The World’s Greatest Living Painters — Ranked According to Objective Criteria

Publisert 15. desember 2020 av

“You cannot rank paintings according to objective criteria — it’s all subjective!”

That is how many will react when they see this list, but I will argue that this position is wrong. For any poet, the goal should be to entertain the audience, and at best: make tears stream down their faces.

The film industry has been the guiding star in the entertainment business for quite some time. After all, Hollywood’s bible is Aristotle’s Poetics, and Blake Snyder has written about “the immutable laws of screenplay physics”, and referred to movies as “swiss clocks of emotions”. A movie must be structured with a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis to merely lay the groundwork for a blockbuster that should reach the entire color wheel of human emotions.

If these rules exist in film, should they not likewise exist in painting?

From the Renaissance to the 19th century, classical painting had a similar position in the entertainment business as the film industry has today. To convey the tragic in painting was Titian’s highest aim — the same is true for this list.

A painting should display humans in action and evoke the emotions of pity and fear in the audience. Thus, paintings without action (as is the case with many portraits) have only been included if they display an interesting motif, intense expression, or if they are exceptionally well executed.

The action taking place in the painting should convey what has happened (past), that which is happening (present), and that which is about to happen (future). The painting ought to be instantly recognizable and understandable — not obscured by symbols or have its meaning rely on a brilliant title. The painter ought to have knowledge about compositional techniques, and the painting should bear the mark of eternity, so that it can continue to have relevance beyond our mortal era.

Gold standard:

The Flaying of Marsyas (1570-76) by Titian

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★★★☆
Drama: ★★★★
Composition: ★★★★☆

Total: 18 points

Histogram score:  ★★★★★


Assessment criteria:

Execution
Are the proportions accurate, is it paintery, is there variation in the transitions?

Composition
Is the action organized, are the objects placed in a seemingly fixed position?

Timelessness
Are the references eternal, is the archetype instantly recognizable?

Drama
Is the action probable, does it evoke the emotions of pity and fear?

Histogram: Does light, shadow, and color constitute a harmonious whole?


Execution is a challenging criteria to consider, since the quality of reproductions may vary. Nevertheless, one can often detect whether the proportions are accurate, whether there is variation (soft and hard transitions), and whether the strokes are painterly, and so on.
Included in the evaluation — giving the painting a higher score — is painted movement, but only if it helps emphasizing the story.
To evaluate the composition of color, light, and shadow, I have used a function called channel histogram (exists in most editing softwares). The histogram is often displayed as a graph, measuring luminance from extreme brightness on the right — to extreme darkness on the left. In 2016, Luke Hillestad discovered that several old master paintings had nearly identical results in the channel histogram: a smooth, ascending curve, peaking at about 85% black. This list bases its standard of measuring by looking at the graph of Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas, which arguably has an extraordinary harmonious histogram. The total amount of points for a painting is not affected directly by its histogram, but paintings that have the same amount of points are ranked according to the total score of their respective histograms.

Composition is important to evaluate since it places the story within a framework. If the painter has managed to achieve the sense that all objects in the painting have their fixed and necessary position according to the story, then it is a successful composition. Portraits (especially close-ups), have often been rewarded an intermediate score in composition, since these categories have a low threshold in terms of competent or incompetent placement of figures and objects.

Timelessness is more important than ever, since the world has alienated itself from nature. If the figures are clothed in a way that cannot be tied to a specific period in history, the painting will get a higher score in timelessness. Even a caveman should be able to understand what the story is about. Thus, it is important to come as close as possible to the archetype, to universalize it, and see the story from a bird’s eye perspective.

Drama, (from greek, meaning action), is the central criteria in this list. It is also the criteria in which painters score the lowest — perhaps because dramatic painting is a rare phenomenon in modern times, and is still being taught to a small extent outside the school of Odd Nerdrum.
Several portraits have not been evaluated according to drama, because they are devoid of action — an intense expression is of little help if the figure lacks action.
Comic drama has been left out in favor of tragic drama, which exalts life, exalts the human body — with the possible end result of inspiring the spectator to become a better human being. The more it evokes the emotions of pity and fear, the higher the score the painting is assigned in drama. If the drama is complex and involves more than one active character, it usually scores higher. Another aspect that has been included in the assessment, is credibility. Is the action taking place on the screen probable — and if not — is it credible in the spectator’s eyes? To quote Aristotle: “The needs of poetry make what is plausible though impossible preferable to what is possible but implausible.”

Applying these criteria, I have, to the best of my ability, represented the living painters with their finest work. There are probably paintings that should have been included on this list, but that have escaped my eye. Followingly, the list might be subject to changes — should good suggestions emerge.

Clarification:

★ Star  
☆ Half star 
Highest score: ★★★★★
    Lowest score: ☆

59

The Muse Sisters (2018) by Kexin Di

Timelessness: ★★★☆
Execution: ★★☆
Drama: N/A
Composition: ★★★

Total: 9 points

Histogram score: ☆


58

Reclining in White (2004) by Jeremy Lipking

Timelessness: ★★☆
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: N/A
Composition: ★★★

Total: 9 points

Histogram score:  ★★☆


57

The Embrace by Ron Hicks

Timelessness: ★★★
Execution: ★★★
Drama: ★
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 9.5 points

Histogram score:  ★


56

The Schoolman (2015) by Shaun Berke

Timelessness: ★★★★
Execution: ★★
Drama: ★☆
Composition: ★★

Total: 9.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★


55

Opening Pandora’s Box (2010) by Cornelia Hernes

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★
Drama: ★☆
Composition: ★☆

Total: 9.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★☆


54

Unknown title by Vasily Shulzhenko

Timelessness: ★★★
Execution: ★★☆
Drama: ★☆
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 9.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★★☆


53

Homer’s Vision (2015) by Antonio Mañón

Timelessness: ★★★★
Execution: ★★★
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 10 points

Histogram score:  ★★☆


52

Baptism (2012) by Adam Miller

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★
Drama: ★
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 10 points

Histogram score:  ★★☆


51

Trinity of I by Daniela Astone

Timelessness: ★★★☆
Execution: ★★★
Drama: ★
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 10 points

Histogram score:  ★★★


50

Greed (2014-15) by Milica Kostić

Timelessness: ★★★★
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: N/A
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 10 points

Histogram score:  ★★★


49

Unknown title by Gilberto Geraldo

Timelessness: ★★★★
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 10.5 points

Histogram score:  ★


48

Dance of the Clairvoyant (2020) by Anne Herrero

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★★
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 10.5 points

Histogram score:  ★☆


47

Unknown title by Ai Xuan

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★

Total: 10.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★


46

Bacchanal (2014) by Nick Alm

Timelessness: ★☆
Execution: ★★★★
Drama: ★☆
Composition: ★★★☆

Total: 10.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★


45

Picking Elderflowers (2016) by Rachel Personett

Timelessness: ★★★★
Execution: ★★★
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★★

Total: 10.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★


44

Unknown title by Tong Luo

Timelessness: ★★★
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★★☆

Total: 10.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★


43

Wrath of the Tyrant (2006) by Robert Dale Williams

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★☆
Drama: ★★☆
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 11 points

Histogram score:  ★★☆


42

Self-portrait (2017) by Li Dong

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: N/A
Composition: ★★☆j

Total: 10.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★☆


41

Mid Winter Saint (2010) by Richard T. Scott 

Timelessness: ★★★★
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: N/A
Composition: ★★★

Total: 10.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★★


40

Isolation (2020) by Caique Polizeli

Timelessness: ★★★★
Execution: ★★★
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★★

Total: 10.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★★


39

Unknown title by Liu Yaming

Timelessness: ★★★
Execution: ★★★★
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★★

Total: 10.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★★☆


38

El Juguetero (2017) by Raul Campos

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★

Total: 10.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★★☆


37

Monk (2020) by Javier Adams

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★

Total: 10.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★★☆


36

Morning Mist (1988) by Yang Feiyun

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★☆
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★★

Total: 10.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★★★


35

The Homeless (1984) by Morteza Katouzian

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★☆
Drama: ★☆
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 11 points

Histogram score:  ★


34

New Born (1996) Trine Folmoe

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: N/A
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 11 points

Histogram score:  ★★☆


33

The Secret (2003) by Monika Helgesen

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★☆
Drama: ★☆
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 11 points

Histogram score:  ★★☆


32

Ezekiel as an Exile by Seth Fite

Timelessness: ★★★★
Execution: ★★
Drama: ★★
Composition: ★★★

Total: 11 points

Histogram score:  ★★★


31

The Field (1984) by Yuqi Wang

Timelessness: ★★★
Execution: ★★★★
Drama: ★
Composition: ★★★

Total: 11 points

Histogram score:  ★★★


30

Preparation of the Bride (1994) by Steven Assael

Timelessness: ★★
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: ★☆
Composition: ★★★★

Total: 11 points

Histogram score:  ★★★


29

The Gift, male figure (2006) by Daniel Graves

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★★
Drama: ★
Composition: ★★

Total: 11 points

Histogram score:  ★★★☆


28

Sonata (2008) by Hege Elisabeth Haugen

Timelessness: ★★★
Execution: ★★★★
Drama: ★
Composition: ★★★

Total: 11 points

Histogram score:  ★★★☆


27

Self-portrait as a Poet (2018) by William Heimdal

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★★
Drama: ★
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 11 points

Histogram score:  ★★★★


26

Andreas (2013) by Cheng Wu

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★★★
Drama: N/A
Composition: ★★

Total: 11 points

Histogram score:  ★★★★


25

Bonfire (2014) by Turid Spildo

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★★
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 11 points

Histogram score:  ★★★★☆


24

Stairs (2009) by Maria Kreyn

Timelessness: ★★★☆
Execution: ★★★★☆
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★★

Total: 11.5 points

Histogram score:  ★☆


23

Casita de dulces II (2011) by Guillermo Lorca Garcia

Timelessness: ★★★
Execution: ★★★★
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★★★

Total: 11.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★★★☆


22

Sunrise (2010) by Geir Stahl

Timelessness: ★★★★
Execution: ★★★★
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★★☆

Total: 12 points

Histogram score:  ★☆


21

Over the Clouds (2003) by Boris Koller

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★☆
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★★★

Total: 12 points

Histogram score:  ★★


20

The Ebenezer Stone (2005) by Matthew Lawrence Almy

Timelessness: ★★★★
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: ★☆
Composition: ★★★

Total: 12 points

Histogram score:  ★★


19

Consolation (2019) by Kaja Norum

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★★
Drama: ★★
Composition: ★★

Total: 12 points

Histogram score:  ★★★


18

Wanderlust (2019) by Mark Belicario

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★★
Drama: ★★
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 12 points

Histogram score:  ★★★


17

Treelover by Anthony Ackrill

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: ☆
Composition: ★★★

Total: 12 points

Histogram score:  ★★★


16

Mother (2018) by Colleen Barry

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★★★☆
Drama: N/A
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 12 points

Histogram score:  ★★★


15

A 2762

Crepuscolo del mattino olio su tela (2005-09) by Roberto Ferri

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★★
Drama: ★★
Composition: ★★★

Total: 12.5 points

Histogram score:  ★☆


14

Fossegrimen (2008) by Jonny Andvik

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★★
Drama: ★☆
Composition: ★★★☆

Total: 12.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★★


13

The Sea has Many Voices (2018) by Scott Breton

Timelessness: ★★★★
Execution: ★★★★
Drama: ★★
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 12.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★★☆


12

Yolanda (2013) by Orley Yu Ypon

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★☆
Drama: ★★★
Composition: ★★

Total: 12.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★★★


11

Narcissus (2019) by Camie Davis Salaz 

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★☆
Drama: ★★
Composition: ★★★☆

Total: 13 points

Histogram score:  ★


10

Soul Resting on Shadow (2005) by Helene Knoop

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★★
Drama: ★★☆
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 13 points

Histogram score:  ★★


9

Mourning and Fecundity II (2011) by Vincent Dessiderio

Timelessness: ★★★☆
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: ★★
Composition: ★★★★☆

Total: 13.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★☆


8

Diogenes (2017) by Molly Judd

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★★★
Drama: ★☆
Composition: ★★★

Total: 13.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★★


7

Self-portrait as Possessed (2008) by Caleb Knodell

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★★★☆
Drama: ★★
Composition: ★★☆

Total: 13.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★★☆


6

Discovery (2007) by Jan-Ove Tuv

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: ★★
Composition: ★★★☆

Total: 14 points

Histogram score:  ★★☆


5

Dead is dead (2008) by Luke Hillestad

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★★
Drama: ★★★
Composition: ★★★★

Total: 14.5 points

Histogram score:  ★☆


4

The Burning Horse (2012) by Joachim Eriksson

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★★☆
Drama: ★★★
Composition: ★★★

Total: 14.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★☆


3

The Passenger (2019) by Bruno Passos

Timelessness: ★★★★☆
Execution: ★★★★
Drama: ★★★☆
Composition: ★★★

Total: 15 points

Histogram score:  ★★★☆


2

The Outcast (2018) by Sebastian Salvo

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★★★☆
Drama: ★★★☆
Composition: ★★★★☆

Total: 17.5 points

Histogram score:  ★★★★


1

The Golden Cape (2011) by Odd Nerdrum

Timelessness: ★★★★★
Execution: ★★★★★
Drama: ★★★★
Composition: ★★★★

Total: 18 points

Histogram score:  ★★★★

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