The world’s best painting

It’s odd, but the painting that I consider the best one I’ve ever “seen” is one that I never really saw. I’ve seen many images of the Isenheim Altarpiece painting, completed by Mathias Grünewald in 1515 (the sculptural surround was made by Nicolaus Haganauer), but I’ve never seen it “in the pigment”—in person.

But even in reproduction I’ve never seen a painting as moving as this one. Or rather, a series of paintings, because the altarpiece comprises a group of movable panels that creates three distinct views, including two complete triptychs.  The original is in a museum in Colmar, Alsace, but the piece was painted for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, which had a hospital for mostly terminal cases. The artwork was intended for contemplation by the sick and dying: to share Christ’s suffering and to contemplate their salvation—or damnation. Here’s the piece in its current location:


And yes, it’s religious, portraying Christ’s crucifixion, the mourners, and a marvelous Resurrection, but that doesn’t matter to atheistic me. The contortions of the crucified Christ, the mesmerizing atom-bomb like scene when he bursts from the tomb, and the soldiers swoon, and the bizarre beasts tormenting St. Anthony in one panel, as weird as those in a Bosch painting, combine to make a utterly moving piece of art. As author Francine Prose wrote in a recent New York Times piece about her trip to Alsace:

When a painter friend heard that my husband, Howie, and I were planning to visit Alsace, he said, “You have to go to Colmar and see the Isenheim Altarpiece! It’s life-changing!”

. . . But what I recall most vividly from our trip is the Isenheim Altarpiece. Our friend was right.

. . . what I found thrilling — and yes, life-changing — is the evidence that, at some point in our history, a society thought that this was what art could do: that art might possibly accomplish something like a small miracle of comfort and consolation. It seemed enormously inspiring for anyone who makes, or who cares about, art.

I’m not sure that that is what I find life-changing or thrilling: what moves me is the sheer agony of the crucified Christ, the grief of the mourners, and the otherworldly and affecting—even modern—depiction of the Resurrection. I don’t believe in any of that stuff, but there’s no reason that one can’t be moved by depiction of a myth. And so, when I think of art, this piece is never far from my mind.

The New York Times presented an interactive view of one of the three aspects of the painting, and you can see that here. But I’ll put up all three views. The Wikipedia article I linked to above will explain what you’re seeing. And some day I’ll make it to Colmar and see it myself.

I’ll ask readers (and perhaps I’ve done this before) to note their favorite painting in the comments. Some of you might say, “But there are too many—I can’t pick just one.” Well, try. And if you can’t do that, tell us which painting you would pick if you could own one painting, and only one, to have in your home for the rest of your life.



  1. David Duncan
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I like it, but don’t see what’s so great about it, to be honest.

    I would love to own The Scream. (Yes, I know there are four of them.)

    • dabertini
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      Yes!! The scream is, by far, my favourite painting. Partly because it is by a norwegian. I also love justus susterman’s Galileo whose eyes are fixed on the heavens.

  2. Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    My favorite that I’ve seen is probably The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault. It’s striking in both style and subject matter. It’s also big (about 23 x 16 feet) which makes it all the more impressive.

  3. Wildhog
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

  4. Alan GE
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Octavio Ocampo (e.g. The evolution of man)

    David Choe

  5. Fred M
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    “But there are too many—I …”.
    Rembrandt’s self-portrait (1659) painted ten years before his death. Aka “Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar”. This is an autobiography in the form of an oil painting. I am not capable of expressing what it means. See for yourself:

    • Robert Bate
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      Rembrandt’s self portraits are astounding and the ones from his late life are truly some of the greatest paintings the world has known. We have one here in NYC at the Metropolitan Museum that never fails.

  6. Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    I have always loved Madonna of the Meadows by Raphael, and I still love it even though I’m no longer religious. It fills me with serenity.

  7. Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    And Jerry has nailed the reason many of go to seminary. There is an enrapture in the imagery of the death and resurrection, the *central* narrative of Christianity. And most are stricken with a mistaken sense of literality about it, taken by the internalized art.

    As for my favorite painting, I’ll need to check back in about that. I have taken photos of 1000’s of them from museums strewn across the US.

    • Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      For when that powerful art sears its way into your neurons, the felt sense is that of a *personal* g*d.

    • Ken Phelps
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Christians be liking them some torture porn.

      • Posted July 9, 2016 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

        Though it was nice of the artist to cover up jesus’s private parts. Very sensitive.

        • Posted July 9, 2016 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

          Hah. I was fascinated in divinity school about what I saw as the Hellenistic devaluing of the body.

          Amazing, all that rawness in Altarpiece and it masks reproduction–the real “resurrection.”

          The longer I spent in divinity school, the more disenchanted I became with its absence of mind-body understanding, often encapsulated in its vile mores regarding sexuality, and found myself gravitating instead to secular Jewish culture.

          Left divinity school as a heretic in 2004.

          Now an atheist, obviously, and still smitten with Jewish culture.

  8. Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think it’s the worlds best painting, but if I could own any it would probably be Starry Night, or The Scream. Though I could change my mind at any time depending on my mood.

    • Posted July 9, 2016 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      Starry Night is definitely up there, as is his Crows, which I may like better. And Irises….

  9. Geoff Toscano
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I’m plumping for El Greco’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz in the church of Santo Tome in Toledo. The detail and range of expression in the earthly characters is always fascinating.

  10. Heather Hastie
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know this piece well and it’s all too much to take in in a short time.

    My favourite changes. At the moment it’s Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I have Cafe Terrace at Night by him, which was my favourite for a while and is still up there.

    I love the all French impressionists, plus Constable, as well as da Vinci and some others from the Renaissance.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      What?! Not Van Gough’s Exploding Tardis?!

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted July 9, 2016 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        Ha! Good point! I’d forgotten about that one. My nephew has a poster of it – I’m rather envious of him.🙂

        • Posted July 10, 2016 at 6:06 am | Permalink

          If you get a chance, try to see Monet’s lily pond paintings, especially the ones painted for the Orangerie.

          The Ghent Altarpiece is worth going to see too.

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted July 10, 2016 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

            They’re on the bucket list!

  11. Christopher
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    I am rather fond of Pieter Bruegel and it is very difficult to pick a favorite, perhaps The Battle Between Lent and Carnival, or maybe Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap, or Peasant Wedding. I know why I like them, which is perhaps not so much the technique or whatever else it is that art historians argue about, but that they are historical and anthropological documents of peasant life and depicted in a way that reminds me of Where’s Waldo and similar search drawings of my childhood. I like the fullness, the busy, full of life aspects of them I guess. I think it’s also why I like those ecosystem paintings used in kids’ books that shows all the aspects of life in a forest, say, or whatever.

    For similar compositional reasons, though more towards the bizarre rather than historical, I do love the works of Hieronymus Bosch, but again would be hard pressed to pick one specific favorite.

    I also like the Hudson Valley school of painting, but not being well versed in art, I couldn’t pick out an artist to share that I enjoy.

    Now, having said all that, I guess my favorite type of art which gives me the most pleasure by far is scientific drawings of paleontology or of invertebrates found in older (1960’s and earlier) books. I can’t get enough of them! Alfred Kaestner’s Invertebrate Zoology (3 Vol., 1963) is a great example, although not what many would consider “Art”, but they move me, so it counts in my book. Cheers!

    • Rick
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      I like “The Battle between Carnival and Lent”, too. Zola offers an interesting take on it in his novel “The Belly of Paris”: Claude reads it as an allegorical commentary on injustice and renames it “The Fat and the Thin”. The wedding paintings are great, too. I agree with your point about Bruegel’s paintings being “busy” and “full of life” (well, maybe not the death ones).

  12. frankzollo
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    It’s beautiful, but I’m still partial to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi in Florence.

    • bric
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 6:09 am | Permalink

      I agree it’s wonderful; I even went to Delos after seeing it, but no goddesses were borne upon the foamy brine

    • ladyatheist
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      I’ve seen that too. It’s stunning.

  13. abram
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch. My one visit to Madrid’s El Prado included 2 hours camped in front of this unreal triptych, mesmerized.

    • Christopher
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      I love that one (three?) as well. De Proef Brewery’s Flemish Primitive, a line of Belgian wild ales, had scenes from that painting on their labels. Great painting, great ale! I envy you for being able to see it in person.

  14. beanfeast
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby. I don’t think I was yet a teenager when I saw it for the first time and I could not believe how luminous the painting was. It was a little while before I actually realised what the subject of the painting was I was so entranced by its appearance.

    I have probably seen it a dozen times since and am still captivated by it.

    I know very little about art, but in my mind this is a technical masterpiece depicting something of scientific interest that captures a range of human emotions.

    • Christopher
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      Oh, another great one! Damn, for someone who claims not to care much for art, I’m finding a lot of art discussed here that I absolutely adore!

    • Ken Elliott
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      I had never seen that one before. It’s quite brilliant. Thank you.

    • Posted July 9, 2016 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

      Speaking of birds, I think some of the best paintings I have seen are Raymond Harris Ching’s early bird paintings (not his most recent weird ones).

  15. Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    It’s worth noting that there was a whole Opera written about Mathias Grünewald, ‘Mathis der Maler’ (Matthias the Painter) by Paul Hindemith. It’s not performed very often, but a symphony, which takes music from it, has become a staple of the 20th-century repertory, and rightfully so, because it is beautiful and exciting; probably one of Hindemith’s best works.

    • Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      It is indeed a great piece of music (the symphony; I haven’t seen the opera). Even the symphony isn’t programmed all that often. The only piece of his that enjoys relative popularity, in my experience, is the Symphonic Metamorphosis, which is also very good, and even accessible for lay audiences. I don’t know why Hindemith isn’t a bigger figure in 20th c music.

      • Christopher Bonds
        Posted July 9, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

        I have wondered the same thing about Hindemith. When I was going to school he was very big in my pantheon (along with Bartok). Now I seldom listen to him (although I’m listening to MdM right now–it’s a trip down memory lane). I’m wondering if his drop in popularity is that even though his harmony is a kind of free expansion of traditional harmony, his rhythmic writing and approach texture are pretty much late 19th-century.

        I think he was a great contrapuntist. If his music seems a little passe’ today, it may also because it’s mostly emotionally “cool” for the most part. Some would say “academic” as well–he wrote sonatas for just about every instrument (including the viola d’amore), and championed “Gebrauchsmusik”–stuff that is well-crafted but suitable for everyday use such as schools, etc. But did his music have the ability to touch people deeply? One work, the Trauermusik for solo viola and strings, I think does. I also enjoy his “Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber” very much. I feel like in those works he “let go” a little from his academicism and achieved something genuine.

        • stevenh
          Posted July 10, 2016 at 12:03 am | Permalink

          When I was living in Hamburg I was fortunate enough to see “Mathis der Maler” staged and it made a very powerful impression. I already knew it from the 1979 recording with Fischer-Dieskau in the title role (surely without equal in this role). That recording is still available. The closing moments as Mathis packs up his possessions I find unbearably moving.

  16. Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    I obtest you not to find me lewd, as the time-worn crackle, delicacy, and normalcy of her openness moves me.

    Painter: I don’t know. But it’s housed at the National Gallery of Art in DC.

  17. bluemaas
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    ‘Foster Mothers of the Human Race’ for the win.

    Followed O – so closely by ‘Barnyardigans.’
    nota bene — no d*g, not even a working farm one.

    Both by Ms Bonnie Mohr.


  18. mfdempsey1946
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Whenever I see a reproduction of Giorgio di Chirico’s “The Soothsayer’s Recompense”, one of his works that feature a deserted square of classical architecture, a piece of ancient Greek statuary, and a train passing by in the deep background, its aura of mysterious absence, its teasing, haunting suggestion of…what?…that may, or may not, lurk behind its enigmatic surface details always touches me.

    • BarNorden81
      Posted July 11, 2016 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      I love “The Enigma of the Arrival and the afternoon” by di Chirico

  19. Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    I remember very much liking the Isenheim Alter in Colmar when my wife and I were there 1988. You can look at it for quite a long time, partly because there is a lot to see. And of course Grünewald’s painting is… well, masterful — and almost painfully accurate. Very moving. But I was not as much moved as Jerry.

    I like Van Gogh and Rembrandt too, but am really crazy about the Blaue Reiter school — Marc, Kandinsky, Jawlenski — and the wonderful, imaginative works of Paul Klee.

    • cherrybombsim
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

      I was gonna put “Arabische Stadt” by Paul Klee. It was the very first “art” that I appreciated as a kid, and I still get happy looking at it 50 years later.

  20. RichardS
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    For a long time it was Botticelli’s Primavera and perhaps it still is, but I find his Portrait of a Young Woman After 1480 utterly entrancing.

  21. Doug
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    “Apotheosis of Saint Ignatius” by Andrea Pozzo. This is what people looked at before they had movies.

  22. Monika
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Ha! Heather beat me to “Starry Night”! It’s stunning, I saw it some years ago in Amsterdam. It and all the others blew me away.

    Another favorite of mine is Monet, sadly I never saw original paintings. Or perhaps Max Liebermann: “Restaurant Terrace in Nienstedten” It’s in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg, so I’ve seen it. The terrace in the painting exists still today, check it out:
    (I hope it doesn’t embed.)

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

      Monet was my favourite for a few years and I still love his stuff as well.

  23. Craw
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    My eccentric pick is Flora, from Pompeii. Which I have seen.

    • leonkrier
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      I have a print of this hanging in my office. One of my all time favorites.

  24. Richard Jones
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Lucien Freud. Benefits Supervisor Sleeping or almost any other of his nudes. Complete honesty, nothing held back. The human at his/her most vulnerable.

    • Rick
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Interesting pick. Those nudes are something. I think that I prefer nudes that are a little less raw: Modigliani’s “Reclining Nude” and Degas’s “After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself”. There’s something about the angles in those two paintings. But, of the reclining nudes that I’ve seen, I probably like Manet’s “Olympia” best. (Perhaps, this painting will get points for having a black cat in its corner!)

      • Richard Jones
        Posted July 10, 2016 at 11:00 am | Permalink

        They are beautiful paintings but Freud, it seems to me, creates real people with all our wrinkles. Solid human flesh in all its, is there a word for “unglory”.

    • ploubere
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      Lucian. Yes, my favorite contemporary painter.

  25. Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Of all the paintings that I have seen in collections, two stand out. The first is LePage’s Joan of Arc (Metropolitan Museum), the second, Ninfee Blu by Monet (one of his sixty waterlilies paintings, Musee Orsay). Both are huge, each covering an entire wall. Both are shimmering in their intensive coverage of the canvas. There is a psychological reaction, whose name eludes me, that describes how some people are literally pulled into a painting as if they were breathing within the painting, smelling and touching it three-dimensionally. I came close to that state with these two. The more sensory a piece of art is for me, the more of an experience it becomes. And it is that experience that I cherish in my memory, not the object itself.

  26. Mark R.
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    I’d take any painting by Caravaggio. His dramatic use of light is nonpareil imo. I’ve seen one at the Met (forget name) and saw a couple in a museum in Milan iirc. Rome has the majority of his paintings and I long to see them some day.

    • Posted July 9, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      While my two favorite works of art are frescos (Cortona in Barberini palace and
      above all Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea in the Farnesina), (both in Rome, and while I covet all of Vermeer and plan to hire art thieves, and have no room for the Raphael, I have to go to Carvaggio and the Calling of St. Matthew in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome in the end.

      • Mark R.
        Posted July 9, 2016 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

        Instant friend and smiles…

  27. bric
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    The question of religion and its relation to art is an interesting one, and plainly our own reaction to a piece of art does not have to be congruent with the maker’s intention for us to feel a strong connection of uplift or sympathy or compassion. I remember the overwhelming effect of the Mark Rothko exhibition at the Hayward in 1972: you can’t approach these canvases as pictures of ‘things’, and Rothko spoke of them as attempts to hint at what was behind the Temple veil, which means nothing to me and yet I was bowled over.
    Of course we should start young in developing our sensibilities, I would like to leave this picture here, taken at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris
    Young visitors enjoy le Dejeuner

  28. bonetired
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    I have to admit that I am a Turner fan – always have been – so I will plump for either Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway or the Fighting Temeraire ……

    • Posted July 9, 2016 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

      Oh yes, the Fighting Temeraire is a great one whose light and colors I have long admired.

  29. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I am inexplicably drawn to both Klimt and Kadinsky. With Klimt, it is The Kiss and with Kadinsky, I can’t remember the name of the paining. I also love Picasso’s Three Musicians and Guernica

    • Jeff Lewis
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      The Kiss is one of my wife’s favorites. We had a framed (inexpensive) print hanging in the living room for a while, but it’s been rotated out for flower photos. There’s just too much nice art and not enough wall space.

  30. James A Sulzer
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    My favorite is the Paleolithic Cave Art. This is the kind of art that brings me back to my roots.

    • rickflick
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      A surprising pick. It has to be noticed that the qualities that make art important were very much alive 40,000 years ago. The style is quite abstract, drawing comparison to modern works from the post impressionists onward.

  31. bric
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    As for the painting I would most like to own, it would be Han Gan’s wonderful portrait of Night-Shining White (about 750 CE)

  32. Robert Bate
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    At some point painting in the modern era became unconcerned with story lines and so any of a number of late Cezannes qualify like “Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory” housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC

    Wilhelm deKooning went all the way with some of the most beautiful modern paintings like his seminal “Painting” housed in MoMA in NYC

  33. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    I am sorry, but I find that art bizarre.

    I happen to favor scifi, so as a person of no taste I share Susskind’s and Linde’s passion for the hyperbolic imagery of Escher.

    It was in fact Susskind’s cosmology course that pointed me to the pièce de résistance, Escher’s “Bending Circle Limit IV (Heaven and Hell)”. The entire observable universe and an imagery of its observability and its symmetry laws combined in a single painting.

    [ Susskind: ; Linde: ; image here:

  34. bric
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    I suppose the most famous painting of all is the ‘Mona Lisa’. I stumbled into the Long Gallery at the Louvre a couple of years ago and found this scene
    Viewing the Mona Lisa

  35. skiptic
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    It’s not just a piece of art. It’s high-end commercial art from the middle of the inquisition. Well done, but not well conceived or intended.

  36. Tom Czarny
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” though I’m not sure why. Nor would I wish to own it, and I’m not sure why I feel that way either. As a young person I gravitated to Dali, Klee, Kandinsky and Rothko. In my middle years I was fascinated by the French Impressionists and English Romanticists like Turner. But now that I’m older…I don’t know why this one painting keeps coming back to haunt me. Is it the aged, weather buildings against a pale, open horizon? The forlorn figure lost in a sea of windblown grass in the foreground. I just don’t know. That’s what great art does, I suppose – express the inexpressible.

  37. Posted July 9, 2016 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    It is funny how we can separate the aesthetic and intellectual parts of our minds. I adore the St. Matthew’s Passion even though I think the gospel is total malarkey.

  38. Ken Elliott
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    I love paintings. Have my whole life. Of the Renaissance artists my favorite has always been the sculptor Michelangelo, whose Cistine Ceiling is breathtaking. His mastery of the anatomy is mesmerizing. My favorite artist, though, is, and will always be, Frank Frazetta. His art first struck me from the cover for one of Robert E. Howard’s Conan story collections published in paperback with the magnificent painting of “The Cimmerian”. My favorite of Frazetta’s, the one I would most like to own, is a painting of the ginger warrior, Kane, also painted for the cover of a paperback, “Dark Kingdom”, I believe, a collection of tales written by Karl Edward Wagner. Frazetta’s mastery of anatomy, color, light, composition, and imagination is simply stupendous. He shows that great artists came from many eras, and are inspired by many things, I think.

    I’ve recently discovered another genius illustrator, Esad Ribic, who plies his trade as a comic book illustrator, but each page of each book he illustrates is like a half dozen Frazetta masterpieces. He draws and paints directly from his mind’s eye, something not even the best illustrators tend to do, at least not to that level of achievement.

    • rickflick
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

      You may have meant to say Michelangelo’s mastery of the MALE anatomy is mesmerizing. His females are pretty ridiculous. He was surely gay. In spite of that, I’d agree he is a very great painter as well as sculptor.

      • Ken Elliott
        Posted July 9, 2016 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

        Haha, because of their muscularity? Maybe Italian women of that era were more active and well fed than we’re used to. Even if he were gay I can’t imagine that would skew his vision as an artist of such clarity of detail.

        • rickflick
          Posted July 9, 2016 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

          While not all his females are terrible, many are. Italian women of that era were probably very, very shy and female models would have been hard to find, but surely not impossible. I’ve concluded that Michelangelo was an artistic genius, but when it came to women, I think he just could’t get his heart into it.

          • Posted July 9, 2016 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

            If he could do birds and cadavers and human males, I’m pretty sure he also was able to do human females. There are enumerable representations of human females by artists throughout history that aren’t attractive to the modern eye.

            • rickflick
              Posted July 9, 2016 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

              If you do a male figure and add a couple of apples stuck to the chest, you’ve pretty much got Michelangelo’s females. But, to each his or her own. But, just for grins, check out this page, scroll down to the images of “the fingers of Pluto pressing into the flesh of Proserpina”. Maybe the most sensual image in art, and ask yourself, if Michelangelo was completely focused, why don’t any of his women look like that?


      • Posted July 10, 2016 at 11:02 am | Permalink

        Yes, he was definitely more interested and more successful in male than female bodies… yet I am enchanted by his “Night” and “Dawn”.

  39. Posted July 9, 2016 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    I don’t have a favourite for there are too many and too many different qualities to choose from.

    “What would I hang on my walls” would reduce the art to more graphical selections. Old masters and renaissance painting are awesome in every way, but not something for the profane; nothing to look at every day.

    Why not Warhol? Magritte maybe. MC Escher easily. But I’d go with Dürer’s “Rhinocerus”. I’ve seen original prints of his work and they are stunning in their own way. I actually may go ahead and make me a variant of the rhino, without the text, or just a detail.

  40. Posted July 9, 2016 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    As others have said, the favourite tends to change over time, as one comes to appreciate different things, and with mood. Recently I’ve been enamoured with Giovanni Bellini’s Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan, from 1501, which can be seen in the National Gallery. It’s stunningly simple in effect but complex in execution, with trompe l’oeil effects, incredible detail in the face and clothing, the layering of oil used skilfully to create the shimmering effect on the tunic and giving depth to the eyes and skin.

    At the time Venice was a link between the Orient and the Renaissance in the West, and that convergence can be seen in this wonderful portrait.

  41. ploubere
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the Isenheim Altarpiece is a fascinating work, one of my favorites. It was originally done for a monastery that cared for the sick, especially plague victims, so it has been theorized that the Christ figure was depicted with plague-like features to offer sympathy for the sufferers.

    Another remarkable work is Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition, not especially moving but incredible in its sophistication given that it was painted in 1435, several generations earlier than the Italian Renaissance masters. The northern Europeans had an exceptional tradition of precision and sophistication in their work.

  42. alexandra moffat
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Painting? I am so ignorant inspite of taking a Fine Arts course in college many years ago.

    Without a lot of thought, perhaps a Winslow Homer. Takes time to say which….one with lots of ocean.
    or Rembrandt.

    I am so interested that Dr Coyne likes, deeply appreciates, such a religious painting- and his explanation of that.

  43. Jon Mummaw
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” by Renoir. It’s in my favorite Washington, DC gallery, The Philips Collection.

    • Jeff Lewis
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      Mine, too. I’ve liked it ever since I first saw a picture of it in kindergarten art class. Got a chance to see it in person a few years ago, and it was wonderful.

      My daughter and I looking at it

  44. Jim Danner
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    My favorite is Vermeer’s “Milkmaid”, to be found at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      I love how Vermeer uses reflection. You can even see it in this picture, in the vessel behind the subject.

  45. Rod
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Canaletto, his views of Venice, especially the Grand Canal and St. Mark’s Square.
    Especially since I saw Venice with my own eyes recently.

  46. Jean Hess
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt. I came around the corner at a museum, and there it was, huge, real and passionate. God is writing on the wall! Can you imagine how you would react if, at your next party, you looked up to see a disembodied hand writing on the wall? It gives me shivers.

  47. Roger
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    That guy pointing needs to invest in some socks. I kid! Only kidding haha.

  48. Frank Bath
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Anything by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Sumptuous revisionings of Roman luxury. I have seen this overpowering canvas in the original:https: //

    • FRank Bath
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      Apologies for the link. I seem to have made a pig’s ear out of it.

  49. Posted July 9, 2016 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    I have to go with Guernica. Not just for the painting itself, but for the history and anecdotes associated with it. Like the SS visits to Picasso’s Paris workshop. Or the fact that, when making the case for the war in Iraq, it had to be covered up for Powell’s presentation at the UN. What speaks more for the power of art than to say that when making the case for a war the UN would not sanction, the most powerful country on earth could not make their case while standing in front of that painting? (to paraphrase Simon Schama)

    • rickflick
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

      My wife also picked this one when I mentioned Jerry’s request. Her reason was: she is Vietnamese and at the end of the War she helped Vietnamese soldiers with horrible scars and amputations write letters home to their families. We saw the painting in Madrid years ago and it brought her war memories back in an unforgettable way.

  50. Christopher Bonds
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. It was the basis for Francis Bacon’s “Head” series of paintings.

    Second choice would be John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X.

  51. leonkrier
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to your recommendation, my wife and I went to see in 2014 the Isenheim Altarpiece and it’s as powerful as you describe. My wife’s favorite paintings are the Monet Water Lilies at the Orangerie (Paris). A favorite of mine is Primavera by Botticelli.

  52. Posted July 9, 2016 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Years ago, Van Gogh’s paintings were brought to the De Young Museum in San Francisco, CA.
    We tried unsuccessfully twice to get in. The third time, we waited for many hours with our three children and were successful in getting in. It was difficult to see due to the huge crowd, but my “kids” (who are in their 50s now) still remember this as a special time.

    I love most of Van Gogh’s paintings (maybe, with the exception of his earlier, darker ones, like “The Potato Eaters”.) I love Monet and many of the other Impressionists. Vermeer
    is a favorite also. Brueghel’s “Falling of Icarus” (hope I got that right) I love because of the mixture of the everyday with the mythical.

    • bric
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 6:14 am | Permalink

      About suffering they were never wrong,
      The Old Masters: how well they understood
      Its human position; how it takes place
      While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
      walking dully along;
      How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
      For the miraculous birth, there always must be
      Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
      On a pond at the edge of the wood:
      They never forgot
      That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
      Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
      Where the dogs go on with their doggy
      life and the torturer’s horse
      Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

      In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
      Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
      Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
      But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
      As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
      Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
      Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
      had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

      Musée des Beaux Arts (1940)
      W.H. Auden

  53. Posted July 9, 2016 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    This altarpiece may be the best marriage of form and function in the history of western art. I’m not inclined to write lengthy comments, but interested readers are advised to do some research into the work and see what I mean.

  54. macha
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    Primavera, Botticelli, no contest.

  55. df
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    The Flaying of Marsyas by Titian. It’s Titian at the height of his powers and unsparing.

    Some say it’s an allegory and the Marsyas hubris in besting Apollo is Titian’s way of commenting on Venice’s hubris and power…..

  56. Diane G.
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 2:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks to everyone who provided links to their choices.

  57. Mike
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    It’s all subjective of course, but the one that moves me the most is Vermeers “Girl with a Pearl Earing”

  58. somer
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    For skill, beauty and emotional impact this is absolutely the top rank.

  59. Gabriel
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Botticelli, Birth of Venus.

  60. ladyatheist
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    I think Monet’s Water Lilies in Paris are paintings that have to be experienced in person. They occupy a huge room and you are surrounded on all sides. I’ve seen some other famous paintings and they weren’t as good in person as in books, but that one really had me. They have a “virtual visit” online but it’s only better than a book, not better than being there:

    • Jeff Lewis
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      I have similar feelings regarding Picasso. I was never much of a fan of his until I actually saw some paintings in person at the National Gallery. Prints and photos don’t do the paintings justice at all.

  61. Posted July 10, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    The paintings at the Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak:

  62. Sixtus
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    The first supremely great painting that I saw via photons actually reflected from its surface was Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. I had no idea a man-made object could be so beautiful. I was moved to tears in a way that only great music had been able to do. No reproduction of the Vermeer I’ve seen since has done it justice. But they do remind me of that moment of Road to Damascus revelation.

  63. Posted July 10, 2016 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    If I *had* to pick a religious painting, it would be the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo:

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