Painting is an old medium that has persisted as a form of expression despite the development of photography, film, and digital technologies. Only a tiny portion of the numerous famous paintings that have been preserved over many centuries and millennia may be considered “timeless masterpieces” that are well-known to the general public—and which, coincidentally, were created by some of the most well-known painters of all time.
It begs the issue of what confluence of ability, brilliance, and circumstance results in the production of a masterpiece. The easiest response may be that you can recognize one when you see one, whether it’s at one of the numerous museums in New York City (including The Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, MoMA, and others) or at establishments abroad.
Of course, we have our own opinions on what qualifies, and we’ve included those in our list of the most famous paintings ever created.
Most Famous Paintings in History
1. Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci, 1503–19
Da Vinci’s captivating portrait, which was painted between 1503 and 1517, has been the subject of two inquiries ever since it was created: Why is the person smiling, and who is she? Over the years, a variety of ideas for the former have been put forth: That she is Caterina, Leonardo’s mother, as imagined from his childhood recollections of her; that she is the spouse of Florentine businessman Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo (thus the alternative title for the piece, La Gioconda); and finally, that it is a self-portrait dressed as another person. Regarding that fabled grin, its mysterious character has long baffled mankind. Whatever the cause, Leonardo’s use of atmospheric perspective allows the idealized landscape behind Mona Lisa to fade into the distance while maintaining her expression of unnatural peace.
2. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, 1665
The young woman in Johannes Vermeer’s 1665 study is astonishingly genuine and strikingly contemporary, almost like a snapshot. This raises the question of whether Vermeer used a camera obscura, a type of pre-photographic equipment, to generate the picture. Aside from that, no one is certain who the sitter was, however, it has been suggested that she could have been Vermeer’s maid. She appears to be trying to make an intimate connection across the ages as he paints her glancing over her shoulder and locking her eyes with the spectator. Technically speaking, Girl isn’t a portrait at all, but an illustration of the Dutch headshot style known as a tronie, which is more of a still life of the contours of the face than an attempt to capture a resemblance.
3. The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, 1889
The Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh’s most well-known picture, was produced by Van Gogh while he was a patient at the Saint-Rémy institution, where he had checked himself into in 1889. As the night sky comes alive with swirls and spheres of frenetically applied brush strokes arising from the yin and yang of his own demons and wonder of nature, The Starry Night does indeed seem to mirror his volatile state of mind at the time.
4.The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, 1907–1908
The Kiss, a depiction of intimacy by Gustav Klimt from the turn of the century that is lavishly gilded and lavishly patterned, combines Vienna Jugendstil, an Austrian take on Art Nouveau, with Symbolism. Klimt presents his characters as mythological beings who have been modernized by lavish surfaces of contemporary graphic elements. The piece is a high point of the artist’s Golden Phase, which spanned 1899 to 1910 and was characterized by the frequent use of gold leaf. This technique was motivated by a 1903 trip to Ravenna, Italy’s Basilica di San Vitale, where he witnessed the church’s renowned Byzantine mosaics.
5. The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, 1484–1486
The Birth of Venus by Botticelli, which was created for Lorenzo de Medici, was the first full-length, non-religious nude since antiquity. The Goddess of Love is said to be based on Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, whose favors are said to have been shared by Lorenzo and his younger brother Giuliano. Zephyrus and Aura, the wind gods, are seen blowing Venus on a large clamshell to land where the personification of spring is waiting in a cloak.
Naturally, Venus enraged Savonarola, the Dominican monk who oversaw a fundamentalist crackdown on the Florentines’ secular preferences. During his campaign, the famed “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1497 took place, in which “profane” items including books, paintings, and cosmetics were burned on a bonfire. The Birth of Venus was supposed to be burned, but luckily, it was spared. Botticelli, however, was so alarmed by the event that he temporarily stopped painting.
1. Grey and Black Arrangement by James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Whistler’s Mother, or Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, as it’s really titled, alludes to the artist’s passion to pursue art for art’s sake. James Abbott McNeill Whistler painted the picture at his London studio in 1871, and in it, the formality of portraiture becomes an exercise in form. Whistler’s mother Anna is represented as one of the numerous pieces trapped into an arrangement of right angles. Her harsh countenance fits nicely with the rigidity of the composition, and it’s rather hilarious to notice that despite Whistler’s formalist goals, the painting became a symbol of motherhood.
7. Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434
One of the most notable works made during the Northern Renaissance, this composition is thought to be one of the earliest and most famous paintings executed in oils. A full-length double picture, it purportedly represents an Italian businessman and a lady who may or may not be his wife. In 1934, the celebrated art historian Erwin Panofsky proposed that the painting is actually a wedding contract. What can be reliably said is that the piece is one of the first depictions of an interior using orthogonal perspective to create a sense of space that seems contiguous with the viewer’s own; it feels like a painting you could step into.
8. Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1503–1515
This fantastical triptych is generally considered a distant forerunner to Surrealism. In truth, it’s the expression of a late medieval artist who believed that God and the Devil, Heaven and Hell were real. Of the three scenes depicted, the left panel shows Christ presenting Eve to Adam, while the right one features the depredations of Hell; less clear is whether the center panel depicts Heaven. In Bosch’s perfervid vision of Hell, an enormous set of ears wielding a phallic knife attacks the damned, while a bird-beaked bug king with a chamber pot for a crown sits on its throne, devouring the doomed before promptly defecating them out again. This riot of symbolism has been largely impervious to interpretation, which may account for its widespread appeal.
9. Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884–1886
Georges Seurat’s masterpiece, evoking the Paris of La Belle Epoque, is actually depicting a working-class suburban scene well outside the city’s center. Seurat often made this milieu his subject, which differed from the bourgeois portrayals of his Impressionist contemporaries. Seurat abjured the capture-the-moment approach of Manet, Monet and Degas, going instead for the sense of timeless permanence found in Greek sculpture. And that is exactly what you get in this frieze-like processional of figures whose stillness is in keeping with Seurat’s aim of creating a classical landscape in modern form.
10. Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907
The ur-canvas of 20th-century art, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon ushered in the modern era by decisively breaking with the representational tradition of Western painting, incorporating allusions to the African masks that Picasso had seen in Paris’s ethnographic museum at the Palais du Trocadro. Its compositional DNA also includes El Greco’s The Vision of Saint John (1608–14), now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The women being depicted are actually prostitutes in a brothel in the artist’s native Barcelona.
Leave a Reply