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Michelangelo. Vincent Van Gogh. Pablo Picasso. The story of art history is told through the biographies of individual celebrity artists. In this episode of Crash Course Art History, we’ll learn about where the myth of the Great Artist comes from — and why it might be time for a new perspective.

Introduction: "Great Artists" 00:00
Guilds 00:55
The Medicis 02:13
Vasari & the "Great Artist" 03:08
Art Academies 05:20
Great (Women) Artists 07:15
Modern Ideas of Greatness 08:58
Review & Credits 10:25

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Van Gogh. Picasso.

Warhol. Dali.  Matisse. Da Vinci.

Pollock. Rembrandt. Carvaggio.

Chagall. Maybe a Frida Kahlo in there. Long before the current  celebrity-obsessed age of social media, capital-G Great Artists have been  singled out, elevated, and praised.

We tend to associate art with individual  artists, who are considered geniuses. But… is this really the  right way to think about it? We can actually pinpoint very particular moments  in history where this way of thinking began.

What is the myth of the Great Artist? Where does this idea come from,  and what, exactly, is “greatness”? Hi!

I'm Sarah Urist Green, and  this is Crash Course Art History. [THEME MUSIC] The idea of the Great Artist, and of art  history as a series of celebrity biographies, comes from a specific time  and place: Renaissance Europe. Before that, across the  world and throughout history, a lot of art was made either  collectively or anonymously, or at least without a lot of individual fanfare. Take the Medieval bestseller “The Book  of Hours,” from 15th Century France.

The artist Enguerrand Quarton  produced many of its images, and yet he’s not exactly a household name. This is because medieval European  art was primarily produced by guilds, or associations of artists,  art-sellers, and craftspeople. So, say you’re a wealthy Venetian trader and you   want to impress your friends  with your new silk tapestries, you’d tell everyone the guild you got them from.

Not the individual artist. Guilds functioned essentially  as intense training programs, designed to turn apprentices into masters. The formula was simple: you can become a  master by doing what the master before you did, exactly how they did it, through  specific levels of accomplishment, kind of like when you level up in a video game.

And that’s where we get the term masterpiece. It was a work that demonstrated the  artist’s skill had reached master level. You’d won the game, and now had all the  support and benefits of being in the guild.

But then, starting in the 1400s, guilds  were no longer the only game in town. Enter the Medicis, a family  of wealthy merchants, bankers, and political leaders in Florence, who began to pay artists to do their  thing, independent of the guilds. Thanks to its key position along flourishing  trade routes, Italy was flush with cash.

Bankrolling the next Renaissance art  superstar became a status symbol. And the patrons that funded those artworks? They had a whole different idea  of what made a great artist.

While guilds tended to reward  technical skill and craftsmanship, the Medicis and other patrons thought  of painting and sculpture as valuable   if they expressed complex ideas and emotions. This was the beginning of  the “art vs. craft” debate. Those in favor of art suggested  that technical skill wasn’t enough: to them, works of craft didn’t have the  deeper meaning that makes something truly art.

In what’s considered one of the  earliest art historical writings — “The Lives of the Most Excellent  Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” — the author, Giorgio Vasari, described great artists as having a nugget of  genius that sets them apart from ordinary people. I like to think of it as a chicken  nugget of genius, personally. We can track some pretty major shifts in  how art was thought about through this book.

First, it was biographical. This suggested that learning about artists’ lives  was important to understanding the art they made. Quite a difference from the guild model, where you often wouldn’t have  even known the artist’s name.

On top of that, the book framed art as an   intellectual pursuit and not  just a feat of physical labor. Vasari wrote, “the true difficulties [of art]  lie rather in the mind than in the body.” In other words: the era of  the tortured artist had begun. Like, take this painting made by  none other than Vasari himself.

It shows St. Luke so engrossed in  painting the Virgin Mary and baby   Jesus that they’ve actually  appeared in the room to help. Mary seems to be offering  the artist direct guidance— while also running some  kind of angel-baby daycare?

Anyway, the mixing of paints and such–the  physical labor–is relegated to the background, and the moment of divine inspiration  at the easel–that mental labor– is in the foreground, up front and in focus. This coincided with a rise in interest  for the artistic style of naturalism, which involved using light and shadow to make  bodies look realistic and three-dimensional. Vasari and others felt this style showed a deeper   scientific and philosophical  understanding of the world.

Those personal preferences affected  not only what kind of art they made, but also which art and artists were written about, and thus which artists were  read about and became popular. Of course, we can’t pin all of this on Vasari. These changes were kicked off by a major shift  in the way the art industry was structured, a result of larger economic  and political developments.

Maybe singling out Vasari is  playing into the myth of the   great originator of the myth of the Great Artist… whoa, this is getting intense, y’all. In any case, around the 16th century, a new type of institution cropped up  to train young artists: art academies. The most influential one, the Royal  Academy of Painting and Sculpture, was in Paris, founded in 1648  by King Louis the Fourteenth.

And art academies weren’t as  freewheeling as independent patrons. They were actually…kind of a lot like guilds,  even as they took power away from them. There were strict rules, high  standards, and an emphasis on technique.

But, academies took the art side  of ye olde art vs. craft debate. They basically absorbed the concept of  skill into the myth of the Great Artist. Being technically skilled became  a component of being a “genius.” And the academies had a bunch of new takes.

Take number 1: the King is amazing, we love him. Nevermind the fact that we were founded  by the King and that love is mandatory. Take number 2: Painting is the highest  form of art, especially history painting, which told stories from the  Bible and the ancient past, or otherwise emphasized  Moral Values of “Great Men”.

This was way more important than mere  landscapes or still lives or – worst of all – regular people doing regular things. Take number 3: Artists are  prominent intellectuals – people, specifically white men,  of culture, wealth, and influence. Their self-portraits emphasized this  status, complete with dramatic lighting, wistful gazes, furrowed brows, and serious stares.

And you better throw some paintbrushes or a   canvas in there so there’s no  doubt they’re a great artist. Many art academies did admit women, but there were many obstacles  to rising through the ranks. Most notably, women weren’t allowed  to study anatomy or draw male nudes — which was required to become a history painter.

This all but locked women out  of the category of Great Artist. But, that doesn’t mean there weren’t  women making great art at the time. Like, the painter Artemisia Gentileschi, whose self-portrait shows her as the  very personification of painting.

And she wasn’t the only one. Let’s go to the drawing board. Women who did make their way into the  art world showed they could absolutely   produce work just as accomplished  and intellectual as the next guy’s.

Take this painting by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. It’s in the style of the  self-portraits we saw earlier, only this one contains layers of hidden meaning. Vigée-Le Brun climbed the  ladder of artistic success to eventually become French monarch  Marie Antoinette’s preferred artist.

When the French Revolution broke out, and things  started to get all “Off with their heads!,” she wisely split for Rome. And while there, she made this portrait  of herself painting Marie Antoinette. The artist’s shadow on the  canvas is a reference to the   ancient Greek myth about the origins of artmaking.

So the story goes, one night, the daughter of a Corinthian  potter took a piece of charcoal   and outlined the shadow of her lover on the wall. He was about to embark on a long journey, and she wanted to preserve  his image in her memory. The tale is often regarded as a  mythic origin story of drawing.

The painting positions Vigée Le Brun  as decisively in the artistic canon, stretching back to the ancients. But it also reflects how art serves a key role in   the writing of history and  the making of “greatness.” In recent years, evidence has emerged that   suggests women may have participated  in academies more than we realized. Which really begs the question: were women excluded from being great artists,  or just written out – and written off?

Centuries later, artists continue to  explore the myth of the Great Artist, and how it shapes culture. Like, here’s Kerry James Marshall’s  “Untitled (Painter),” from 2009, which depicts a Black artist  in front of her easel, in the same pose made  popular by the art academies. At first it seems like she’s painting  herself into the canon thing.

But a closer look at the canvas reveals  that she's using a “paint-by-numbers” kit. Marshall’s work makes me wonder   whether the artworks that made someone “great”  weren’t born of some “nugget of genius,” but were instead constructed based on  the arbitrary rules of an elite few, like a paint-by-numbers kit for turning  someone into a capital-G Great Artist. Marshall’s picture also makes me think  about why I’ve never seen a Black woman, or a Black man like Marshall himself, painted  in this stereotypical “artist” pose before.

Did they exist, or were they like  others written out of history? And what about now? Is there a formula for modern “greatness”?

And does it allow for  traditionally excluded artists? Those are some of the questions we  hope to answer in future episodes. But for now, I can tell you this, in 2023, the Royal Academy of Arts in  London – yes one of those academies – elected Marshall as an Honorary Royal Academician.

While the field of art history has tended  to be organized around individual artists, it’s important to remember it  hasn’t always been that way,   and that doesn’t reflect the way  art is made everywhere in the world. The myth of the great artist started in  a particular time and a particular place. And that had impacts worldwide  — ones that continue today.

But the qualities that made artists “great” in  Renaissance Italy don’t tell the whole story. The more we recognize the perspectives  that have been left out of the story, the fuller and more complex our  understanding of art, and history, becomes. Next time, we’ll talk about what to do when  great artists are… not-so-great people.

I’ll see you then! Thanks for watching this episode of Crash  Course Art History which was filmed at the   Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields and was  made with the help of all these ingenious people. If you want to help keep Crash  Course free for everyone,   forever, you can join our community on Patreon.