of love for each other. Their eyes meet on a diagonal line, while the boy’s left hand reaches out to touch the old man in a moving gesture of affection. This connection between the two is reinforced by the red garments worn by both. The old man’s deformed nose is probably the result of rhinophyma, a non-fatal skin disease. Ghirlandaio made a drawing of the same man, possibly after his death.
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244. Self-Portrait

Artist: Albrecht Dürer
Date: 1498
Period/Style: Northern Renaissance; Germany; self-portrait
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 20.5 inches tall by 16.1 inches wide
Current location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
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German painter Albrecht Dürer painted his second of three adult self-portraits after he had returned from a visit to Italy, where he felt that artists were treated with more respect than in his native land. (During a return trip to Italy some years later, he wrote to a friend: “How I shall freeze after this sun! Here I am a gentleman, at home only a parasite.” In this self-portrait, at the age of 26, he presents himself in a haughty, self-confident pose, with the stylish clothing (Italian, of course, complete with silk gloves) of an effeminate dandy who might circulate among society’s elite. The artist – who by 1498 had already achieved financial success in his profession – presents himself to his home audience as a master artist worthy of their praise: here I am, take me seriously. The Alpine landscape outside the window has been analyzed in numerous ways: a reminiscence of Dürer‘s Italian travels, a reflection of his inner mental states, or a prediction of things to come. The self-portrait was popular with royalty: at various points, the work was owned by Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain.

245. The Apocalypse (Apocalypse with Pictures)

Artist: Albrecht Dürer
Date: 1498
Period/Style: Northern Gothic; Northern Renaissance; Germany; religious
Medium: Book of prints made from woodcuts
Dimensions: 15.2 in. tall by 11 in. wide; 15 prints in each book.
Current locations: Various collections
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It was 1498 and Europe was anxiously awaiting the end of the century. A significant number of Christians believed that the year 1500 would bring the Apocalypse – the series of cataclysmic events predicted in the Bible involving a battle between good and evil, the breaking of the seven seals, the appearance of a seven-headed dragon, and finally the second coming of Jesus Christ. The timing could not have been more perfect for German artist Albrecht Dürer to publish a new edition of the Book of Revelation called Apocalypse with Pictures, in both German and Latin. The book contained 15 woodcut prints by Dürer illustrating the terror and calamity of St. John’s apocalyptic visions so dramatically that his prints – which, unlike most paintings, were affordable to the middle classes – soon made him famous throughout Europe. Dürer’s woodcut technique was astonishing – he defied the limitations of the process and created highly detailed, realistic monochrome images. (His prints sparked a revival of this, the oldest form of printmaking.) Each book emphasized the illustrations by placing them on the right (or recto) page, with the text on the left (verso) side. While the entire set of prints received acclaim, the most famous was The Four Horsem*n of the Apocalypse, in which Dürer effectively uses parallel lines and strong diagonal motion to depict Death, Famine, War and Plague wreaking havoc. The images shown are:
(1) No. 4: The Four Horsem*n of the Apocalypse (top image above);
(2) No. 5: The Opening of the Fifth and Sixth Seals (image at left above);
(3) No. 7: The Hymn in Adoration of the Lamb (image at right above);
(4) No. 10: St. John Eating the Book (below left); and
(5) No. 11: The Woman Clothed with the Sun and the Seven-Headed Dragon (below right).

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246. The Holy Blood Altarpiece (Altar of the Holy Blood)

Artist: Tilman Riemenschneider
Date: Completed c. 1505
Period/Style: Northern Gothic; Northern Renaissance; Germany; religious
Medium: Limewood altarpiece (with some glass) containing unpainted sculptures in high and low relief
Dimensions: 29.5 ft. tall
Current location: St. Jakob Church, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
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The Altar of the Holy Blood is a late Gothic masterpiece by German sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider. The altarpiece was built to house a supposed relic – a drop of Jesus’s blood – that was kept in a cross made of rock crystal. The triptych’s center panel depicts the Last Supper, which takes place in a real space with a table and glass windows at the rear (see detail in second image above). Breaking with Northern Gothic tradition, Riemenschneider did not have the figures painted; instead, he took on the challenge of carving in the details that paint would have provided, such as facial features. Riemenschneider also breaks with the traditional iconography by placing Judas (identifiable by the purse he carries, with the 30 silver pieces he received for betraying Jesus) in the center of the composition, facing Jesus. Riemenschneider captures the moment that Jesus gives Judas a piece of bread, a sign that he knows who will betray him. The wings are carved in low relief, with Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey on the left (see image below left) , and the agony in the garden of Gethsemane on the right (see image below right). Various other figures adorn the space above and below the central panels.
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247. The Sistine Madonna

Artist: Raphael
Date: 1512-1514
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 8.7 ft. tall by 6.4 ft. wide
Current location: Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany
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The curtains open on a heavenly scene: at the apex is the Madonna, her blue robe still swaying as if she has just arrived on the cloudy platform, and holding an older-than-usual Christ child resting comfortably in his mother’s arms. Below Mary are St. Sixtus, a former Pope, and St. Barbara. Still further down are two cherubs resting on a balustrade, which also supports the papal crown. In the background, barely visible, are the white faces of cherubs innumerable. Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint a Virgin, Child and Sts. Sixtus and Barbara as an altarpiece for Benedictine basilica of the Monastery of San Sisto in Piacenza. The work soon became known as the Sistine Madonna. In 1754, Polish King Augustus II bought the painting and moved it to Dresden. During World War II, the Sistine Madonna was saved from Allied firebombing. At the end of the war, the Soviets came into possession of the painting and brought it to Moscow, only to return it to Germany in 1955. Random Trivia: Since at least the beginning of the 20th Century, the two cherubs at the bottom of the Sistine Madonna have become cultural icons and have been used as decoration and on such items as t-shirts, postcards and wrapping paper (see image below).
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248. Melencolia I

Artist: Albrecht Dürer
Date: 1514
Period/Style: Northern Gothic; Northern Renaissance; Germany; allegory
Medium: Paper print from copper engraving
Dimensions: 9.5 inches tall by 7.3 inches wide
Current locations: Various collections
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For so many centuries (and even today), only the richest people could dream of owning original art by well-known artists. Prints made from woodcuts and engravings (and later etchings) were relatively inexpensive artworks that middle class people could afford. Albrecht Dürer had proved in 1498 with his Apocalypse that there was a market for his prints. In 1513-1514, he created three copper engravings that have become known as the Master Engravings, including Melencolia I. The monochrome print announces its title by means of a bat-like creature carrying a banner in the background, where a beacon of light and a rainbow over the ocean appear to bring hope. In the foreground, however, melancholy rules. A winged figure sits dejected, head in hand, next to a putto in the same state. The winged figure holds a caliper and is surrounded by the unused tools of mathematics, geometry and carpentry. On the wall is a magic square that adds up to 34 in every direction and gives us the date of the print (see detail in image below). One scholar called the print a spiritual self-portrait of the artist. Medieval thought saw melancholia as the worst of the four humors, associated with black gall and often leading to insanity. Renaissance humanists, on the other hand, identified melancholy as the mood of the artistic genius. An influential treatise listed the creative imagination as the first and lowest of the three states of mind (beneath reason and spirit), which perhaps explains the “I” in the title. At least one art historian has noted the irony of Dürer identifying with a paralyzed and powerless artist when he was in fact at the peak of his artistic powers and productivity in 1514.

249. Madonna of the Harpies

Artist: Andrea del Sarto
Date: 1515-1517
Period/Style: High Renaissance (with elements of Mannerism); Italy
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 6.8 feet tall by 5.8 feet wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
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Andrea del Sarto may have had difficulty following instructions. When the nuns of the San Francesco de ‘Macci convent asked him to paint the Coronation of the Virgin Mary with Sts. Bonaventure and John the Evangelist, he returned with a painting showing the Virgin Mary standing on a pedestal with gruesome harpies carved into it (see detail in image below), and while he did include St. John, he painted St. Francis instead of St. Bonaventure. An inscription in the pedestal mentions the Assumption, but current thinking is that the picture is supposed to refer to Mary’s triumph over evil (symbolized by the harpies), as described in the Book of Revelations. Del Sarto arranges his figures in a pyramidal compositional framework. The baby Jesus, standing in contrapposto, appears older and more muscular than is typical. He forms a triangle (through pose and gaze) with the two playful putti below him; their lightheartedness contrasts with the seriousness of the adults. Madonna of the Harpies is considered Andrea del Sarto’s most important contribution to Renaissance painting. Del Sarto was renowned for his skills by contemporaries, but he has been eclipsed somewhat by his more famous High Renaissance contemporaries Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo, whose work he was able to synthesize to incorporate the best of each artist’s style. In the words of art historian Jill Kiefer, Madonna of the Harpies is “considered to be the prototype of classicism instilled into religious subjects, a refined synthesis of Leonardesque `sfumato’, Raphaelesque balance, and plastic monumentality in the style of Michelangelo.”
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250. Pesaro Madonna (Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro)

Artist: Titian
Date: Begun in 1519 and completed in 1526
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Venetian School; Venice, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 16 ft. tall by 8.8 ft. wide
Current location: Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari Church, Venice, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (622)
When Venetian painter Titian received a commission from Jacopo Pesaro, a bishop who served as the pope’s naval commander, to paint an altarpiece with the Madonna and Child for the family chapel, the artist knew exactly where the painting would be hung – on the left side of the church near the entrance – and so he made an historic decision. Because most viewers would approach the painting from the left, Titian decided to place Jesus and Mary in the upper right portion of the canvas, thus breaking hundreds of years of religious painting tradition in which the Madonna and Child were placed in the center. Consistent with the off-center composition, the perspectival vanishing point is far to the right. This off-center placement opened up numerous compositional possibilities for Titian and those who came after him, thereby changing the course of art history. The painting includes another break with tradition. Prior painters often relied on isosceles triangles (with two equal sides) in their compositions, but in the Pesaro Madonna, Titian created a series of scalene triangles (with three different sides), one beginning with Mary, another with St. Peter, who is below her on the staircase (see detail in image below). These triangles connect the kneeling donor with the Franciscan saints above him. Using the postures and gestures of the saints, and the placement of St. Peter’s keys and the banner held by the soldier (who holds captured foreign enemies – a reference to Pesaro’s 1502 victory over the Turks), Titian creates a series of diagonals that impart movement and energy. In particular, the contrasting positions of Mary and Jesus link the viewer to both the donor on the left (through St. Peter), and the donor’s family on the right (through St. Francis). In contrast with the energetic gesturing of the saints (and the angels above), the Pesaro family inhabit a more mundane world, pictured in profile (but for one curious child who stares directly at the viewer) and a little flat. Titian uses the rich, deep colors that characterize much of Venetian painting of this period. Random Trivia: The large columns in the center of the painting are unprecedented, but x-ray analysis indicates that they were a later addition and Titian may not have painted them.
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251. The Four Apostles

Artist: Albrecht Dürer
Date: 1526
Period/Style: Northern Renaissance; Germany; religious
Medium: Oil paints on lindenwood panels (pair)
Dimensions: Each panel measures 7.1 ft. tall by 2.5 ft. wide
Current location: Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany
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As the Protestant Reformation swept through Northern Europe in the 16th Century, everyone had to make a choice whether to adopt the new faith or stay with the Roman Catholic church. For artists, the Reformation had significant consequences for their ability to make a living. The Roman church was the primary source of artistic commissions, while the new Protestant churches were wary of religious imagery. In these uncertain times for artists, the 55-year-old Albrecht Dürer decided not to wait for a commission, but to create a work of art and then try to find a buyer for it. He painted two panels showing four Apostles and presented it to the Town Council of Nuremberg, Germany, a Protestant community. Fortunately for Dürer, the town fathers accepted his offer. The two panels show St. John the Apostle and St. Peter (on the left) and Sts. Paul and Mark (on the right), with their attributes: John (open book), Peter (keys), Mark (scroll) and Paul (Bible). Always attuned to the desires of his audience, in his representation of the apostles, Dürer has taken care to emphasize Protestant values over Roman Catholic ones. John and Paul were favorites of Martin Luther, so they are placed in front. Peter, the apostle who most represents the Roman church, is depicted as old and somewhat out of touch, as he reads along from the Gospel of John in John’s Bible. The focus on reading the Bible reflects Luther’s belief that individuals should maintain a personal relationship with God by reading Scripture, preferably in their native language. To that end, quotations from the Bible in German taken from Martin Luther’s translation are displayed on the bottom of each panel.

252. The Peasant Wedding (The Peasant Wedding Feast)

Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Date; 1567
Period/Style: Northern Renaissance; Flanders (now Belgium); genre painting
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 4.1 ft. tall by 5.4 ft. wide
Current location: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
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Scholars tell us that Bruegel’s The Peasant Wedding is a relatively accurate depiction of life among farm workers in mid-16th Century Belgium and The Netherlands. According to tradition, the contented bride sits against a green curtain, with a paper crown on her head (and another hanging above) and does nothing. It’s not clear which man is the groom – he could be the man pouring the beer or the one asking for more. The food is bread, porridge and soup, which is being carried on a door taken off its hinges. Two men play pijpzaks, a cousin of the bagpipes. The room is a barn or threshing floor, and there is a season’s worth of grain stacked up, creating the back wall. There is a significant amount of drinking going on – probably beer, although art historians who read this as an updated story of the Marriage at Cana believe the plentiful liquid is wine. The figures in conversation at the far right of the table may be the Franciscan priest who married the couple and the wealthy landlord. While many see the painting as a celebration of peasant life and reward after hard work (shown by the rake and corn), some interpret it as a screed against gluttony.
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253. Young Man Among Roses (A Young Man Leaning Against A Tree Amongst Roses)

Artist: Nicholas Hilliard
Date: c. 1585-1590
Period/Style: Elizabethan; England; portrait
Medium: Oval miniature portrait painted in watercolor on vellum and mounted on cardboard
Dimensions: 5.3 inches tall by 2.9 inches wide
Current location: Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England, UK
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Nicholas Hilliard was renowned as a miniaturist (including painting illuminated manuscripts), goldsmith and portrait painter. He worked for the courts of Elizabeth I and James I and painted the miniature portraits of many in court circles. Young Man among Roses is an oval miniature portrait, a common medium at the time for giving as a calling card or as a personal memento to the object of one’s amorous feelings. The man pictured in the miniature known as Young Man Among Roses is believed by some experts to be Robert Deveraux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who was romantically linked with Queen Elizabeth I. By showing the subject surrounded by five-petaled eglantine roses, Elizabeth’s personal symbol, some believe the Earl (if it is he) is boldly declaring his love for the Virgin Queen herself. The Latin quote above the subject’s head provides another intriguing clue. It translates as “… a praised faith/Is her own scourge, when it sustains their states/Whom fortune hath depressed.” No matter the subject or his object, scholars agree that the miniature captures the charm and freshness of Hilliard’s best work, which, though conservative by continental European standards, embodies the spirit of Elizabethan England. Hilliard’s style shows the influence of Hans Holbein’s portraits and 16th Century French art, the latter of which he obtained through visits across the Channel in the late 1570s.

254. The Last Supper

Artist: Tintoretto
Date: 1592-1594
Period/Style: Late Renaissance; Mannerism; Venetian School; Proto-Baroque; Venice, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 12 ft. tall by 18.7 ft. wide
Current location: Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, Italy
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (629)Tintoretto consciously sought to unite the Florentine use of line with the Venetian use of color, but he was also influenced by Mannerism, in that he explored compositions and techniques that consciously broke the rules of the High Renaissance. When Tintoretto painted The Last Supper, he ignored past precedents. In the famous Last Supper in Milan, Leonardo da Vinci used single-point perspective focused on a central Jesus at a table that paralleled the picture plane and used diffuse, even, natural lighting. Tintoretto’s disjointed composition uses a diagonal table with perspective lines that never quite meet; Jesus, pictured at the moment of the Eucharist (“this is my body…”) is off-center, and the right side of the canvas is filled with minor characters, including a curious cat and a maid whose face is completely in shadow. The only light sources in the dark room are a mystical lamp overflowing with flame and smoke, and the powerful glow of Jesus’ halo (see detail in image below). The existence of haloes on Jesus and the apostles (except Judas) is another break with recent tradition and in some ways a return to medieval iconography. Even more of a departure are the swarms of translucent angels hovering around the ceiling. High Renaissance humanism sought to depict the spiritual realm using only the elements of the natural world; Tintoretto felt comfortable depicting mystical phenomena directly.
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255. View of Toledo

Artist: El Greco
Date: Most sources date the painting to 1595-1600, with some narrowing it to 1597-1599, although some art historians have dated it to 1600-1614.
Period/Style: Mannerism; Spain
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 3.9 ft. tall by 3.6 ft. wide
Current location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
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The history of Toledo, Spain is rich with cultural heritage, religious intensity, and political significance. From the Romans to the Visigoths, the Moors (who tolerated a large Jewish community) and the Christians, each group left its mark. Between the 5th and 7th Centuries CE, the Christian church convened approximately 30 synods in Toledo to address various religious controversies. In the 16th Century, Toledo was the capital of Holy Roman Emperor Charles I. Toledo was also the adopted home of Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better known as El Greco, who lived and worked there from 1577 until his death in 1614. It is not surprising then, that when El Greco needed a landscape for the background of his painting ofSt. Joseph and the Christ Child(c. 1597-1599), he painted a version of the Toledo skyline (see image below). What he did next was surprising, however, He reworked the background into an independent landscape, one of only two he ever painted, and possibly the first Spanish landscape ever, View of Toledo (see image above). Rather than creating an accurate documentary rendering of his beloved city, El Greco painted an emblematic landscape, or spiritual portrait, that captured the essence of the city. The artist includes the Castle of San Servando, the Alcázar, the Cathedral, the Alcántara Bridge, the Tagus River and other landmarks, but he has has made some adjustments to accommodate the viewpoint he has chosen (looking from the north at Toledo’s eastern section) – valuing emotional truth over cartographic. The dramatic contrast of hills and sky creates an emotional reaction that opens us up to the mystical qualities that El Greco wants to convey, of what one commentator called his “Byzantine memories.”
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256. Frescoes, Farnese Gallery (The Loves of the Gods)

Artist: Annibale Carracci (with assistance from members of his studio, including Agostino Carracci, Giovanni Lanfranco,Francesco Albani,Domenichino, andSisto Badalocchio)
Date: Begun in 1597; completed in 1608
Period/Style: Late Renaissance/Mannerism; Baroque; Italy
Medium: Frescoes painted on residential ceiling
Dimensions: The frescoes cover the entire vaulted ceiling of a large room.
Current location: Palazzo Farnese, Rome
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Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked: Part 1 (634)
In the last years of the 16th Century, Annibale Carracci and members of his studio began to paint an ambitious program of frescoes on the walls and ceiling of the Farnese Gallery, a large barrel-vaulted room in the Palazzo Farnese (now the French Embassy) in Rome (see top image above). Carracci used a technique called quadrature, which combines integrates the frescoes with the actual architecture of the space and enhances the effects by adding painting architecture, sculpture and even picture frames. The themes of most of the frescoes are mythological in origin; the centerpiece (on the ceiling) depicts The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne (see second image above), in which a procession of animals, putti and various mythological creatures accompany the loving couple. The image below shows Diana and Endymion, with framing figures that show Carracci’s expertise at painting faux marble sculpture in grisaille. The frescoes were very influential in their move away from Mannerism to the Baroque style, and even anticipate the Classical revival of the 18th Century.
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257. Judith Slaying Holofernes (Judith Beheading Holofernes)

Artist: Artemisia Gentileschi
Date: There are two versions. The Naples version was painted c. 1611-1613; the Florence version was painted c. 1620-1621
Period/Style: Baroque; Italy; religious
Medium: Both versions were made with oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: The Naples version measures 5.2 ft. tall by 4.1 feet wide, but most art historians believe that it has been trimmed, removing a significant portion of the left side. The Florence version measures 6.5 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide.
Current locations: The first version is at the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples, Italy. The second version is in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
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In the Book of Judith, Assyrian general Holofernes is preparing to destroy the people of Israel when he falls in love with Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow from the village of Bethulia. Taking advantage of Holofernes’ fondness for her, Judith invites herself into his tent one night and waits until he gets drunk. When he passes out, she cuts off his head, saving herself and the Jewish people. The story has generated many works of art, but until the Baroque era, Judith was usually shown with the head of Holofernes post-decapitation. Caravaggio was one of the first to ratchet up the violence with his painting from 1598-1599 depicting the act of decapitation itself (see second image below). When Artemisia Gentileschi – one of the few well-known women artists of the 17th Century – painted the Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, contemporaries might have recognized a hidden meaning from the artist’s own biography. Gentileschi, a distinguished painter and first woman member of Florence’s Accademia di Arte del Disegno, and had certainly seen Caravaggio’s work, painted the theme twice. The first version (1612-13) was probably trimmed considerably on the left side (see image above). The second version (c. 1620) is considerably larger than the first canvas and appears to show the full intended composition for both paintings, including Holofernes’ legs on the left (see first image below). Both paintings are highly dramatic, as Judith and her maid fight against a very conscious Holofernes. One can see the determination and physical exertions of both women and feel the pressure of Judith’s hand on the blade as she saws through living flesh. In the later painting, Gentileschi is less influenced by Caravaggio; also, she has added a realistic spurt of blood from Holofernes’ jugular vein to let us know that Judith has hit her mark (in contrast with the unrealistic blood spurts from Caravaggio’s treatment). Those who viewed the painting may have also recognized in Judith’s rage at Holofernes Gentileschi’s rage at painter and former tutor Agostino Tassi, who raped Gentileschi when she was an 18-year-old art student. Gentileschi’s father, the highly-regarded painter Orazio Gentileschi, had hired the private tutor to teach his daughter because the art academies did not admit women. Gentileschi attempted to save her honor by marrying Tassi but he reneged, so she took the daring step of coming forward and publicly accusing Tassi of his crime. At the time, rape trials included torturing the complaining witness with thumbscrews to see if she was lying. Although Tassi was convicted of committing the rape, he was almost immediately pardoned and was never punished.
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258. Apollo and Daphne

Artist: Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Date: Work begun in 1622; completed in 1625
Period/Style: Baroque; Italy; mythology
Medium: Marble sculpture
Dimensions: 8 ft. tall
Current location: Galleria Borghese; Rome, Italy
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In hisMetamorphoses, Ovid relates a tale in which Cupid punishes the god Apollo for a slight by making him fall in love with Daphne, a beautiful river nymph, while at the same time shooting Daphne with an arrow that makes her incapable of falling in love. Apollo chases Daphne relentlessly until she is exhausted and Apollo finally catches up to her.A distressed Daphne then prays to her father, the river god Peneus, to either take away her beauty or transform her body.As Apollo reaches out to touch Daphne, she begins to be transformed into a laurel tree.When Apollo finally places his hand on her, he only touches tree bark, although he can feel her heart beating underneath.It was this moment that Bernini captured in his 8-ft.-tall marble sculptureApollo and Daphne, which was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. In order to justify the presence of a pagan myth in a Catholic cardinal’s home, Borghese had a moral lesson engraved on the original base of the statue: “Those who love to pursue fleeting forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands.” A more applicable lesson may be that within a sculpture of cold stone we may find a beating heart that is the true representation of real life. The statue is Bernini’s most admired, although some scholars believe that a member of Bernini’s workshop, Giuliano Finelli, sculpted some of the details of Daphne’s metamorphosis.

259. The Return of the Prodigal Son

Artist: Rembrandt
Date: 1668-1669
Period/Style: Baroque; Dutch Golden Age; The Netherlands; religious
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 8.6 ft. tall by 6.7 ft. wide
Current location: State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
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Perhaps the last canvas Rembrandt completed before his death in 1669, The Return of the Prodigal Son is a subdued yet powerful meditation on the love of a parent for a child and the power of forgiveness. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of a man with two sons. One stays at work, obeys his father and works hard. The other runs off and squanders his inheritance on liquor and prostitutes. Yet when the second, prodigal son returns home, the father welcomes him with open arms and throws a big party, while the other brother smolders. The theological point is that, according to Christian teaching, God will forgive us and welcome us into eternal life no matter what we have done in the past, as long as we repent. The father is the key figure – his hands express warmth and tenderness, but also support and strength. By his use of light, Rembrandt directs our eyes to the disheveled appearance of the returning prodigal, dressed in rags, shoes falling off, yet unwilling to sell his last good possession – a short sword. The older brother, at right, is clearly unhappy with the situation, while another wealthy man, who is unidentified, looks on with interest, and a servant seems truly moved. The woman hiding in the shadows on the left may be the prodigal’s mother – her attitude toward the scene is ambiguous (see detail in image below). By facing the prodigal son away from us, Rembrandt transforms an individual into Everyman, and the moment of family drama attains universal significance. Though near the end of his life, Rembrandt demonstrates that he is still the master of light, shadow and color, as well as emotional depth, in this large canvas.
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260. Milo of Croton Attacked by a Lion (Milo of Croton)

Artist: Pierre Puget
Date: Commissioned in 1670; completed in 1682; delivered to Versailles in 1683
Period/Style: Baroque; France; mythological
Medium: Marble sculpture
Dimensions: 8.8 ft. tall
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
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The Greek legend of Milo of Croton was a cautionary moral tale about hubris. Milo, who lived in Croton, a Greek colony in southern Italy, was a huge man who was considered one of the strongest men on earth in the 6th Century BCE. A champion wrestler, he was said to have carried a live ox through the Olympic stadium and then eaten the entire beast in a single day. Late in his life, the legend continues, he was walking in the forest when he saw an oak tree partly split open. He tried to wrench it apart using a wedge, but the wedge fell and his hand was caught in the tree. Trapped, the defenseless Milo was attacked by a lion and killed. In 1670, French Baroque sculptor Pierre Puget convinced Louis XIV’s first minister of state Jean-Baptiste Colbert to hire him to make sculptures for the gardens of the new Palace of Versailles. Colbert commissioned statues of Milo of Croton and Perseus and Andromeda. Giving the commission to Puget was a bit of a risk, as Puget’s sculptures did not conform to the more reserved classical artworks now referred to as the Style Louis XIV. Instead, Puget invested his art with the drama and movement characteristic of the Baroque style. Puget completed Milo of Croton in 1682 and delivered it to Versailles in 1683. It was given a place of honor, at the entrance of the Green Carpet. In the sculpture, we see Milo, his left hand trapped, writhing in agony as the lion leaps on him from behind. On the ground, we see a cup Milo won at the Olympic games, useless now in his hour of need. Puget’s twisting hero and ferocious lion exhibit Baroque features – strong diagonals and violent movements – but the geometric framework pays tribute to the classical style. In 1820, Puget’s Milo of Croton was moved to the Louvre in Paris.

261. Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles

Artist: Jean-Antoine Watteau
Date: 1718-1719
Period/Style: Late Baroque; Rococo; France
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 6.1 ft. tall by 4.9 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
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Both Pierrot and Gilles were stock comedic characters of French pantomime and Commedia dell’Arte, with similar costumes and roles, so it is perhaps no surprise that art historians have had trouble deciding the identity of the main figure in Jean-Antoine Watteau’s painting of a character in a white costume. The painting was generally known as Gilles until the 20th Century, when a critical mass of scholars decided that Watteau had painted Pierrot, leading to the Louvre’s awkward title, Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles. The Pierrot character was a buffoon (but often treated sympathetically) who was introduced to French audiences by a traveling Italian acting troupe in the late 17th Century. In the traditional story, Pierrot loves Columbine, who breaks his heart when she leaves him for Harlequin. Watteau, whose work as assistant to painter Claude Gillot, who often worked on painting theater sets, often featured theater characters or theater-goers in his work. Here, Pierrot stands alone on what seems like a stage, his expression a mix of sadness, humiliation and confusion. Is he worrying about Columbine’s faithfulness, or has she already left him? Or, as some have proposed, is the actor playing the part of Pierrot embarrassed to be standing in costume before the artist? Others have even wondered if Pierrot is a Watteau self-portrait (see 1721 portrait of Watteau by Rosalba Carriera below). Behind Pierrot, other stock Commedia dell’Arte characters that would have been recognizable to Watteau’s audience – the Doctor on his donkey, the lovers Leander and Isabella, and the Captain – ignore the sad clown, possibly a self-portrait. Some have speculated that the large canvas was intended as a theatrical sign for a performance at a café or fairground.