When evaluating the most renowned paintings of all time, it’s important to remember that painting is an old 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, there at the dawn of symbolic cognition, some 35,000 years before the written word.
Despite recurrent predictions of its death, painting has remained a tenacious method of expression even with the advent of the modern age and the arrival of photography, cinema, and digital technologies.
It’s hard to determine how many paintings have been limned throughout millennia, but a tiny fraction of them might be considered everlasting masterpieces that have become recognized to the public—and not coincidentally made by some of the world’s most famous painters. While this may seem self-evident, it does not answer the issue of what combination of skill, creativity, and circumstance leads to the development of a masterpiece. The simplest answer is that you’ll recognize one when you see one, whether it’s at one of New York City’s numerous museums (The Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, MoMA, and others) or at other institutions throughout the world. Of course, we have our own thoughts on the subject.
Top famous paintings
1. Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 1503–19
Da Vinci’s captivating picture, painted between 1503 and 1517, has been haunted by two doubts 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 the Florentine businessman Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo’s wife (hence the work’s other title, La Gioconda); that she is Leonardo’s mother, Caterina, conjured from Leonardo’s early recollections of her; and, lastly, that it is a self-portrait in drag. For generations, the mysterious character of that famed smile has driven people insane. Whatever the cause, Mona Lisa’s serene expression complements the idyllic scenery behind her.
2. Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665
The 1665 study of a young lady by Johannes Vermeer is astonishingly genuine and strikingly contemporary, almost like a snapshot. This brings up the question of whether Vermeer used a pre-photographic instrument known as a camera obscura to generate the picture. Leaving that aside, the sitter’s identity is unclear, however, it has been suggested that she was Vermeer’s maid. He depicts her staring over her shoulder, her eyes locked on the spectator as if striving to create a personal connection across ages. The girl isn’t technically a portrait, but it is an example of the Dutch tronie—a headshot that is more of a still life of facial characteristics than an attempt to depict a person.
3. Sandro Botticelli, , 1484–1486
Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, created for Lorenzo de Medici, was the first full-length, non-religious nude painting since antiquity. The Goddess of Love is said to be modelled by Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, whose favours were purportedly shared by Lorenzo and his younger brother, Giuliano. The wind gods Zephyrus and Aura are shown blowing Venus ashore on a large clamshell while the personification of spring awaits on land with a cloak. Unsurprisingly,
Venus enraged Savonarola, the Dominican monk who spearheaded a fundamentalist attack on Florentines’ secular preferences. His campaign included the infamous 1497 “Bonfire of the Vanities,” in which “profane” objects—cosmetics, artworks, and books—were burnt on a bonfire. The Birth of Venus was intended for cremation, but it escaped. Botticelli, on the other hand, was so disturbed by the occurrence that he stopped painting for a period.
4. Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889
The Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous painting, was made at the institution at Saint-Rémy, where he had committed himself in 1889. Indeed, the night sky comes alive with swirls and spheres of frenetically applied brush strokes rising from the yin and yang of his own demons and wonder of nature in The Starry Night, which seems to mirror his stormy state of mind at the moment.
5. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, 1871
Whistler’s Mother, or Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, as it is officially titled, expresses the artist’s desire to pursue art for the sake of art. In 1871, James Abbott McNeill Whistler painted the picture in his London studio, and it transforms the formality of portraiture into an exercise in form. Whistler’s mother, Anna, is depicted as one of the numerous pieces trapped into a right-angle configuration. Her solemn look complements the composition’s stiffness, and it’s rather ironic that, despite Whistler’s formalist goals, the painting became a symbol of motherhood.
6. Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907–1908
The Kiss, Gustav Klimt’s fin-de-siècle depiction of intimacy, is lavishly gilded and lavishly patterned, a blend of Symbolism and Vienna Jugendstil, the Austrian form of Art Nouveau. Klimt presents his protagonists as mythological creatures modernised by opulent surfaces of contemporary graphic themes. The piece is a highlight of the artist’s Golden Period, which spanned 1899 to 1910 and saw him frequently employ gold leaf—a technique inspired by a 1903 visit to Ravenna’s Basilica di San Vitale, when he viewed the church’s legendary Byzantine mosaics.
7. Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434
This composition, one of the most important works made during the Northern Renaissance, is said to be one of the earliest paintings executed in oils. It is a full-length double picture of an Italian merchant and a woman who may or may not be his wife. Erwin Panofsky, a renowned art historian, argued in 1934 that the artwork is actually a wedding contract. What can be claimed with certainty is that the work is one of the earliest renderings of an interior utilising orthogonal perspective to create a feeling of space that appears continuous with the viewer’s own; it feels like a picture you might walk into.
8. Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1503–1515
This fanciful triptych is often regarded as a predecessor to Surrealism. In reality, it’s the work of a late mediaeval artist who believed in God and the Devil, Heaven and Hell. The left panel represents Christ bringing Eve to Adam, while the right panel displays Hell’s depredations; it’s unclear if the centre panel depicts Heaven. In Bosch’s preferred picture of Hell, a gigantic pair of ears holding a phallic dagger assaults the condemned, while a bird-beaked insect king sits on its throne with a chamber pot for a crown.
9. Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884–1886
Georges Seurat’s masterwork, reflecting the Paris of the Belle Epoque, depicts a working-class suburban setting far from the city centre. Seurat frequently made this milieu his focus, in contrast to his Impressionist peers’ bourgeois representations. Seurat rejected the capture-of-the-moment method of Manet, Monet, and Degas in favour of the eternal permanence seen in Greek art. And that is exactly what you get in this frieze-like procession of individuals, whose immobility fits Seurat’s goal of presenting a classical landscape in modern form.
10. Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the ur-canvas of twentieth-century art, ushered in the modern age by dramatically breaking with the realistic tradition of Western painting, integrating allusions to African masks Picasso had seen in Paris’ ethnographic museum at the Palais du Trocadro. Its DNA also contains El Greco’s The Vision of Saint John (1608–14), which is now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The women pictured are prostitutes from a brothel in the artist’s hometown of Barcelona.
Artists from throughout the world and their well-known works
|Leonardo da Vinci||Italy||The Last Supper, Mona Lisa, The Vitruvian Man, Adoration of the Magi, The Baptism of Christ|
|Michel Angelo||Italy||The Last Judgement, Pieta, David, Sistine Chapel ceiling|
|Raphael Sanzio||Italy||Transfiguration, The Marriage of the Virgin, Resurrection of Christ, La belle jardinière, The Sistine Madonna, Madonna and Child with the Book|
|Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn||The Netherlands||The Night Watch, The Return of the Prodigal Son, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, The Blinding of Samson, The Three Trees|
|Claude Oscar Monet||France||Impression, Sunrise, Woman with a Parasol, Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies, Garden at Sainte-Adresse|
|Vincent van Gogh||The Netherlands||Starry Nights, Sunflowers, Bedroom in Aires, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, The Potato Eaters|
|Pablo Picasso||Spain||Guernica, The Old Blind Guitarist, The Weeping Woman|
Artists of India and their paintings
|Raja Ravi Varma||Hamsa Damyanti, Shakuntala, Arjuna and Subhadra|
|Nihal Chand||Bani Thani, Dipavalika|
|Syed Hyder Raja||Saurashtra|
|Amrita Shergil||Young Girls, Bride’s Toilet, Village Scene|
|Raqib Shaw||The Garden of Earthly Delights|
|Francis Newton Souza||Birth, Balzac Etcetera|
|Binod Behari Mukherjee||Villagers|
|Subodh Gupta||Saat Samundar Paar|
|Arpita Singh||Wish Dream|
|Jamini Roy||Mother and Child, Krishna and Balarama, Warrior King|