Art For Thought: Great Artists, Great Paintings

A Summer Night by Winslow Homer, 1890, oil on canvas, 30 3/16 x 40 3/16.
A Summer Night by Winslow Homer, 1890, oil on canvas, 30 3/16 x 40 3/16.

The word "great" (or "greatest") can be pretty subjective, and lately I've been thinking about how to better qualify the term. To celebrate our 75th Anniversary, this fall American Artist is publishing a special issue on The Greatest Artists of All Time. It will contain our lists of the 25 Greatest Artworks of All Time, the 25 Greatest Artists of All Time, and the 25 Greatest Artists of Today. When we surveyed art professionals about who they think should be on these lists, we knew we had to give some parameters on how to define "greatest," because it is not only skill that defines a great artist but also his or her unique vision and originality.

Another instance that got me thinking about how to define greatness was when Linda Fisler from Artist Mentors Online asked the question, "What makes a painting great?" to various art historians, artists, and writers for an upcoming radio show. After contemplating what it is about certain artworks and artists that remain relevant over time, I settled on three main considerations: Motivation (the purpose for painting; connection to the subject; the intentional concept, message, or emotion that the artist is passionate about capturing.) Execution (technical proficiency; ability and confidence in the various principles of art so that the concept, message, or emotion comes through skillfully and convincingly.) Expression (a unique style; the heart and soul of the painter; where we see the artist's hand and feel what he or she was feeling; that "it" factor of the work that takes you to the time and place of the artist who created it and lets you become lost in the moment conveyed.)

I can think of artists from throughout history who exemplified each of these qualities. When it comes to motivation, I think of painters such as Courbet, Homer, Turner, and Hopper. They were courageous and unflinching, always challenging themselves with novel styles and subject matter and never pandering to public pressure. For execution, artists such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Velázquez, and Zorn come to mind, whose natural artistic ability made just about everything they created a masterpiece. And for expression, I think of the Post-Impressionists and early Modernists such as Van Gogh, Matisse, Schiele, and Munch, who went past surface appearance to express concepts and emotions related to the human experience.

In short, great art comes from great artists. Because, more than anything, the end product is a direct reflection of the mind, heart, soul, and life experience of the one creating it. When artists think and feel deeply, respect the responsibility that goes with their calling, and have a genuine connection to and interest in their subject matter, they are on their way to greatness. And if their motivation, execution, and expression are operating at high levels of skill and sincerity, great paintings can naturally occur. 

What do you think? What makes a great artist or a great painting? We'd love to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment below.


Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist.

P.S. To listen to the "What Makes a Painting Great?" radio program, visit Artist Mentors Online , and click on AMO Radio Show.

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Allison Malafronte

About Allison Malafronte

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist magazines, and the project editor of  Plein Air Painting and Workshop With the Masters magazines. She is also the creative manager of the Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference ( which was launched in 2009 and is now in its third year. She is author of the Art for Thought column in American Artist magazine (also on the Artist Daily site under The Artist's Life blog) and the 2008-2010 Plein Air blogs on Artist Daily. 

3 thoughts on “Art For Thought: Great Artists, Great Paintings

  1. For me, the second and fourth paragraphs explain it all so completely. No matter the genre’, or the artists style, if that artist can take the viewer with them, to be lost in the time and place within the painting is a magical and wonderful thing. Its the kind of art that is timeless, that will be treasured by the client/collector and valued for always for the feeling and emotional response they have to the work each and every time they view it.
    Lorna Allan
    New Zealand