Some of the best known paintings in the world were created during the Renaissance, a cultural movement in Europe that spanned roughly from the 14th century to the 17th century; and was marked by renewed interest in the culture of the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans. The most famous Renaissance paintings include The Creation of Adam of Michelangelo; The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli; and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Modern Art began in France in the 1850s and later spread to other nations. The Realists portrayed, with uncompromising truth and accuracy, the people and situations of the present. Realism was followed by Impressionism, another French movement, which focused on capturing the momentary effect of a scene rather than accurately depicting it. This was followed by various innovations in the 20th century including Cubism which was characterized by the use of geometric planes and shapes. Modern Art saw unparalleled development in the art world and some of the best known paintings were produced by artists of this age. These include The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, Picasso’s Guernica, Dali’s The Persistence of Memory and The Scream by Edvard Munch. Here are the 10 most famous paintings in the world.
#10 Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
English Title: The Young Ladies of Avignon
Location: Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Artist: Pablo Picasso
Originally titled Le Bordel d’Avignon (The Brothel of Avignon), this revolutionary masterpiece is considered one of the most influential paintings of 20th century as it played a key role in the development of both Cubism and Modern art. It was a radical departure from traditional European painting. Pablo Picasso used different styles to depict each figure in the painting with the head of the women pulling the curtain in upper right being the most strictly Cubist element. The painting was controversial not only for its radical style but also for its subject. It was first exhibited to the public in 1916 and its title was changed to lessen its scandalous impact. The Avignon of the work’s title is a reference to a street in Barcelona famed for its brothel. The artwork depicts five nude female prostitutes in a disconcerting confrontational manner. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is considered by many as the most important work of Pablo Picasso.
#9 The Birth of Venus
Location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Artist: Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera and The Birth of Venus are among the most famous paintings in the world, and icons of the Italian Renaissance. As depictions of subjects from classical mythology on a very large scale they were virtually unprecedented in Western art since classical antiquity. Of the two, the Birth of Venus is even more popular. At its center is the newly born Venus, the Greek goddess whose functions encompass love, beauty, desire, sex and fertility. She is arriving at the shore after her birth having emerged from the sea fully-grown. She stands nude in a giant scallop shell. At the left the wind god Zephyr blows at her. At the right Hora of Spring, a minor Greek goddess, holds out a rich cloak to cover her naked body. Unlike Primavera, the Birth of Venus depicts a traditional scene from Greek mythology and it is thus not as difficult to decipher. Its enormous popularity lies in its visual appeal.
#8 Girl with a Pearl Earring
Location: Mauritshuis Museum, The Hague
Artist: Johannes Vermeer
Year: c. 1665
Johannes Vermeer is perhaps the best known artist of the Dutch Golden Age after Rembrandt. Girl with a Pearl Earring, his most renowned work, portrays a European girl wearing an exotic dress, an oriental turban, and a large pearl earring. Not much is known about the life of Jan Vermeer and nothing is known about the model who appears in the painting. Still, Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of the most famous portraits ever created and it is often called the “Mona Lisa of the North”. Perhaps the mystery surrounding the painting adds to its fame. In 1999, American novelist Tracy Chevalier wrote a historical novel with the same title as the portrait, fictionalizing the account of the creation of Vermeer’s masterpiece. It was later made into a film with the same title which was nominated for three Academy Awards.
#7 Las Meninas
English Title: The Maids of Honour
Location: Museo del Prado, Madrid
Artist: Diego Velazquez
Considered one of the most important paintings ever, Las Meninas depicts at its center the 5 year old Margarita Teresa. The infant Margarita is surrounded by her maids, bodyguard, two dwarfs and a dog. On the left, Diego Velazquez depicts himself with a brush, leading to BBC calling this masterpiece “the world’s first photobomb”. Above the princess’ head is a mirror which shows her father and mother, King Philip IV of Spain and Mariana of Austria. They appear to be in position of the viewer. Velazquez perhaps depicts the scene of him painting the royal couple. Las Meninas has been described to represent the “theology of painting” and “the true philosophy of the art” by notable artists. Diego Velazquez is regarded as one of the most influential painters in European history and Las Meninas is considered his supreme achievement. It is one of the most analyzed paintings in Western art history.
#6 The Persistence of Memory
Location: Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Artist: Salvador Dali
This iconic and much-reproduced painting depicts a scene with watches melting slowly on rocks and the branch of a tree; with the ocean as a back drop. Salvador Dali uses the concept of hard and soft in this painting. This concept may be illustrated in a number of ways like the human mind moving from the softness of sleep to the hardness of reality. In his masterpiece, Dali uses melting watches and rocks to represent the soft and hard aspects of the world respectively. The Persistence of Memory has been much analyzed over the years as Dali never explained his work. The melting watches have been thought to be an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time; as a symbol of mortality with the ants surrounding the watches representing decay; and as irrationality of dreams. The Persistence of Memory is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of 20th century art. It is not only the most famous painting of Salvador Dali but also the most renowned artwork of the entire Surrealism art movement.
#5 The Scream
Location: National Gallery, Oslo
Artist: Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch was a Norwegian artist who was involved in the influential German modern art movement Expressionism. The Expressionists aimed to express the meaning of emotional experience rather than physical reality. The Scream is the most famous work of not only Munch but the entire movement. It shows a figure with an agonized expression against a landscape with a tumultuous orange sky. Munch created four versions of the work between 1893 and 1910. Their original title is Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature). Since the late 20th century, The Scream has been widely imitated and parodied in popular culture making it one of the best known paintings. It has appeared in advertising, films, television, etc. It was also a target of several high-profile art thefts. Two of its versions were stolen at some point but were later recovered. The Scream has been described as “an icon of modern art, a Mona Lisa for our time.”
#4 The Creation of Adam
Location: Sistine Chapel’s Ceiling, Vatican City
Artist: Michelangelo Buonarroti
The work done by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a cornerstone of Renaissance art and The Creation of Adam is the most famous fresco panel of the masterpiece. The painting illustrates the Biblical creation narrative from the Book of Genesis in which God breathes life into Adam, the first man. God is depicted as an elderly white-bearded man wrapped in a swirling cloak while Adam, on the lower left, is completely nude. There has been much analysis of the painting and, among other things, it has been found that the shapes portrayed behind the figure of God are an anatomically accurate picture of the human brain; the red cloth around God has the shape of a human uterus; and the green scarf is thought to be a newly cut umbilical cord. The Creation of Adam is the best known Renaissance painting after Mona Lisa; and along with The Last Supper, it is the most replicated religious painting of all time. The image of the near-touching hands of God and Adam has become iconic of humanity and has been imitated and parodied innumerable times.
#3 The Starry Night
Location: Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Artist: Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh, who had a struggle with mental illness, admitted himself to the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in France on 8th May 1889. Although painted during the day, this masterpiece depicts the night view outside the window of Van Gogh’s room at the asylum. The Starry Night shows the artist’s interest in astronomy and a study made by the Griffith Park Observatory demonstrated that Vincent represented the Moon, Venus, and several stars in the exact position they occupied that clear night. The painting has been much analyzed with various art historian finding different symbolic elements in it. The Starry Night is one of the most recognized paintings in the history of western art. It has been widely referenced in popular culture including in a well known song by Don McLean titled “Vincent”. It is definitely the most famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh and it is regarded as one of the greatest works in modern art.
Location: Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid
Artist: Pablo Picasso
Guernica is a town in northern Spain. On 26th April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Guernica was bombed by Nazi German and Fascist Italian warplanes on request of Spanish Nationalists. Picasso created this masterpiece in response to the bombing of Guernica. It brought worldwide attention to the Spanish Civil War and is considered one of the most powerful anti-war paintings in history. There have been numerous interpretations of Guernica since its creation. On the left of the canvas, a wide-eyed bull stands above a woman grieving over a dead child in her arms. The center is dominated by a horse falling in agony as if struck by a weapon. Under the horse is a dismembered soldier while towards its right is a frightened female figure which appears to have floated into the room through a window. From the right, an awe-struck woman staggers towards the center. The two dominant elements in the painting, the bull and the horse, are important characters in Spanish culture. Guernica is the most famous painting of modern art by arguably the greatest painter of all time.
#1 Mona Lisa
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris
Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci is regarded as the preeminent figure of the Italian Renaissance. His masterpiece, the Mona Lisa has been acclaimed as “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about and the most parodied work of art in the world”. Its fame rests, in particular, on the elusive smile on the woman’s face which is why it is also known as “la Gioconda”, or the laughing one. Based on accounts from an early biographer, the painting is a picture of Lisa Gherardini, the real-life wife of a merchant. For Da Vinci, Mona Lisa was forever a work in progress, as it was his attempt at perfection. The painting was never delivered to its commissioner; he kept it with him till the end of his life. Guinness World Records lists the Mona Lisa as having the highest insurance value for a painting in history. It was assessed at US$100 million on December 14, 1962, which after adjusting inflation, would be around US$790 million in 2016.