4-3 WHAT MAKES A MASTERPIECE?

A painting masterpiece is ’a portal or magic window that will draw the imagination.’
How is this done and why are we humans drawn to certain paintings like Icarus was to the sun, or flies to fly paper?
Why, because the painter desires the viewer to enter into the painting, and once there, to make them want to dwell awhile. And how do they do this? By imagination and the use of all the means, tricks, skill, subterfuge, and techniques at their disposal.

The techniques include texture, design, color, chiaroscuro, aerial perspective, drawing perspective, form and shape. These skills have been honed over thousands of years and are a proven method to attract the curious and entice even the dullest imagination. They are the basic tools of the painter.

During the previous two centuries a few extra skills have been added to the painters arsenal.
1. Depth of field.
2. Impressionistic use of color
3. Brushstrokes and the viscous use of modern paints.
These also are legitimate tools painters can employ to entice the viewers into their world.

Now that is out of the way we can ask; how do we classify works as masterpieces? Answer; by finding their similarities and judging whether their differences are relevant differences. For this purpose I list below ten pre -1900 paintings I class as masterpieces. This is not to say there aren't others ...

Giorgione - The Tempest
Vermeer - Girl with pearl earing
Leonardo - The Mona Lisa
Rembrant - The night watch
Caravaggio - Calling St.Mathew
Velazquez - Las Meninas
Titian - the assumption
Watteau - The clown -Pierot
Turner - The fighting Temairaire
Gerome - Police Versa
THEY ARE ALL SHOWN ON THIS PAGE

It is assumed that what binds these paintings together is more relevant than their differences. So what binds them? Here we must almost become Toaist in our answer. The artists all ‘walked on rice-paper but left no footprints’(ie, more becomes less).
In all these works there is mystery, subtlety and a magnetic attraction. The technique is so skilful, so masterful, so seamless, it is unnoticeable. Like the great actor who makes the audience forget he or she is acting; so does the great painter do likewise for the imagination. That is what requires all the skill and technique.

This is not something dependent on the degree of reality of the scene or the portrait, nor is it dependent on the degree of unreality of the same. It is something else.

So, I will list what binds these paintings;
1. They all have an element of mystery
2. They all have a technical mastery that is sufficiently high to make it instantly secondary, un-noticeable.
3. They all visit a moment in time and space that fires the interest and imagination of the viewer.
4. They all pre-suppose the viewer can share a human understanding and common experience with the painter.

So, what does all this prove?
Not much, but I still like to call the process ‘the magic of painting', and coming across a masterpiece can take your breath away. It is worth the effort.

STUDENT ACTIVITY:Select your own ten masterpieces and briefly explain why you admire each of them. Allow 40min.

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