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20 Famous Paintings In Art History You Need To Know

Many of the famed artists from history have pushed the boundaries of artistic expression and even created a movement in the field of Art. Though there are several remarkable masterpieces, few of them have achieved world recognition and have remained as classic paintings in the history of Art. In this post, I have curated a list of such 20 famous paintings, most of which are now housed in the world’s finest museums.

1. Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa, probably the world’s most famous painting, is painted by  Leonardo da Vinci sometime between 1503 and 1506 when Leonardo was living in Florence. This painting is, also called Portrait of Lisa Gherardini who was the wife of cloth and silk merchant Francesco Giocondo.

This iconic oil painting now hangs in the Louvre Museum, Paris and every year millions of visitors come to Paris to see the captivating gaze and enigmatic smile on Monalisa.

2. Starry Night

Starry Night is painted by the Dutch artist  Vincent van Gogh in 1889 during his stay at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

The Starry Night, a moderately abstract landscape painting of an expressive night sky over a small hillside village. The swirl and curving composition of the sky, hills, and mountains with the melancholic blue color palette along with the thickly layered brushstrokes have caused the artwork to become one of the most recognizable paintings and also depicted the turbulent state of mind of the artist.

3. Water Lillies

Water Lilies is an oil painting painted by French impressionist Claude Monet(1840-1926).  This is a series of 250 oil paintings that depict his flower garden at his home in Giverny which were created during the last 30 years of Monet’s life. They demonstrate his extraordinary skill at plein-air painting , his feeling for colour, and his appreciation of light.

4. Great Wave off Kanagawa

The Great Wave off Kanagawa was painted by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai around 1831 as part of a series of woodblock prints called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku Sanju-roku Kei). The extended wave believed to have been painted using Prussian blue is the most eyecatching feature of this painting.

5. American Gothic

This painting is done by the American artist Grant Wood in the year 1930 and was exhibited publicly for the first time at the Art Institute of Chicago. It depicts a farmer standing beside his daughter(many mistake it for his wife). He was inspired to paint this while visiting the small town of Eldon in his native Iowa. 

He was inspired to paint this picture when he saw an unusual house in Iowa with an upper window with pointed arches. He imagined the kind of people who would live inside. The title ‘American Gothic’ is therefore a reference to the neo-Gothic architectural style of this house.

6. Guernica

A massive black and white oil painting by  Spanish artist Pablo Picasso in 1937. Guernica is renowned because of its powerful portrayal of universal suffering, especially that of innocent civilians caused by the war. 

7. Hay wain

The Hay Wain is a painting by John Constable in 1821, which depicts a rural scene on the River Stour between the English counties of Suffolk and Essex with two men driving an old hay wain. This painting hangs in the National Gallery in London and is regarded as “Constable’s most famous image”.

8. The Last Supper

The last supper

The Last Supper painted by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most famous and recognizable artworks in the world. This painting is done probably between 1495  and 1498 for the Dominican monastery Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan. The painting depicts the scene of the Last Supper of Jesus with his apostles. on the night before Christ’s crucifixion.

9. Impression Sunrise

Impression sunrise

Impression sunrise is an impressionist oil on canvas painting created by Claude Monet in the year 1872. It was one of the nine works that he showed at the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874. It is housed at Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris. This painting is a hazy interpretation of the seaport in his hometown of Le Havre in France.

10. Creation of Adam

Creation of Adam

Michelangelo‘s Creation of Adam is one of the most iconic images in European art history. It is only a part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican where the painting is placed next to the Creation of Eve and the Congregation of the Waters. This fresco painting took approximately four years to complete (1508–1512) which still makes the most famous section of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The painting captures the scene of God breathing life into Adam, the biblical creation narrative who was to become the first man and was later joined together with Eve, ultimately resulting in the birth of the human race.

11. The Kiss

The kiss

The Kiss is an oil-on-canvas painting by the Austrian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt. It was painted at some point in 1907 and 1908 and is housed in Vienna’s esteemed Österreichische Galerie Belvedere.

The painting is considered a masterpiece among the number of works he painted in a similar style that evoked love, passion, and beauty. His inspiration for this style of painting often called the Golden phase was presumably provided by the visit to Ravenna during his travels through Italy in the year 1903  where he got introduced to the world of Byzantine Mosaics in the Church of San Vitale.

This painting depicts a couple locked in an intimate embrace in the flowery meadow with elaborate beautiful robes painted with silver, earthy tones AND gold leaf, decorated in a style influenced by the contemporary Art Nouveau and the organic forms of the earlier Arts and Crafts movement.

12. The Girl with the Pearl Earring

Girl with the pearl earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring is an oil painting by painter Johannes Vermeer, in the year 1665. It depicts a European girl wearing an exotic dress, an oriental turban, and a large pearl earring. This painting is known for its present title after going by various names over the centuries. It is considered a “tronie”- a painting of an imaginary figure and the work permanently reside in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague. 

13. The Scream

The scream

The Scream is the composition created by Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch in 1893. The scream is based on Munch’s actual experience while walking with his two companions, and his observation of the sunset, and having seen the sky blood red. He wrote about his inspiration for the painting in a note titled Nice 22 January 1892:

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.

The painting is considered an expression of his own state of mind, as he often stated himself suffering from a deep feeling of anxiety which was expressed through his paintings.

14. Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte

Sunday Afternoon-george seurat

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was, painted from 1884 to 1886  by George Seurat where the artist used tighter, dot-like dabs of paint, a technique which came to be known as Pointillism (from the French word point, or dot) with distinct color and allowing our eyes to visually blend the colors together. This oil on canvas painting is placed in the Art Institute of Chicago.

15. The Night Watch

The Night watch

The Night Watch is a 1642 painting by Rembrandt van Rijn is one of the most famous paintings in the world. It is in the collection of the Amsterdam Museum but is prominently displayed in the Rijksmuseum as the best-known painting in its collection.

The painting’s iconic status is part of what has made it a target. Its depiction is of an ebullient militia company led by Frans Banninck Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch at the peak of the Dutch Golden Age.

16. No.5 1948

jackson pollock

No 5 1948, a painting by Jackson Pollock, an American Painter is considered as the birth of Action painting. Pollock would place his canvas on the ground and pace around it, applying paint by dripping it from hardened brushes and sticks, rather than working from an easel.

This style of drips is often called drip painting. Pollock is known for his contributions to the abstract expressionist movement where he combined a balanced composition of paint in several splatters, lines, shapes, a combination of colors, and abstract forms.

17. Persistence of Memory

persistence of memory

The Persistence of Memory is a 1931 oil painting by artist Salvador Dalí and one of the most iconic and recognizable paintings of Surrealism. Persistence of Memory depicts a dream state, the melting and distorted clocks symbolize the erratic and unreliable passage of time that we experience while dreaming. The work can be viewed now at the Modern Museum of Art, New York.

18. Three Musicians

Three musicians

Three Musicians is an abstract style painting(cubism) by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso.  It presents three figures painted in a decorative, brightly colored, Synthetic Cubist style. It is one of two very large paintings of the same subject that Picasso painted in 1921.

Picasso paints three musicians made of flat, brightly colored, abstract shapes in a shallow, boxlike room. On the left is a clarinet player, in the middle a guitar player, and on the right a singer holding sheets of music. Three Musicians is a perfect example of Picasso’s Cubist style. 

19. The Birth of Venus

Birth of venus

The Birth of Venus is a painting by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli made during the year 1485. The work, painted with tempera on canvas, depicts the female nude figure of the goddess Venus standing on dry land having emerged from the sea. It is one of the most famous and appreciated works in history. 

This painting is one of the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance and can be found in  Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

20. Fall of the Damned

The Fall of the Damned, alternately known as The Fall of the Rebel Angels is a baroque oil painting by Peter Paul Rubens in the year 1620. This painting illustrates the battle between good and evil from the Book of Revelations which describes the end of the world in the Holy Bible.

This event is part of God’s final judgment where the christ will return to redeem the righteous souls and punish the damned ones along with archangel Michael and accompanying angels.

Now, Is there any painting that you love that has not been included here ? Do let me know in the comments below and I would love to hear them.

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