These ten masterpieces came out on top in a recent critic’s poll. Would they make your list?
Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Foetus in the Womb” (c 1510-13)
The ultimate polymath, Da Vinci brings two disciplines together in this stunning work that gives the womb a religious and biological resonance.
Caravaggio’s “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” (1608)
Caravaggio drags beauty from a moment of grisly horror. His mastery of chiaroscuro forces the viewer’s eye to the final act in the execution. Are we complicit, as is perhaps the person watching from outside?
Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait with Two Circles” (c 1665-9)
Artist and viewer regard each other across the centuries, and we are nervous. He seems to be reading our very essence and we are failing in Rembrandt’s palette of truth.
“Spotted Horses” (30,000-year-old stone-age cave paintings from Chauvet)
These are breath-taking depictions of horses from long ago by artists lost to history. Unknown, they capture their subjects with an insight that resonates with us down through the mists of time.
Jackson Pollock’s “One: Number 31, 1950” (1950)
Did Pollock tap into the same phenomena that somehow lets us read the future from reading random cards? How did splashing paint on a board become such beauty? Are we, as the audience, creating structure from accident?
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Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” (c 1656)
Like Rembrandt, Velazquez is regarding us. We are his subjects, the King and Queen posing with our maids and dwarf players (meninas), our court a realm of studied oddity.
Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937)
The greatest anti-war declaration of the 20th century, Picasso’s cubist masterpiece was his angry riposte to Franco’s aerial destruction of the Basque city in the Spanish Civil War.
Michelangelo’s “Prisoners” (c 1519-34)
Unfinished deliberately, the struggle of prisoners as they futilely strain to break their bonds of marble perfectly evokes the human condition.
Paul Cezanne’s “Mont Sainte-Victoire” (1902-4)
Leading directly to abstract art, then cubism, this pioneer and painting that changed the whole direction of the form.
Parthenon Sculptures of Ancient Greece (447-442 BC)
This is genuine classical Greek sculpture, not the usual inferior Roman copies. They were controversially taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, but are still sublime.