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The Ten Greatest Portraits Ever Painted

Ten immortal masterpieces that tower over all the rest.

As featured in The Artist's Magazine, Special Porrait Issue, April, 2005

t will probably be viewed as chutzpa of the most inflated kind to attempt to identify the ten most important portraits of all time. But I can report that the experience was relatively simple. Once the criteria were established, the paintings virtually chose themselves. To select the greatest portraits, I applied the following four standards:

1. Pervasive, universal, popular recognition. Which portraits are, and have been, the most widely recognized, loved and admired?

2. Impact on the practice of portraiture. Which paintings have exerted the strongest influence on the work of other artists?

3. Inherent artistic quality. Which portraits demonstrate the great traditional attributes of truth and beauty—manifested in sound draftsmanship, realistic and appealing color, creative and intelligent design of the composition, and exciting execution (brushwork).

4. Evoking the reality of the portrait's subject. Which portraits transmit—to the maximum degree—the character and human qualities of the subject? Which portraits vibrate with the living aura of a real human being at a specific moment in time?

These four standards made the job easy. For example, applying number one immediately filled several of the ten slots. The list, with the requirement of universal, popular recognition, would demand Leonardo's Mona Lisa and Whistler's Mother, whatever we might think of their other qualities. Such a standard would also require inclusion of Gainsborough's Blue Boy and Lawrence's Pinkie. We move easily on to Hals' Laughing Cavalier, and—presto!—one half of our list is complete.

I was absolutely certain that the remaining five slots must be filled by paintings by Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Sargent and Velázquez.

Raphael was easy—the Baldassar Castiglione in the Louvre is unquestionably that young artist's greatest portrait. Sargent's greatest is Madame X. Velázquez' mountaintop is his immortal portrait of Pope Innocent X.

So we were down to choosing a Rembrandt and a Van Dyck. In my view, the great group composition The Syndics of the Clothmakers' Guild possesses a rare power, so in it went. And which of so many mighty Van Dycks? I've chosen the great full-length of Charles 1. It is Van Dyck at his supreme best.

I will be eager to read your responses to this selection.
Click here to view The Ten Greatest Portraits.       

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