Looking at Art

The Greatest Painting in the World: 10 Luminaries Cast Their Ballots

“The greatest picture in the world…you smile,” wrote Aldous Huxley in 1925. Although the claim sounded ludicrous to him, he went on to make a passionate and cogent argument for his choice: Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection. ARTnews wondered which paintings would be chosen by artists, museum directors, curators, and art historians today as the “greatest.” To find out, we queried a number of them. Many, understandably, declined to participate. A few struggled with their choices, and several circumvented the question—as in the case of Lawrence Rinder, the director of University of California’s Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, who chose a painting in his museum’s collection, which he sees often and knows well.

Some of the works selected tell stories of first love, beauty, and awakening; others hint at mysteries, angst, and defiance. In taking the question seriously, and not so seriously, the respondents collectively affirm that an artwork’s price and popularity are only surface criteria. What is valuable are the more subtle and powerful insights that reside in some of humanity’s most resonant examples of painterly expression.

Altamira Cave Paintings, Cantabria, Spain

The Altamira Cave Paintings in Cantabria, Spain.


Altamira Cave Paintings, Cantabria, Spain. “As I understand it, these paintings were made 15,000 years ago by people lying on their backs painting the ceiling by torchlight a mile into a dark cave. The images were a distillation of actual sights seen. The Altamira Cave paintings remain ritual, spiritual, essential, and magical.” —Richard Serra, artist

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  • Reminds me of a phrase Ekhart Tolle used….”that one can be an expert on honey, without ever having tasted honey.”
    Also, there is a raja yoga aphorism that accurately expresses art appreciation as well as the yogic path…’If a pick pocket meets a saint, all he sees are the pockets.’
    Painting as a language of human expression has evolved over time. It is not essentially a conceptual language. At the same time, with the medium being eternal and archetypal, the human expression of the Altamira Cave paintings still resonate with intelligence and consciousness are may favorite choice of the 10 luminaries here.
    But, little to no mention of Gauguin or Van Gogh or Cezanne or Monet or Sisley, Le Trec, Morisot etc. This in itself is remarkable to me. I would argue these so-called impressionist and post impressionist paintiers represent the most dramatic shift in consciousness and evolution of the language of painting than any other period.

  • Markblair

    I so appreciate the essence of the intensely personal “Art Experience” to which James Oles alludes; in fact, we’ve created a charity (For Love & Art) whose mission it is to share this experience with the sick and immobile.
    Image how many “greatest paintings in the world” are there to us hopeless romantics.

  • williamsommerwerck

    THE greatest painting? By whose standards?

    If I had to choose, it would be the cave painting. It shows that our ancestors weren’t much different from us.

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  • Tony Schaefer

    How silly! The greatest painting in the world hasn’t been painted yet. I’ll start on Tuesday.

  • JJGittes

    This`s like trying to pick the greatest roast beef sandwich ever had. “I`ll have a le demoiselles d’avignon w/cheese pleeze”

  • madamnanobelle

    Truly, every painting is the greatest painting ever done. How amazingly improbable is a universe spinning out beings to record their emotions in this manner with the unique goal of gaining empathy? Many creatures manufacture tools, from levers to quantum computers in order to survive but what function does art play in survival? Seeking immortality, Bower birds strew blue before prospective mates in a complex attempt to distribute avian genes but this our sapient habit seeks no propagation, nay, it seeks individualism, rarity, a singularity in ephemeral being. How contemptible reproduction is then, in comparison! We incite envy, admiration and curiously enough, gratitude and then, when all is comprehended, grief, that nothing can ever duplicate this being’s genuine worth in existence. Art is a mirror, a window and a conveyance human beings use to transport the soul.

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