When we think about the “greatest” of all time, what does that really mean? What earns someone that title? Is it sheer genius and innovation? Hard work and perseverance? In the history of art, there are a lot of incredible painters. But there are some who stand just a hair above the rest and have created a lasting legacy that endures well beyond their lifetime.
So who are the greatest painters of all time? Not only are they technically skilled, but these artists have all made important contributions that have changed Western culture. Many of these artists were considered avant-garde because they pushed boundaries and made startling innovations. Most were already considered geniuses during their lifetimes and enjoyed unparalleled success, while others weren't acknowledged until after their death.
To be considered one of the greatest painters of all time, one needs to possess a special combination of technical skills, outlandish creative thinking, and determination. Blended together, all of these attributes produce outstanding works of genius that continue to thrill, some hundreds of years after their initial creation.
We've put together our list of the 5 greatest painters of all time, taking into consideration all of these factors. While you may have a few names you'd like to see on this list, there's no denying that the artists selected have made an indelible impact on art and culture as we know it.
5 Greatest Painters of All Time
LEONARDO DA VINCI
Not only did Leonardo da Vinci experiment with mediums, but he also innovated different ways of creating striking compositions. In fact, his signature triangular composition is still used today and is widely considered one of the most visually pleasing painting layouts. He was also an early advocate of studying anatomical models to perfect his art, something that was illegal at the time.
While Michelangelo may have viewed himself as a sculptor, his placement on this list shows his true genius. Though relatively few Michelangelo paintings survive, those that do are considered some of the best in the world. His ability to quickly master fresco painting and take it to new heights is evident in both the Sistine Chapel Ceiling and The Last Judgement, which continue to inspire artists today.
VINCENT VAN GOGH
Though he is seen today as one of the most influential painters in Western art, Vincent van Gogh was not commercially successful during his lifetime. Since the early 20th century, however, his masterful paintings have been prized for their expressive emotion. Filled with dramatic brushstrokes and bold color, the Post-Impressionist painter's artwork is a roadmap to modern art.
TAMARA DE LEMPICKA
Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka was a superstar of the early 20th century. Rubbing elbows with the avant-garde in Paris, she turned away from Impressionism—the popular style of the time—and focused on blazing her own trail. The graphic quality of her work and their rich, vivid colors made her a leader of Art Deco painting and earned her the nickname “The Baroness with a Brush.” Today, her work continues to be used as inspiration for designers and is emblematic of this Golden Age.
In an 80-year career that moves through multiple styles and over 20,000 works, Pablo Picasso is undoubtedly one of the most recognized names in Western art. His role in launching Cubism would be enough to cement his status in the history books, but Picasso did much more. He is recognized for showing how Classical art can be mastered—and then manipulated—to become something new, fresh, and modern.