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Ever since the first humans decided to start depicting their surroundings in one way or another, the world of drawing and painting never stopped developing into countless movements and forms of expression. The constant evolvement of the way we use lines and color created tidal shifts in the world of art.
Much has been produced since the first handprints that were left on caves. However, of all the myriads of paintings, some stand out as masterpieces through the ages. Here’s a look at some of the world’s most famous paintings and why they’re considered great.
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the world’s most well-known painting. This renaissance masterpiece is considered one of the pinnacles of art. It is definitely hard to find any other painting that has been so researched, written about, debated about, visited, and beloved like Mona Lisa.
Known for its realism, enigmatic features and facial expression of a woman that has enchanted billions of people around the world with her famous smile, the Mona Lisa entrances with her piercing yet soft gaze. The three-quarter pose of the subject was novel at the time.
The painting itself is supposed to be a depiction of Lisa Gherardini, an Italian noblewoman whose portrait was commissioned by her husband Francesco del Giocondo. But, as you may be aware, the story of the painting of Mona Lisa went through many twists and turns and never ended up belonging to the commissioner of the painting Francesco del Gioconda.
It was believed that the painting was finished in 1506 but da Vinci never really stopped working on it. Currently, Mona Lisa belongs to the French Republic, and it has been proudly displayed at the Louvre Museum in Paris since 1797. However, while it’s a great work of art, art historians agree that it’s not superior to the other works by da Vinci. Its enduring fame has been helped along by its unique history and the twists and turns it has had over the years.
The Girl with The Pearl Earring
The Girl with The Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer is a celebrated Dutch oil masterpiece. The painting was finished in 1665 and since then it has captivated the curiosity of millions with its simplicity, delicate characteristic of the light, and depiction of yet another enigmatic character.
The Girl with The Pearl Earring depicts a European girl wearing a head scarf, an exotic piece of clothing that was not worn in the Netherlands at that time of the making of this piece. The girl’s shy yet piercing look at the viewer barely takes the attention from her single shining pear-shaped earring that decorates her facial features.
This is Vermeer’s most famous piece of art, and the true degree of his masterful work was only visible after meticulous restorations in 1994 when new layers of color and tone were revealed. The Girl with The Pearl Earring has rightfully earned its place on the pedestal of the greatest works of art of humanity. In 2014, the painting was auctioned for over $10 million dollars.
Campbell’s Soup Cans
Campbell’s Soup Cans by Andy Warhol is a work of art that was produced in 1962 representing a series of canvases displaying canned tomato soups by the company Campbell’s.
The work itself consists of 32 small canvases that make up the entire piece. Not long after it was revealed to the public, it sent shockwaves throughout the entire art world and opened the doors to pop art and industrial design onto the art stage.
The meaning behind Campbell’s Soup Cans seemingly does not exist, yet Andy Warhol used this piece to show his appreciation for ordinary culture and modernity that was often ignored in art.Warhol purposely chose not to infuse the piece with any depiction of emotional or social commentary. The Cans have been labelled as an offence to art, but they have also been praised as the bringers of the era of pop art and industrial design.
The Starry Night
The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh was painted in 1889 and depicted a stunning view as seen from an asylum room window just before sunrise. The painting is a somewhat romanticized and stylized representation of the view experienced by Vincent van Gogh.
Van Gogh uses an artificial color palette with short brushstrokes, which give the painting an ethereal, otherworldly look, captivating the viewer. There is also a strong focus on luminescence. The fluid dynamics of the painting, depicted through the turbulent swirls, add movement and convey emotion.
Starry Night captures the raw, spiralling, pulsating emotions of Vincent van Gogh, a troubling and troubled 19th-century artist. The painting depicts a serene tranquil scene, but the context of its creation is nothing like that. Van Gogh did the painting in an asylum after he mutilated his left ear as a result of a mental breakdown.
Interestingly, Van Gogh always regarded his starry night as an artistic failure, without knowing that one day it would be one of the most revered pieces of art in human history. Today the painting is worth well over a 100 million dollars.
Impression, Sunrise was painted in 1872 by Claude Monet. It immediately ushered in a new era of painting. For such a monumental piece, it depicts lazy waters and an industrial landscape in the foggy background, and fishermen in their boats with the glowing red sun overlooking the scene as it rises above the horizon.
The painting received everything but praise and it was brutally denounced by most of the artists of the age that considered it immature and amateurish. The critics at the time even used the painting’s name to label a group of artists that painted in a similar style, giving them and their new movement the famous name: Impressionism.
Monet would later say of the painting: “A landscape is only an impression, instantaneous, hence the label they’ve given us– all because of me, for that matter. I’d submitted something done out of my window at Le Havre, sunlight in the mist with a few masts in the foreground jutting up from the ships below. They wanted a title for the catalog; it couldn’t really pass as a view of Le Havre, so I answered: “Put down Impression.” Out of that they got impressionism, and the jokes proliferated….”
Impressionism completely changed the thematic context in painting. Instead of depicting stiff and lifeless scenes, it focused on color, emotion and energy of the objects on the canvass. And it was Impression, Sunrise which set the ball rolling.
Guernica is often considered the most famous painting by Pablo Picasso and is probably one of his most personally painful art pieces. It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest artistic anti-war statements ever put on a canvas.
Picasso was appalled at the casual bombing of Guernica, a small town in the Basque country in northern Spain, by Nazi forces with the collaboration of the Spanish nationalists and fascist Italy. He immediately painted Guernica as a reaction to the bombing.
The painting is obviously a political piece and it brought worldwide attention to the events that were unfolding in Spain. Today, a large tapestry copy of Guernica hangs at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, just at the entrance to the Security Council room.
Although not fully confirmed, some diplomats state that the painting was covered during the announcement by the Bush administration regarding their motives and arguments for the war against Iraq, so that the painting with its anti-war message would not be seen in the background.
Guernica can be found in Madrid where it has been displayed for decades. It’s purported to be valued at around 200 million dollars.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa is a 19th-century print on a woodblock by Japanese artist Hokusai. The print depicts a gigantic wave, threatening three small boats just off the coast close to mount Fiji that is shown in the background.
Some art historians believe that the painting represents a tsunami, quite a feared force of nature in Japanese culture, but others claim that this is not the message of the painting. The painting is still considered one of Japan’s greatest, if not the greatest, artistic contribution to humanity.
The Great Wave of Kanagawa has also become a part of pop culture, and has its own emoji!
The Black Square
The Black Square is a painting by Kazimir Malevich, both loved and despised in the art world. It displays a single black square on canvas. The piece was shown at the Last Futurist Exhibition in 1915. Naturally, the painting of a black square caused a lot of confusion in the art world.
Malevich commented that his black square is a commentary on zero, nothingness from which everything begins, and the nothingness from which creation emerges depicting non-objectivity and the white emptiness of a liberated nothing.
Today, the painting has begun to show cracks, showing colors coming through the crakcs. X-ray analysis has revealed that there is an underlying image that lies beneath the black square.
The Kiss is a famous painting by Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt and one of the most recognizable works of art in the world. This oil on canvas is perhaps one of the greatest representations of love in the history of painting, portraying a couple holding each other in a deep embrace. It marked the end of the Klimt’s Gold Period, which saw the inclusion of gold leaf in his works of art.
The mixed emotions showcased in the painting are part of what has helped its enduring appeal, as the woman’s facial expression implies abandonment, as well as delight, tranquility, and ecstasy. The robes of the man, featuring geometric blocks in blacks and greys, imply his power and the dominant male force, while the woman’s softer swirls, and flower patterned dress emphasizes her femininity, fragility, and softness.
The painting became inspirational in the Art Nouveau period, and to this day it is considered a masterpiece, especially with regards to its influence on the development of art, fashion, and design.
The Last Supper
The Last Supper is a masterpiece mural of the High Renaissance period by Leonardo da Vinci found in Milan. This 15-century mural depicts the last supper of Jesus and his 12 disciples. While the painting is found on a wall, it’s not a fresco. Instead, da Vinci used an innovating new technique by using tempera paints on the stone of the wall.
The perspective of the painting is part of what makes it so appealing. Da Vinci reportedly tied a piece of string onto a nail hammered into the center of the wall to create the depth of field lines. This enabled him to establish a single perspective, with Jesus as the vanishing point.
As with many of his paintings, da Vinci struggled with the Last Supper, allegedly having issues trying to depict the villainous face of Judas. He wanted to focus on the moment when Jesus reveals that one of his disciples would betray him, and the shocked reactions that ensued following this declaration. Da Vinci spent years on and off working on the piece to achieve perfection.
Sunflowers are another work of genius by the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, who worked on a series of sunflower paintings in 1887. His most notable one depicts an arrangement of a bouquet of sunflowers as they sit lazily in a vase.
As with most of his other paintings, the story behind Sunflowers is rather dark. Van Gogh painted them to impress his fellow painter Gaugin, who was visiting. Van Gogh went as far as doing an entire series of paintings of sunflowers, depicting them in all stages of life, from early blooms to withering and rotten. This is perhaps van Gogh’s best-known series of paintings and were considered groundbreaking because of their use of the spectrum of yellow hues, made possible by pigments that had been recently invented.
The Sunflower series did not fix the strained relationship between Gaugin and Van Gogh, and their bitter fallout led to Van Gogh’s breakdown and the tragic act of self-mutilation by cutting off his own ear.
American Gothic is a painting by American painter Grant Wood in 1930, that depicts an American gothic house and the people that Grant imagined would live in such houses.
Wood depicts two figures in his painting – a farmer, holding a sharp pitchfork, and his daughter (often mistakenly seen as his wife). The figures are very striking and serious in appearance and dressed according to the times, with the daughter wearing 20th-century rural Americana clothing.
During the Great Depression, the figures came to represent the persevering, strong American pioneer spirit. There have also been many other interpretations of the painting, with some scholars suggesting that it depicts the Roman deities Pluto and Proserpina (Greek equivalent Hades and Persephone), while others speculate that it features Wood’s own parents.
Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky is an oil-on-canvas painting dating to 1923. It depicts an arrangement of circles, lines, triangles, and different geometric forms on a background of cream melting into regions of light blue. It’s considered an ode to a universal aesthetic language that inspired Kandinsky to develop his own style.
Composition 8 speaks in simple shapes and forms and elevates the abstract avant-garde style of Kandinsky. The painter himself considered it one of his highest achievements,
The Sistine Chapel Ceiling
The Sistine Chapel ceiling painted by Michelangelo is one of the greatest masterpieces and a pinnacle of High Renaissance art. The work was commissioned by Pope Julius II and was painted between 1508 to 1512.
The ceiling is decorated with multiple scenes from the Book of Genesis along with depictions of various popes. It’s well known for displaying Michelangelo’s skill in representing human figures in different poses and his choice to use nude figures. This echoed in the later developments where nudity in painting was used as an emotion-conveying tool.
The Sistine Chapel is one of the most popular tourist sites in the Vatican and draws crowds of tourists each year. However, it’s prohibited to take photos of the ceiling as the flashes of cameras can be harmful to the works of art.
The Persistence of Memory
The Persistence of Memory is a 1931 painting by Salvador Dali that has become one of the most well-known works of surrealism. The painting is sometimes referred to as “Melting Clocks” or “The Melting Watches”.
The piece features a surreal scene, with several clocks depicted in various stages of melting. Dali comments on the relativity of space and time, depicting the melting, soft watches in the painting. In the center of the image is a strange monster-like creature, often employed by Dali as a form of self-portrait. If you look closely, you can see the eyelashes, nose, eye, and perhaps the tongue of the creature. The orange clock in the left-hand corner is covered in ants, a symbol often used by Dali to represent decay.
The above list of paintings artistic masterpieces of unparalleled genius and creativity. While some were reviled and criticized by others, all of them challenged the dogmas of their time. They were innovative, displaying human emotion and complex feelings and thoughts. Most importantly, they remain relevant to this day. Which one is your favorite?