|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.