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What is a Magnum Opus?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Magnum opus is a Latin phrase which literally means “great work.” A magnum opus is a work on a large scale which is widely regarded as an artist's pinnacle of achievement, often reflecting a lifetime of work. Proust's In Search of Lost Time, an epic cycle of seven novels, is an example of a magnum opus. It may take decades or even centuries for the magnum opus of a particular artist to be recognized or uncovered, as it is not uncommon for artists to die while completing their longest and most elaborate works.

The magnum opus is not necessarily the work which garners the most attention. In fact, in some cases the work is largely regarded as a failure during the artist's lifetime, with critics and members of the public alike expressing distaste for the piece, along with pity for the artist's failure. A magnum opus may also be viewed as obscure, challenging, and too difficult for most people to relate to. Sometimes, the identification of a magnum opus requires extensive reflection and study by professionals in the feel.

Some artists have in fact chafed at the promotion of work which they feel is of lesser value, arguing that their finest works are disregarded because of their length, complexity, or innovative nature. In the days of patronage in the arts, some artists felt forced to make generic, uninteresting work by their patrons, reserving their spare time for work on a magnum opus. Others actively concealed their great works during their lifetimes, for various reasons.

The difference between a magnum opus and other works by an artist is quite clear. A magnum opus is a work which stands out from the rest of someone's body of work because of its complexity, detail, length, and intensity. One could compare the difference to the distinction between a simple piano concerto and a composition for full orchestra; while both may be good, one is certainly larger, bolder, and more complex.

For those who enjoy being pedantic, there is some dispute over the pluralization of “magnum opus.” Some authorities suggest that “magnum opuses” is appropriate, while others prefer “magna opera.” The difference depends on how true one wants to be to the original Latin, with some people arguing that the correct Latin form should be preserved, though others have suggested that the phrase seems to have been absorbed into English, and that therefore the rules of English pluralization are sufficient.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By sunnySkys — On Feb 08, 2012

Reading this article, I couldn't help but wonder how many artists and writers are unappreciated right now, but might go on to be very famous in the future. Some struggling independent novelist could be out there working on their magnum opus right now!

I always try and remind myself to be a little more open minded about art and literature and not just pay attention to what is popular. I wouldn't want to miss the Van Gogh of our era!

By starrynight — On Feb 07, 2012

@SZapper - I know a magnum opus is traditionally supposed to be a piece of art or a work of literature, but I think we should expand the term. For example, say a scientist works for years and makes a marvelous discovery. Or perhaps a marketing executive designs a campaign that is the most successful campaign he's every designed. Both of those things sound like magnum opuses (opera?) to me!

The meaning of words and phrases definitely evolves over time, so I don't see why the meaning of the term "magnum opus" couldn't evolve too!

By SZapper — On Feb 06, 2012

@irontoenail - When I think about artists who were under-appreciated in their lifetime, Van Gogh is usually the first person that pops into my head too! Especially since he is so very famous now. Everyone knows who he is!

Anyway, I think the idea of a magnum opus is pretty neat. I think we would all like to be able to hold something in our hands (or point to something) and say "This is the culmination of my life's work." Unfortunately for those of us who aren't artists or writers, that's not very likely to happen!

By browncoat — On Feb 06, 2012

@irontoenail - It's true though that sometimes you just can't not do the art. If it is bursting out of you, then you can hardly do anything else.

I personally love writing and I practice all the time. I just can't stop composing little stories in my head, or noting them down on my laptop.

Of course, that's not to say that people like Van Gogh don't deserve more respect for what they did, since he lived in poverty to dedicate his life to his art. I'm just doing it on the side.

But, perhaps that's why he became famous, because that dedication led to something wonderful.

I like to hope that one day I'll be able to put all this practice into a magnum opus of my own, but life would have to give me a bit of slack before that could happen.

By irontoenail — On Feb 06, 2012

@Iluviaporos - At least architects are able to carry out their work knowing that people will appreciate it, and indeed that people must already appreciate it, or they would never have been commissioned to plan something so expensive.

Many other artists may get to see their finished works but never be appreciated for them.

You might say that they should do it for the love of the work, but when you're having to work to support yourself, as well as embarking on the work needed for a magnum opus, doing it for the love of the art is nice, but in moments of doubt you need other people to say you're doing OK as well.

The fact that artists like Van Gogh managed to create such gorgeous and unique works throughout their lives without any positive feedback from the public astounds me.

By lluviaporos — On Feb 05, 2012

I think it must be quite sad for artists who pass away before their magnum opus is completed.

I'm thinking particularly of architects because they usually come up with the idea and the plans for buildings or monuments, but they don't actually build them, and may not even supervise the building.

I know going back a couple of hundred years that often kings would ask an architect to come up with the plans for a great monument or building like a cathedral and the building of it with their technology would take decades.

It might even take longer than that if a king dies and his successor doesn't want to continue the project.

So, many architects would never see the finished results of their work, particularly their magnum opus which would probably be even bigger and more magnificent than most of the buildings they design.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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