20 Most Famous Paintings of All Time

Over the years countless works of art have been created and put up in museums and galleries that have become timeless icons. A select group of most renowned paintings is highly recognizable even today by people from all over the world.

Below is a list of 20 most famous paintings of all time that have created and will continue to create good impressions in the minds of people of all ages in the centuries to come.

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20. The School of Athens

The school of Athens by Raphael Sanzio

This painting was composed of all the greatest philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians from classical antiquity who gathered together to share their knowledge and ideas with each other. Even though these figures lived at different times, yet they are gathered together here in the painting by Raphael Sanzio.

His painting, which was created between 1509 and 1511, has actually come to symbolize the marriage of philosophy, science, and art, which was the hallmark of the Renaissance period. 

It is situated in the first of the four rooms, the Stanza della Segnatura of the Papal Palace that was designed by Raphael when he was invited by the pope to live in Rome. 

19. Dogs Playing Poker

Cassius Marcellus Coolidge Cassius Marcellus Coolidge Dog playing Poker

American painter Cassius Marcellus Coolidge painted 16 images of Dogs Playing Poker including the original Poker Game and other oil paintings.

The series of dogs playing poker around a table has spoofed a lot of times in greeting cards and it is truly iconic and widely recognizable. All the images feature humanized, comical dogs with 11 of the images depicting the actual poker-faced dogs playing poker around a table. 

18. Café Terrace at Night

Vincent van Gogh cafe terrace at night

This oil on canvas painting by Vincent van Gogh shows the terrace of the Place du Forum, France with many people seated on tables as seen in the background.

It was an inspiration for the 20th-century German Expressionist movement. It has a nocturnal setting with a star-lit sky and the tables lit by overhanging lanterns. 

It is currently available at the Kroller-Muller Museum of Netherlands. Vincent had decided to paint the café after making frequent visits during the late 19th century. 

17. The Birth of Venus

The birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli
The birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

Italian artist, Sandro Botticelli composed the painting in the 1480s that is considered as the first non-religious nude painting of Venus since ancient times.

The portrait depicts the Roman goddess of love and the patroness of marriage, Venus. The goddess is naked yet with covered intimate parts, sailing on the shell with the help of the breeze, Goddess Aura, and the wind, God Zephyrus. 

The theme of this painting was the birth of Venus and the birth of Love. The masterpiece can be viewed at Uffizi Gallery of Florence, Italy. 

16. The Flower Carrier

Flower Carrier Painting by Diego Rivera in 1935

Painted by Diego Rivera in 1935, The Flower Carrier imparts simplicity and symbolism. The colorful portrait shows a man in white clothing struggling with an oversized flower basket, which is strapped to his back with the help of a yellow sling.

A woman is seen standing behind him, helping him to stand up. The flowers are strikingly beautiful but the man only knows their monetary value. 

With the usage of shadows, the subject matters of the painting stand out from the background as if they are outlined. The geometric shapes provide intense and bold contrasts and with the item and figure in the painting, it reflects individualism.

15. The Creation of Adam

Michelangelo Buonarroti the creation of Adam

Michelangelo Buonarroti composed The Creation of Adam depicting the giving of life to Adam, the first human. The background in the painting is evident in a way that the figures are idealized strong forms of the human body. 

On the portrait’s left side, Adam is seen reclining on his back with an arm on the ground and the other one stretched out. On the right side, God is seen floating above the ground surrounded by several figures against the backdrop of a red rope.

God is seen extending his hand towards Adam, and their fingers are almost touching each other. 

The scene is painted with incredible detailing and vibrant colors by Michelangelo. 

14.The Kiss

Gustav Klimt's the kiss

Featuring sentimental iconography, stylized forms, and shimmering gold hues, The Kiss is one exquisite example of Austrian artist, Gustav Klimt’s ethereal, pattern-like paintings.

It is a realistic depiction of a kissing couple. Painted in 1908, this geometric portrait is made up of oil painting with gold leaf on canvas. 

The painting is housed in Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna. It is a deceptive yet simple painting of lust and love. 

13.The Scream

Edvard Munch's the scream

Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream, features a ghastly figure quite similar to the ghost from Tales from the Crypt. It was made using oil and pastel on cardboard.

The expressionist painting has the backdrop of Oslo, Norway and depicts a central figure with the hands over the ears while two other figures walk into the distance. The scenery of the painting is sunset and the sea, appearing to swirl in a motion. 

It consists of two main colors- black depicting gloom, darkness, and silence through the offshore imagery of the seas and gloomy storms, and white depicting hope and the ability of a person to live free of fear and worries. 

12. Guernica

Pablo Picasso painted Guernica in 1937

In order to express his outrage and indictment against war, Pablo Picasso painted Guernica in 1937 using a monochromatic palette of white, black and grey. The painting is huge in size, approximately 11 feet tall and 25 feet wide. 

The painting is balanced by organizing a tangle of figures including a child, a man, four women, a horse, and a bull, in a low-ceiling interior with an overhead lamp. Picasso had organized the figures into three vertical groups from left to right and the central figures are created within a triangle of light. 

11. The Last Supper

Giotto-The-Last-Supper

Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, The Last Supper, depicts a scene from Holy Thursday, where Jesus Christ and his Apostles share a final meal before the death and resurrection of Christ.

Vinci has represented the space using a linear perspective technique of the Renaissance period, depicting Judas as spilling salt on the table. 

The outcome of the painting is a complex study of different human emotions put up in a deceptive composition. 

10. Three Musicians

Three Musicians was composed in 1921 by Pablo Picasso

Three Musicians was composed in 1921 by Pablo Picasso using oil painting and collage, depicting three bright figures seated around a table in a dark, box-like room that looks a stage.

The painting is about six and a half feet high and seven feet wide. The three musicians were a harlequin, a monk, and a pierrot playing a trio. 

It is now available in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It is one of the greatest works of Cubism. 

9. Starry Night

van Gogh’s starry night

Painted in 1889, the Starry Night is a nocturnal study of Vincent van Gogh’s observations, imagination, and memories of his room’s view at the sanitarium. The painting features short brushstrokes, artificial color palette and a focal point on luminescence.

It is composed of thickly-applied tones of the blue and golden sky, celestial swirls, a radiating moon, conventionalized stars, a perfect village, and a sky-high cypress tree. 

The depiction of his painting is based on the real-life view of his village. However, he did include some of his imagination in painting it, like the hamlet including the church spire. It is currently displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

8. The Old Guitarist

The-Old-Guitarist-painting-

Painted by Pablo Picasso in 1903, The Old Guitarist was composed by using a monochromatic blue palette and an impoverished tone.

He created the masterpiece right after the death of his close friend, Casagemas. Both symbolically and physically, the large guitar held by the man in the painting fills the space around him as he is oblivious to his poverty and blindness.

The guitar depicts the only sense of hopefulness at the time when Picasso was living in emotional turmoil and poverty in real life. 

The Painting is now available at the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, an Art Institute of Chicago.

7. The Persistence of Memory

The-Persistence-of-Memory

Composed in 1931 by Salvador Dali, this painting has become a symbol of the Surrealist Movement. Being set up in a realistic, dream-like landscape, the painting has a strange subject-matter defining the experimental genre.

During the time of the Surrealist Movement, innovative artists like Dali liked to explore their ideas of automatism and confidence in their work as seen in the persistence of Memory.

6. Salvator Mundi

Salvator-Mundi-painting

This painting by Leonardo da Vinci portrays Jesus Christ with one hand holding an orb glittering as if covered with heavenly light and the other hand raised in blessing.

Vinci tried to depict Christ’s role as the master of the universe and savior of the world through his work. It has a monochrome background with curls falling over Jesus’s shoulders in spirals. 

This painting is worth $450 million. The name “Salvator Mundi” means Savior of the World in Latin, which was nicely portrayed in the painting. 

5. Whistler’s Mother

Whistler's Mother painting

Titled as “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1”, Whistler’s Mother portrays a black-clad lady. It was painted in 1871 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

His mother, Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler, is seen sitting with an air of patience and gazing steadily at nothing, in the painting.

He introduced some bravura brushwork and hints of Japanese-style floral pattern on the curtain in the left side of the painting. She is seen wearing a gold wedding ring. He also put up shades of red and blue in the midst of the silver-gray wall behind the lady. 

This painting became the first American work that was bought up by the French state in 1891 and resides outside the US since then. 

4. The Night Watch

Popular for its huge size, the perception of motion, and the use of cinematic light, this painting was made in 1642 by Rembrandt van Rijn.

Contrary to its name, the scene of the picture takes place during a day where it represents the Militia Company of District II moving out, led by Captain Frans Banning Cocq and William van Ruytenburch. 

With effective use of sunlight and shade, this is one of the most famous Dutch Golden Age paintings belonging to the collection of the Amsterdam Museum. 

3. Water Lilies

Water-Lilies-painting
Photo Credit: Metmuseum

Claude Monet’s Water Lilies is a great example of French Impressionism. Monet has composed a series of 250 paintings known as Water Lilies depicting a water lily pond from the backyard of the house he was residing in the French village, Giverny.

This painting is one great example of how sunset reflects off the water. It portrays the glory found in nature, showing light reflection off the water with lilies floating on the surface. It is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

2. Girl with a Pearl Earring

This oil painting on canvas by Johannes Vermeer shows a young, imaginary woman wearing an exotic dress and very large pearl earring.

The soft modelling of her enigmatic face reveals Vermeer’s mastery of using light and representing their effect on various surfaces like the reflection showed on her lips and the earring. 

It is found in the Mauritshuis museum in the Netherlands. 

1. The Mona Lisa

Also known as La Joconde, Mona Lisa is a 16th-century painting by the Italian artist, Leonardo Da Vinci. The painting was made using oil and popular wood depicting a woman with an enigmatic facial expression.

The half-figure composition of the woman has an ambiguous expression looking at the viewer with a smile. Leonardo Da Vinci used “the image of seated Madonna” formula for creating the seated female figure.

The painting depicts harmony, connecting nature with humanity. It presently hangs in “Musee de Louvre” museum in Paris and is French Government property. 

Final Conclusion:

For centuries, these famous paintings have held very special attention of art-lovers, merely for holding a story within themselves apart from just being beautiful in their own way. Each stroke of the brush and each drop of various colors used for these paintings is nothing but a word written on them.

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Cite this article as: Richard Marrison, "20 Most Famous Paintings of All Time," in HistoryTen, September 30, 2020, https://historyten.com/arts/most-famous-paintings-all-time/.
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