When evaluating the most renowned paintings of all time, it’s important to remember that painting is an ancient art form that dates back 40,000 years, when early humans used ochre and charcoal to make representations of animals or stencils of their own handprints on cave walls. It was, in other words, present at the dawn of symbolic thought, some 35,000 years before the written word.
It’s impossible to determine how many paintings have been limned throughout millennia, but a small fraction of them could be considered everlasting classics that have become recognised to the public—and not coincidentally produced by some of the world’s most famous artists. That may be self-evident, but it begs the issue of what combination of talent, genius, and circumstance is required.
1. Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 1503–19
Da Vinci’s captivating picture, painted between 1503 and 1517, has been haunted by two questions from the day it was created: What is the subject’s name, and why is she grinning? Over the years, a variety of explanations have been proposed to explain the former: That she is Leonardo’s mother, C, and that she is the wife of Florentine trader Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo (hence the work’s other title, La Gioconda).
2. Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665
The 1665 study of a young woman by Johannes Vermeer is astonishingly genuine and strikingly modern, almost like a snapshot. This brings up the question of whether Vermeer used a pre-photographic instrument known as a camera obscura to create the image. Leaving that aside, the sitter’s identity is unknown, however it has been suggested that she was Vermeer’s maid. He depicts her peering over his shoulder.
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3. Sandro Botticelli, , 1484–1486
The Birth of Venus, painted for Lorenzo de Medici, was the first full-length, non-religious nude since antiquity. The Goddess of Love is said to be based on a woman named Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, whose favours were purportedly shared by Lorenzo and his younger brother, Giuliano. The wind gods Zephyrus and Aureus are seen blowing Venus ashore on a gigantic clamshell.