What is your Favorite Painting?

How often have I been asked this question? As an artist selecting just a single favorite artist or single favorite painting is as much of an impossibility as selecting a single favorite book as a bibliophile (although I would almost certainly need to go with Shakespeare as the writer). As such I’ve decided to post something along the lines of my top ten (or a few more) with the full knowledge that this list would probably change if I were asked again on another day.

1. Michelangelo- The Sistine Ceiling – This work would almost certainly remain at the top of my list at any time. To my mind Michelangelo is the greatest artist ever… bar none. If I were to search for a literary equivalent to his achievements I would almost need to think of something along the lines of a combination of Homer, Dante, and Milton. he is the greatest grand epic poet of art:

I have have always found that any time I return to studying Michelangelo’s work I find even something further to make me wonder and leave me in a state of awe and admiration.

2. Heironymus Bosch- The Garden of Earthly Delights- A good many of those works that I would think of as “favorites” are paintings that have such a degree of complexity that I find I can return to them again and again and never tire of them… never fail to discover something new. Bosh certainly lives up to this standard:

3. Botticelli- Primavera- Botticelli’s great allegory of the arrival of spring certainly does not lack a complexity worthy of Bosch… in spite of it being far simpler upon first glance. The tapestry-like field of flowers, for example, illustrate some 100s of different species of flowers. The artist spent an entire year in rendering the obsessive detail of this painting. In spite of its laborious creation the work conveys a complete feeling of joy and lightness. The figures dance and float across this tapestry/frieze-like surface in an unabashed song to spring… rebirth… and love. I’ve never been able to look at the painting without thinking of Vivaldi and Petrarch and Spencer’s Amoretti and Epithalimion.

4. Pieter Breughel- The Blue Cloak (Netherlandish Proverbs)- Brueghel is certainly a must among my favorite painters. With him the choice of the single representative work becomes difficult. I have always loved the painting of August (Autumn), and Hunters in the Snow from his series on the months. I’m also greatly enamored of The Fall of the Rebel Angels, the horrific Triumph of Death and Dulle Griet (Mad Meg)… however I’d probably need to go with the fabulous Netherlandish Proverbs. This great painting appears at first to be but a highly detailed painting by a master of observation of a Flemish village of the era:

Upon closer inspection, however, we discover that almost every figure in the image is actually a visual representation of a traditional Netherlandish proverb or folk saying:

“One has to crawl to make one’s way through the world” and “He holds the whole world at the tip of his thumb”

“He runs his head against a brick wall”

“She holds fire in one hand and water in the other” (She runs hot and cold)

5. Rembrandt- Lucretia, Hendrickje Bathing, Self-Portrait 1669- I have always imagined Rembrandt as the Shakespeare of art. While Michelangelo is the giant of epic heroic art, no artist has captured human emotions with such depth as Rembrandt. Where most artists paint figures, Rembrandt paints human beings… characters whom become as real as those created by Shakespeare or Dickens at his best. The painting, Lucretia, in the National Gallery of Art in washington is probably the single painting to have left the most profound emotional impact upon me… at least of those I have seen in person.

The artist’s great Self Portrait or 1669 from the same museum is no less moving. One cannot help but feel the profound sorrows etched upon the face of this artist (the loss of his wife, his wealth and reputation, his only son…). All this says nothing of the brilliance of his handling of paint itself:

Of course Rembrandt was not all tragedy. His painting of his young lover/soon to be wife, Hendrickje wading in a stream is certainly one of the most loving of erotic images… erotic with absolutely nothing salacious about it.

6. Pieter Paul Rubens- Portrait of Susanna Fourment, The Judgment of Paris, Little Fur, The Garden of Love– Rubens is another master from who I could not choose a single painting. He is most well known as the master of epic-scaled heroic narrative paintings… images of the Crucifixion and Deposition… battle and hunting scenes… and narratives from classical mythology. His finest works, however, are almost invariably the more personal. Perhaps his greatest portrait is this depiction of his lovely sister-in-law, Helena Fourment. The painting is so sensual and full of life that commentators throughout history could not help but imagine an illicit affair existing between the sitter and the artist.

Of course the artist didn’t need to run to a sister-in-law to find his erotic pleasures… in his late 50s he would marry the 16-year old Helena Fourment, called by many the most beautiful woman in the Netherlands. Several years after the death of his first wife, Isabella Brandt, whom he had deeply loved, Rubens showed himself to be absolutely enthralled and enchanted by the young Helena. He would paint her again and again and again. His life-sized portrait of her dressed in only a fur wrap (inspired by his artistic idol, Titian) is perhaps the most erotically charged of these paintings:

Helena showed up not only in portraits, but she also became an actress of sorts… posing for various mythological paintings. In The Judgment of Paris, Helena has become the triumphant goddess of love, Venus, in the beauty competition set to spur on the Trojan War.

She also arrives with her consort… the artist himself… in the Garden of Love, a masterpiece of young lovers dressed in satins and lace engaged in flirtations in a courtly garden. This painting would become the very foundation of the entire Rococo… especially of the paintings of Watteau.

7. Pierre Bonnard- Perfume, The Toilette, Terrace, Landscape at Vernon– From Rubens I end in jumping to the 20th century. In spite of the fact that I have no doubt as to the absolute dominating presense of Picasso… his innovation… his amazing scale and breadth of output… still, for whatever reason, I have ever been absolutely enchanted by the work of Pierre Bonnard. Matisse himself upon seeing the great collection of Bonnard’s work in the Phillip’s collection in Washington admitted that Bonnard might just have been the greatest of them all. In spite of this, many critics have dismissed him as nothing more than a late Impressionist. I must admit that he is something of a “painter’s painter”… he slowly grows upon you with exposure to his real paintings in person. Whether we are looking at one of his intimate scenes of his wife at her toilette (Perfume, The Toilette), a marvelous still-life, a scene of a family gathering, or one of his brilliant landscapes (The Terrace, Landscape at Vernon) the effect is always of the mundane transformed into the magical. Forms are fragmented or devoured by shimmering glittering light in a manner the reminds me always of one of those great Byzantine mosaics.:

8. Vermeer- Pearl Necklace, Woman with Water Jug, Woman with Scales– If anyone is truly a painter’s painter it is Vermeer. In spite of his small output (less than 40 small paintings) his stature is that of one of the giants. This is owed, unquestionably, to the fact that his paintings, seen in the flesh, are absolutely magical. His subject matter was nothing new for the time: intimate scenes of everyday life by the women whom he lived with. How they are painted, however, is breathtaking. Vermeer used only the finest of materials and built up his paintings in layers until they have an absolutely jewell-like appearance. The paint in many places appears to still be wet, so limpid does it appear. His color absolutely glows… as does his mastery of light (Thomas Kinkade, “master of light”?! Give me a break!!!) Vermeer shows us that the creation of the few small perfect works of art can be an important and as moving as the grand oeuvre or the epic scaled narrative masterpieces:

8. Max Beckmann- Bird’s Hell, Death, The Begining, Woman with Mandolin, Falling Man Beckmann is another among the Modernists whom may not have been one of the first picks of many others… but I have always found him to be incredibly powerful. With the passage of time his reputation has begun to grow greatly. Beckmann always struck me as something of a medieval or primitive artist among the moderns. In contrast to the elegance of many artists his work conveys something brutal. In spite of the brilliance of his color and the sensuality of his paint handling the works always convey something dark and menacing. The colors actually glow against the bituminous black of his outlines like the reds and blues of a medieval work of stained glass glows against the black leading. Bird’s Hell is a brilliant image of the growing horrors of Nazi Germany seen as an almost Bosch-like fantasy. Death is an even more surreal fantasy with a monstrous choir and musicians turned topsy-turvey. The Falling Man… an image of man falling into a void… through the clouds… against the backdrop of burning buildings… has taken on an even more profound “meaning” post-9-11.

9. Titian- The Rape of Europa, Danae, Venus D’Urbino, Venus with Mirror- To my mind the greatest school of art ever was that of the Venetian “colorists”. Wanting to paint large but unable to paint frescos in a city prone to flooding and extreme humidity… and equally wishing to paint slowly and with the brilliance of color possible in the new Flemish techniques of oil painting, the Venetians hit upon painting in oil on canvas. Artists such as the Bellini’s, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Titian essentially pushed the abilities of oil painting to new levels establishing the techniques that are almost second-nature to the painter today. Starting rapidly with only a simple underdrawing they were able to slowly build up paintings over time with a combination of direct painting, scumbling, and transparent glazes until they had wove something with a magical surface and absolute brilliance of light and color. Titian was the greatest master of this school and realized the female nude as the perfect subject best suited to the sensuality and warmth possible in the new techniques. While the Florentine and Roman nudes seemed carved of stone, Titian’s women were warm… made of flesh and blood… and bathed in the shimmering light of Italy:

10. Degas- Bathers– In some ways Edgar Degas (along with Edouard Manet) was the last of the “old masters”. Degas was trained in the “old master” atelier manner stressing drawing of the human body, sculptural form, composition, and narrative painting. He imagined himself as being the latest “history painter” in the footsteps of his great artistic predecessors, especially Raphael. Like his living hero, Ingres, however, he soon found himself unable… or unwilling to realize this goal. The history painting as he knew it was “dead”… an absurdity best left to such salon painters as Bougeureau. Instead, Degas sought out contemporary subjects where he might best discover the same movements of the human body which were the essential core of the history paintings. He thus turned to the race track, the ballet, the bars, and late in his career… to the female bather. Rather than staging his figures, Degas studied his subjects obsessively, capturing poses that conveyed tension, exhaustion, thought, etc… His images have an intimacy unseen yet in art… and yet for all the naturalism there is an absolute brilliance of composition and color. Often building upon rapidly executed drawings made from life, Degas turned more and more toward the use of pastel:

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1 Comment

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