Top 10 Best Painters & Sculptors of All Time
Art Not Necessarily the Best
Ask a roomful of art historians and art critics "who is the best artist ever?", and you'll get dozens of different answers. Why? Because there is no single standard by which to measure who is the greatest painter or sculptor: fine art is too subjective. Furthermore, the reputation of an artist can vary according to the fashion of the moment: the intense German Renaissance painter Matthias Grunefeld, for instance, suddenly became fashionable in the 1900s because of his "rediscovery" by German expressionists. Occasionally, an art critic can singlehandedly influence the standing of an artist: John Ruskin's negative opinion on Annibale Carracci, for instance, had a huge impact on the reputation of the Bolognese School. So trying to decide who is the best artist of all time, is close to impossible! But read on...
MOST FAMOUS ARTISTS
BEST ARTISTS: ENGLAND
Auction prices at Sothebys or Christie's provide some indication of the most valuable artworks or styles of art, but most of the finest paintings by the world's best artists hang in museums or public galleries, and are not for sale at any price. See also our articles: Art Evaluation: How to Appreciate Art and How to Appreciate Paintings.
The Mona Lisa, for instance, the magnificent portrait by the High Renaissance genius Leonardo Da Vinci, is part of the permanent collection of the Louvre museum in Paris. Reportedly valued at over $1 billion, it will never come to auction.
The same applies to masterpieces by the greatest Old Masters, such as Jan Van Eyck, Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, Velazquez, El Greco, Rembrandt, Jan Vermeer, Goya and others, as well as great artworks by the best 19th century painters such as JMW Turner, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Renoir, and Van Gogh. Most of the best paintings by outstanding modern artists like Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Edward Hopper, Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock, and Francis Bacon are likewise out of circulation.
Masterpieces of fine art not in state art museums are often found in situ, decorating public buildings. The most famous such examples are the "Genesis" and "Last Judgement" frescos by the Florentine genius Michelangelo, that grace the ceilings and walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Other examples are the amazing Camera degli Sposi frescos by Andrea Mantegna, in the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, Italy, and the glorious ceiling frescoes painted by Tiepolo (in collaboration with the architect Balthasar Neumann) in the palace of the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg.
In short, art market prices in international salesrooms only relate to "available" works, so the most expensive painting or sculpture isn't necesssarily the best.
EVOLUTION OF FINE
WORLD'S BEST SCULPTORS
BEST ART IN IRELAND
In theory, one can draw up a list of criteria in order to try and arrive at a list of (say) The Top 10 Painters or The Top 10 Sculptors, or even The Greatest Painter of All Time. For instance, one might use the following factors as a basic benchmark.
Durability or Longevity
OUT OF PRINT ART
Impact of the Artist's Work on His Contemporaries
Current Public Opinion
There are numerous "authoritative" art books, or online compilations of history's finest artists by top critics. Trouble is, most of them are based on highly subjective criteria disguised as "objective fact", so they often make readers feel that they don't appreciate "true art". Use these lists as a general guide of expert opinion, but don't feel pressurized into accepting it as "fact" - it's only opinion. (See also: Famous Paintings Analyzed.)
Another factor to take into account when drawing up a list of the best artists of all time, is the opinion of the world's best art museums, like the Uffizi (Florence), the Hermitage (St Petersburg), the Guggenheim, Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA (all in New York), the Prado (Madrid), the Pinakothek (Munich) and the Tate Museum (London). Most have online reviews of the top works in their permanent collections, along with articles and commentary on paintings and sculpture appearing in their temporary exhibitions. This data, mostly written by expert curators and researchers, is a useful source of information on the world's top creative practitioners. (See also: Art Museums in America and Art Museums in Europe.)
At the end of the day, determining who are the greatest ever painters and sculptors is a highly subjective, personal decision. Trying to persuade an ardent fan of Impressionism or other forms of plein-air landscape that the Neo-Plasticist Piet Mondrian is one of history's greatest painters, is as futile as trying to convince a lover of avant-garde installation art that Raphael or Titian merit a place in the Top 10 best ever artists. Or take Damien Hirst, for example. You either love him or hate him!
The truth is, each of us has our own aesthetic or stylistic preferences, be they Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Neoclassicism, Realism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism or Pop-Art. One person loves abstract art, the next is wild about Dada or Conceptualism. There's no "universal" movement or style of art that commands instant admiration: no single interpretation of "beauty". All one can say, is that to arrive at a reasonable conclusion about who are the best artists, one must be familiar with a reasonable number of the world's great works of art. After that, it's up to the individual.
I suspect that most Western art critics know the names of very few top painters or sculptors from China, let alone Japan. Even if they do, I doubt they accord them the same attention and respect as they do Western artists. After all, Western art - from Classical Antiquity, through the Renaissance and into the Modern era - is still seen as the core repository of the greatest artworks in history. Likewise, it's probable that museum curators and art critics in (say) Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore, have an equally strong preference for (and better understanding of) oriental painting and sculpture. In other words, it's fair to say that our opinion of who constitutes the greatest ever artists is strongly influenced by the culture we grow up in - another factor to bear in mind.
My Personal List of the Top 10 Artists
Bearing in mind the above, here is my personal selection of the Top 10 best artists in the History of Western Art. The criteria I have used to separate and rank these exceptional painters and sculptors are as follows: (1) Their reputation has endured for many decades; (2) They exemplify outstanding representational art - my idea of aesthetic beauty; (3) Their artworks have significantly influenced both their contemporaries and later generations of creative practitioners.
No 10. Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
The greatest and most influential figure in Counter-Reformation Baroque art in Northern Europe, Rubens painted almost every type of genre and subject (notably history paintings and portraits). Also, he designed tapestries, produced book illustrations and festival decorations, as well as cartoons and sketches for sculptures, metalwork and architecture. He taught Anthony Van Dyck and influenced a host of other Flemish painters, and French artists like Delacroix and Renoir. Described as "the prince of painters and the painter of princes."
Painting Masterpieces by Rubens
- Samson and Deliah (1609) oil on wood,
National Gallery, London
No 9. Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441)
The most famous artist of the Early Netherlandish School of Flemish painting, he collaborated with his brother Hubert Van Eyck on the Ghent Altarpiece. Noted especially for his pioneering mastery of oil painting, his introduction of a new realism in religious works and portraiture, and his use of luminous glowing colours. Along with Roger Van der Weyden, Van Eyck was the supreme model of painterly technique during the early Northern Renaissance.
Painting Masterpieces by Jan Van Eyck
No 8. Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)
A shy, workaholic, Rodin was the greatest and most influential sculptor of the modern era, a worthy successor to the traditions of Donatello, Michelangelo, Giambologna and Bernini. A master in the use of clay, plaster, stone and bronze, some of his finest work evolved over decades. Constantin Brancusi described him as "indisputably the starting point of modern sculpture."
Sculpture Masterpieces by Auguste Rodin
- The Thinker (1881) Bronze, Musee Rodin,
No 7. Claude Monet (1840-1926)
The leader and devoted adherent of the French Impressionism plein-air painting movement, and the acknowledged initiator of "Modern Art", Monet had a lifelong obsession with the depiction of light. His "Haystacks" and "Water Lily" series of canvases (the latter completed in his garden at Giverny) took years to complete. A close colleague of the Impressionist painters Pissarro and Renoir, his later works (not unlike those of Turner, whom he admired) spilled into Expressionism. Followers included Alfred Sisley, as well as Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Georges Seurat and Edouard Vuillard.
Painting Masterpieces by Claude Monet
- Impression, Sunrise (1873) oil on canvas,
Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris
No 6. Donatello (1386-1466)
The greatest European sculptor of the 15th century and arguably the best artist of his era, Donatello was part of the remarkable group of artists (Alberti, Brunelleschi, Masaccio) who drove the early Renaissance in Florence. A prolific worker, he was a master of stone, wood, terracotta and stucco as well as his preferred medium of bronze. Had a huge influence on his contemporaries, due to his invention of rilevo schiacciato, his sensitive handling of classical motifs and the emotional content of his sculptures.
Sculpture Masterpieces by Donatello
- David (c.1440) Bronze, Museo Nazionale
del Bargello, Florence
No 5. JMW Turner (1775-1851)
Arguably the greatest landscape painter in the history of art, the precocious Joseph William Mallord Turner exhibited at the London Royal Academy at only 15 years of age. Overshadowed initially by Thomas Girtin, Turner's remarkably innovative technical and stylistic working methods in both oils and watercolours gave his paintings a revolutionary impact, in composition, tone and form. Had a lifelong interest in the portrayal of light, and endless respect for the Old Masters. Revered by his contemporaries, including John Constable.
Painting Masterpieces by JMW Turner
- Burning of the House of Lords and Commons
(1835) oil, Philadelphia Museum
No 4. Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)
Florentine artist, draughtsman, scientist, theorist - the "Universal Renaissance Man" - Leonardo completed a mere handful of works but remained a pivotal figure in the High Renaissance era. His oil painting technique was enormously innovative and influential, notably his supreme skill in sfumato (whereby he mellowed the precise outlines employed by previous painters), which was described by Giorgio Vasari as one of the distinguishing marks of modern painting. Almost single-handedly responsible for transforming craftsmen-painters and sculptors into artists and intellectual experts in disegno.
Painting Masterpieces by Leonardo Da Vinci
Virgin of the Rocks (c.1484) oil on panel, Louvre Museum
No 3. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Perhaps best-known for the paintings of his Blue and Rose Periods, his shorter African period, and his co-invention of Analytical and Synthetic Cubism with Georges Braque, Picasso was also a master sculptor, ceramicist, designer and printmaker, whose prolific output drew inspiration from prehistoric, tribal, classical, Renaissance and avant-garde themes. Picasso's revolutionary treatment of the picture plane (in his Cubist work) effectively started a new era of fine art, while his innovative sculptures were among the first to utilize "found" materials. These innovations had a profound effect on the development of modern and contemporary art movements including Constructivism, Futurism, Orphism, Purism and Vorticism, as well as Dada and Surrealism, and on contemporary painters (eg. Marcel Duchamp, Juan Gris, Fernand Leger, Francis Picabia, Robert Delaunay) and sculptors (eg. Archipenko, Jacques Lipchitz, and Ossip Zadkine). Probably the most influential artist of the 20th century: not least because he was the most important semi-abstract artist and one of the great expressionist painters.
Painting Masterpieces by Picasso
- Blue Nude (c.1904) oil, Picasso Museum,
No 2. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
Arguably the greatest painter since the Renaissance, the elusive Dutch Realist genius Rembrandt created a large number of stunning masterpieces, including some of the finest examples of history-painting, group and individual portraiture, genre-paintings, still-life and self-portraits ever produced in the history of art. One of the greatest exponents of chiaroscuro (use of light and shadow), he is also famous for the character and emotional content of his canvases, which introduced a revolutionery realism into painting. Rembrandt was also one of the greatest draughtsmen and printmakers (etching and dry-point). Taught numerous Old Masters (eg. Gerrit Dou, Carel Fabritius, Nicolaes Maes), and still exerts a huge influence on painters throughout the world.
Painting Masterpieces by Rembrandt
Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) Mauritshuis, The Hague.
No 1. Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)
The greatest painter, draughtsman and sculptor of all time, Michelangelo was (along with Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael) a key figure of the Italian High Renaissance in both Florence and Rome. If the majesty and power of his Italian Renaissance sculpture exceeded even that of Donatello, his Old Testament Sistine Chapel frescoes justifiably rank as the finest body of figurative art in the history of painting. The art historian Anthony Blunt described them as having a "superhuman quality" but also "a feeling of brooding, of sombre disquiet... they are no longer merely symbols of eternal beauty; they also reflect the tragedy of human destiny." Although schooled in the classical principles of the Renaissance, which accorded the highest value to ideal representations of the human body, particularly the nude form, Michelangelo infused his Christian art with colossal gravitas and human feeling. Some of his marble carvings have a flawless beauty and polish, proving his absolute technical mastery. In the field of the heroic male figure he remained for centuries (and arguably still is) the supreme exponent. He also produced some of the best drawings of the Renaissance. Regarded with awe by most of his contemporaries, who applied the Italian word "terribilita" (frightening power) to his works, Michelangelo devoted most of his last 20 years to architecture (notably the design of St Peter's Basilica in Rome), in which his reputation is as formidable as in painting and sculpture. This extraordinary domination of the three major visual arts - a feat unlikely to be repeated - is what makes him the world's greatest ever artist.
Masterpieces of Painting/Sculpture by Michelangelo
fresco (1508-12) Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Note About Exclusions:
An abbreviated list of the finest artists from the Italian quattrocento to the 20th century.
11. Raphael (Raffaello Sanzi) (1483-1520)
Considered the most significant painter of the High Renaissance, known for his altarpieces, sensitive Madonnas and portraits, as well as his wall-size frescos: see the Raphael Rooms (Vatican).
Paintings by Raphael
- The Sistine Madonna (1513) oil on canvas,
12. Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)
One of the greatest ever Old Masters from Spain, he dominated court portraiture and was renowned for his sensitive, perceptive and realistic oils. Produced a number of stunning masterpieces.
Paintings by Velazquez
- Christ on the Cross (1632) oil on canvas,
Prado Museum, Madrid
13. Jan Vermeer (1632-1675)
Arguably the greatest ever exponent of genre-painting, he led the Delft School of the Dutch Realism, being noted for his quietly dramatic interiors. Meanwhile his Lacemaker shows him to be one of the best miniaturists.
Paintings by Vermeer
The Little Street (c.1658) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
14. Caravaggio (Italian, 1573-1610)
Greatest early 17th century Italian painter whose bold naturalistic style broke away from the prevailing school of Mannerism. Founder of Tenebrism, his exceptional influence led to a school of followers called the "caravaggisti".
Paintings by Caravaggio
15. Giambologna (1529-1608)
Flemish-born Italian sculptor, considered to be the greatest ever exponent of the Mannerism school. Renowned for his mastery of sculptural technique as well as the emotional power of his figurative statues.
Sculpture Masterpieces by Giambologna
- Mercury (1564-80) Bronze, Museo Nazionale
del Bargello, Florence
16. Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (Italian, 1488-1576)
Massively influential figure in Venetian painting, capable of producing some of the greatest religious paintings and portraits in the history of art. In addition to his supreme mastery of colour, he specialized in allegorical works and portraiture.
Paintings by Titian
- Portrait of a Man (1512) oil on canvas,
National Gallery, London
17. John Constable (1776-1837)
England's greatest ever landscape painter in the naturalist, semi-idyllic manner, he was an early pioneer of plein-air outdoor painting, and remains one of Britain's most popular artists.
Paintings by Constable
- Boatbuilding Near Flatford Mill (1815)
oil, Victoria & Albert Museum, London
18. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Greatest French painter of the 17th century, worked nearly all his life in Rome. Considered to be the greatest "academic style" artist, in contradistinction to Rubens, whose drama and colour schemes were ill-appreciated by the classical school.
Paintings by Poussin
- Rape of the Sabines (1638) oil on canvas,
19. Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
One of the world's greatest figurative artists, he was a leading French Impressionist, noted for his drawings, oil paintings and sculptures of ballerinas.
Paintings by Degas
- L'Absinthe (1876) oil on canvas, Musee
20. Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920)
Paris-based Italian bohemian painter, an impecunious and wild member of the Paris School during the first two decades of the 20th century. Renowned for his unique, revolutionary Expressionist style of figurative art, particularly his nudes, inspired by Cubism, African figuration and narciotics.
Paintings by Modigliani
- Seated Nude (1916) oil on canvas, Courtauld