Notes on the Historical Tradition of Artist Rankings by Wayne Dynes

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NOTES ON THE HISTORICAL TRADITION OF ARTIST RANKINGS (Rough draft—1888 words) June 24, 2003. W. R. Dynes

Recently the critical device of ranking creative figures (great artists, great composers, great writers) has come under fire. The practice has been deemed elitist and patriarchal. As a matter of theory and policy one may reach various conclusions on this question. It is clear, though, that in our daily intercourse with works of art we observe inherent principles of selectivity. That is to say, we choose—most of us--to allocate our time to Raphael and not Raffaelino del Garbo; to Cézanne and not to Puvis de Chavannes. These choices are not merely arbitrary, but reflect an inherent sense, confirmed by experience, that the works of some artists are simply more rewarding than those of others. Moreover, museum curators must decide—and justify—what objects are to be shown and which ones are to remain in storage. A major element in this separation is the relative fame of artists, for this factor has a major influence on what the public expects to see. So whether it is acknowledged or not, the principle of ranking artists is alive and well, even today.

Without attempting to be exhaustive, the following paper explores the historical tradition whereby a specific group of artists—a pantheon, if you will--enjoyed the highest ranking. The following discussion will identify a series of links in a chain—or rather two chains, since there is a verbal and a visual tradition.

The figures singled out in these lists were the ultimate role models, setting standards all others should aspire to. This tradition appeared almost two millennia ago in Pliny the Elder’s chapters of the history of art, where he promoted a handful of sculptors and painters to supreme status. Influenced by this precedent, the idea was extended to contemporaries in 15th and 16th century Italy.

The discussion is confined to Western art. Yet a similar pattern can be discern in the Chinese ranking of Chinese painting.

LITERARY SOURCES. Some of these references occur in writers on art. Others appear, incidentally but revealingly, in discussions of other matters. These are revealing, because evidently the writers expect that readers will accept them as a matter of course, part of the conventional wisdom, as it were.


In 1456 the Neapolitan humanist Bartolomeo Fazio, following the tradition of Boccaccio and Villani, wrote an account of famous men in the form of a series of short biographies (De viris illustribus). Fazio includes profiles of four artists: Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Gentile da Fabriano, and Pisanello. The somewhat eccentric choice of the last two suggests that Fazio’s aim may have been more to illustrate the link between Italian art and that of the Netherlands than to compose a list of general value. Still he made a choice; and the two Flemish artists singled out would probably merit similar status today as surpassing all other 15th century figures of that school (see Baxandall, JWCI, 1964).


Cantos 32 and 33 of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (final version, 1532) concern the Castle of Tristan, remarkable for its murals that prophetically illustrate future events. In order to illustrate the power of artists, the poet gives two lists: an ancient Greek one (derived from Pliny) and a modern Italian one. The first sequence reads as follows: Timagora, Parrasio, Polignoto, Protogene, Timante, Apollodoro, Apelle, piu di questi noto, e Zeusi. Although the works of these paragons have vanished, their fame still lives through literary praise. Then there is the list of Ariosto’s own day: Leonardo, Andrea Mantegna, Gian Bellino, duo Dossi, e quel ch’a par sculpe e colora, Michel, piu che mortale, angel divino; Bastiano [Sebastiano del Piombo], Rafael, Tiziano. Each list has one supreme master—Apelles and Michelangelo. This discussion, occupying the first two stanzas of Canto 33, does not appear in the two earlier versions of the epic. It was added in 1532. {The question of why this was timely in the early 1530s remains to be addressed.)

When Sir John Harrington published his English version of Ariosto’s Orlando 1591, he silently amended the list of modern greats. Leonardo, Bellini, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian remain. The two Dossos and Sebastiano del Piombo are dropped. Then he adds an artist esteemed in Flanders identified only as Flores (presumably Frans Floris I, esteemed in his day as a link between Italy and Flanders). So Harrington admits five Italians and one northerner.


In his theoretical treatise Idea del Tempio della Pittura (1590) the Milanese artist and writer Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo selected seven top artists, correlated with the seven planets and seven metals. Lomazzo’s supremes are Michelangelo, Gaudenzio Ferrari, Polidoro Caravaggio (these last two are local luminaries), Leonardo, Raphael, Mantegna, and Titian. Along with Michelangelo, these last four would certainly still command assent.

When Lomazzo’s treatise was published in an English rendering in 1598, the translator added the names of English artists, such as Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. This “improvement” shows how nationalistic and other subjective factors may play a role in the assemblage of this lists..


In Timber or Discoveries: Observations on Men and Manners(published posthumously in 1641), the learned English dramatist Ben Jonson cited as “famous painters of Italy” Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Correggio, Sevastiano del Piombo, Giulio Romano, and Andrea del Sarto. Giulio Romano, by the way, is the only artist mentioned in the writings of Shakespeare (“The Winter’s Tale”).

Tassoni (see Fumaroli)

Alessandro Tassoni, De’ Pensieri Diversi di Alessandro Tassoni, Libri dieci, Venice, 1665.

Book X, cap. xx, p.387

Prima di questi eminenti nomina Plinio fra gli antichi Pittori Greci . . . Arellio, che ritraeva le meretrici sue innamorate in sembianza di Dee, pensiero imitato da alcuni nostri moderni . . . [cited 8 ancient painters] Pero passiamo a’ nostri moderni, tra quali otto ne scieglieremo ancor noi, she se la Grecia gli havesse havuti; son sicurissimo, che havrebbe composti, otto voluti di Romanzi di più. Saranno questi Tiziano, Rafaello da Urbino, Michelagnolo Buonaroti, Andrea del Sarto, il Parmgianino [sic], Antonio da Coreggio, Alberto Duro, Leonardo da Vinci.

Roger de Piles

In his Cours de peinture par principes (1708), the French critic Roger de Piles introduced a new device: grading the artists. He assembled a list of sixty painters of some note—Italian, French, German, Dutch and Flemish—and marked them according to four criteria: composition, drawing, color, and expression. Since each category has a possible 20 points, the highest grade achievable is 80. Two artists, each with a total of 65 points, compete for the highest honors: Raphael and Rubens. Both excel in composition and expression. Raphael also does well in drawing but falls down in color, while with Rubens it is the opposite. The fact that de Piles could honor both a champion of High Renaissance formalism (Raphael) and an exuberant baroque painter (Rubens) shows a remarkable catholicity of taste.


In his Fifth Discourse to the Royal Academy (1772), Sir Joshua Reynolds argues that only two artists may contend for the highest honors—Raphael and Michelangelo. “To the question therefore, which ought to hold the first rank, Raffaele or Michael Angelo, it must be answered, that if it is to be given to him who possessed a greater combination of the higher qualities of the art than any other man, there is no doubt but Raffaelle is the first. But if, as Longinus thinks, the sublime, being the highest excellence that human composition can attain to … then Michael Angelo demands the preference.” So it is a draw. This dueling pair foreshadows the debates engendered by ranking in the more restricted field of modern art. The painters Matisse and Picasso are ranged one against the other, as are Frank Lloyd Wright in the realm of architecture.

Charles Baudelaire

The sixth poem in the first edition of Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) is entitled “Les Phares” (“The Beacons”). Here he cites eight artists of particular importance, allocating a quatrain to each. The artists are (in the order given) Rubens, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Puget, Watteau, Goya, and Delacroix. The sequence seems hard to understand, though perhaps these figures are intended as precursors of Baudelaire’s idol, Delacroix. Otherwise, the octet is admirably balanced. There are two low-country artists, two Italians, one Spaniard, and three Frenchmen. Three media, painting, printmaking, and sculpture are covered. Three artists are “twofers,” active in two media. Michelangelo was both a sculptor and a painter. And while Rembrandt and Goya were major painters, Baudelaire probably owed his acquaintance to them mainly through their prints.

[ED Hirsch and Core Knowledge—a contemporary sidelight The examples given by Hirsch are based on the names that one must know in order to function as an educated person. As such they constitute the collective consensus of the society, or so it may be argued. Cf. the great artists list on the internet—but of what authority?]



The Louvre contains a mysterious panel painting, sometimes known as “The Founders of Florentine Art,” attributed to Paolo Uccello (1396/7-1475) (P-H, 157-58). The bust figures in this frieze-like work bear inscriptions, possibly of the 16th century. They are as follows: Giotto, Uccello, Donatello, Antonio Manetti, and Brunelleschi. The mysterious Manetti may be an intarsia worker known for his mastery of perspective.

In view of the uncertainty of the inscriptions, some scholars have attempted to alter the identifications, seeing figures depicted in this frieze-like panel other than those currently textually cited. At all events, though this 15th century painting represents an attempt to combine images of five artists regarded as being particularly eminent.


One might have expected to find the name of Giorgio Vasari above, in the first list (the literary sources) because of the extraordinary roster of figures included in his Lives (1550; 1568). Yet many of these persons were, in his view, admitted to the company only for historical reasons, and could not be regarded as exemplars of quality.

In two fresco cycles Vasari depicted artists he admired. These occur in two rooms decorated according to his design in the Palazzo Vecchio (1556-62). The Sala di Cosimo il Vecchio shows artists patronized by the elder Cosimo, including Fra Angelico, Luca della Robbia, Ghiberti, Andrea del Castagno, and Brunelleschi. The Sala del Duca Cosimo similarly presents the Grand Duke Cosimo as fostering his own artists: Tribolo, Del Tasso, Vasari, Ammanati, Bandinelli, and Benvenuto Cellini. There is no doubt that Vasari thought these figures were important, but their selection is governed by the principle of patronage rather than by universal characteristics of quality.

El Greco

Over the course of his career El Greco painted four versions of the subject “Christ Casting the Money Changers Out of the Temple.” The second version, now in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (possibly 1570-75) contains, as a kind of footnote in the lower right corner, four busts of artists. There is general agreement that the first three are Titian, Michelangelo, and Giulio Clovio. The fourth has been identified a Raphael, Correggio, or possibly even a self-portrait.


In 1841 the artist Paul Delaroche unveiled his impressive fresco in the Hemicycle of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. With allegorical figures in the center, this cycle comprised 28 painters, 14 sculptors, 12 architects, and two engravers. The painters are divided into two groups: the colorists (19) and those who excelled in drawing. Delaroche’s pantheon is surprisingly unchauvinistic, since there are more Italians than French, and the Dutch and Flemish make a respectable showing. This bravura work, located at the very heart of the institution then most highly regarded for taste making, had an enormous influence.

The Albert Memorial

During the years 1863-72 Sir George Gilbert Scott supervised the construction of a grandiose Gothic baldachino in honor of Prince Albert, the deceased consort of Queen Victoria. There are 175 sculptural figures in all. Apart from allegorical groups, the frieze includes notable figures of painters, architects, sculptors, poets, and composers. The sculptors and architects are by J.B. Philips, the rest by H. H. Armstead. The idea of patronage recalls the rooms of Cosimo the Elder and Grand Duke Cosimo in the Palazzo Vecchio. Here, however, the Prince is viewed as symbolically patronizing the flowering of the arts over the centuries and throughout Western Europe.. The Victorian idea of progress as a cumulative process doubtless undergirds this ambitious gathering.


1-The number of artists selected for the top spot varies from two to fifty or more. Most common is a number between five and nine.

2-At first they are all Italians; later, esp. in the 19th century, they are international—but always European only.

3-Exceptions are sometimes made for local favorites.

4-In many instances translations, such as Sir John Harrington’s rendering of Ariosto, allow one to monitor differences in national perceptions.

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