Since the Renaissance at least, famous artists have set the direction for culture in general. Here is a brief summary of some of the most famous artists of all times and their contributions to mankind’s development over the centuries.
One of the most famous artists of all time was Michelangelo. (1475-1564) With his sculpture, “David,” he not only turned the human form from a thing of shame into something beautiful, he also set the tide for the human-oriented culture that was to follow. This would come to be exemplified in the philosophy, political beliefs, and even dress of the time. As David stands proudly, one gets the idea that he is pondering how to solve the problems of the world in a way, exalting man to his fullest degree. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) was another of the famous artists who had a definitive effect on his culture. With his Christian themed paintings, he exemplified the Protestant Reformation, which was taking Holland by storm. Since much of the population was illiterate, his work successfully reconnected them with Biblical stories that they were unable to read on paper. He also introduced a new view of man. Striking a contrast from both the Medieval artists who purposefully de-emphasized human beings (to the point of remaining anonymous themselves) and the Renaissance artists who glorified man, Rembrandt and other Reformational artists sought to present a balanced picture with both good and bad. His self portrait is an example of this. While he wears regal looking clothes, and the light shines on him in a majestic way, it can also be noted that Rembrandt was a bit overweight, and with all of the wrinkles on his face, not the most handsome man either.
Jacques Louis David ignited the French Revolution with his stirring picture of Napoleon Bonaparte riding his white horse into the Alps Mountains. He may indeed be the most revolutionary of famous artists, and it won him a place in his hero’s cabinet, until his fall. He also lived to literally tell the tale, and became an art teacher in Brussels.
The 19th century saw the rise of coffee shops where a myriad of revolutionary ideas would be formed. Out of these came all sorts of famous artists. One of the most notable of these was Paul Cezanne. With his impressionism, deliberately distorting the appearance of his subjects, he was able to convey a message about what they looked like on the inside. Not only that, like Rembrandt before him, he was able in a new way to bring art down to real life.
Another of the famous artists to emerge from the 19th century was Vincent Wilhelm Van Gogh. Van Gogh may have been influenced by a worldwide interest in anatomy that was taking place at the time. With his, “Skull of a Skeleton,” he succeeds in making bones beautiful. He also gave simple activities, such as eating a potato, sitting in the park, or even sleeping a new significance.
Elizabeth Ney was one of the most famous artists to sculpt in the 19th century. A German immigrant originally, having sculpted a bust of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Ney became fond of Texas early on. With her touching sculpture of Sam Houston on his death bed, and her busts of Stephen F. Austin, Oran M. Roberts, and the other “founding fathers,” of Texas, she took the 1893 Chicago World Fair by storm, and the world would never be the same after that.
Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) was one of the first famous artists of the 20th century. She took this idea to a whole new level with her paintings, which mainly focused on the Southwestern United States. Like Ney, she introduced fans to an area of America that they had little knowledge of. With her paintings of horse and longhorn skulls in the desert, as well as wilting trees, she also allowed her audiences to see beauty even in death.
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) never lived to see the 1960s, but the ideas that he detailed in his art were definitely influential towards the changes that would come. Pollock challenged the idea that paintings should have order to them by showing a paint can that had dropped paint on the floor. “What meaning,” he seemed to ask, “does this have?” His ideas, along with the music of John Cage, the psychology of Albert Kinsey, and the poetry of Allen Ginsburg would forever change society. With the dawn of the digital age, artists have had to adjust to a new set of expectations.
Nigel Tomm, who is also a novelist, is becoming one of the most famous artists of the 21st century with his thought provoking photography. One of these images depicts what seems to be an apartment with what is perhaps a phone line stringing from one room to the other. Tomm has taken what seems to be one of the simplest things in life and he peaks the observer’s interest, by overlaying the photo in a futuristic green glow. All of this, hauntingly, leaves the viewer saying, “What is going on in those rooms?”
The qualifications for great art have changed drastically over time. For some, the path to becoming famous artists required presenting an earth shattering new view. For others, it simply meant illustrating what was, “right under people’s noses,” all along. Still, there seems to be one constant hurdle for all famous artists to overcome, portraying a truth in a new and powerful way. The rest, as Michelangelo said, “is just taking out the things that aren’t needed.”