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Friday, August 13, 2010

The Most Influential Artist of All Time

Let me ask you.  Who do you think could be considered the most influential artist of all time?  If we were to take a poll , the results might be quite interesting. Certainly Picasso would be listed, as would Van Gogh, Monet, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Caravaggio, Leonardo, Raphael and maybe Titian. But the artist nearest to God himself as a creative genius would undoubtedly be Michelangelo Buonarroti. A giant in his own time, his works were influencing other artists often even before they were completed. His stature in the eyes of the art world has only grown as time has given testimony to the scope, depth, power, and beauty of his talent. Even allowing for Picasso in the previous century, I think it would be safe to say, no other artist in the history of the world single-handedly changed the course of art in western civilization. So great was his talent in so many areas, art historians never know for sure whether to think of him first as a painter, a sculptor, or an architect. Certainly, given the chance to write his own epitaph, Michelangelo would choose to be remembered as a sculptor.  Yet his painting, limited as it was to but a few great masterpieces, was possibly even more influential than anything else he did.

An interesting case in point is his earliest known painting, the Doni Tondo. Tondo means round. It was a holy family, painted in tempera on a wooden panel about four feet in diameter with an ornate, deeply carved, gold leaf frame almost as much a work of art in itself as the painting it holds. Joseph, in the middle ground, hands a rambunctious Christchild over to his mother who reaches for the boy over her right shoulder while just beyond the parapet is John the Baptist, and beyond that, a group of five, nude, pagan youths bear witness to Michelangelo's preoccupation with the male human figure even in such an unlikely context. The figures of the holy family have solid sculptural mass, brilliant color, and the feeling that they were sculpted first, then painted.

The painting is thought to have been a gift from Agnolo Doni to his wife, Maddalena Strozzi on the occasion of the birth of their first child, Maria in 1507. The Doni family were wealthy Florentine bankers. Even at this point in his career, before Pope Julius II had so much as considered a new ceiling for his uncle's chapel, Michelangelo was having a profound influence on painters such as Florentine artist, Agnolo Bronzino, and Palma Vecchio of Venice. It's believed Michelangelo himself may have been influenced by the Florentine painter, Luca Signorelli, who also rendered a holy family tondo about 1491 having some similar sculptural qualities, which Michelangelo seems to have admired. However in no way does Signorelli's work match the brilliance of color we see in the Doni painting, and later, even more forcefully in the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. The mystery seems to be why a man who was so GOOD at it, seems to have ABHORRED painting so much.

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