One of the downsides of meta-lists is that they tend to be conservative. To a certain extent, they confirm the conventional wisdom and perpetuate the status quo. “Best of” meta-lists, which combine the results of multiple lists from different sources, focus on the consensus: what most people can agree on, not the controversial, the outliers, those that push the envelope. In the case of the lists of best artists and best artworks, the meta-lists tend to confirm the stereotype that nearly all the great artists were male and white.
But these lists don’t tell the whole story. Great artists come from all backgrounds, ethnicities and genders. And every artist tells a different story, presents an individual viewpoint, even as they (as all artists) absorb or react to their culture, environment and historical context. By ignoring these voices, the standard “best of” lists tend to marginalize the marginalized, and oppress the oppressed.
I recently created a new meta-list of the best African-American artists: Best African-American Artists of All Time. The 23 artists on at least three of the original source lists are featured, along with images of their work. These men and women range throughout the entire history of the United States – the earliest was born in the 1760s and the youngest was born in 1977. They provide an important counterbalance to the narratives and visual styles of white artists. You may recognize some of the names on the list, but some of them may be new to you. Most of them were new to me. In order to make a better world, we need to listen to each other’s voices, as expressed in words, music, and, here, in the visual arts.
If you want to go even deeper into the story of African-American art, check out these other names of artists who were listed on two of the original source lists:
– Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968)
– Sargent Claude Johnson (1888-1967)
– Beauford Delaney (1901- 1979)
– Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998)
– Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012)
– Roy DeCarava (1919-2009)
– Betye Saar (1926- )
– Bob Thompson (1937-1966)
– Martin Puryear (1941- )
– Howardena Pindell (1943- )
– Barkley Hendricks (1945-2017)
– Glenn Ligon (1960- )
— All Art Has Been Contemporary,Maurizio Nannucci (1999).
As the above work of contemporary art makes clear, the term “contemporary art” is problematic. “Contemporary” doesn’t refer to a specific method, technique, movement, style or even sensibility. It’s about time – and nothing else. Despite the term’s limitations, when I looked for lists of the best contemporary art, I found a general consensus that the term applied to a period of time beginning in the 1960s or 1970s and continuing to the present day. Many art historians, critics and others agree that Contemporary Art is what followed Modern Art. While there is significant disagreement about when the Modern Art period ended, just about everyone agrees that it did end some time ago.
In looking at the works on the meta-list (and those that didn’t make the cut), I can make several general observations about contemporary art. Here are 10 takeaways:
(1) Many contemporary artists are interested in the process of making, displaying and acquiring works of art as a subject in itself. For example, when Damien Hirst priced For the Love of God – a diamond-encrusted skull – at 50 million British pounds in 2007, his marketing strategy was part of the conceptual piece. Other artists have eschewed or mocked the traditional notion of art museums.
(2) While some contemporary artists continue to create art in traditional forms such as painting (Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Bridget Riley, Alice Neel, Ellsworth Kelly) and sculpture (Richard Serra, Duane Hanson, Anish Kapoor), many are drawn to other means of expression. One path leads to technology: films and videos (Francis Alÿs, William Kentridge, Matthew Barney), electronics (Jenny Holzer), multimedia. Another path leads to ephemeral or temporary art: installations (Olafur Eliasson, Yayoi Kusama, Christo), performances (Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramović, Pussy Riot), and street art (Keith Haring, Banksy).
(3) Commodification of art is a concern for many artists. Many artists produce replicas, duplicates or variations of earlier work. (This artistic practice has a long history, of course.) The artists may produce multiple copies of identical or similar works (see Andy Warhol’s Mao or Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster), or they may take a theme and produce variations on it (see Donald Judd’s Stacks, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Rooms, Sigmar Polke’s Watchtower paintings, Louise Bourgeois’ Cells). This is particularly common with photography; many photographers go from series to series during their careers (see Sally Mann’s Immediate Family; Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Lightning Fields; Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills).
(4) As with the modernists who preceded them, many contemporary artists love to play with the notion of “what is art?” and enjoy provoking the question, “Is this art?” from the viewer (see Damien Hirst’s Natural History series, or Jenny Holzer’s Truisms). Others appear to be interested in the shock value of their art.
(5) Many contemporary artists encourage viewers to take part in, become part of or otherwise actively interact with the artwork (see Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room, Chen Zhen’s 50 Strokes to Each or Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present).
(6) There seems to be a dichotomy between artists who love to explain the meanings of their works – who use texts, interviews and other means to discuss the works – and artists who refuse to attribute any deeper meanings to the works they create. In a few cases (Jeff Koons comes to mind), some critics feel that the artwork does not live up to the deep meanings ascribed to it by the artist.
(7) Bigger is better. Many contemporary artists create works that are very large in size or scope (Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty; Jeff Koons’ Puppy, James Turrell’s Roden Crater; Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field), or that include many hundreds or thousands of elements (see Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds; Marta Minujín’s Parthenon of Books; Joseph Beuys’ 7,000 Oaks; Antony Gormley’s Field series).
(8) Art as a forum for personal expression – particularly personal autobiography – is a theme of much contemporary art (see Edward Kienholz’s The Birthday, Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead and the work of Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin).
(9) As more women and people of color have been able to overcome barriers to have their artistic voices heard, they raise difficult issues of race and gender in their work (see Judy Chicago, Cindy Sherman, Kara Walker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kehinde Wiley).
(10) Postmodernism is a theoretical underpinning to much contemporary art, leading many artists to engage in a dialogue with (or repudiation of) the art of the past (see Kehinde Wiley’s Napoleon Leading His Troops Across the Alps, Yasumasa Morimura’s Portrait (Fugato), Vik Muniz’s Pictures of Garbage). Postmodern ideas also underlie the practice of appropriation art, in which artists incorporate or repurpose objects or images produced by others in their work – either untouched or manipulated in some way (see Andy Warhol’s Mao silkscreens, Thomas Ruff’s jpeg series, Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster, Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs).
I found a bunch of new lists of best works of visual art and decided to add them to the meta-list. Now I have over 30 source lists gathered from books and various websites. This particular meta-list is in two versions – one version (in two parts) is organized by rank and contains every work of art on four or more of the original source lists. To look at this list, click on the links below: Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked, Part 1 (works of art on 6 or more lists) Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked, Part 2 (works on 4 or 5 lists)
Please note that the artworks on this particular meta-list are primarily paintings and sculptures, with a few pieces of decorative art. For other forms of visual art – including architecture, photography, film, and television – I have compiled separate meta-lists.
To keep with the list theme, I’ve made some lists about the updated visual arts lists, which follow below. First, the updated meta-list has led to changes in the rankings throughout the list and the top 10 has been rearranged considerably:
The New Top 10: Artworks on the Most Lists 1. Leonardo da Vinci: Mona Lisa (1503-1505) 2. Michelangelo: Frescoes, Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1508-1512) 3. Diego Velázquez: Las Meninas (1656) 4. Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) 5. Pablo Picasso: Guernica (1937) 6. Michelangelo: David (1501-1504) 7. Vincent Van Gogh: The Starry Night (1889) 8. Sandro Botticelli: The Birth of Venus (1486) 9. Francisco Goya: The Third of May, 1808 (1814) 10. Edward Munch: The Scream (1893)
There are 25 new works of art on the meta-list as the result of this latest update, and six new artists:
The New Kids on the Block, Part 1: The Artworks
Unknown Artists: Great Sphinx of Giza (Egypt, c. 2530 BCE)
Unknown Artist: Lyre with Bull’s Head (Mesopotamia/Iraq, c. 2550-2450)
Lorenzo Ghiberti: TheBaptism of Christ (Italy, c. 1423-1427)
Albrecht Altdorfer: George and the Dragon (Germany, 1510)
Giorgione and Titian: Sleeping Venus (Italy, 1510)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Harvesters (The Netherlands, 1565)
Nicolas Poussin: Et in Arcadia ego (France, c. 1638-1640)
Ogata Korin: Flowering Irises (Japan, c. 1710)
Joshua Reynolds: Self-Portrait (Great Britain, c. 1748)
Jacques-Louis David: The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (France, 1789)
Antonio Canova: Perseus Triumphant (Italy, 1804-1806)
John Constable: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (UK, 1831)
Édouard Manet: The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (France, 1867)
Vincent van Gogh: Vincent’s Chair (The Netherlands/France, 1888)
Vincent Van Gogh: Starry Night over the Rhône (The Netherlands/France, 1888)
Paul Gauguin: Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife) (France/French Polynesia, 1896)
Paul Cézanne: Still Life with Apples and Oranges (France, c. 1895-1900)
Henri Matisse: The Conversation (France, 1909)
Umberto Boccioni: The City Rises (Italy, 1910)
Rene Magritte: Le Faux Joan Miróir (The False Mirror) (Belgium, 1928)
Diego Rivera: Man, Controller of the Universe (Mexico, 1934)
Jackson Pollock: Number 5, 1948 (US, 1948)
Damien Hirst: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (UK, 1991)
Louise Bourgeois: Maman (France/US, 1999)
New Kids on the Block, Part 2: New Artists 1. Gislebertus (France, 12th Century) 2. Ogata Korin (Japan, 1658-1716) 3. Joshua Reynolds (Great Britain, 1723-1792) 4. Diego Rivera (Mexico, 1886-1957) 5. Louise Bourgeois (France, 1911-2010) 6. Damien Hirst (UK: England, 1965- )
And, finally, here is a list of the artists with the largest number of artworks on the entire meta-list:
12 Works of Art on the Meta-List Pieter Bruegel the Elder (The Netherlands, c. 1525/1530-1569) Rembrandt (The Netherlands, 1606-1669)
11 Works Titian (Italy, 1488-1576)
10 Works Francisco Goya (Spain, 1746-1828)
9 Works Vincent Van Gogh (The Netherlands, 1853-1890)
8 Works Leonardo da Vinci (Italy, 1452-1519) Michelangelo (Italy, 1475-1564)
7 Works Piero della Francesca (Italy, 1416-1492) Albrecht Dürer (Germany, 1471-1528) Raphael (Italy, 1483-1520) El Greco (Greece, 1541-1614) Caravaggio (Italy, 1571-1610) Peter Paul Rubens (Flanders/Belgium, 1577-1640) Claude Monet (France, 1840-1926)
6 Works Andrea Mantegna (Italy, 1431-1506) Diego Velázquez (Spain, 1599-1660) J.M.W. Turner (UK, 1775-1851) Édouard Manet (France, 1832-1883) Pablo Picasso (Spain, 1881-1973) Henri Matisse (France, 1869-1954) Jackson Pollock (US, 1912-1956)
Where do we look at visual art? In a book? On your computer screen? In a museum? On vacation? On the way to work? More importantly, what is the best way to look at a work of visual art? You can find high-quality reproductions of every great painting, sculpture or other work of visual art in books or on your smart phone or computer screen, but looking at a 3-, 11-, 14- or 17-inch digitized reproduction of a painting measuring 10 X 12 feet or a life-sized statue cannot really come close to the experience of encountering the original directly. The urban centers that most people in the Western hemisphere live in or near generally offer lots of opportunities to see public sculptures and also diverse examples of the type of visual art we see the most – architecture (although we rarely think of the many buildings we encounter on a daily basis as works of art). Other works of art require long treks into distant lands to see them in person. For someone in the U.S., this might include the cave paintings of Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira; the ruins of Petra in Jordan, Persepolis in Iran or Angkor Wat in Cambodia; the mosaics of Hagia Sophia in Turkey; and the frescoes adorning the Christian churches of Italy.
And then there are museums. I would guess that many of us have had most of our direct exposure to original works of visual art (other than architectural creations) in an art museum. Such museums range from the tiny to the big to the immense; they may choose to present the work of one artist or many, a specific time period or all human history, a smattering of works from a great many artists, a comprehensive collection of a much more limited set of artists, or a combination of the two approaches. Some museums only present temporary exhibits but most combine their own special exhibitions and traveling shows with displays from their permanent collections. Museums have worked hard to provide an experience that appeals to the uninitiated as well as the sophisticated – this attempt to please everyone can disappoint those at either end of the spectrum, I suppose, but it is difficult to imagine what other approach the museums could take. The larger institutions have libraries and research facilities for the experts, and more and more museums are daring to put on special exhibits that are designed to appeal to someone who would not ordinarily visit.
Museums have their critics. Some believe they are elitist bastions of the wealthy and highly educated and that their imposing facades and unspoken assumptions about who ‘belongs’ inside intimidate the diverse masses who were not born into privilege, convincing them to stay away. Others feel that the sanctuary-like atmosphere of a museum is the worst place to look at a work of art. Art should be integrated into our daily lives, not sequestered in museums that too often become mausoleums for the works of dead white men. Others worry that the presence of an artwork in a museum tells us that experts have already anointed this an “important” or “high quality” piece – leaving us with a Hobson’s choice: either agree and feel like mindless sheep following the leader or disagree and feel like we’re either too stupid to get it or that the so-called experts are full of it and the whole system is phony.
Before the building of the great museums in Europe beginning around the time of the French Revolution, most non-architectural art was found in one of three places: religious sites and buildings, public spaces and buildings, or in the homes of the rich and famous, where only other rich and famous people (and their servants) could see them. Even today, many masterpieces are hidden from the public eye because they reside in the private collections of wealthy collectors who may only occasionally loan them to museums. Some museums have tried to recreate this earlier style of art appreciation by creating galleries where period furniture and other decorative art accompany the paintings and sculptures. Others, like the Frick Collection in New York City, display the art inside the mansion of the collector himself, with many of his furnishings still intact. Is this a better way to look at the art than the standard museum paradigm: paintings hung on bare walls in sparsely-decorated rooms, sculptures resting on pedestals a safe distance from each other?
Perhaps the most common criticism of museums, especially the behemoths that top the list of ‘Most Attended’ each year, is the physical and mental exhaustion brought on by looking at so many works of art during a typical visit. Most of us are not used to taking the time to stare intently at one object, not to mention doing it over and over for many different objects in many different rooms with few breaks and a drive to see everything you came to see – or at least all the famous pieces. The effort involved in truly seeing what we’re looking at eventually induces a combination of annoyed agitation and zombie-like lethargy, often accompanied by a headache, known to travelers as ‘museum fatigue’ or ‘museumitis.’ I have learned from personal experience that the urge to see ‘just one more masterpiece’ must often succumb to the need for a nap and that two hours is usually my limit, no matter how much there is left to see.
Despite all the criticisms, art museums offer an opportunity for the public to see many works of art in safe, clean, climate-controlled environments, where curator-produced writings and audio guides can provide useful and intelligent interpretation, context and background. Those museums with permanent collections on display provide the chance for folks who live nearby to encounter the same works of art multiple times, allowing them to reveal themselves layer by layer. Those that present temporary exhibits give us a chance to see works on loan from around the world, explore a subject or artist in depth, or investigate the edges of the world of art, or its intersection with other fields.
Given that there are some good reasons to see art in museums, another set of questions arises: What makes a great art museum? and Which are the best art museums? In doing some research on these questions, I was surprised to discover that museums are often rated by size and popularity (measured by annual attendance figures). This seems unfair to me, since visiting a small, well-curated museum can be a transcendent experience, while some of the larger museums can get so crowded that the average attendee ends up feeling hassled, claustrophobic, and stressed out. On the other hand, the larger museums tend to be wealthier and more able to acquire highly-sought-after artworks and put on the most impressive temporary exhibits. In making my meta-list of “Best Art Museums” (see below), I tried to avoid lists that were based on annual attendance alone, but looked instead for lists that focused on the quality of the art in the permanent collection and the quality of the permanent and temporary exhibits. Notwithstanding my attempt to focus on quality over size, the final result, a meta-list combining 25 separate lists of ‘Best Museums” and “Best Art Museums”, appears to confirm that bigger is also better.
BEST ART MUSEUMS OF ALL TIME – The Experts’ Picks
22 Lists Vatican Museums. Vatican City (established 1506) Musée du Louvre. Paris, France (est. 1792) Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York City, US (est. 1870)
17 British Museum. London, UK (est. 1753) Museo del Prado. Madrid, Spain (est. 1819)
15 State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg, Russia (est. 1764)
14 Uffizi Gallery. Florence, Italy (est. 1581)
13 Rijksmuseum. Amsterdam, The Netherlands (est. 1800) Tate Modern. London, UK (est. 2000)
11 National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., US (est. 1937)
9 Museum of Modern Art. New York City, US (est. 1929) Musée d’Orsay. Paris, France (est. 1986)
7 National Gallery. London, UK (est. 1824) National Palace Museum. Taipei, Taiwan (est. 1965)
6 Tate Britain. London, UK (est. 1897) Musée National d’Art Moderne. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France (est. 1947)
5 Victoria and Albert Museum. London, UK (est. 1852) Smithsonian Institution (multiple museums). Washington D.C., US (est. c. 1855) Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago, Illinois, US (est. 1879) J. Paul Getty Museum. Getty Center, Los Angeles, California, US (est. 1974)
4 Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Cairo, Egypt (est. 1835) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. New York City, US (est. 1939) Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Bilbao, Spain (est. 1997) Acropolis Museum. Athens, Greece (est. 2009)
This focus on museums is prelude to the unveiling of three new lists. I have taken every painting, sculpture and work of architecture from the other visual arts lists (except those in private collections) and organized them by geographic location. Most of the paintings are located in museums, although a fair number can be found in churches and other religious sites and a few in government buildings. Although museums house most of the sculptures, a fair number are located in public places, where people can see them without paying admission. Architectural works, by their nature, are also found outside museum walls, although the general public does not have access to many of them. Due to the Western bias of so many of the original lists and the acquisitive nature of many former colonial empires, the majority of the works of art are located in Western Europe and the United States. Despite this imbalance, the lists include significant art works from nearly every region of the world.
These three new lists expand upon and replace a prior geography-based list that contained many fewer works of art and no works of architecture. The primary goal of the list is to let people know where they can see the works of art from the lists, but I have also decided to identify the former locations of artworks you cannot see, because they were destroyed, lost or removed. One caveat: although a work of art may be in the collection of a particular museum, that is no guarantee that the artwork will be on display when you visit. In fact, I left most photographs off the list because most art museums have very few photos on display, even if they have huge numbers of them in their collections, so the chances you’ll be able to see any particular photograph from the museum’s collection on your visit may be very small.
Here, then, are the new lists. I’ve organized the artworks by location and illustrated the list with lotss of pictures of the artwork in context, including interior photos of exhibit halls in the museums from the “Best Museums” list above. Finally, I added maps with virtual stick pins for each of the three Geographic Location lists, thanks to the templates provided by ZeeMaps.com.
The purpose of this post is to introduce my newest list – Best Architects of All Time – The Critics’ Picks – but instead of writing a thought-provoking essay, I thought I would provide a sample of some of the most interesting, beautiful, outrageous and, yes, thought-provoking architectural designs ever built. To provide a variety of architectural styles and periods, I created a few fairly obvious categories (churches, museums, bridges, airports, etc.) and posted photos of five different examples of each category. Why five? Not sure, but two wasn’t enough and ten was too many.
Krak des Chevaliers (1170). Architect: Unknown. Location: Near Homs, Syria.
Château de Chambord (1547). Architect: Unknown. Location: Chambord, France.
When did we decide that some art was modern art? Did modern art began at the dawn of the 20th Century, or some time before? Was Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907 the defining moment or was it some earlier work by Matisse or Kandinsky? One would think that modern would stay current, but apparently it got old, and we needed a new term to describe what came after modern. (Does postmodern follow modern? Yes and no. They’re in a relationship and it’s complicated.) The near-universally accepted term for the most recent art and artists is contemporary. We even have museums devoted exclusively to contemporary art. When did we go from modern to contemporary? The term ‘contemporary art’ has been defined in a variety of ways, all of which seek to distinguish newer art and artists from the modernists who came before. Because those Picassos, Matisses and Kandinskys are over 100 years old – and that doesn’t sound very modern, does it? Contemporary is the new modern, but how do we establish boundaries for a present tense that keeps moving into the past?
For some critics and art historians, contemporary art encompasses all the postwar movements of the 1950s and 1960s – Abstract Expressionism (think Jackson Pollock), Neo-Dada/Pre-Pop (think Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg) and Pop Art (think Andy Warhol) – and continuing all the way to the present. Others say ‘contemporary’ means art since 1970. Still others define it as art by artists living today, which means that the scope of contemporary art changes every time we see an artist’s obituary. Once we’ve defined the time period covered by ‘contemporary art’, we must try to comprehend not only the artists and their particular works of art, but also struggle with what generalizations we can make about the various means, techniques, movements and ideas employed by these artists (and by the critics, curators and historians who think and write about them). As an example of the difficulties involved in making such generalizations, consider just a few of the contemporary art ‘movements and styles’ identified by the obsessive-compulsive folks at Wikipedia: environmental art, holography, postminimalism, wildstyle, froissage, culture jamming, transgressive art, transavantgarde, neo-expressionism, hyperrealism, pseudorealism, toyism, stuckism, superflat and metamodernism. Where to find an umbrella big enough to cover all these and many more disparate paradigms?
Considering the breadth of contemporary art, it is foolish (even dangerous) to attempt generalizations. We can only point to some common trends. It is almost a cliché to say that contemporary artists seek to challenge our understanding of what art is and can be and what the artist’s role is in ‘creating’ the art, but many contemporary artists are interested in exploring (and challenging assumptions about) the nature of art – what is art?, is this art? They also like to draw attention to (and challenge our assumptions about) the nature of the creative process and the relationship between the artist and the person who interacts with the artwork, or buys the artwork. While some contemporary artists create works of art that require sophisticated artistic skills, others deemphasize technical skill and instead focus on what is simple, easy or already visible (everyday objects, advertising, etc.) – they appropriate the work of others or use assistants or the public to execute their ideas. Others use high-tech techniques that permit the creation of stunning visual effects that could not have existed in the days before computers and digital manipulation. The age-old questions about the relationship between the artwork and external reality (if they even concede its existence) continue to be asked but in new ways.
Contemporary artists use contemporary media. Instead of painting a canvas, framing it and hanging it on a wall, or shaping a sculpture from stone, bronze or clay, many of them create performances and installations that live temporary lives; after the happening happens, it exists only in various forms of documentation: videos and photographs, preparatory sketches and props. They create artworks that reshape the environment or change with time. They make artworks about their own artworks or the artworks of others. They blur boundaries between trash and art, art and commerce, lowbrow and highbrow, painting and sculpture, word and picture, sight and sound, performance and exhibit. (Is this photograph art or is it a photograph of art?) They take a tradition and add something that doesn’t belong, or subtract something that does. They break the rules or they draw your attention to the rules they are following. While some contemporary artists may only want you to come away from their work thinking “What pretty art” or “Wow is he talented!”, it is more likely that they want to send you away from an encounter with their art filled with questions: ‘Why this?”, “What for?” and perhaps, ultimately, “Why not?”
All this is prelude for my latest meta-list: Best Contemporary Visual Artists – the Critics’ Picks. To make the list, I collected a number of lists of the best contemporary artists (mostly still living, but a few who have recently passed) and arranged them with the most-listed artists at the top. Then, for each artist, I compiled their most highly-regarded works of art. These range from relatively traditional paintings and sculptures to a man with gold paint on his face explaining artworks to a dead rabbit, a shark floating in formaldehyde, a room full of light, pictures cut out of biker magazines, a portrait created from thousands of magazine pictures, instructions for painting a wall and many more. I hope you enjoy the list and use it to explore the world of contemporary art.
A timeline is a sort of chronological list and so it is fitting that Make Lists, Not War should include some timelines. I’ve already published a timetable of scientific discovery, so now I’ve created a much larger set of timetables covering human history, beginning with our hominid ancestors 6.5 million years ago and concluding (for now) with 2014 in the Common Era (CE). I’ve included scads of photos and maps, and tried to reduce the text to a minimum. Where there are multiple items with the same date, I have followed a rough hierarchy, as follows:
Cultural Events (incl. sports)
Painting & Other Visual Arts
Literature: (1) Non-fiction, (2) Fiction/Poetry
Music: (1) Classical; (2) Jazz; (3) Other
I realize that some (perhaps most) historians would find these timelines anathema to the true study of history, and I would have to agree, to some extent. Anyone familiar with the study of history will tell you that the days of memorizing names and dates are long gone. This is the time of understanding causes and movements, even going so far as to analyze the various ways in which scholars have studied particular historical events or trends over time. Concepts, ideas, meaning and purpose are the substance of today’s history, not who invented this and which general won what battle.
But I suspect even the most up-to-date historian or history teacher would admit that a few facts now and then can anchor those theories and movements to real people at real times. A concept or an idea, after all, must be thought of by a mind of a specific person who must communicate it or act it out. It is true that a list of events without a deeper context lacks the threads of the narratives that carry them from person to event to person, etc. (e.g., there is no timeline event labeled “nationalism”, “humanism”, or even “Industrial Revolution”). Should I hit the delete button, then? Is publishing these timelines going to do more harm than good? I somehow doubt it. To me, they constitute a treasure chest of interesting, sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing facts about human history, with the political events of the day set alongside scientific and technological achievements, the great works of art and literature and various aspects of culture (from sports to gay rights to the labor movement). The timelines have rekindled a passion for history; instead of sending me back to the “just the facts” mode of studying history, these lists have made me want to read more about the deeper narratives that weave these disparate facts together. I hope they do the same for you.
While doing research for my visual arts lists, I occasionally came across works of art whose titles were misleading, inaccurate or just plain wrong, but for various reasons are still used to refer to the painting or sculpture they imperfectly describe. I thought it might be interesting to make a list of such works with an explanation of the mismatch between the title and the object to which it is attached. Here it is, in chronological order (with illustrations, of course). I’d be interested if folks have other examples to share.
1. Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (Unknown artist, c. 38,000 BCE)
In German, the name means Lion-Human, with no gender reference, but the English translation implies that the figure is a male, even though at least some scientists believe it represents a female.
2a. Venus of Willendorf (Unknown artist, c. 28,000-25,000 BCE)
2b. Venus of Laussel (Unknown artist, c. 23,000 BCE)
2c. Venus of Brassempouy (Unknown artist, c. 24,000-22,000 BCE)
2d. Venus of Kostenki (Unknown artist, c. 23,000-21,000 BCE) Despite their names, these prehistoric figurines do not depict the Roman goddess Venus, whose mythology was not created until many thousands of years later. The anachronistic term “Venus of _____” arose from a belief that these and similar figurines represent fertility goddesses and as such were prehistoric analogues to Venus, the goddess of love. Because the term is misleading and has caused confusion, its use by archaeologists is on the wane.
3. Ram in a Thicket (Unknown artist, c. 2600-2400 BCE)
Most experts believe the figures represented by this pair of figurines are goats, but the discovering archaeologist named them after a story in the Book of Genesis in which Abraham sees a ram caught in a thicket.
4. Standard of Ur (Unknown artist, c. 2600-2400 BCE)
This mosaic-inlaid box may have been part of a musical instrument, but there is no evidence to support the original discoverer’s theory that it is a standard, or flag-like sign that would have been carried into battle.
5. Mask of Agamemnon (Unknown artist, c. 1550-1500 BCE) Despite the hopes of its discoverer, Heinrich Schliemann, this gold mask is 300 years too old to be associated with the Trojan War and its participants, including Agamemnon. To make matters worse, some believe Schliemann may have faked the mask, which is much more sophisticated than other masks found at the same site.
6. Ludovisi Throne (Unknown artist, c. 470-460 BCE)
The Ludovisi Throne is not a throne. It was probably part of the foundation of an Ancient Greek temple.
7. Venus de Milo (Alexandros of Antioch, 130-100 BCE)
It may be splitting hairs, but the statue known as Venus de Milo was made by Hellenist Greeks and found on a Greek island, so the goddess would have been called Aphrodite, not Venus, who was Aphrodite’s counterpart in Roman mythology.
8. Battersea Shield (Unknown artist, c. 350-50 BCE) It may look like a shield, but experts say the Battersea Shield was not battle-worthy or battle-tested and was probably a replica used for ceremonial purposes and as a votive offering.
9. The Bayeux Tapestry (Unknown artist, c. 1075) The Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry. A tapestry is a woven textile, while the Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth, in which the artist used wool thread to embroider designs on a linen cloth.
10. The Well of Moses (Claus Sluter, 1395-1405) The Well of Moses is not a well. It is the base of a Crucifixion scene, the upper portion of which was dismantled during the French Revolution by anti-clerical mobs.
11. The Holy Trinity Icon (Andrei Rublev, 1408-1425)
Not so much a mistitling, as a title that requires a leap of logic. The figures represented in the famous icon are the three angels who appeared to Abraham at Mamre, according to the Book of Genesis. A theological metaphor connects the three angels to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of the Christian trinity.
12. Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban (Jan van Eyck, 1433)
The subject of this possible self-portrait is not wearing a turban. He is wearing a fashionable 15th Century head-covering known as a chaperon. The turban-like appearance is the result of the subject’s decision to take the long tails of the chaperon and wrap them around his head, possibly to avoid having them interfere with his painting.
13. Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife (The Arnolfini Portrait) (Jan van Eyck, 1434)
For centuries, scholars believed they had correctly identified the subjects of this portrait as the Arnolfinis, but in 1997, it was discovered that Arnolfini was married six years after Jan van Eyck’s death. Was Arnolfini married twice? Does the painting show Giovanni Arnolfini blessing another family member (a niece?) on her marriage? Or are there no Arnolfinis involved in the portrait at all? Art historians have not reached consensus on answers to these questions.
14. St. Francis in the Desert (Giovanni Bellini, c. 1480)
While the area in St. Francis’s immediate vicinity is rocky and somewhat barren, the landscape beyond is anything but desert-like. In fact, it looks like an Italian countryside. ‘Going into the desert’ may have been shorthand for any religious figure going on a solitary retreat away from civilization, in remembrance of Jesus’s temptation in the desert.
15. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (Geertgen tot Sint Jans, c. 1485-1490) The ‘wilderness’ looks more like a well-groomed park, and it is within sight of a town.
16. An Old Man and His Grandson (Domenic Ghirlandaio, 1490) While the ages and the behaviors of the subjects make it perfectly reasonable to infer that their relationship is grandfather and grandson, there is no direct evidence of the names of the subjects or their relationship.
17. The Three Philosophers (Giorgione, 1506-1509)
The current name came from a 1525 catalogue of the owner’s artworks, but no one really knows who the three individuals are or who they are supposed to represent, although there are plenty of theories.
18. The Laughing Cavalier (Frans Hals, 1624) Wrong on both counts. First, there is no evidence the subject was a cavalier. Second, while the man is smiling, he is definitely not laughing.
19. The Night Watch (Rembrandt, 1642) First, the militia in the painting is not on a watch, which only occurs in times of danger, it is marching out of headquarters. Second, even though Rembrandt’s glazes have darkened over the centuries, the scene occurs during the day.
20. The Milkmaid (Johannes Vermeer, 1657-1658)
A milkmaid milks cows. This woman is a domestic kitchen maid, not a milkmaid, even though she happens to be pouring milk.
20. The Jewish Bride (Rembrandt, 1667) There is no evidence about the identity of the subjects of this double portrait or their religious affiliations. Some scholars do believe the subject of the painting is the Old Testament’s Isaac and Rebekah. Others believe that it shows a contemporary couple dressed as the Biblical pair, following a common tradition of having one’s portrait done as a character from history.
21. The Embarkation for Cythera (Antoine Watteau, 1717)
Although the various titles for this and a very similar piece indicate that the couples are on their way to the island of Cythera, some experts believe the painting actually shows couples returning from Cythera.
22. Chirk Aqueduct (Crambe Beck Bridge) (John Sell Cotman, 1804-1807)
For many years, scholars assigned the name Chirk Aqueduct to this landscape painting of Cotman’s. A recent reexamination of the painting and its subject have led to the conclusion that the structure depicted is Crambe Beck Bridge, in the north of England, not Chirk Aqueduct in Wales.
23. Woman with a Pearl (Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1868-1870) Most of the mistaken titles on this list were assigned by someone other than the artist. In this case, the artist gave an incorrect title to his own painting. The woman in Corot’s Woman with a Pearl is not wearing a pearl. The decoration on her forehead is a leaf. Scholars suspect that Corot chose his title as an homage to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Woman with a Pearl Necklace.
While collecting over 15 lists of “Best Artists of All Time” (this is a list of visual artists, focusing on painters and sculptors – architecture and photography have separate lists), I kept thinking about how many great works of art have no artist’s name attached to them: the cave paintings of Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira; the Venus figurines; the seals of Mohenjo-Daro; the mosaic tiles of Ravenna, the Dome of the Rock, Damascus and Isfahan; the medieval icons of St. Catherine’s Monastery; the relief sculptures of Nineveh, Persepolis, Borobudur, Amaravati, Chartres and Amiens; the giant sculptures of the Olmecs and Rapa Nui; the Nkisi Nkondi nail figures; the Fang Ngil masks; the Codex Borgia; the Book of Kells; the Wilton Diptych, and so many more. When did artists emerge from the shadows of anonymity, and why? Or should we ask instead why so many artists failed to preserve their names for posterity? From what I can gather, the idea of the artist as a creative individual who deserved recognition for his or her creations arose in different cultures at different times. The Ancient Greeks celebrated the genius of Phidias, Praxiteles, Lysippos and Euphronios and the Chinese and Japanese cultures celebrated artists by name as early as the 7th Century CE, but in many other cultures and in many other times, the artist was considered a craftsman who made art the way a chairmaker made a chair or a blacksmith made a horseshoe. When 7th Century Chinese court official Yan Liben became known for his paintings instead of his bureaucratic achievements, he felt humiliated, since painters belonged to a lower rank with tradesman such as tailors and carpenters. Most art historians trace the modern-day acknowledgement of artists in Western Culture to the Renaissance and the rise of humanism, a philosophy that put the individual at the center of the universe, as the driving force of civilization. While some medieval artists had signed their work, it was probably Proto-Renaissance master Giotto di Bondone who was the first in a long line of Western artists, continuing to this day, who took steps to ensure that their names are associated with their art. Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, first published in 1550, rejected once and for all the notion that artists were anonymous craftsmen and instead celebrated their individual geniuses, at the same time raising the artist above ordinary citizens and introducing the concept of artist as celebrity. Once an artwork was connected with the name of an artist, certain consequences ensued: first, works by the better (or better known) artists increased in value; second, lesser known artists seeking to cash in on the work of more famous artists began creating cheap imitations and outright forgeries; and third, the famous artists, in response, sought to protect their work by various means – first, merely by signing them – but this impulse eventually led to today’s copyright laws. The reason Michelangelo signed the Pietà was that someone was going around telling people that the sculpture had been carved by his rival, Cristoforo Solari. Anonymity was one thing, but the greatest artist of all time (see list below) could not bear the idea that another, lesser artist, was getting the credit for his masterpiece.
15 “Best Artists” Lists Michelangelo (1475-1564) Italian painter, sculptor, architect
14 Lists Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Italian painter, sculptor, architect
11 Rembrandt (1606-69) Dutch painter, printmaker Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) Spanish painter, sculptor
10 Raphael (1483-1520) Italian painter Titian (1488-1576) Italian painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) French painter
8 Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) Dutch painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) French painter
7 Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) Flemish painter Caravaggio (1573-1610) Italian painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) Flemish painter Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) Spanish painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) British painter Edgar Degas (1834-1917) French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) French painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) Dutch painter
6 Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1528-1569) Flemish painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) French painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954) French painter Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) Italian painter, sculptor Alberto Giacometti(1901-1966) Swiss sculptor, painter
Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) Spanish painter, sculptor
5 Giotto (c. 1267-1337) Italian painter Donatello (1386-1466) Italian sculptor El Greco (1541-1614) Greek-Spanish painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) French painter Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) Spanish painter, printmaker John Constable (1776-1837) British painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) French painter Édouard Manet (1832-1883) French painter Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) French sculptor James McNeill Whistler (1856-1921) American painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) Russian painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967) American painter René Magritte (1898–1967) Belgian painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) American painter
4 Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464) Flemish painter Tomasso Masaccio (1401-1428) Italian painter Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) Italian painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) Dutch painter Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) German painter, printmaker Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) German painter, printmaker Frans Hals (c.1580-1666) Flemish-Dutch painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) French painter William Blake (1757-1827) British painter, printmaker Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) Japanese painter, printmaker Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) French painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891) French painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) Austrian painter Andy Warhol (1928-1987) American painter, printmaker
3 Yan Liben (c. 600-673) Chinese painter Cimabue (c.1240-1302) Italian painter Duccio (c.1255/60–1318/19) Italian painter Huang Gongwang (1269-1354) Chinese painter Simone Martini (1284-1344) Italian painter Fra Angelico (1387-1455) Italian painter Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) Italian painter Piero della Francesca (1416-1492) Italian painter Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) Italian painter Tintoretto (1518-1594) Italian painter Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) French painter William Hogarth (1697-1764) British painter, printmaker Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) French painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) French painter Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1753-1806) Japanese painter, printmaker Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) French painter, printmaker Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) Japanese painter, printmaker Winslow Homer (1836-1910) American painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) French painter Piet Mondrian (1872 -1944) Dutch painter Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) Russian painter Paul Klee (1879-1940) Swiss painter Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) French painter, sculptor Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) American painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918) Austrian painter Joan Miró (1893-1983) Spanish painter Henry Moore (1898-1986) British sculptor Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) Mexican painter
2 Fan Kuan (fl. 990-1020) Chinese painter Guo Xi (c. 1020-1090) Chinese painter Ma Yuan (c. 1160-1225) Chinese painter Jokei (fl. 1190-1200) Japanese sculptor Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290-1348) Italian painter Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516) Italian painter Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528) German painter Giorgione (1478-1510) Italian painter Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) Italian painter Georges de la Tour (1593-1652) French painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-1654) Italian painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) Spanish painter Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) Italian sculptor, painter, architect François Boucher (1703-1770) French painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) British painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) German painter Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) French painter John Everett Millais (1829-1896) British painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) Danish-French painter Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) French painter Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) American painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) Norwegian painter, printmaker Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) French painter Constantin Brâncusi (1876-1957) Romanian-French sculptor Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) Italian painter, sculptor Georges Braque (1882-1963) French painter, sculptor, printmaker Marc Chagall (1887-1985) Belarussian-French painter Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) Italian-Greek painter Alexander Calder (1898-1976) American sculptor Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) Russian-American sculptor Mark Rothko (1903-1970) Russian-American painter Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) Dutch-American painter, sculptor Arshille Gorky (1904-1948) Armenian-American painter Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1977) American painter David Hockney (1937- ) British painter Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) American painter