Looking at Art

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

Altamira Cave Paintings, Cantabria, Spain

The Altamira Cave Paintings in Cantabria, Spain.


‘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. “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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