Tag Archives: Art

Today Is the First Frame of the Rest of Your Life: The Art Lists Redux

The folks at WordPress (hosts of this blog) tell me that of all the posts on Make Lists, Not War, those with the most views (by far!) are the lists of the Best Works of Art of All Time.  These pages receive more clicks than the rest of my blog entries combined.  For that reason, I decided to revise and expand my Best Works of Art pages.  Although I have no background in art or art history, thanks to Wikipedia, the websites of the world’s museums, the folks at Khan Academy, and various other sources, I have been able to teach myself a little something about the works of art and synthesize what I’ve learned into mini-essays to accompany many of the items on the Best Art lists.  It is now time to unveil Version 2.0 of the Best Works of Art and Art History 101 lists.

Just to give you a taste of what we’re talking about, I’ve provided the very top paintings and sculptures of all time below.  This ranking is based on a meta-list that combines 18 separate lists of the top, best, greatest, most important or most highly regarded works of art, as determined by art critics, art historians and art experts of all stripes.  At the bottom of the page, you’ll find links to my new, improved Best Works of Art lists.


1. Giotto di Bondone: Frescoes, Scrovegni Chapel (Arena Chapel) (c. 1305-1308)

Lamentation of Christ panel from Scrovegni Chapel.  last judgment

2. Matthias Grünewald: The Isenheim Altarpiece (1509-1515)

isenheim 1  Grunewald_Isenheim2

3. Francisco Goya: The Third of May, 1808 (1814)

The Third of May.

4. Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

5. El Greco: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586)

count orgaz

6. Diego Velázquez: Las Meninas (1656)

Las Meninas.

7. Tommaso Masaccio: Frescoes, Brancacci Chapel (1424-1428)

The Tribute Money, from Brancacci Chapel.


8. Hieronymous Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1510)


9. Leonardo da Vinci: Mona Lisa (1503-1505)


10. Michelangelo Buonarroti: Frescoes, Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1508-1512)

Sistine_chapel   Creation of the Sun, Sistine Chapel.

11. Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Hunters in the Snow (1565)

The Hunters in the Snow.

12. Théodore Géricault: The Raft of the Medusa (1819)

The Raft of the Medusa.

13. Vincent Van Gogh: The Starry Night (1889)

The Starry Night.

14. Grant Wood: American Gothic (1930)

American Gothic.

15. Pablo Picasso: Guernica (1937)



1. Michelangelo Buonarroti: David (1501-1504)


2. Thutmose (attrib.): Bust of Queen Nefertiti (1345 BCE)

Nefertiti bust

3. Unknown Artist: The Terracotta Army, Tomb of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang (246-208 BCE)
terracotta army  terracotta warrior

4. Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-1652)

Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

5. Michelangelo Buonarroti: Pietà (1497-1499)

pieta 1

6.  Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty (1970)


7. Unknown Artist: Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun (1333-1323 BCE)

Funeral Mask of Tutankhamun.

8. Myron: The Discus Thrower (460-450 BCE)


9. Phidias (?): The Parthenon Frieze (c. 443-438 BCE)

parthenon frieze   Parthenon-frieze-bb

10. Unknown Artist: The Pergamon Altar Frieze (c. 180 BCE)

pergamon altar  pergamon altar

11. Alexandros of Antioch: Venus de Milo (130-100 BCE)

venus de milo 1

12. Agesander, Athenodoros & Polydorus: Laocoön and His Sons (c. 150-50 BCE)

laocoon and his sons

13. Donatello: David (c. 1435-1440)

Donatello's David.

14. Auguste Rodin: The Kiss (1889)

the kiss rodin

Here are the Best Works of Art on three or more of the 18 lists, organized by the number of lists that the artwork was on.  For example, Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes were the only works of art to be included on 13 of the 18 lists.

Best Works of Art of All Time – The Critics’ Picks, Part 1
(works of art on 5 to 13 of the original 18 lists)
Best Works of Art of All Time – The Critics’ Picks, Part 2
(works of art on 3 or 4 of the original 18 lists)

Here are the best works of art on 2 or more of the 18 lists, organized chronologically.  (I haven’t gotten around to writing essays for the artworks that were only one two lists, but it will happen.)

Art History 101 – Part I: Prehistoric Era – 1399 CE
Art History 101 – Part II: 1400-1599
Art History 101 – Part III: 1600-1799
Art History 101 – Part IV: 1800-Present

Take A Picture, It’ll Last Longer: The Photography Lists

After making lists of best paintings and sculptures, and best architecture, the logical next list was best photography.  But making meta-lists of the best photographs and best photographers of all time proved to be quite a challenge.  The problem, from a listers’ standpoint, was that the art of photography is splintered into a number of styles or genres, which exist somewhat independently of one another.  Photojournalists have the Pulitzer Prize and the World Press Photo awards and most lists of “best photos” focus on their work (Robert Capa’s Dying Loyalist Soldier being the classic example).  Then there are the historians, who focus on firsts – first true photo, first self-portrait, first color photo, etc.  Street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helen Levitt are often lumped in with photojournalists, but are quite distinct.  There are landscape photographers, nature photographers and wildlife photographers, although often these categories overlap.  Portrait photography and fashion photography, while distinct, may also overlap.  Fashion photography is also a sub-genre of commercial photography in that both are trying to sell something (other than prints of the photo – in that sense all professional photography is commercial).  Finally, there is art, or fine art photography.  Many of the photographs in this genre overlap with one or more of the other genres, but there are some, like Man Ray’s Rayographs or Jeff Wall’s tableaux, that are unique.  Because I wanted to make a list that covered as many categories of photography as possible, I had to look for the best photos by looking beyond lists to try and determine which photographs were the most highly regarded.

The result, I am glad to say, is a ‘best photography’ list that includes fine art photography, photojournalism, street photography, nature, landscape and wildlife photography, portrait photography, fashion photography and sports photography.  Nearly every renowned photographer is represented, as are many familiar images.  But there will also be names most do not recognize and photos you’ve never seen before.

In this post, I’ve included two lists of ‘best photographers’ (see below).  The two big photography lists can be found here:
Best Photography of All Time: Part I – 1826-1945
Best Photography of All Time; Part II – 1946-2011

Here are two lists of best photographers that I compiled from a number of different lists.  This first is the top dozen photographers and the second is a longer list, organized chronologically. The numbers in parentheses indicate the number of lists containing the photographer’s name.

Top Photographers of All Time
1. Henri Cartier-Bresson (France; 1908-2004)
2. Annie Leibovitz (US; 1949- )
3. Ansel Adams (US; 1902-1984)
4. Dorothea Lange (US; 1895-1965)
5. Yousuf Karsh (Armenia/Canada; 1908-2002)
6. Robert Capa (Hungary; 1913-1954)
7. Irving Penn (US; 1917- 2009)
8. Cecil Beaton (UK; 1904-1980)
9. Diane Arbus (US; 1923-1971)
10. Richard Avedon (US; 1923-2004)
11. Robert Frank (Switzerland/US; 1924- )
12. Steve McCurry (US; 1950- )

Best Photographers of All Time: Chronological
Julia Margaret Cameron (UK; 1815-1879) (4)
Roger Fenton (UK; 1819-1869) (3)
Alfred Stieglitz (US; 1864-1946) (6)
August Sander (Germany; 1876-1964) (3)
Edward Steichen (Luxembourg/US; 1879-1973) (4)
Edward Weston (US; 1886-1958) (5)
Man Ray (US/France; 1890-1976) (4)
Paul Strand (US; 1890-1976) (3)
Andre Kertész (Hungary/France/US; 1894-1985) (5)
Dorothea Lange (US; 1895-1965) (9)
Brassaï (Hungary/France; 1899-1984) (5)
Ansel Adams (US; 1902-1984) (10)
Walker Evans (US; 1903-1975) (5)
Cecil Beaton (UK; 1904-1980) (7)
Philippe Halsman (Latvia/US; 1906-1979) (4)
Horst P. Horst (Germany/US; 1906-1999) (4)
Henri Cartier-Bresson (France; 1908-2004) (12)
Yousuf Karsh (Armenia/Canada; 1908-2002) (8)
Robert Doisneau (France; 1912-1994) (5)
Eve Arnold (US; 1912-2012) (4)
Robert Capa (Hungary; 1913-1954) (8)
Helen Levitt (US; 1913-2009) (3)
Irving Penn (US; 1917- 2009) (8)
W. Eugene Smith (US; 1918-1978) (5)
Helmut Newton (Germany/Australia/UK/France/US; 1920-2004) (5)
Diane Arbus (US; 1923-1971) (7)
Richard Avedon (US; 1923-2004) (7)
Robert Frank (Switzerland/US; 1924- ) (7)
Garry Winogrand (US; 1928-1984) (3)
Elliott Erwitt (France/US; 1928- ) (3)
Jay Maisel (US; 1931- ) (3)
Brian Duffy (UK; 1933- ) (4)
Jerry Uelsmann (US; 1934- ) (3)
Don McCullin (UK; 1935- ) (3)
Philip Jones Griffiths (UK; 1936-2008) (3)
David Bailey (UK; 1938- ) (4)
William Eggleston (US; 1939- ) (4)
Mary Ellen Mark (US; 1940- ) (6)
Patrick Demarchelier (France; 1943- ) (3)
Sebastião Salgado (Brazil; 1944- ) (6)
Robert Mapplethorpe (US; 1946-1989) (4)
James Nachtwey (US; 1948- ) (6)
Annie Leibovitz (US; 1949- ) (12)
Steve McCurry (US; 1950- ) (7)
Art Wolfe (US; 1951- ) (3)
Frans Lanting (Netherlands/US; 1951- ) (3)
Herb Ritts (US; 1952-2002) (4)
Martin Parr (UK; 1952- ) (3)
Nan Goldin (US; 1953- ) (3)
Cindy Sherman (US; 1954- ) (6)
Mario Testino (Peru/US; 1954- ) (4)
Steven Meisel (US; 1954- ) (3)
Ellen von Unwerth (Germany; 1954- ) (3)
Nick Knight (UK; 1958- ) (4)
David LaChapelle (US; 1963- ) (5)

Here, again, are the best photos lists:
Best Photography of All Time: Part I – 1826-1945
Best Photography of All Time; Part II – 1946-2011

More Lists About Buildings and Food (Actually, Just Buildings)

When I was compiling the “Best Works of Art” lists a few weeks ago, I noticed every once in a while that there would be a building on someone’s list.  I was focused on painting and sculpture, so I mostly ignored these references to architecture.  Until now.

In some ways, architecture is the crowning achievement of the visual arts, in that it incorporates aspects of painting and sculpture, but within the overall context of designed structure in space, so I decided that architecture needed some lists of its own.  As I collected over 20 lists of “Best Buildings” and “Best Architecture”, I found that most of the items on the lists met my common sense notion of architecture: Buildings that people use to live, work, play, worship and learn in.  But it didn’t take long for me to realize that the scope of architecture went beyond my original conception.  The first obvious exception was bridges – you don’t normally go inside them, like buildings – you travel over them.  Yet bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate and the Millau Viaduct are some of the most spectacular architectural achievements of the modern era.  But the listers also included the Statue of Liberty and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, which I thought of as giant sculptures (in fact, the Statue of Liberty is on my paintings and sculptures list).  At least those two items meet my first definition because they are hollow and people can go inside them.

So I revised my working definition of architecture to: Man-made structures that people can go inside, underneath or on top of.  But I saw an immediate problem: this definition was too broad: it would make roads, patios, empty refrigerator boxes and even cruise ships and automobiles into architecture.  Even more perplexing were two items that turned up on multiple “Best Architecture” lists that didn’t seem to fit any reasonable definition I could come up with: the Great Sphinx of Giza and the giant statues (called “moai”) of Easter Island. You can’t go inside them (unlike the nearby pyramids, for example); you can’t go underneath them and, unlike bridges, they are not designed for people to travel over them.

So I turned to my Internet resources.  The online Free Dictionary defines architecture, in part, as: (1) The art and science of designing and erecting buildings; (2) Buildings and other large structures.  The first definition is problematic because it excludes not only the Sphinx and the Moai, but also bridges, which are not normally thought of as buildings.  But the second definition, while simple, seems to do the trick, especially when we recognize that the word ‘structure’ is related to ‘construct’, which implies a controlling mind and would exclude natural arches or rock formations.  One hitch: my new working definition of architecture would include large structures made by animals (non-human animals) – giant termite mounds, for example – but that’s a list for another day.

Here they are,, the new “Best Architecture” lists – with lots of pictures:

Best Architecture of All Time – The Critics’ Picks (in rank order – best buildings first)
Best Architecture of All Time – Chronological (from Stonehenge 2000 BCE to Dubai 2010)

Where in the World is my Masterpiece?

I’m using this post to announce my new list of the best works of visual art, which you can find here:  The Greatest Works of Art – A World Tour.   This time, I’ve organized the list by geographic location – so you can find the best works of art wherever you happen to be in the world.  (The list of works of art, as you know, is a compilation of 15 ‘best works of art’ lists that I collected from the Internet and books – the list includes every art work that was listed on at least two of those 15 lists.)  As a result of my new list, I was able to determine which museums held the most works of art on the list.  The following is a list of those museums, with the number of listed works in parentheses.

  1. Musée du Louvre, Paris, France (37)
  2. National Gallery, London, UK (28)
  3. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, US (26)
  4. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain (20)
  5. The Tate, London, UK (14)
  6. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, US (14)
  7. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy (13)
  8. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France (12)
  9. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria (11)
  10. British Museum, London, UK (11)



The Artists Show Their Faces: A New List of Painters and Sculptors

I’ve just finished another list based on the ‘best works of art’ theme.  This time, the focus is on the artists: Who are they?  Which of their works are considered their greatest masterpieces?  And, of course, what do they look like?   There are loads of pictures – many of them self-portraits.  For once, the list is alphabetical instead of chronological so the post-Modernists are mixing with the post-Impressionists, and the Byzantine is rubbing shoulders with the Baroque.  Take a look and see what you think:  Great Artists and their Masterpieces.

Art For Our Sake: Announcing a New List

Many years ago, I attended a poetry reading given by a friend of a friend.  The poet made his entrance accompanied by a cadre of followers, all carrying signs and chanting in unison, “I don’t know much about art, but dammit I know what I like.”  Like much of modern artistic expression, what made the procession interesting was the questions it raised:  Were they affirming this anti-elitist sentiment or mocking it?

I admit that I don’t know a lot about art, specifically the arts of painting and sculpture (I know even less about architecture).  We had a pretty good survey course in high school, but since then I have just gleaned bits and pieces of information from conversations with artists and art history majors, Sister Wendy’s BBC series, Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word and lots of museum-going.  I like pretty pictures, art that tells a story or generates an emotional response and art that shows off the artist’s dazzling technique, but I also appreciate art that challenges me and makes me ask the questions, What is Art? and Is this thing I’m looking at an example of it?  (As a solution to this perennial quandary, an artist friend in college had an “It’s Art” stamp made up.  Now it was very easy to tell what was art and what wasn’t – just look for the stamp.)

Humans have been making art for over 30,000 years, and in that time there have been numerous technological advances (like the science of perspective, or the guy who invented tubes that allowed oil painters like Van Gogh to paint outside).  There have also been shifts in the philosophy of art, changes in the answers to the question, Why make art?  To improve our chances of catching a bison?  To worship our deity?  To kowtow to the rich and famous?  To make a political statement? To explore the effects of one color on another?  To show the world that there is art everywhere we look?  To stimulate the beholder to ask the questions, Is this Art? Is so, why?  If not, why not?  This last is what Tom Wolfe hates about modern art – that the explanation of the work can be more interesting than the work itself, that the work is meaningless without the explanation.  But the response is, all artists expect the viewer to bring something to the table – it’s just that with pre-modern art, much of what we bring is emotional and feels instinctive; now we often need to bring our cognitive faculties, and that can feel like work.

The old saw is that photography killed representational art, and artists had to come up with another reason to exist, so they created forms of art that were successively more and more removed from photographic realism.  Even as a novice, I recognize that this theory has more holes than it takes to fill the Albert Hall.  For one thing, anyone who has done any photography will tell you that “photographic realism” is a rarely-achieved ideal.  For a famous example, think of the one picture of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Shutter speeds were so long back then, and the speech was so short, that Lincoln is just a blur.  It actually reminds me a little of a modern art painting (I forget by whom) in which the painter paints a portrait and then, before the paint is dry, smudges the subject’s face with his finger (or at least that’s what it looks like).

All of which brings me to my latest list.  I scoured the Internet and library shelves (oversized, mostly) to find collections of the best ever paintings and sculptures that the world’s artists have ever created.  I found 15 such lists and combined them into one giant list, then put every work of art that made it onto at least three of the lists and put them here:  Best Works of Art of All Time – The Critics’ Picks.  In the process, I learned quite a bit about art and art history.  Some examples:
(1) Paleolithic cave painters used the deepest most inaccessible parts of their caves to paint, meaning they weren’t making decorations to be admired by their peers but religious/magical images that only their deities could see.
(2) What we know of Greek sculpture we have mostly learned from Roman copies of Greek works.  The bronze statues made by the Greeks were later melted down for other uses, while the mostly marble copies made by the Romans have survived.
(3) Some of the most magnificent 14th, 15th and 16th Century works of art are contained on altarpieces, which were wooden contraptions with panels and hinges that stood in front of or behind the altar in a Catholic church and contained painted or sculpted religious scenes.
(4) In representational painting, it’s all about the light.
(5) There are only so many 16th Century Dutch landscapes that I can look at in a row before feeling restless.
(6) Maybe your kid could paint that, but it would never occur to him/her to do it.