Painting is an ancient aesthetic medium dating back to 40,000 years ago when the first ancient people used terracotta and coal to paint cave walls with images of animals or to print their handprints. In other words, when symbolic thought was born, the face predates the written word by about 35,000 years, or even longer. A minimal number transcends time and makes history among the millions of paintings created and present in galleries and museums worldwide.
This most famous selection of paintings is known to people worldwide and of all ages and will likely continue to resonate and leave an impression on people’s minds for centuries to come.
1. The Starry Night – Vincent Van Gogh
Being painted in his east-facing room in an asylum at Saint-Remy-de-Provence, Starry Night is one of Vincent van Gogh’s later works. Despite his title, Starry Night was painted during various periods of the day and weather conditions, such as sunrise, moonrise, rain, and overcast days, behind the cold steel bar of the great artist’s room.
In The Starry Night, the towering cypress tree, which wasn’t there in real life, stands high, linking heaven and earth – perhaps serving as a representation of the connection between the material and immaterial worlds, life and death, or body and mind.
Starry Night is extremely special, even among the most impressive works of art during his time at the asylum. The painting is a looking grass into the artist’s night – turbulence, yet hopeful and colorful; being aware of his ever-approaching final moment, yet also calm and accepting. These contradicting elements of the painting somehow blend perfectly together, creating one of the most profound works of art from the late talented artist.
2. The Birth Of Venus – Sandro Botticelli
Venus – the Roman goddess of love, beauty, desire, sex, fertility, prosperity, and victory- is undoubtedly an important figure in human cultural history. Venus, the embodiment of love and sexuality, is often depicted nude in paintings and works of art.
In the Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, the goddess depiction is no exception. In this painting, the newborn goddess Venus stands completely naked in a giant scallop shell as if she had just emerged from the ocean below the moment before. On her right is a minor goddess of seasons (the three Horae of the hour), who prepares a rich cloak for the just-born goddess as soon as she reaches the shore.
At the left of the painting is the wind god Zephyr, who blows at her. The wind god also carries a young female who is also blowing, but with less intensity than Zephyr. Recently, some people have interpreted both The Birth of Venus and Primavera as wedding paintings that depicts recommended customs for brides and grooms; however, such a statement is only one among many interpretations of this painting.
3. Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog – Caspar David Friedrich
“A man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection” – This was how Historian and critic Lord Macaulay described the sub-archetype of the Byronic hero.
Being a variant of the Romantic hero, which is already a wild-card type of character (romantic heroes often are self-centered social outcasts. They also usually reject the established norms and conventions.), the Byronic hero is even more troubled than its “default” counterpart. The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog perfectly depicts this sub-archetype.
The lone silhouette of a well-dressed man standing on the verge of a rocky precipice. His back turns toward the viewer, and the walking stick in his hand shows his determination and embodies the long journey ahead.
The distant objects, such as similar ridges, forests of trees, and distant mountains, portray our lone hero’s hard choices in the future and their overwhelming challenges.
4. The Nighthawks – Edward Hopper
The Nighthawks is Edward Hopper’s best-known work; the piece was an oil-on-canvas depicting a quiet diner downtown. Similarly to his other works, the characters in his painting possess characteristic themes such as alienation, loneliness, and being emotionally unresolved.
For instance, in Nighthawks, only four characters are sitting at the dinner; one of them is the dinner owner himself, while the other three appear to be patrons. Their relationships are ambiguous – sitting close together for dinner late at night, do they know each other, or randomly prefer a seat close to someone?
Is the gentleman in vest and the lady in red a couple? They are seated close to one another, yet they have no interaction. Despite their hands being extremely close, the viewer cannot be sure they are touched. In this piece of art, it is safe to assume that the actual main character of this painting is the diner – it is brightly lit, contrasting heavily with the darkness outside.
Its thick, diagonal frames and the painting point of view make the dinner seem like a ship sailing across a vast sea of darkness – emphasizing the characteristic loneliness of Edward Hopper’s works even more.
5. The Scream – Edvard Munch
The famous Expressionism by Evard Munch – The Scream secured an iconic position in our culture. The over-the-top agonized face in the foreground of the painting is a signature symbol of the human fear of anxiety.
In the middle ground of the painting, two vague silhouettes are approaching “the screamer” calmly, seemingly on a casual walk, obliviously of our “protagonist” suffering. The water below is slightly distorted, and the sky and clouds in the background are dyed in blood-red.
According to Evard Munch, The Scream’s source of inspiration seems to come from a sudden strike of essential crisis. The artist recalled a walk at sunset when he felt exhausted and ill out of nowhere.
When he looked out over the fjord, Munch saw the light of the setting sun was dying, the whole sky blood red. And at that moment, he sensed a horrible shriek rushing through the very fabric of reality. The memory of that strange walk at sunset was later converted into The Scream.
6. The Persistence Of Memory – Salvador Dalí
What time is it? – Perhaps most of us can answer this question by looking at our watch or phone screens. However, “what time is?” is a trickier question; according to Einstein’s Theory of relativity, we know that time is not constant in any system but depends on other parameters. Modern physicists even argue that time is merely an illusion.
Nevertheless, Salvador Dalí’s view is perhaps one of the most interesting among many weird interpretations of time. The Persistence of Memory (sometimes referred to as “melting watches” or “soft watches”) is one of the most iconic pieces of surrealism.
Like many other famous pieces of surrealism, The Persistence of Memory contains many subtle details and thought-provoking allegories, such as mortality, the perception of time, and how each individual chooses to spend their most precious resource. The painting holds more meaning than depicting watches melting in a cheese-like way.
7. The Garden of Earthly Delights – Hieronymus Bosch
At first glance, The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch may be easily mistaken for surrealism; this series of paintings was littered with bizarre details of depraved sexual acts, mind-boggling imagery of Christianity Hell and its horrors, and social commentary on sensitive matters such as race and sexual freedom.
However, considering the painter’s religious background, these are perhaps his actual beliefs, making this surrealism-looking piece a cautionary tale.
The garden of earthly joys is a trio of paintings depicting the Christian origin of humanity, from the tale of Adam and Eve to the ever-longing lust for the sensual pleasure of humanity, which according to the artist, will eventually result in them ending up in the bizarre hellish realm at the end.
8. Irises – Vincent van Gogh
Despite being created during the first month of entering the asylum, Irises doesn’t contain the troubling element or the high tension that often come with his works in this challenging era of van Gogh’s life.
Considering the painting as a method to channel negativity away from his mind, Irises depicts the beauty of irises in the local gardens with vibrant colors, strong outlines, and unusual angels. The beautiful simplicity of the local irises is a statement of van Gogh’s love for the beauty of nature in its purest form.
9. The Ladies Of Avignon – Pablo Picasso
The Ladies of Avignon portrays five nude female prostitutes in a brothel on Carrer d’Avinyo, Barcelona, Spain. In this painting, all these female figures are depicted in bold, aggressive postures, unlike the conventionally feminine approach in other artists’ works.
These female figures also possess signature facial features of different ethnic backgrounds such as Egyptian, Southeast Asian, Mediterranean, and African. Applying the proto-cubist style, Picasso could express the sexual aggressiveness of his subject without using vulgar depictions.
10. The Kiss – Gustav Klimt
Gustav Klimt was very well-known for his fascination with women, especially red-haired females. Thus, it is unsurprising that the main female character of his most famous painting is ginger. The Kiss was created by combining brilliantly placed blocks and vibrant bronze colors.
The painting’s content depicts a pair of lovers embracing each other in a tender, passionate kiss, cladding in yellow robes. The theme of love, intimacy and sexual freedom that usually appear in Klimt’s other works also makes an appearance in this painting.
11. The Lovers – René Magritte
Rene Magritte was considered one of the greatest surrealist artists of all time; his thought-provoking works are often known for challenging the viewer’s biases. So naturally, his The Lovers, which depicts a cinematic cliché of a close-up kiss, cannot be a simple peek into its characters’ intimated moments.
The Lovers subverts our expectations by having its subjects share their passionate kiss through two layers of veils that cover their heads. This detail of concealing its characters’ identities invokes many exciting subjects found throughout his other works, such as masks, disguises, identities, and visible and invisible surfaces. The dramatic content also helps build up the tension and curiosity in the viewers, adding more meaning to this bizarre kiss.
12. The Naked Maja – Francisco Goya
The beauty of the female body has always been an important subject in various forms of art. From the time ancient, countless Greek artists have been inspired by the beauty of the goddesses like Aphrodite and Venus, who represent the ideas of love, lust, beauty, and pleasure.
Throughout the eras, various works of art followed the same subject, celebrating one of nature’s finest works – the beauty of a woman’s body. However, among them, The Naked Maja stands out due to its bold and naked nature (literally in this specific case). The Naked Maja depicts a young nude woman resting on a bed of pillows.
This work’s muse takes a relaxing and revealing pose, proudly showing off her body’s beauty. One of the unique features of this work is the subject eyes. The muse’s teasing and shameless gaze are directed at the viewer, emphasizing the artist’s opinion about the freedom of expressing love for the beauty of the human body, despite having to go against the prejudice of his time.
13. Mona Lisa – Leonardo Da Vinci
Mona Lisa‘s fame is arguably unprecedented. She was painted by the all-time-greatest Leonardo da Vinci around 1506. Many elements of this painting remain enigmas even to this day, such as the true identity of the woman (who is believed to be Lisa Gherardini by some), the meaning behind her cryptic, soft smiles, or her relationship to the late Leonardo da Vinci.
The renowned Mona Lisa has eyes that constantly give the impression that they are concealing something. The tragic robbery in 1911 elevated the Mona Lisa to the status of a legend, just as it would for any celebrity whose rise to fame began with controversy.
Her work, known as the “Mona Lisa,” has been admired for the last 500 years, during which time it has been admired by numerous monarchs, emperors, celebrities, desired men, and outraged campaigners.
14. The Last Supper – Leonardo Da Vinci
The Last Supper holds both immeasurable values, artistic wise and religious wise. Biblical depiction of the final supper of Jesus and his twelve closest apostles, The Last Supper, wonderfully portrays the calm before the storm, when Jesus eventually reveals that he will be betrayed by one among his disciples.
From a work of art perspective, the painting possesses superb handling of space, perfect composition, mastery of perspective, and the marvelous depiction of complex human emotions. The Last Supper is treated as the world’s most celebrated painting, reaffirming Leonardo’s top-notch talents and knowledge of art.
15. The Creation Of Adam – Michelangelo
Being created by Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam is one of many other paintings which form the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. The painting illustrates the creation of Adam by God as being told in The Book of Genesis. Some people believe this painting is one of the most replicated religious paintings.
The creation of Adam deviates from the traditional depictions of the Creation that had been portrayed up to that point. At this time, the scene is dominated by two figures: Adam, who is located on the left, and God, who is located on the right.
It seems God is in a hazy shape of draperies and other figures. The shape is supported by angels that seem to be flying without wings but whose flight is made apparent by the drapery that whips out from behind them.
16. Flaming June – Frederic Leighton
Perhaps the first impression when one looks at the Flaming June is its overwhelming burst of warm colors: the glistening light reflected off the sea surface in the background, the brownish red draft that was put on top of the lounge, the slight-blushed cheeks of the sleeping beauty, who perhaps a few hours earlier, was enjoying her time under the summer sun, and of course, her orange dress that takes up the majority of the painting.
However, the calm and peaceful sight of the nameless muse enjoying her nap in the lovely summer weather is in significant conflict with the poisonous oleander on the top right corner, quietly reminding us that in Greek mythology, Hypnos was always close to his brother Thanatos.
17. Water Lilies – Monet
Water Lilies is not a single painting; it is a series of roughly 250 oil paintings by the French artist Claude Monet. This fascinating art project was created at his home in Giverny, taking inspiration from his natural flower garden. Even more impressive, many paintings of this series were completed despite his medical condition of cataracts.
Despite being modeled after the water lily pond in his home, Monet’s Water Lilies series is not only a simple piece of scenery but also a profound work of abstraction, laying the ground for many generations of artists after him. All the paintings in this series are spectacular explosions of colors, surfaces, reflection, and light. Furthermore, many of his paintings were on a scale so large that they can be considered murals.
18. Starry Night Over the Rhône – Vincent Van Gogh
Laying the foundation for one of the most influential works of his life – The Starry Night, it is unquestionable that Starry Night Over the Rhone is very popular in its rights. Perhaps the view from the quay on the east side of Rhone was where van Gogh first noticed the captivating beauty of the night colors.
In a letter to his brother Theo, the famous artist described: “The sky is aquamarine, the water is azure, and the earth is violet. The city is blue and purple. The gas is yellow, and its reflections range from rusty gold to green bronze.
On the aquamarine background of the sky, the Great Bear is a gleaming green and pink that contrasts with the harsh yellow of the gas clouds “. The detailed and ardent depiction demonstrates van Gogh’s devoted sense of color, preparing him for his future masterwork.
19. Guernica – Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso used to carry a gun load with blank around, which he used to shoot at people who asked about the meaning behind his paintings – Such skirmishes are perhaps unnecessary, Guernica. This is because the painting is considered one of the most influential anti-war propaganda by various art critics.
Regarding its size, the painting is towering, standing at 3,49 meters in height and 7.76 meters in width, ensuring that any viewer can be aware of the colossal impact of war. The only colors in this painting are grey, black, and white, setting up the perfect atmosphere for the theme of war. Its imagery depicts various heartbreaking suffering from all that violence and chaos, ensuring that its viewer can understand the true horror that humanity can inflict on itself.
20. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – Georges Seurat
Georges Seurat depicts people of all socioeconomic groups taking strolls and unwinding in a park just west of Paris on the island of La Grande Jatte, located in the Seine River. This scene was captured in the artist’s most famous and most prominent work.
Even though he drew his inspiration from contemporary life, Seurat was interested in evoking the timeless quality often associated with ancient art, mainly Greek and Egyptian sculpture.
Numerous accolades are bestowed upon A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, including “the father of the pointillist drawing technique” and “a significant contribution to the neo-impressionist movement.” This painting depicts some Parisians enjoying a peaceful afternoon at a park on the Seine’s river bank.
- Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of the world’s most famous paintings, known for its enigmatic smile and meticulous intricacies.
- The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh is a post-impressionist masterwork with swirling hues and a surreal atmosphere.
- Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is a religious painting that depicts Jesus’ final lunch with his disciples.
- Edvard Munch’s The Scream is a haunting expressionist picture that has become a symbol of dread and misery.
- Johannes Vermeer’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring is a superb portrait that embodies the essence of the Dutch Golden Period.
- Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory is a surrealistic picture with melting clocks and a bleak landscape.
- Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is a famous picture that depicts the goddess of love emerging from the sea.
- Rembrandt van Rijn’s massive painting The Night Watch depicts the drama and action of a military company.
- The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo is a Sistine Chapel masterpiece that depicts the moment God creates Adam.
- Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is a stunning anti-war picture that captures the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War.
Who painted the Mona Lisa?
The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most renowned artists of the Renaissance period.
What is the meaning behind The Scream by Edvard Munch?
The Scream is a haunting expressionist painting that depicts the anxiety and despair of modern life. The central figure’s scream is meant to convey a sense of existential crisis and alienation.
What is the style of The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh?
The Starry Night is a masterpiece of the post-impressionist movement, characterized by its bold colors, swirling brushstrokes, and dreamlike atmosphere.
What is the significance of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci?
The Last Supper is a religious painting that depicts the final meal of Jesus with his disciples. It is considered a masterpiece of Renaissance art and is known for its intricate details and use of perspective.
Who painted The Girl with a Pearl Earring?
The Girl with a Pearl Earring was painted by Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch artist of the 17th century. It is considered a masterpiece of the Dutch Golden Age and is known for its use of light and shadow.