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The Six Greatest of All Arts: Painting

Updated on November 29, 2017
Mona Lisa/da Vinci
Mona Lisa/da Vinci | Source

Part 1: Oil Painting

Now, which is the greatest art of them all? Some have argued that rock music fronted by acts from the '60s is greater than oil paintings. Others have gone the way of theater, with others retaining their hold on the good old storybook, while others call classical music their ideal way to experience sophisticated ambiance. Still some have thrown all caution and called film, even when not reminiscent of some of the greatest directors and actors and actresses, as their first all time choice.

However, is it downright easy to ‘equate’ (Ludwig, 115, 1995) all arts and claim that one must be greater than the other when considering such criteria as productivity, quality and fame? Hardly so. According to Anold Ludwig in the book, ‘The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy,’ it is never possible to bring ‘novels’, theatrical acts, paintings, films, ballet, opera and sociology, political output and the like into the same tray of comparison. However, it is possible to argue one against the other on their individual merits, and within the field of their own restraints. Such restraints may include the creator dying before accomplishing enough output, like Franz Kafka in 1924, or suffering maladies when writing a book, or even finding painting materials to be a creative regress as Leonardo did when experimenting with oils, where some of his works deteriorated through time.

Still, in this essay I maintain that it is still possible to argue on the greatest of all arts using criteria that tie them all: humanism. A single work that combines all elements of humanism like study, reality, fame, research, adoration, love, hatred, recognition, and other pseudo-human qualities and still retains its appeal today as a blast from the past is greater than a thousand similar endeavors. And it alone can make its medium (be it writing, visual arts or music) to be number one.

Without further ado, here is why Pablo Picasso sells a single work of art posthumously for millions of dollars, despite having had an output exceeding 20000 titles. In short, no other art is as valuable as painting and this is why in this part of six, we start with Painting.

Painting Number One of all Arts?

If all arts follow the same thought line such that to be great one must adulate what it is to be human, then oil paintings make their case as the greatest of all arts because they emulated the individual through the ‘recapture of the greatness of antiquity” (Italian, 2015). Because anything great permeates borrowing ideas and making them original through the painter’s peculiarity of personal talent, paintings, especially of the renaissance, personified just this need by contextualizing their subject matter not just locally, contemporaneously and timely, but cushioned them on ancient, timeless and mental themes. They considered ‘ancient Greece’ (Italian, 2015) to be the cradle of all that made human greatness to be golden, so well exemplified by the phrase, Golden Age.

It is not without merit than many Renaissance painters, who doubled as architects, viewed the epitome of all man was meant to achieve at his mental zenith to be the period between the rise of Athens as a democracy, to early antiquity during the height of the Roman Empire. Many famous talents of that period, most of them exercising one form of humanities or the other, left legacies enough to inspire towering figures of Italian oil paintings like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Otherwise, their works would not bear the sculptural uniformity of the Pantheon in Athens or Parthenon in Rome. Michelangelo’s Pieta, a marble showing Mary cradling his dead son, Jesus, is so grand in form that it rivals the best art of what it imitates from the Golden Age. This touch on sculpture and architecture in a part portraying the greatness of oil painting is purposeful because no deep knowledge of painting is complete without a comparison with the handicrafts of the period.

Having set aside the apologia why paintings are greater than any other medium, here are the major points to support this thesis.

Paintings are versatile in number and quality: According to Ludwig (1995), one of the greatest pioneers of the 20th century art, Picasso, whose cubism compares well with impressionism, fauvism and abstract, produced “over 20000” in his lifetime. In the brief period of between 1969 and ’70, he had amassed over a hundred and sixty five passable works of art, not all complete, some brush strokes, pencils drawings and watercolors, among others. It is hard to find many such trends of productivity, without compromising quality (one of the notable surprises of paintings is that they preserve quality by the very spontaneity of each drawing). Note that neither books nor films, even series and sequels can bring an author or director such numerous numerical accolades of productivity.

Longer Time: Though, in conflict with the above assertion of numbers, during the Renaissance, masters could spend months bent on some major work. For example, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel (1508-1512) for years. It almost replicates a real lifetime. The four years he painted on a bed looking up supinely is almost a lifetime spent doing some worthwhile job that can also pass for a career. Many authors write their books in several months, but it is not rare that some do so intermittently for even ten years. Ken Follett, the thriller writer spent about ‘ten years’(Follett,1999), on Pillars of the Earth, a story on peasants, barons, kings and priests’ intrigues when constructing a cathedral during the Middle Ages. While this may seem a long time, it is not as great as what Michelangelo did in four years in that in Follett’s case it was an idea in mind, while with Michelangelo it was an intense soulful issue exerting pressure on mind, body (from his supine painting posture) and spirit, not forgetting that many tourists still go to view the finished works in the Sistine Chapel.

By literary Gauge: How can one produce a masterpiece like Raphael’s School of Athens, cram tens of people in a less than life-size canvas, and still retain the features of the major individuals represented there, and more so, maintain the grand uniformity and symmetry of the Golden Age, and as if that was not tough, make such figures as Socrates, stand out from other famous philosophers? Only in a painting can an artist do that. And only from a canvas, easel and brush of a virtuoso can that be. Were it a book, one would need five hundred pages of Brothers Karamazov or a thousand of Master and Margarita to make creations like the devil appear fun and real to life.

Research and effort: If a scholar was to look at the question of who goes through more pain than the other of all creative people, there is no guarantee who does but to call the adjective ‘studious’ come to the fore. In a painting, it takes a studious figure to ruminate over a certain scene over and over again to achieve greatness. Not so with a film that has a lot of runs and cutaway shots to make the whole; not so with books that need the author to let flow of thought take charge. But, here is an example of how deep research reduces an artist’s productivity: The historian “Ruskin” (Ludwig, 118, 1995) produced a tome of thirty nine vols. of critiques on art and other material, less than ‘Bertrand Russell’ (Ludwig, 118, 1995), who was a philosopher-cum-mathematician, who had it in him to make away with fifty published works and many articles. This is in comparison to ‘Emile Durkheim’ (Ludwig, 118, 1995), the famous sociological writer who made it with thirteen published works and six hundred journal articles. Leonardo da Vinci, on the other hand, produced roughly 31 paintings, all nearly famous, more than ten were in recent times given to his credit, several were lost, and dozens of manuscripts that succeed him including folios on flight of birds, (Wikipedia, A1), a show of the great humanism of the Renaissance where painters doubled as creators in related fields. The fact that he did not produce as many works as certain authors and excluding the fact that his latter-day comer, Picasso, had over twenty thousand works in his basket of achievements, does not douse the fact that the greater of the two was Leonardo.

Leonardo is a worth a small study here to strengthen the fact that oil painting is the greatest of all the arts. For instance, his rapid and often ‘disastrous’ (Wikipedia, A1) testing with various oils have brought about a keen investigation on the likelihood that some of his works are still somewhere warping away, like the Last Supper’s mural (retouched severally due to rapid discoloring). This has produced a keen interest in their search. Such interest has never reared its face on such areas as books, films, architecture and the like, apart from maybe the Dead Sea Scrolls, the exciting excavation and search for the ruins of ‘Babylon’ (Luckenbill, 420, 1914) and other phantasmagoria associated with fantastic books.

It is also notable from the above passage that a sociologist produced the least number of works from the above sample, (perhaps due to the research involved in the subject) and while exempting personal reasons for producing more, it is fair to say that the deeper the subject, the less the tome of production becomes. However, with painting, number does not dictate quality as it is a spontaneous art that can produce masterpieces in minutes or even wait for years to climax, as in the case of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel.

In dénouement, oil painting is also great because it has a treasure-trove of material available for any artist currently than ever before. (Creevy, 1999). Through ages of experimentation including the Renaissance and Baroque and adding modern scientific research, there are now many oils and techniques, which bring painting closer to a likely genius today than da Vinci and Michelangelo ever had in their day.

The next part goes to the second greatest art of them all: books.


Creevy B. (1999) ‘The Oil Painting Book: Materials and Techniques for Today’s Artist’ Barnes & Noble, NY.

Ludwig, A.M., (1995) ‘The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy’ Guilford Press, NY, print.

‘The Oil Painting Book,’Watson, Gaptil.

“Italian Renaissance’, retrieved from Italian Renaissance website.

‘List of Works by Leonardo da Vinci,’ Retrieved from Wikipedia.

Luckenbill D.D., (1914) ‘Review: The Excavation of Babylon’, The American Journal of Theology’, (Vol 18) University of Chicago Press, pp 420-425.

‘The Pillars of the Earth’ retrieved from Ken Follet's website.


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    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 2 years ago

      Great Hub. It would be fun to decide which painters in the 20th-21st Century might be considered as great artists.