Tag: Goya

Who’s the Greatest Artist? The Story so Far


Blogging can be a tricky business at best, coming up with engaging content is not always easy. Sometimes you have to set yourself a challenge to get the juices flowing. Any regular readers of this blog will have noticed an irregular set of posts entitled Who’s the Greatest Artist? What I thought would be a quick summer series has now stretched out over two years. I hadn’t really appreciated the scope of the project when I started down this road, but I would have to say it being one of the most enjoyable to research and write. Close to 14 000 words later and here we are. As I approach writing the final four face-offs: Picasso vs Van Gogh and Da Vinci vs Michelangelo, I thought I would compile the story so far.

Who's the greatest artist

Here’s the one that started it all and explains the premise – Who’s the Greatest Artist?

picasso vs rembrandt

I didn’t want to make it easy on myself so I intentionally tried to create difficult match-ups – Picasso vs Rembrandt

goya vs rothko

I liked the idea of using the artist’s likenesses in the banner for each piece – Goya vs Rothko

dali vs warhol

In my mind the outcome of some match-ups were more obvious than others – Dali vs Warhol

Da Vinci vs Duchamp

I liked this one because it pits two very intellectual artists against one another – Da Vinci vs Duchamp

bacon vs basquiat

As I went along, it was increasingly enjoyable to find the parallels between the two – Bacon vs Basquiat

cezanne vs kandinsky

This may have been one of the more difficult one’s to decide – Cezanne vs Kandinsky 

Velazquez vs Van Goght

Sometimes the two artists couldn’t be more unalike if you tried –Velazquez vs Van Gogh

michelangelo vs matisse

This was a tough one because whoever got eliminated could easily have gone on to the top of the bracket –

Michelangelo vs Matisse

That was the first round, now I had the daunting task of writing about some of the same artists all over again but try to keep it fresh. In my mind I knew I had to pace myself and if I knew a particular artist might advance I had to keep some interesting information for later. Some pairings really helped to inform the direction the piece would take. Now on to the quarter-finals.

picasso vs warhol

I made sure I found pictures where they are both wearing their ‘trademark’ striped shirts – Warhol vs Picasso

bacon vs van gogh

This one was probably the most lopsided of the bunch – Bacon vs Van Gogh

da vinci vs goya

I had to eliminate one of my all time favourites, which is always a bit difficult – Da Vinci vs Goya

michelangelo vs cezanne

David and the Giant Peach – Michelangelo vs Cezanne

This brings us up to date and soon the semi-finals. At this point, I’m still not sure who is going to take this thing and that’s part of the enjoyment. I hope you have had a fraction of the amount of pleasure reading these things as I have had writing them.

W.T.G.A.: Da Vinci vs Goya

da vinci vs goya

One of them painted the most recognizable image on the planet, while the other painted images once seen you will never forget. Leonardo Da Vinci and Francisco Goya were both artists ages ahead of their times. They were both forward thinkers whose explorations and innovations preceded and anticipated the movements that came after them. In the case of Da Vinci; some of his theories were centuries away from being realized. At this time, Goya is being reassessed by art historians and scholars as the first truly Modern artist. Da Vinci used art as a tool to help unravel the mysteries of the universe while Goya used it in part to explore the darkest recesses of humanity. Leonardo Da Vinci is a household name and Goya is revered by all who know of him. Art was transformed by their hands, but who is the greater artist?

Da Vinci Vitruvian Man 1490

Da Vinci Vitruvian Man 1490

Leonardo Da Vinci was a man that had so much to do during his lifetime that it ultimately divided his energies; resulting in only a precious few of his 1000’s of ideas being fully realized. His genius was a constant distraction. He had a hard time devoting all his focus to only one thing, especially when there was still so much stuff to explore. I believe this explains why we have so few of his finished paintings. Who has a 100 hours to slave over some canvas when you have helicopters to invent? By all accounts Leonardo was a master painter who loved his craft, but found no time to do it. We are left with a scant 15-16 paintings with a few more whose provenance is uncertain. It’s in Da Vinci’s drawings that we really see the breath of his work. Inventions, explorations into human anatomy, architecture and the pursuit of beauty are all represented in his sketches. His eye was honed and his technique was impeccable. Leonardo dared not only to depict the surface of his subject but also what’s at its core. He wanted to pull back the physics and take a look at the gears.

Goya The Dog 1819-23

Goya  The Dog 1819-23

Goya on the other hand didn’t have much use for helicopters. His figures could effortlessly levitate into the air whenever he wanted them to. Goya wasn’t confined to the rules of the natural world that Leonardo so tirelessly tried to document. Goya’s scalpel was meant for the psyche rather than the body. Goya penetrated our fears and insecurities like no other artist has before or after him. Both Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali could evoke vivid nightmares filled with monsters but I argue that neither of them created a picture with as much helpless dread as Goya’s The Dog. Painted as part of his Black Paintings we see a powerless dog slowly being pulled down into what we can interpret as quicksand while his eyes scan the heavens for some sort of salvation that will never come. This painting is devastating in both its modern approach to painting along with its universal theme of feeling overwhelmed by your circumstances. Goya has a way of knocking the wind out of you.

Da Vinci Lady with Ermine 1489-90

Da Vinci  Lady with an Ermine 1489-90

The Mona Lisa may get all the suitors, but for me, Lady with an Ermine makes my heart skip a beat. Painted in his trademark sfumato style using newly adopted oil paints; Da Vinci depicts 15 year old Cecilia Gallerani  (the mistress of the duke of Milan) holding a stoat in her arms. Not satisfied with her simply sitting straight forward, Da Vinci twists her body into a dynamic pose with her gaze travelling to something outside the picture plane. Like the Mona Lisa her expression is both complex and mysterious. Da Vinci places her in an inky black background then picks the shade up again with her hair tie and necklace. The over-sized hand stroking the fur of the weasel draws you in by its pronounced gesture. The stoat is a symbol of fertility or pregnancy which adds another layer of intrigue to the painting. Lady with an Ermine demonstrates Leonardo’s mastery of paint and portraiture revealing the beauty of his sitter but eluding to a larger history.

Goya Third of May 1814

Goya  Third of May 1814

Goya depicts actual events with unflinching drama and gruesome detail in The Third of May.  In the painting:  faceless Napoleonic soldiers are executing the Spaniards who participated in an uprising the day previous and the bodies are piling up sparing no one not even a friar. Even though the central figure would be far too tall if he stood from his kneeling position we can forgive Goya’s artistic licence to cement his allegory. His martyrdom is complete in gesture and illumination. The painting hangs in the Prado beside its companion The Second of May. We are left stunned by their reality and horrified by our misdeeds. Goya famously depicted The Disasters of War in a series of horrific etchings that serve as a cautionary tale that reminds us that war can bring out the worst in mankind. It is that ugly mirror that Goya can reveal to us all that cements not only his greatness but his importance as an artist.

Da Vinci The Last Supper 1495-98

Da Vinci The Last Supper 1495-98

By all accounts we shouldn’t still have Leonardo’s Last Supper with us. You can find it at the Convent of  Santa Maria della Grazie in MilanThe painting began to deteriorate in his own lifetime. Da Vinci tried an experimental method of painting oil paint and tempera directly on the dry wall as opposed to the common fresco method that was used at the time. The wall itself can be found in a dining hall where the monks ate their meals directly on the other side of the kitchen. The moisture and fluctuating temperatures caused by the kitchen started to play havoc on the painting immediately after its completion. The condition was so bad that by 1692 no one thought twice about cutting a doorway through the wall removing Christ’s feet amongst other things. If the natural deterioration wasn’t bad enough, the convent was hit by a bomb during World War II destroying the other walls of the dining hall exposing the painting to the outside elements. It remained vulnerable to the weather for months. Disastrous attempts at restoration over the centuries also added to its appalling appearance. Finally in 1978 a team was committed to bringing it back to its former glory. The project took 21 years and many of the lost details have now been filled in using watercolours. The Last Supper is one of the most iconic images in human history. Da Vinci’s composition utilizes the linear perspective of the room in which it is painted creating a vanishing point behind Christ’s head accentuated by a window that forms a halo. Along with the use of perspective, Da Vinci directs our eye using all the body language and hand gestures motioning toward the focal point of Christ. Da Vinci also broke from tradition by placing Judas on the same side of the table as the rest of the apostles to complete his composition proving again his innovation.

Since I started this series of posts I would have to say this one has been the hardest to call. The artist in me leans more towards Goya, but the art historian in me can’t deny the contributions of Leonardo. Goya leaves me gob-smacked every time but then I look at the expression of miss Gallerani and am drawn into her visage. Ultimately, the scarcity of Da Vinci’s works only make them more desirable. The fact he could do so much with so little to show, just reconfirms his genius.

Winner: Da Vinci

related: W.T.G.A.: Duchamp vs Da Vinci

W.T.G.A.: Rothko vs Goya

W.T.G.A.: Goya vs Rothko

goya vs rothko

What may appear on the surface as two artists that are world’s apart; Goya and Rothko in fact travel  a lot of the same artistic highways. Only 75 years separate the death of one with the birth of the other. In many ways their subject matter was to depict the unseen. They both explored the darker reaches of the human condition in their art, culminating in both their painting’s trajectories landing firmly in the colour black. But before they both arrived at a deeper shade of pale, brighter hues burned brightly under their masterful touch. Mark Rothko and Francisco Goya are both titans of painting, but who is the greater artist?

Goya The Parasol 1777

Goya   The Parasol 1777

No other artist in the history of art has created more haunting and some cases disturbing images than Goya. His Disasters of War alone would cement this title but he offered so much more. It is hard to fathom that the artist who painted The Parasol believed all humanity was doomed. The Parasol is an early masterpiece painted when the artist was 31. Originally painted as part of a series of designs meant for royal tapestries; the seemingly innocent depiction of  everyday life hints at Goya’s acute sense of foreboding. Darkness creeps in from the corners and our lovely maiden front and center is being shaded from the sun. A bit of an odd choice don’t you think? Goya decided to depict her draped in shadow on what is meant to be a sunny day. This is because I believe Goya found the shadows to be the most intriguing and it is in the shadows that Goya chose to spend most of his time.

Rothko Rites of Lilith 1945

Rothko Rites of Lilith 1945

Mark Rothko couldn’t escape his own personal shadows and in 1970 they would eventually win out. He had come a long way before he tragically took his own life, including rising to the zenith of what may be considered the cornerstone of American painting: Abstract Expressionism. After many years of dabbling with surrealism and expressionism Rothko helps invent colour-field painting. Post World War II, New York becomes the center of the art world and it was people like Pollock, DeKooning and Rothko who put it there. Pollock and DeKooning are both brilliant painters but Rothko makes brilliant paintings. The two action painters are more about the actual act of painting and the process wins out over the product. Rothko’s process transcends the painting and becomes the act of seeing.  His paintings are made for the viewer. Rothko wanted people to weep in front of his canvases. For a select few this may have been the case but for many the subtlety of the subconscious may have been lost on them.

Goya They're preening themselves again 1798

Goya They’re Preening Themselves Again        1798

Goya also very much  kept the viewer in mind, and his artworks range from the historical to the critical to the cautionary. Like Rothko he too wants to evoke an emotional response in his viewer. In many cases that response is horror and in other cases mirth and sometimes he wants both. A prime example of this would be his series of 80 etchings called the Caprichos (meaning: whims or fantastical ideas). In the series of prints Goya’s keen eye is focused on the uglier side of society. He satirizes our vanity, greed and selfishness among other things. Although in his time they were a commercial failure, they have become one of the most important bodies of work by any one artist and their insights  still sting true today.

Advantage: Goya

Rothko No 3/No 13 1949

Rothko No 3/No 13 1949

Rothko’s true power lies in experience. No web page or reproduction comes remotely close to the real thing. His paintings are not immediate. You must pause in front of them and let them fill your vision with colour and then wait for the breath. Rothko’s better paintings breathe. The blurred lines expand and contract and the colours glow and recede. Being in a slightly dimmed room full of Rothkos is an out of body experience. An interesting side effect of the attention Rothko received was the colour field artists rekindled a love for none other than Claude Monet. The parallels between his waterlily paintings and what was going on in New York in the 50’s had many people reexamine the father of Impressionism.

Advantage: Rothko

Goya Colossus 1812

Goya(?) Colossus 1812

Goya is an artist that also gives you pause, he stresses the unspoken truths and drama of the world around us. We are reminded of the colossus over the ridge, a terrible force of nature that can loom large over our lives. The attribution of the Colossus was actually put into question in 2008 when officials at the Prado were convinced that it was the work of one of his followers and not the master himself. Other art scholars have disputed this fact and a general consensus was agreed upon that the painting was in fact the work of Goya.

Rothko Seagram Mural (detail) 1959

Rothko Seagram Mural (detail) 1959

The beginning of the end for Rothko was his commission for The Seagram murals to be installed in the Four Seasons Restaurant. He painstakingly labored over them, believing that they would elevate the viewer to a higher state. His creative process is wonderfully depicted in John Logan’s play Red. He was paid what roughly would be 2 million dollars today to do the work. After completing the paintings, he and his wife ate in the restaurant. He was so sickened by the gaudy display of wealth he saw there he returned the money and gave the work to the Tate in London. Although I admire his conviction, I’m actually not a big fan of the work. I’ve seen them on several occasions and come out underwhelmed every time. I’m not sure if it is the colour or the scale but they lack the breath of his earlier work.

Goya Colossus 1812

Goya Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga 1788

Every painting Goya executes breathes with life. Whether it is the atrocities of war like his depiction in The Third of May or the simple eyes of a cat waiting in the shadows to pounce. There is always more to the picture. Goya eludes to a much larger narrative even in something as seemingly innocuous as a child’s portrait.

Advantage: Goya

Rothko untitled 1969

Rothko untitled 1969

In the end Rothko immersed himself in the shadows and created false landscapes that alluded to the abyss. They are interesting in a way that they plot his trajectory but comment too heavily on the tragedy that is only a year away.

Goya The Fates 1823

Goya The Fates 1823

At the end of his life Goya surrounded himself with his infamous black paintings. They were painted directly onto the walls of his house. Executed with a limited palette their images evoke witches, monsters and very dark places. They were only intended for himself but lucky for us were painstaking removed from the house and now hang in the Prado.

Both Goya and Rothko tapped into our collective subconscious stirring up our emotions and making us active participants in the viewing of art. Goya transcends all  barriers, conveying his message to scholars and paupers alike. His imagery has the extraordinary gift of being both instantly recognizable and at the same time a slow burner that plays on your memory. Unfortunately, Mark Rothko is nothing but a slow burner. When he burns, he burns brightly but to a lesser degree than the Spaniard.

Winner: Goya

Who’s the Greatest Artist?


An impossible question to answer, a very controversial proposal, a polarizing proposition, a can of worms wrapped in a barrel of monkeys, but why not throw it against the wall to see if it sticks.

Here ladies and gentlemen for your contemplation is the bracket and its combatants. (If you are offended by the premise of pitting our artistic maestros against one another, let me remind you that when it comes to competition; the arena of art is essentially the Colosseum.) Just like the ancient Romans who would throw any two things together to see who would win: bears vs lions, giraffes vs tigers etc, I have assembled a who’s who of radically different styles.

Choosing the artists was a very daunting task. There are some no-brainers along with a few perhaps surprises. I can already hear the criticisms: “How can you include Basquiat and not include Ruebens?” When mining the entirety of art history:  the artists I did not include breaks my heart. People that almost made the cut: Titian, Giotto, Vermeer, Mondrian, Joseph Beuys, Caravaggio  Artemisia Gentileschi, Bridget Riley, Miro and on and on. You’ll notice that the bracket rests heavily on the dead white man western side of things. This aspect I do regret, but I feel history has conspired against us in this regard. We are slowly making amends for this in the twenty first century by broadening our millennial-long narrow mindedness and finally becoming more inclusionary. You will also notice that no living or contemporary artists made the show. I believe time is the greatest critic of art and we haven’t gotten back far enough to see their whole picture yet.

The artists I did choose I believe most people would concede their place here among some of the greatest of all time. (I realize there is noway to satisfy everyone.) I did try to put together some unlikely and highly contested match-ups. It’s really hard to find sparing partners for Da Vinci and Michelangelo; Renoir’s cute flower girls would be no match.

But how to ascertain who is the superior artist, there must be parameters. The artists will be judged on: historical significance, masterpieces, innovation and influence, technique and overall impact.  Over the course of the summer I’ll be weighing the titans of art against one another in a series of posts to eventually crown a winner. Any and all suggestions are welcome in the comments.

This idea was formulated by looking at the search terms on my WordPress dashboard. Last year about this time, I wrote a review comparing the Picasso show at the AGO with the National Gallery’s Van Gogh exhibit. I entitled the piece Van Gogh Vs Picasso, and it was meant to compare the two shows, not the two artists. Over the past year I have noticed quite a few search queries that read Who’s better Van Gogh or Picasso? It is like people out there are asking the great genie that is the internet to tell them who is the greatest artist of them all…..I’m no genie but I know a fun challenge when I see one.


  Related posts:

W.T.G.A.: Picasso vs Rembrandt

W.T.G.A.: Goya vs Rothko

W.T.G.A.: Dali vs Warhol

W.T.G.A.: Da Vinci vs Duchamp

W.T.G.A.: Bacon vs Basquiat

W.T.G.A.: Cezanne vs Kandinsky

W.T.G.A.: Velazquez vs Van Gogh

W.T.G.A.: Michelangelo vs Matisse