15 Most Famous Paintings in the Long History of Art


Numerous great artists have graced the world for centuries with their beautiful paintings. Some of these became very significant for their perpetual relevance, and some for their impact on various movement. Among those are paintings that became widely recognised until today. Here are 15 of the world’s most famous paintings, listed in no particular order.

Mona Lisa (1503-19)

Da Vinci's Mona Lisa (1503-19) | Source: wikipedia.org

Perhaps the world’s most recognisable artwork, the Mona Lisa is considered the quintessential masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance. The painting by renowned artist Leonardo da Vinci was made with oil on a white Lombardy poplar panel and is believed to be a real portrait of the Italian lady Lisa Gherardini.

Da Vinci used sfumato techniques (also known as the Mona Lisa effect) to make transitions between colours more subtle and without edges, similar to the areas that are not in focus to the human eye. This technique, along with the lady's enigmatic smile gave the portrait unparalleled global fame.

Currently the property of the French Republic, it has been displayed at the Louvre Museum in Paris since 1797, attracting a sea of visitors every day.

The Starry Night (1889)

Van Gogh's The Starry Night (1889) | Source: vangoghgallery.com 

An artwork deemed Vincent van Gogh’s most famous painting, The Starry Night illustrates a tranquil moment before sunrise in a typical village. What's not so typical is that the Dutch post-impressionist artist painted this from his asylum room at Saint-Rémy. The unique twist and turns of the brush strokes add an immense level of detail and vibrancy to the artwork, which has become an iconic masterpiece.

By 1941, the oil on canvas painting was acquired by the New York Museum of Modern Art through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest and has since been in permanent collection of the museum.

Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665)

Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665) | Source: mauritshuis.nl

Girl with a Pearl Earring, is an oil on canvas tronie (a type of Flemish Baroque and Dutch Golden Age painting that depicts an over-dramatised facial expressions) by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. It shows a European girl with a mesmerizing and seductive look, donning an exotic dress, an oriental turban, and an unusually large pearl earring, which was refuted by Dutch astrophysicist Vincent Icke to be most likely a polished tin based on the specular reflection.

The painting has been in the possession of the Mauritshuis in The Hague since 1902 and has been nicknamed "the Mona Lisa of the North" for its world-wide exposure.

The Last Supper (1490)

Da Vinci's The Last Supper (c. 1490) | Source: italy-museum.com

Another one of da Vinci’s famous paintings, The Last Supper is a mural he painted on the refectory of the former Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where it continues to remain. The work was commissioned as part of the church revamp plan by da Vinci’s patron Ludovico Sforza who was the Duke of Milan.

It represents the setting of Jesus' last supper with his apostles before his crucifixion. It also depicts the dismay that arose among the 12 apostles when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him.

The Creation of Adam (1512)

Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam (c. 1512) | Source: wikimedia.org

The Creation of Adam, or Creazione di Adamo in Italian, is a painting by the famed Italian artist Michelangelo. It was executed upon freshly-laid lime plaster, otherwise known as the fresco technique. The mural, which also is one of the most replicated famous paintings of all time, illustrates the scene where God gives life to Adam, as described in the Biblical creation narrative in the Book of Genesis.

Guernica (1937)

Picasso's Guernica (1937) | Source: britannica.com

Guernica by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso was highly regarded for its powerful anti-war message. The Cubist painter named the painting after the town Guernica in Northern Spain, which was bombed by Nazi Germany during the Spanish Civil War.

The oil on canvas painting depicts the agony of people and animals wrought by chaos and violence represented by the bull, gored horse, dismemberment, screaming women, and flames on the composition.

The Birth of Venus (1485-6)

Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (1485-8) | Source: wikipedia.org

Among many other famous paintings, Italian artist Sandro Botticelli’s work, The Birth of Venus, is one of few to represent classical mythology. Now in the care of Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the painting portrays the Greek goddess Venus, fully grown, appearing at the shore after her birth when she had emerged from the sea. Some art historians described the painting to have the influence of Renaissance Neo-Platonism.

The Scream (1893)

Munch's The Scream (1893) | Source: wikipedia.org

Arguably the most famous painting by Expressionist artist Edvard Munch, The Scream is often seen as the iconography of human anxiety and gained universal fame thanks to its heavy psychological themes. Originally titled Der Schrei der Natur (“The Scream of Nature”) in German and Skrik (“Shriek”) in Norwegian, the painting shows a sorrowed face in a blood-red sunset setting and is said to represent Munch's soul.

The Norwegian artist made multiple versions of the painting, but perhaps the most recognisable is the oil, tempera, and pastel on cardboard one that is currently housed by The National Gallery in Oslo.

Sunflowers (1888)

Van Gogh's Sunflowers, 4th version | Source: wikipedia.org

During his short 10-year career, Van Gogh made several series of Sunflowers, but the most popular is perhaps the above, the fourth version from the first series. The paintings signified ‘gratitude’ to the Dutch painter, but artistically, Sunflowers was proof that it was possible to paint with a single colour in three shades without losing eloquence.

Not only is it the most widely known still-life painting among the series, it’s also one of the most duplicated famous paintings as well as one of the most reproduced in multiple media. It was sold to the Tate Gallery via Ernest Brown & Phillips and has been on permanent loan to the London National Gallery ever since.

The Kiss (1907-8)

Klimt's The Kiss (1907-8) | Source: wikimedia.org

The Kiss, or Der Kuss in German, is an oil and gold leaf on canvas by Australian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt. It shows a couple hugging each other in beautiful robes ornamented in Art Nouveau style with a touch from earlier Arts and Crafts movement.

Now exhibited by the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, it is considered a masterwork of Art Nouveau local variation, Vienna Secession, and among Klimt’s most famous paintings.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)

Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) | Source: moma.org

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, originally titled The Brothel of Avignon, is a large oil painting by Picasso. It depicts five nude female courtesans in a bordello on Carrer d’Avinyó, one of the oldest medieval streets in the Gothic neighbourhood of Barcelona.

The woman on the left is shown with facial features and dressed in a Southern Asian or Egyptian style. The next two figures exhibit the Iberian style, while the rest on the right are displayed with Africanesque mask features. Once deemed one of the most revolutionary and controversial famous paintings and also considered one of the works that influenced the Cubist movement, Les Demoiselles is now in permanent collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art.

The Persistence of Memory (1931)

Dalí's The Persistence of Memory (1931) | Source: moma.org

Premierly exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1932, The Persistence of Memory, or La persistencia de la memoria, is an oil on canvas painting by Spanish Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí famous for its melting clocks. Being one of the most significant paintings of Surrealism, it has been repeatedly referenced and caricatured in popular culture.

In 1934, New York Museum of Modern Art received the painting from an anonymous donor and since it has been in their collection.

The Night Watch (1642)

Rembrandt's The Night Watch (1642) | Source: rijksmuseum.nl 

The Night Watch, or De Nachtwacht in Dutch, is an oil on canvas by Rembrandt van Rijn. Conspicuously displayed in the Rijksmuseum as its best-known collection, it is one of the most famous paintings from Dutch Golden Age. The Night Watch is popular for three reasons: its colossal size, the dramatic use of tenebrism (a style with pronounced contrasts of light and dark, and where darkness becomes the dominant), and the Dutch artist’s attempt to portray citizen militia in action.

Impression, Sunrise (1872)

Monet's Impression, Sunrise (1872) | Source: wikimedia.org

Impression, soleil levant, commonly known as Impression, Sunrise, is painting by Claude Monet. It was first exhibited at a show in Paris, two years after it was created by the French painter. The oil on canvas painting is regarded for its influence on Impressionism and later became one of his most famous paintings thanks to the distinctive brushwork that characterised the style. With the painting, Monet meant to illustrate the port of his hometown, Le Havre. Impression, Sunrise, is now in display at the Musée Marmottan Monet.

The Great Wave of Kanagawa (1829-33)

Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa (c. 1829-33) | Source: roningallery.com

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is a colour woodblock print by Hokusai. It was published in the late Edo period as the first piece in Hokusai’s series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. The print portrayed a massive wave impending three boats off the coast of the town of Kanagawa (now city of Yokohama of Kanagawa Prefecture) with Mount Fuji rising proudly in the background. The Great Wave is the Japanese ukiyo-e artist’s most famous paintings as well as one of Japanese art’s most recognisable works in the world.

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