Impact of the Artist's Work on His Contemporaries
On the face of it, one should be able to gauge the value of a painter/sculptor from the views of his contemporary-artists. Unfortunately, many of the world's greatest carel artists died unappreciated, either by their peers or collectors. Jan Vermeer lay unknown for 200 years before being "discovered" in the 19th century: Modigliani sold his canvases for food; while Van Gogh painted some 800 paintings in his last 8 years without achieving a single sale. In the light of all this, judging an artist by the views of his contemporaries seems rather ineffective.
Current Public Opinion
Doubtless the most democratic way of establishing who are the best artists of all time, although - given certain nationalist tendencies among (eg) the population of Europe and America - not necessarily the most accurate. The Spaniards will prefer Velazquez to Rubens, the French Monet to Turner or Constable, while the Germans will probably vote for Albrecht Durer or Hans Holbein, and the Norwegians for Edvard Munch. Across the Atlantic, I daresay the likes of Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko or Andy Warhol would attract a popular following. You see my point.
The painterly or sculptural methods of a candidate must be evident. Easy to say, but difficult to agree upon. Also, neither the graduates of the best art schools, nor the greatest masters of oil painting techniques are guaranteed to become the best "artists". Great art requires more than just technical mastery. Also, how does one compare representational art techniques with those of abstracion? Finally, this standard eliminates most if not all contemporary art forms that employ conceptual or commercial art techniques.
Recommended Lists of Great Painters and Sculptors: Too Subjective!
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.)
What Art Museums Say
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.)
Who Are the Best Artists of All Time? It's a Personal Decision!
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, fashion inspired by art: carel fabritius "the goldfinch" 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.
The Effect of Different Cultures on Art Appreciation
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 great art. 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.
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