What makes an artist important? The exact chemical equation varies in every case, but typically involves some combination of the skill and originality of their practice, a compelling biography, their presence in important gallery and museum exhibitions, art fairs, biennials, and auctions, and their popular appeal. The most influential artists hail from every period, school, and movement. They can be Old Masters like Canaletto and Pieter Bruegel, bon vivants who frequented Parisian cabarets like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edouard Manet, or rigorous modernists like Piet Mondrian and Jasper Johns. All are indisputably important, but they took very different paths to entering the canon.
More often than not, an engaging life story is key. Jean-Michel Basquiat, for instance, was hailed during his tragically short lifetime, but has grown in importance as collectors have sent the market for his work skyrocketing. His appeal to museumgoers and collectors alike has always been bound up with his personal story, which epitomizes the romantic narrative of the doomed genius. Vincent van Gogh’s biography, though markedly more tragic since he never received recognition during his short lifetime, has likewise become inseparable from his incredibly popular and visionary paintings. Even Caravaggio, an aesthetic rebel in his time who has become one of the quintessential Old Masters, was notorious for getting into bar fights and died in exile at age 38 after killing a man in Rome.
Affiliation with a revered movement can often boost an artist’s status. The Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico may not be the first Surrealist most people think of, but his unique and distinctively eerie urban vistas helped lay the groundwork for that movement. Georges Braque kept at Cubist painting throughout his career, and is indelibly associated with it, even while his friend Pablo Picasso continued to evolve, becoming the quintessential modernist genius. Paul Signac is forever associated with Pointillism, and though that movement was very short-lived, his work remains hugely popular.
At the same time, many artists become marked as important specifically because their work stands out from any movement or classification. In this category, you have Francis Bacon, with his violently surreal, psychologically charged, and hugely popular figurative paintings, which blend elements of surrealism and expressionism with nods to classical portraiture. Similarly, Wassily Kandinsky may have been a co-founder of the Blue Rider group of Expressionists, but his work evolved into a singular and distinctive genre of dynamic abstraction that continues to seduce art lovers young and old.
In short, an artist’s importance is an impossible thing to gauge and notoriously difficult to predict. Some may remain consistently popular, like Lucian Freud, while others reemerge after their oeuvre is re-appraised, like Lucio Fontana. Whatever the case, the artists who continue to rank as most important always offer some combination of biographical intrigue, market desirability, institutional support, and a distinctive, visionary aesthetic.