Entertainment18 Most Significant Paintings of All Time

18 Most Significant Paintings of All Time

Painting is an ancient medium that has persisted as a form of expression despite the development of photography, film, and digital technologies. Only a small portion of the numerous artworks that have been preserved over many millennia can be considered to be “timeless classics” that have gained widespread recognition.

18 Most Significant Paintings of All Time

1. Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 1503–19

Da Vinci’s captivating portrait, which was painted between 1503 and 1517, has been the subject of two inquiries ever since it was created: Why is the subject smiling, and who is she? Over the years, a variety of ideas for the former have been put forth: That she is Caterina, Leonardo’s mother, as imagined from his childhood memories of her; that she is the spouse of Florentine merchant Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo (thus the alternative title for the piece, La Gioconda); and finally, that it is a self-portrait dressed as another person. About that fabled smile, its enigmatic character has long baffled mankind. Whatever the cause, Leonardo’s use of atmospheric perspective allows the idealized landscape behind the Mona Lisa to fade into the distance while maintaining her expression of unnatural peace.

2. Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942

In Nighthawks, a film that is renowned for its portrayal of urban loneliness, a quarter of the characters are shown at night inside a greasy spoon with a large wraparound window that nearly fills the whole front of the restaurant. The only source of illumination for the picture is its highly lit interior, which floods the otherwise black sidewalk and neighboring buildings. The three diners and the counterman (the subjects) appear to be alone because of the display-case appearance the restaurant’s glass facade produces. The figures studiously ignore one another while immersing themselves in a state of reverie or tiredness. This is a study of estrangement. The diner was modeled after one that had long since been demolished in Hopper’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. Some art historians have hypothesized that the painting’s overall subject matter may have been influenced by Vincent van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night, which was on display at a gallery Hopper frequented at the same time he created Nighthawks. Particularly noteworthy is that the artist’s wife Jo, a frequent model for him, is the redheaded woman on the far right.

3. Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818–1819

It’s difficult to match The Raft of the Medusa for sheer impact, in which Géricault turned a recent news incident into a classic image. Beginning with the 1818 sinking of the French navy ship off the coast of Africa, which left 147 sailors stranded on a hurriedly made raft, the background begins. After a 13-day experience at sea, which included instances of cannibalism among the desperate men, only 15 of those guys were still alive. A dramatic pyramidal arrangement distinguishes the larger-than-life artwork, which depicts the moment the crew of the raft recognizes a rescue ship. Géricault created the enormous canvas on his own dime, free of charge, and tackled it like an investigative journalist, speaking with survivors and conducting a great deal of in-depth numerological research.

4. Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1819

This painting depicts a hiker in the mountains pausing on a rocky outcrop to take in his surroundings. The worship of nature, or more specifically, the emotion of awe it produced, was a hallmark of the Romantic style in art. Although he is facing away from the viewer as if he were too entranced by the scenery to turn around, his position gives us an over-the-shoulder perspective that transports us to the scene as if we were looking through his eyes.

5. Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1874

With his picture of dawn over the harbor of Le Havre, the artist’s hometown, Monet, the defining figure of Impressionism, essentially gave the movement its name. With its flurry of brush strokes illustrating the sun as an orange orb breaking through a hazy blue blending of water and sky, this canvas is a superb example of how Monet studied light and color.

6. Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830

Liberty Leading the People, which commemorates the July Revolution of 1830 that overthrew King Charles X of France, has come to represent the revolutionary spirit everywhere. The picture is a dramatic example of the Romantic style, combining allegorical with modern aspects. The title character is waving the French Tricolor as people from many social strata band together behind her to storm a barrier covered with the bodies of fallen friends. Several literary and artistic creations, such as the Statue of Liberty and Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Misérables, were influenced by the image.

7. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Grande Odalisque, 1814

Grande Odalisque, commissioned by Queen Caroline Murat of Naples, the sister of Napoleon, marked the artist’s departure from the Neoclassical style that had dominated much of his career. Though typically seen as a transition to Romanticism, a movement that rejected Neo-precision, classicism’s formality, and equipoise in favour of evoking emotional responses from the viewer, the piece might be classified as Mannerist. Her odd proportions make this image of a concubine reclining on a couch stand out. This mysterious, spooky figure, which was anatomically inaccurate, was initially met with scorn by critics, yet it went on to become one of Ingres’ most famous works.

8. Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, The Naked Maja, circa 1797–1800

This woman, who is clearly at ease in her own skin and is nakedly staring shamelessly into the camera, made quite a commotion when it was painted and even landed Goya in trouble with the Spanish Inquisition. It has one of the earliest representations of visible hair in Western art, among other things. The Naked Maja was one of two paintings that the Prime Minister of Spain, Manuel de Godoy, commissioned. The other painting featured the sitter wearing clothing. The woman’s name is unknown, although Pepita Tudó, Godoy’s young mistress, is the most likely candidate.

9. Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

Picasso’s Guernica, arguably his most well-known work, was inspired by the 1937 bombing of the same-named Basque city by German and Italian planes fighting on the side of fascist leader Francisco Franco. Picasso was commissioned by the socialist administration that opposed him to provide the artwork for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937. Guernica underwent an international tour after it was finished, and it eventually ended up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After Franco’s death in 1975, Picasso lent the artwork to MoMA with the understanding that it would be returned to his native Spain once democracy had been restored. This was accomplished in 1981. (Picasso himself died two years before that.) The painting is now kept in Madrid’s Museum Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.

10. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Las Meninas, or The Family of King Philip IV

The masterpiece by Velázquez, a painting of a painting within a painting, combines several subjects into one: A self-portrait, an almost art-for-art’s-sake display of brilliant brush technique, a picture of Spain’s royal family and attendants, and an interior scene provide a window into Velázquez’s creative environment. In addition to being a conundrum that perplexes spectators as to what they are actually looking at, Las Meninas is a discourse on the nature of sight. The mirror that hangs on the far wall of the studio and reflects the faces of the Spanish King and Queen is the equivalent of breaking the fourth wall in terms of visual art.

11. Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red Blue, and Yellow, 1930

Mondrian’s work is a small picture (18 inches by 18 inches), but it has a significant impact on art history since it reflects a dramatic reduction of form, color, and composition to their most fundamental elements. In an arrangement of squares and rectangles that prefigured minimalism, Mondrian applied pigment in flat, unmixed patches while keeping his color palette to the fundamental triad (red, yellow, and blue) as well as black and white.

12. Édouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863

When Manet’s painting of a group of Parisians having a picnic made its debut at the Salon des Refusés, an alternate exhibition of works that the jurors of the annual Salon—the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts that established standards for French art—had rejected, there was outrage. The most vocal criticisms of Manet’s artwork focused on the portrayal of a naked woman with men wearing modern attire. Le Déjeuner was a flippant parody of classical figuration—an irreverent mash-up of contemporary life and painting tradition—based on themes appropriated from Renaissance masters like Raphael and Giorgione.

13. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters, 1565

Fanfare for the Common Man by Bruegel is regarded as one of the key pieces of Western art. There were six compositions made with the idea of the seasons. Early September is usually the period. On the left, a group of peasants cuts and bundles ripening wheat, and on the right, another group has their lunch. Behind a tree, one guy is curled up, his pants undone. This focus on detail is evident across the entire artwork as a series of ever-finer observations fading into space. During a time when landscapes were typically used as the backdrop for religious paintings, it was unusual.

14. Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665

The young woman in Johannes Vermeer’s 1665 study is astonishingly genuine and strikingly contemporary, almost like a snapshot. This raises the question of whether Vermeer used a camera obscura, a type of pre-photographic equipment, to generate the image. Other than that, no one is certain who the sitter was, however, it has been suggested that she might have been Vermeer’s maid. She appears to be trying to establish an intimate connection across the ages as he paints her glancing over her shoulder and locking her eyes with the viewer. Strictly speaking, Girl isn’t a portrait at all, but an illustration of the Dutch headshot style known as a tronie, which is more of a still life of the contours of the face than an attempt to capture a resemblance.

15. Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889

The Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh’s most well-known picture, was produced by Van Gogh while he was a patient at the Saint-Rémy institution, where he had checked himself in 1889. When the night sky comes alive with swirls and spheres of frantically applied brush strokes arising from the yin and yang of his personal demons and awe of nature, The Starry Night does indeed seem to mirror his volatile state of mind at the time.

16. Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907–1908

The Kiss, a depiction of intimacy by Gustav Klimt from the turn of the century that is lavishly gilded and lavishly patterned, combines Vienna Jugendstil, an Austrian take on Art Nouveau, with Symbolism. Klimt presents his subjects as mythological beings whose lavish surfaces of contemporary graphic elements have modernized. The piece is a high point of the artist’s Golden Period, which spanned 1899 to 1910 and was characterized by the frequent use of gold leaf. This technique was motivated by a 1903 trip to Ravenna, Italy’s Basilica di San Vitale, where he witnessed the church’s renowned Byzantine mosaics.

17. Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1484–1486

The Kiss, a depiction of intimacy by Gustav Klimt from the turn of the century that is lavishly gilded and lavishly patterned, combines Vienna Jugendstil, an Austrian take on Art Nouveau, with Symbolism. Klimt presents his subjects as mythological beings whose lavish surfaces of contemporary graphic elements have modernized. The piece is a high point of the artist’s Golden Period, which spanned 1899 to 1910 and was characterized by the frequent use of gold leaf. This technique was motivated by a 1903 trip to Ravenna, Italy’s Basilica di San Vitale, where he witnessed the church’s renowned Byzantine mosaics.

18. Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1503–1515

Generally speaking, this weird triptych is seen as a distant precursor to surrealism. In actuality, it’s the expression of a late medieval artist who thought that Heaven, Hell, and the Devil were actual places. The left panel of the three images portrays Christ delivering Eve to Adam, while the right panel displays the wrath of Hell; it is less clear whether the middle panel shows Paradise. The damned are attacked by giant ears brandishing phallic knives in Bosch’s vivid depiction of Hell, while a bird-beaked bug king wearing a chamber pot as a crown sits on the throne and consumes the unfortunate before swiftly defecating them out again. Its riot of symbols has generally resisted interpretation, which would explain why it is so popular.

Although art is all around us, there are a select few works that have stood the test of time and culture, cementing their place in the annals of art.


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