Since the dawn of time, mankind has expressed itself through various forms of creative expression. Be it music, architecture, literature or art, the human species has always found an outlet for its stream of thought. Art and Paintings have been a loyal companion to not just the expression, but also the recording of thought processes throughout the ages. Cave paintings were made as a record of the kind of life the ancient man lived: the kind of animals they hunted, the family unit that they lived with, and the kind of geological processes taking place all around as observed by them. The Renaissance Era brought with it the light yet incredibly detailed handiwork of expert artists, the involvement of various religious and biblical figures and settings as well as highlighting the social structures as existing at the time through portraits of the rich and influential. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism introduced the idea of objectivity through one’s paintings, a concept quite stark in contrast to the intimacy and privacy of the Renaissance artworks. Modern and contemporary art, as we know and see it today, has gone beyond what we have learnt about art itself: the rules do not exist, the definition of “art” has evolved to stretch much beyond the regular paint-and-canvas ideal, declaring that, a la Oscar Wilde, “L’art pour l’art” (“Art for art’s sake”).
Ahead we list the top 50 most famous and influential paintings over the ages, right from Rembrandt to Jackson Pollock.
1. Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
The most parodied, replicated, visited, documented and recognized work of art in the world, Mona Lisa by Italian painter Leonardo da Vinci naturally falls into this list. Leonardo da Vinci was not just an artist, but a Renaissance man–a person who dabbled and excelled considerably in mathematics, sculpting, music, architecture, science, engineering, astronomy, geology, and many, many more. Phew. Painted between the year 1503 and 1506, the Mona Lisa has stupefied and astounded art lovers and the general public around the world for decades. Why, you ask? All thanks to that mysterious, enigmatic smile, of course. Art historians and enthusiasts, time and again, have described the painting as one to which no photograph could do justice, as compared to seeing it in actuality. But who is this Mona Lisa as a person? The most accurate accounts of this personality are said to be a certain Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo of whom da Vinci was a mutual friend. Mona, in Italian, is a polite way of addressing a lady in Italian, much like Madam or Ma’am in English. The painting is known as La Joconde in French, meaning ‘jocund’ (the lively, playful one), which is literally a play on the family name Gioconde, which carries the same meaning in Italian. Today, the painting rests in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
2. Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Starry Night by Dutch post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh is among his finest works ever made. An expert in the technique of impasto painting, van Gogh used bright and vivid colours to accentuate and add a three-dimensional effect to an otherwise two-dimensional painting. Van Gogh painted this piece in the year 1889, when he was self-admitted in an asylum in Provence, France. He is regarded as one of the most influential painters in the world of Western Art, inspiring an art movement and technique quite rarely seen even today. His vision of colours, of using technique to breathe movement into a still-life painting stands unparalleled. However, van Gogh’s personal life was riddled with severe mental illness and poverty. His infamous row with fellow painter and friend Paul Gauguin led to him slicing off a part of his left ear and subsequently admitting himself to the said asylum, an incident as famous as his work. He produced more than 2000 works of art in just a decade, and dabbled with multiple mediums such as sketches, oil as well as charcoal. This amazing painter left the world when he committed suicide in the year 1890, when he was merely 37 years of age. Today, this masterpiece resides in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
3. The Scream by Edvard Munch (1863-1944)
The Scream (or The Cry) by Norwegian Expressionist painter Edvard Munch is seen as an iconic depiction of deep-seated psychological themes inspired by late 19th century Symbolism. Painted between 1893 and 1910, Munch’s use of evocative and vivid colours signifying mental turmoil has long been hailed as “the Mona Lisa of our time” (Arthur Lubow, journalist). Multiple theories have been suggested as to the symbolic meaning behind this painting: one of the most popular being the presence of a nearby slaughterhouse and lunatic asylum contributing to the “shriek” or “scream” that the painting embodies. It is said to have been painted on the Ekeberg hill overlooking Oslo, Norway; incidentally, Munch’s sister, Laura Catherine, was believed to be housed at the lunatic asylum located at the foot of the hill. Another suggestion regarding the sexless character shown “screaming” is Munch having drawn inspiration from Peruvian mummies which he would have seen at the Exposition Universelle (1889) in Paris, by Munch scholar Robert Rosenblum. This painting can be found today in the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway.
4. Girl With A Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)
A lesser-known (at the time) contemporary of Rembrandt, Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer painted Girl With A Pearl Earring circa 1665, depicting a European girl wearing what seems to be an Oriental headdress and an unusually large, supposedly pearl earring. Not much is known about the painting–or its artist, for that matter–since he doled out relatively fewer pieces as compared to other artists at the time. Vermeer was entirely overlooked during his active years, only to be rediscovered by German museum director Gustav Waagen in 1860, almost 200 years after his death. Waagen stumbled upon one of Vermeer’s pieces, named The Art of Painting in the Czernin gallery in Vienna, Austria. It was wrongly attributed to another artist, Pieter de Hooch, at the time. Further exploration into the artist’s life and his painting techniques revealed over 70 works produced by him, although many of them regarded as uncertain of origin. Today, 34 paintings have been universally accepted as certified Vermeers by scholars and art historians worldwide. Girl With A Pearl Earring is on display at Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands snce 1902 till today.
5. Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
One of the most powerful paintings by an equally powerful and influential artist, Guernica (1937) by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso stands as a testament today to the horrors of war and violence. The story behind this painting goes: Guernica is a town in the Biscay province of Basque Country in Spain. It was seen as the northern citadel of the Republican resistance movement during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, opposed the Republicans and believed in bringing back the “golden” days of a Spain that was built on orthodox Catholic values and law & order of the same. Around 4:30pm on 26th April, 1937, warplanes of the Nazi Nationalist Party led by Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, bombed the town of Guernica for two hours. This bombing was funded by Hitler in order to test out new weapons and ammunition. Therefore, the bombing of Guernica which led to the loss of countless innocent lives was essentially a casual bombing practice for the Nazis. Picasso painted Guernica as a response to this tragic event, using significant cultural Spanish symbols such as the bull and the horse. Guernica was exhibited worldwide on a short tour, marking its significance as a powerful anti-war symbol, relevant even today. The painting is housed in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain.
6. The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (circa 1445-1510)
The mythological painting of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, desire and sex by Italian painter Sandro Botticelli in circa 1486 is believed to be one of the most popular and recognized pieces of the Renaissance era of art. Although there are no documents that can suggest the past record or history of this piece, it has long been suggested that Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici, cousin of Lorenzo de Medici hired Botticelli to paint the masterpiece. The Medici family was a political powerhouse and later a royal dynasty in the early 15th century in the Republic of Florence. The goddess Venus is shown to be emerging from a seashell ( a common symbol of femininity) arriving at the shore. There have been numerous interpretations of this piece over the years, but one of the most significant has been put forth by the late Austrian art historian Ernst Gombrich: he proposes that the most accurate way to interpret this painting is through the Neoplatonic ideology of the world. Essentially, Neoplatonism believes that the world and all its inhabitants originate from a single divine source, “The One.” Therefore, this painting is seen to be the Neoplatonic ideal of divine love. This painting can be witness today in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
7. The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
One of the world’s most famous, controversial and speculated artworks, The Last Supper was painted by Leonardo da Vinci between 1495-1498 for the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. He was commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, who was also an admirer of da Vinci. The painting depicts the atmosphere of shock and bewilderment as well the reactions of each of the Twelve Apostles after Jesus Christ declares to the them that one of them would betray him (Judas). The scene is painted as described in the Gospel of John, 13:21. In spite of numerous attempts to restore the vibrancy of the painting, environmental and intentional damage has worn much of the painting away, the last attempt towards restoration being made in 1999. This painting has since then been copied, reinterpreted, and remade multiple times by various artists such as Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Marisol Escobar, and Chinese artist Zeng Fangzhi. The artwork was also made famous all over again after the movie based on the novel of the same name, The Da Vinci Code (2003) by Dan Brown was released, sparking rumours of hidden messages and symbolism in the painting. These rumours have been debunked by numerous art historians over the years, though, so don’t believe everything you see. The painting has stayed in the church that it was painted for, that is, the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, even today.
8. Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)
Las Meninas–or Ladies in Waiting in Spanish, is a painting by Diego Velazquez, a leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age. Painted around 1656, the artwork depicts a spacious room in the Royal Alcazar of Madrid under the reign of King Philip the IV of Spain, painted as though someone might have clicked an incredibly candid image of the subjects (according to some interpretations). The point-of-focus, Infanta Margaret Theresa (in white), looks at the viewer as she is surrounded and waited-on on all sides by her posse of chaperones, two dwarves, a dog, and her maids of honour. On the left is Velazquez himself, in dark coloured clothing, looking right ahead to where a viewer would stand if he/she were right there in the scene. This picture has been heavily analyzed by multiple art historians over the years, since the composition of the painting raises doubts and questions about what is real and what isn’t, whether everything around us is an illusion. It is also known for creating an unconventional relationship between the viewer and itself, due to the almost capturing of movement in an otherwise stationary painting. Velazquez was notable not only in his painting technique, but also his work ethic. In 17th-century Spain, artists and painters did not necessarily enjoy a high social status. Velazquez worked his way up the ladder in the court of King Philip the IV, eventually being appointed the palace chamberlain. In the event of the painter’s death in 1660, King Philip wrote the words “I am crushed” in his memorandum to him while deciding on who the successor to the post would be. This painting can be seen today in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain.
9. The Night Watch by Rembrandt (1606-1669)
The Night Watch by Dutch Golden Age painter Rembrandt was completed in the year 1642. It depicts Captain Frans Banning Cocq and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch, along with their entourage moving out in a defensive stance. There has been much ado about the exact meaning of this painting over the years since it lacks proper documentation since its initiation. Since shades of the colour yellow are predominant in this artwork, it has long been suggested that it symbolizes the victory of the militia over a certain adversary, most probably the Spanish. Two of the most common interpretations of the painting are that it depicts the coming-together of the Dutch Protestants and Dutch Catholics, and secondly to evoke feelings of rebellion and war against the Spanish. The painting is also known for three reasons: the use of the painting technique of tenebrism, which is essentially a fluid and skilled way of using light and shadow; secondly, the palpable movement in an otherwise static painting, and lastly, its colossal size: it stands around 12ft in width and 14ft in height! This massive painting can be seen today in Window 16 of the Canon of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
10. A Sunday Afternoon by Georges Seurrat (1859-1891)
A pioneer in the scientific painting technique of pointillism, French post-Impressionist artist Georges Seurat painted this masterpiece between the years 1884-1886. Seurat placed miniature points and solid yet tiny brushstrokes in contrasting colours, which, when seen unified by the eye, came together to form shades and hues as required. He was inspired by the theories of colour and optical illusions as proposed and analysed by his scientist friends Michel Eugene Chevreul and Ogden Rood, among others. In order to saturate the colours of the painting even more to the naked eye, Seurat outlined and framed the picture with another set of painted dots, which are today enclosed in a white frame. However, Seurat was not the only one to lead the Pointillism movement (then known as Divisionism): artists such as Paul Signac, Vincent van Gogh, Henri-Edmund Cross, too, contributed and moved the movement forward in its heyday. This painting can be viewed today in the Art Institute of Chicago, North America.
11. Whistler’s Mother by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)
Whistler’s Mother (1871) a painting by American-born painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, is also known by the name Arrangement in Grey and Black, No.1, which also happens to be its original name. The person depicted in the painting is Whistler’s own mother, Anna McNeill Whistler. Described multiple times as the Victorian Mona Lisa, this artwork is one of the most famous paintings by an American outside of the US. There are many stories surrounding this painting, almost none of which have a strong, evident backing. One of them holds that the original model could not make it for the sitting, which is when Whistler asked his own mother to sit in as her replacement. Since his mother was quite old, she resorted to sitting down instead of the original pose of standing up, which made all the difference. The image has been used since then as a portrayal of motherhood and family values, and is used in multiple army recruitment posters over the years, urging civilians to fight for their mothers by enrolling. In 1934, the United States Post Office issued a custom stamp with the painting, with the words “In Memory and Honour of the Mothers of America.” The painting was almost denied entry at the 104th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1872, which added to the already upturned nose of Whistler towards the British art world. Don’t worry, though: you can view this iconic painting today in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, France.
12. American Gothic by Grant Wood (1891-1942)
The story behind the American Gothic (1930) by American artist Grant Wood is as follows: while driving past the Iowa countryside with a fellow painter searching desperately for some inspiration, Wood noticed a quaint, white, Carpenter-Gothic style house and was immediately motivated to paint a piece incorporating it. The painting depicts a Victorian man with a pitchfork alongside a woman who is deemed to be either his daughter or wife. The models for the same were Wood’s dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby and Wood’s sister, Nan Wood Graham. Upon learning that she was being depicted as the wife of a man much older than her, Nan was embarrassed, and spread the word that she actually the man’s daughter. Maybe that explains the frown, huh? The painting was also subject to a lot of opposition after Wood entered it in a competition held by the Art Institute of Chicago. It won a bronze medal and a $300 prize, but the painting outraged a lot of Iowans since they perceived the painting to portray them as “pinched, grim-faced Bible-thumpers.” Wood clarified though, that he was in fact appreciating Iowan culture by painting the pair as people he would like to think lived in the house. Today the house, known as Dibble House originally, has become a tourist attraction, with the painting being parodied numerous times over television shows, movies, music videos and more. The painting can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago.
13. The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali (1904-1989)
One of the most famous and recognizable works by Spanish Surrealist painter Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory (1931) has an active use of symbolism and surrealist meditation son the notions of time, space, and reality. This painting introduced the now famous image of the “soft watches,” which correlates to Dali’s theory of “softness” and “hardness” at the time, after being heavily inspired by Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity. However, upon asked whether that is indeed the case, the quirky artist replied saying that the watches weren’t inspired by relativity, rather the imagery of a Camembert (a type of cheese) melting in the sun. The “monster” seen in the very middle of the painting is said to symbolize Dali himself; sometimes the same figure would be used as a “fading” entity to represent the times when we see a creature in our dreams but we cannot pinpoint exactly as to what it looks like. A lot of suggestions have been made over the years as to the iconography being representative of the passage of time as we experience it in our dreams or while being in a dream-like state. The orange clock on the bottom left has ants crawling over it, a symbol often used by Dali to symbolize decay. Today, this iconic painting can be viewed in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.
14. The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)
Austrian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt painted one of his most successful paintings, The Kiss (1907-1908), during the peak of his Golden Period, during which he also painted several other pieces along the same theme of gilded, metallic colours. The painting, painted in a perfectly square canvas, depicts a couple covered in luxurious robes stealing a kiss. It is heavily inspired by the Art Nouveau style as well as the prevalent Arts & Craft movements of the time. The most unique feature of the painting is the layer of pure gold leaf over the usual oil painted layers, adding an especially evocative and almost futuristic feel to the painting as well as the viewer. This piece was done after a series of paintings Klimt has previously created named Vienna Ceiling which were chastised for having supposedly perverse symbolism and meanings, when in reality they were painted to express the artist’s anti-popularist and anti-authoritarian views on art and artistic freedom. Alternatively though, The Kiss was immediately a success, and found a buyer shortly after its release. Today this painting rests in Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna, Austria.
15. Cafe Terrace at Night by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Another masterpiece by van Gogh, Cafe Terrace at Night (1888) was painted while the painter was staying at Arles in France. Although there is not much historical background to the painting (it’s not even signed–we only know its a van Gogh due to the mention of it in a series of letters by him), we do know a little bit behind what inspired him to create it. The lights, the atmosphere and the people, all in their own happy reveries, inspired and moved van Gogh to encapsulate that evening into this evocative piece. Today we can see this painting in the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands.
16. Olympia by Edouard Manet (1832-1883)
This shocking yet eye-opening masterpiece was painted by French Impressionist Edouard Manet in 1863. Olympia has garnered multiple acclaims over the centuries due to the very evident and confrontational gaze of the subject, or “Olympia,” towards the audience–a feature unseen previously in nudist art. The casual thwarting of societal norms of femininity and demureness did, of course, attract criticism and avid dislike, along with the multiple symbols in the painting pointing to the fact that the subject might just be a sex worker. The almost disappearance and invisibility of the black maid, too, has been heavily analyzed especially in recent times, pointing to traditional discrimination along racial and gender-centric lines which shows through the kind of gaze that the maid holds and the composition Manet has exhibited. This painting can be viewed today at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.
17. No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)
American painter Jackson Pollock is known for his contributions to the abstract expressionist painting and was renowned for his unique style of drip painting–a painting technique in which the brush never touches the artist’s canvas. No.5, 1948 (1948) was painted using gloss enamel or synthetic resin paints combining grey, brown, white and yellow colours. Because of the chosen colours, the painting has often been seen to resemble a “dense bird’s nest.” There have been multiple interpretations of this abstract artwork, and no one has been able to settle on an exact meaning. According to Pollock, no one can look at the painting the way he does, which is the whole point: we must learn to see any kind of art according to our lens, rather than what the world wants us to see. This painting has been privately bought in New York.
18. The Son of Man by Rene Magritte (1898-1967)
Belgian Surrealist artist Rene Magritte painted The Son Of Man (1964) as a commentary on the relationship between the visible and the hidden. The painting obviously depicts a man with a suspended apple obscuring almost the entirety of his face. However, upon closer observation, one can see that there is an eye peeking out from the side of the apple, and the left elbow is seemingly bending backwards. Magritte’s explanation for the artwork is that we are always hidden away from what we really want to see by other things. We are forever curious about what the visible is hiding from us, in plain sight. This imbalance often leads to confusion and conflict between what we see and what really want to see. Magritte also specifies that he painted this piece as a self-portrait, which has today been privately purchased, therefore out of public view.
19. The School of Athens by Raphael (1483-1520)
The fresco of The School of Athens, painted between 1509-1511 by the famous Renaissance artist Raphael signifies the school Philosophy, the second of a series of paintings installed in the Stanza di Rafaello in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. The first installment was La Disputa or Theology, and the last one Parnassus or Literature. The School Of Athens has been hailed as one of the best works by Raphael, owing to its accurate representation of the Renaissance Era and its culture. Almost all great philosophers have been featured in the fresco, including Plato, Aristotle, and allegedly Epicurus as well–according to critics. Since it is a fresco, it is, till today, located in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.
One of the most celebrated paintings of the Impressionist movement, Bal du moulin de la Galette (1876) depicts a typical Sunday afternoon at Moulin de la Galette, at the Montmartre in Paris. This painting by Renoir is notable since it exhibited one of the most early examples of painting en plein air, which is a technique of freehand painting out in the open air. Middle-class people used to dress up in their finest, dance, sing, drink and eat galettes till the sun set– a scene captured at its heartiest by Renoir. The undulating shift of shadow and light also add to the richness and fluidity of the almost snapshot-like painting. Today this masterpiece can be viewed in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.
21. The Third of May, 1808 by Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
The Third of May, 1808 (1814) by Spanish painter Francisco Goya is seen as one of the first paintings of the modern era, sparking a wave of inspiration to countless artists after his time. This artwork is a tribute to the Spanish people’s resistance to Napoleon’s armies and attempted invasion in 1808. The companion to another painting, Second of May 1808, the series marks the beginning of the recording of the tragedy that war inflicts. This painting can also (and in fact, should) be seen as the one of the early precedents to paintings such Picasso’s Guernica, as we saw earlier. It draws from various themes and inspirations from what was deemed as high and popular art at the time, and was path-breaking in its novel method of digressing from the traditional norm of Christian art and traditional imagery of war. Today this iconic painting can be seen in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain.
22. Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck (circa 1390-1441)
Considered one of the most complex and original paintings in the world of Western Art, Arnolfini Portrait (1434) by Scandinavian painter Jan van Eyck is multi-dimensional by the way in which the artist has employed various methods of adding dimensions and real-world perspectives to an otherwise objective subject. The painting depicts Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, most probably in their home in the Flemish city of Bruges. The artwork contains multiple symbols and icons that add to the artist’s narrative, but the most noted symbol is that of the wall-mounted mirror. Although the room that the couple are standing in can be perceived to be quite small and cozy, the simple addition of the mirror has, almost magically, added a real-world perspective to the painting. The viewer can not only be transfixed by the two-dimensional beauty of the painting, but is brought back to the real world simply by gazing into the mirror, a method quite novel for the 14th century. Today, the painting can be viewed in the National Gallery of London, that bought it in the year 1842.
23. The Flower Carrier by Diego Rivera (1886-1957)
Depicting a man carrying a large basket of flowers struggling to get up, The Flower Carrier (1935) by Spanish Cubist artist Diego Rivera has been hailed as one of the most subtle yet accurate representations of an untrained worker being forced (due to various circumstances) to find his footing in a modern, capitalist world. The woman behind him is presumed to be the man’s wife, helping him to get up. The vibrancy of the flowers does not go unnoticed to the viewer, however the man only understands their value and not beauty. This is so because naturally, in order to make ends meet, the value of a commodity is prioritized over the beauty of the object, which eventually becomes solely an accessory–forming the theme of the painting. The Flower Carrier is currently situated at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.
24. The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450-1516)
The Garden of Earthly Delights (between 1490-1510) by early Scandinavian master artist Hieronymus Bosch is a triptych (a painting made of three panels) depicting the biblical story of the Creation of the Earth, Heaven and Hell. It is the artist’s most famous and ambitious work that has survived over the ages. The inner panels are meant to be read (most probably) chronologically from left to right. The left panel exhibits the presenting of Eve to Adam by God. The middle panel is a fantastical themed panel with several nude figures, unusually large fruits, animals, and absurd stone sculptures. The right panel portrays hell and the scene of damnation. Although the painting has had various interpretations over the years owing to its ample use of symbolism, none of them have as many analyses and critiques as the middle panel, and quite understandably so. Eminent art historians are divided over the interpretation of it being either a warning to steady our moral compass, or a picture of paradise lost. Today this detailed masterpiece can be viewed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
25. Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569)
This painting created circa 1560s was long been attributed to Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel. However, upon further analysis and detailed examination, it has been found that that accreditation is quite doubtful. Therefore, this painting (whose artist is yet unknown) is considered to be a viable early copy of the artist’s original, which is lost. Since the context in which this painting was created is more or less foggy due to unknown attribution, art historians and experts have managed to come up with a background based solely on the artwork’s literary presence: it is described in English poet W. H. Auden’s famous poem, Musee des Beaux-Arts, and is the central subject to William Carlos Williams’ poem by the same name, as well as in Lines on Bruegel’s ‘Icarus’ by Michael Hamburger. The painting depicts the Greek mythological story of Icarus, who, in a bid to fly into the sky, fashions wings made of wax, eventually to fall to his death due to the melting -of the waxen wings under the hot sun. This painting can be seen today in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.
26. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was painted in 1907 by none other than the Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso. This controversial yet revolutionary piece of art depicts five women in the nude, the three of which on the left have a confrontational, robust gaze whereas the remaining two on the right are painted with masks in place of faces. This is an early exhibit of Picasso’s Iberian style of painting from his native Spain. Picasso also took great care into not molding his subjects into a conventionally feminine manner, in order to portray the savage and “utterly compelling” kind of story-telling. This painting has often been considered as a prelude to the Cubist movement, led by Picasso and his contemporary, Georges Braque. Today, the Museum of Modern Art or MoMA in New York houses this masterpiece.
27. The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)
This 1897 oil painting by French painter Henri Rousseau captures the fantastical element of a black gypsy sleeping quietly on a desert on a moonlit night while a lion muses over her without harming her. There is a mandolin and a jar of water next to her. Although not much has been said about the painting itself, it has served as an accessory to multiple shows and media over time. For example, it has been featured in the hit American cartoon show, The Simpsons, as well as an appearance in the 1960 movie the Apartment. This fantastical painting can be seen at the New York MoMA.
28. Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Peter Paul Rubens was a Scandinavian Renaissance artist. His painting Massacre of the Innocents (1608) depicts not just the biblical narrative of the massacre in Bethlehem as stated in the Gospel of Matthew, but also as a contextual reality of his life in the Netherlands. His native land of Antwerp had faced multiple, serious bouts of warfare only a few years prior, which were neutralized solely due to the truce of 1609. Catholics and Calvinists truly massacred over 8000 citizens in one year alone, as the Spanish forces (who had then inhabited the Netherlands) tried their best to thwart Protestant armies. Therefore, Rubens’ views on the painting and his vision sprung not only from biblical inspiration but sadly, from the grim reality of life itself. This dramatic piece of art can be viewed today in the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada.
29. Grande Odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique-Ingres (1780-1867)
As anyone can guess, this 1814 painting by French classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique-Ingres sparked major controversy and attracted widespread criticism when it was first shown to the world. However, luckily for us, the world has changed since then, and the artwork has been revered for its clever lack of bodily realism (the arms, legs and the spine are unnaturally elongated) portraying a concubine through an almost Romantic vision. When first exhibited, Ingres was hailed to be a rebel against the preset notions of contemporary art styles, criticised all the way till the mid-1820s. However, now the painting is seen as a powerful work exuding femininity and modesty even through a nude portrayal. This painting can be seen today in the Louvre in Paris.
30. The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio (1571-1610)
Regarded as one of the most important works in Western art, The Beheading of John the Baptist (1608) by Italian painter Caravaggio is also considered to be his masterpiece. It depicts St. John the Baptist during his beheading as a nearby woman holds a golden platter to keep his head. Another woman bystander, realizing that the act about to be performed is wrong, stands there in shock, while the jailer signals the executioner to begin his duties. This is the only Caravaggio painting to bear the artist’s signature, which he has interestingly placed in the bloody portion of the Baptist’s sliced throat. This masterpiece can be viewed today St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta–the location that it was originally commissioned for.
31. The Bathers by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906)
The biggest painting in a series of the same name by French post-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, The Bathers (often called The Big Bathers or the Large Bathers so as to distinguish from the other, smaller paintings in the series) has routinely been considered the artist’s most successful work, created between the years 1898-1905. The artwork depicts a group of nude female bathers near a water body. It marked the beginning of a style of painting which actively deviated from the prevalent societal norm of art and painting at the time. Cezanne’s drawings were routinely criticised for the lack of conforming to the ideal of art at the time, but that was his whole point: he wanted to create art that appealed to all generations as well as the future, not just the contemporary. He inspired multiple other painters of his time as well as future to move beyond the rigid expression of art and creativity. This painting has often been compared to the aforementioned nude painting (Les Demoiselles) by Picasso, and can be seen in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in Philadelphia.
32. Nighthawks by Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
Created in 1942 and American painter Edward Hopper’s most famous work, Nighthawks is an oil painting depicting people in a downtown diner in the wee hours of the night. The painting has been an inspiration to multiple TV shows, movies, and other artists at as well. The location is supposed to have been inspired by an actual diner in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, New York–a few blocks down from the artist’s house. However, since then, it has been demolished and now has a bunch of bakeries and grocery stores on the line. The name had been suggested by Hopper’s wife, Josephine, alluding to the beak-shaped nose of the man in white in the diner. The painting was sold to the Art Institute of Chicago in the same year as it was completed for $3000 and remains there today.
33. Lady with an ermine by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Lady with an ermine (1490) by da Vinci as one of the first oil paintings ever made in Italy, since the medium of oil paints were relatively new at the time. The painting depicts Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, who also happened to be da Vinci’s employer. She was not a princess, or a wealthy person, but the daughter of a man who served at the Duke’s court for a while. She was, however, famously beautiful, and bore the Duke a son. She was married off to a Count after the Duke’s wife found out about them.The ermine is a symbol of purity, since it was believed that it would rather die than dirty its shiny, natural white coat. The painting can be viewed today in the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland.
34. Lamentation of Christ by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)
The Lamentation of Christ (c. 1480) is a painting by Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna. It depicts the body of Jesus Christ, lying down on a marble slab, with the Virgin Mary and Saint John weeping over him. Mantegna was a master in the exhibition of perspective, in that upon closer observation of the painting, one can see that Christ’s legs are shortened, the drapery around his legs has been sharply defined, and his thorax draws attention; these details are not coincidental since Mantegna knew exactly what he was doing. The focus on these details points out the simplicity yet humanity of Jesus, a theme quite common in many Lamentation artworks. This artwork can be viewed today in the Pinecoteca di Brera in Milan.
35. The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543)
This ominous yet tasteful painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, called The Ambassadors (1533) is famous for the anamorphic (the picture is painted in such a stretched-out manner that it can be viewed only from a certain vantage point, or by the use of a cylindrical device in which the image becomes undistorted) image of a skull in the foreground. Not only is this painting a double portrait (having two subjects) it also has multiple sharply rendered objects, which have been subject to much analysis and interpretations over the years. The most agreed-upon interpretation is that the painting has three levels: heaven (symbolized by the astrolabe and the other globe-like objects on the shelf), earth (symbolized by books and a mandolin-type instrument on the lower shelf), and death (as symbolised by the anamorphic skull). This artwork can be seen today along with the skull in the National Gallery of London.
36. The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)
This 1875 painting by American artist Thomas Eakins depicts Dr. Samuel D. Gross, a seventy-year-old professor in the black coat, lecturing his students in the Jefferson Medical College. It is also a self-portrait of Eakins of sorts since it is believed that he is seated on the right-hand side of the painting in white cuffed sleeves, but that has not yet been verified. Dr. Gross’s clerk, Dr. Franklin West, is seen right behind Gross’s shoulder taking notes. This painting has been revered for its unflinching portrayal of realism as well as the practice of medicine during the late 19th century. It is based on a surgery witnessed firsthand by Eakins, in which Dr. Gross and his team conduct an operation on a patient suffering from osteomyelitis (inflammation of the bone) of the femur, or the thigh bone. This medical marvel artwork can be viewed today at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
37. Portrait of Adele-Bloch Bauer I by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)
Also called The Lady in Gold or The woman in Gold, this 1907 painting is created by Gustav Klimt (as we saw earlier). This painting, much like the aforementioned The Kiss, also falls under his Golden period, due to the liberal use of golden, gilded overtones. The subject was a wealthy member of the Viennese society as well as a close friend of Klimt. The history of the painting goes that it was originally named Adele Bloch-Bauer by Klimt, but upon seizure by the Nazis in the early 1940s, it was renamed as The Woman in Gold so as to remove any references to the Jewish family name. It is on display at the Neue Galerie in New York City as part of the biggest and expansive collection of Klimt’s artworks in the United States.
38. Portrait of Madame Recamier by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)
Depicting another socialite in his painting, Portrait of Madame Recamier (1800) by Jacques-Louis David captures Juliette Recamier in a typical Neoclassical fashion, his trademark. Although David’s usually style of portraits carry a bare background, he–inspired by the aforementioned painting of Grand Odalisque by Ingres–adopted the same look-over-the-shoulder style. This painting can be viewed today in the Louvre, Paris.
39. Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
What a bright, cheerful painting, eh? This ancient horror story painted in circa 1819-1823 by Spanish artist Francisco Goya depicts the Roman mythological figure of Saturn eating his son. The legend goes that a prophecy predicted that one of Saturn’s sons would one day overthrow him, so he consumed every son his wife ever gave birth to, the very minute they were born. Finally, fed up with his antics, his wife hid the third child, Jupiter, who eventually killed him, just as the prophecy predicted. This painting is housed today in the Museo del Prado, Madrid.
40. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Widely regarded as a Modernist classic, this 1912 painting by Marcel Duchamp traces the contours of a human walking down the stairs. He does so by capturing the motion lines of the person using dark, conical and geometric shapes and lines to trace the “body” walking down. It caused an understandable stir in the audience but was regarded by the Cubist movement (although the painting is quite Cubist in a lot of senses) for being too futuristic. The “body” lines are assembled and angled at such a way that when imagined together, they look like a person moving down the steps. Today this modern masterpiece can be seen in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
41. Portrait of a Lady by Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464)
Portrait of a Lady (1460) by Scandinavian artist Rogier van der Weyden has been highly praised for his depictions of character through his paintings. He uses the woman’s face, neckline, veil, arms and the natural fall of light on her face and headdress to create and build composition. The stark contrast of darkness and light add a Gothic overtone to the already beautiful subject. The woman’s humility and conservative character are shown through the tight grasping of her fingers and her lowered gaze. Van der Weyden usually portrayed his subjects in manners most appealing and flattering, therefore it was quite common for him to dress them up in fashionable clothing, various garb, and ornaments. The painting has since been donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
42. Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks (1780-1849)
American folk painter and renowned religious minister Edward Hicks painted this Biblical masterpiece in 1826. Since he was a devout Christian and a Quaker, he was bound by his beliefs to stay away from the lavish and materialistic pleasures of life. However, he found it quite difficult to balance the preaching and painting at the same time, so he finally resorted to painting in order to express what his beliefs didn’t allow him to: the human conception of faith. The above painting is taken from the Biblical passage from Isaiah 11:6-8, as well as to voice his central theme: the quest for the redemption of the soul. He also painted 61 other versions of the same painting with different light and contrasts. This painting rests today in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
43. The Card Players by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906)
Another Cezanne artwork (painted between 1894-1895), this series of paintings depicting card players in various settings, the number of people and different sizes, is estimated to be the third most expensive work of art ever sold. It was sold anywhere between $250 million to $300 million to the Royal Family of Qatar. Cezanne, inspired by the Dutch and French genre paintings of drunk gamblers in pubs playing cards, decided to paint his own version of the setting; he replaced the rowdy gamblers with stonefaced and tough tradesmen playing cards in coffeehouses instead. His paintings in this series have been praised for narrative, conventional and realistic dramatization as well as mundane tone as compared to the drama and intensity in the genre in the French and Dutch tradition. Since this painting has been privately bought, it is out of the public eye.
44. Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian (1488-1576)
One of the series of paintings produced for the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonse d’Este, Bacchus and Ariadne (1522-1523) is an oil painting by Renaissance artist Titian. the painting was originally commissioned to Raphael, but due to his death, the project was handed over to Titian. The subject depicts a literary story from the poetic works of Roman poets Catullus and Ovid. The story goes that Ariadne, deserted by her lover Theseus, has been abandoned on the island of Naxos. He is discovered by the god Bacchus while he is leading a revelry of followers in a cheetah-drawn chariot. The painting depicts the exact moment where he leaps mid-air to protect Ariadne from the attacks of the cheetahs and falls in love with her at first sight. It shows her being initially scared and hesitant to accept him, but eventually succumbing to his love. Bacchus then turns her into a constellation, as shown by the stars directly above her in the sky. This masterpiece can be viewed today in the National Art Gallery of London.
45. Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Monet’s 1872 depiction of the port of Le Havre in the French Impressionist’s hometown gave rise to the very term and movement of ‘Impressionism.’ When asked about the vague title, Monet claimed that he named it so due to the hazy morning light and the first impression that it had on him, giving rise to an entirely new style and technique of painting. It was shown at the ‘Exhibition of the Impressionists’ in 1874, and is one of the six versions of the subject that he has created. The Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris now houses this masterpiece.
46. Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)
Christina’s World is a 1948 painting by American painter Andrew Wyeth, painted in a subgenre of realism known as magic realism, which encompasses one or more elements of magic, supernatural or fantasy within it. Usually, these symbols are alluding to one or more literary works of fiction. The above painting depicts a woman lying, in almost fallen-like fashion, in a field of brown grass, looking up at a grayish house in the distance. The woman is Anna Christina Olson, a woman with a polyneuropathic disease called Charcot-Marie-Toothe disease, which affected the muscles of various body parts, and is a genetic disease. Since Olson was quite amicable with Wyeth, she let him paint her in a series of other paintings as well. Today, the MoMA hosts this painting, in New York City.
47. Irises by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Van Gogh painted this artwork in year of 1889, within a week of his self-admission to the asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence. Since this was painted a year before his suicide, it has been noted that a lot of his last works have quite decreased levels of tension, with Irises being one of them. He valled the flowers and the nature surrounding the asylum, the “lightning rod” for his illnesses. Today, this beauty is housed at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California.
48. Sleeping Venus by Giorgione (1477-1510)
Sleeping Venus by Renaissance artist Giorgione depicts a nude woman sleeping in the open, with the mountains and hills mimicking the contours of her curves. This painting marks the beginning of nude women in art, therefore starting a revolution in itself. However, Giorgione died while being in the process of painting this piece, so the remaining parts (mostly the landscape and the sky) was painted by Titian, who we saw earlier. The reason behind the depiction of the woman (with her hand placed strategically on the feminine parts of the body) intends to mark the message that the body is natural and therefore, organic. This painting can be seen today in Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, Germany.
49. Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe by Edouard Manet (1832-1883)
This notorious painting by Impressionist artist Edouard Manet in 1863 depicts a nude woman with two men having along with a barely dressed bather at the back. The main reason for the controversy was not the nudity, but in fact, the way in which the nude woman stares directly at the viewer, as though to ask, “What are you looking at?” The two men, however, seem to be completely unmoved by her and are engaged in deep conversation. The play of light in the painting gives rise to the claim that maybe it was a studio in which this was painted, not to mention the fact that man on the right is shown to be wearing a hat with a tassel, typically worn indoors. This painting is located at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris as of today.
50. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt (1606-1669)
This 1633 painting by Rembrandt depicts the Biblical story, yet again, of Jesus Christ calming down the storm on the Galilee sea, as stated in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament. It is the only seascape to ever have been painted by Rembrandt. Rembrandt’s skill of using tenebrism, that is, employing the fluidity of light and shadow, is evident in this painting and has been noted by art historians and critics for the same. This painting can be seen today in–wait, we don’t know because it is stolen! It was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, and its whereabouts are still at large.
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