When we think about the “greatest” of all time, what does that really mean? What earns someone that title? Is it sheer genius and innovation? Hard work and perseverance? In the history of art, there are a lot of incredible painters. But there are some who stand just a hair above the rest and have created a lasting legacy that endures well beyond their lifetime.
So who are the greatest painters of all time? Not only are they technically skilled, but these artists have all made important contributions that have changed Western culture. Many of these artists were considered avant-garde because they pushed boundaries and made startling innovations. Most were already considered geniuses during their lifetimes and enjoyed unparalleled success, while others weren't acknowledged until after their death.
To be considered one of the greatest painters of all time, one needs to possess a special combination of technical skills, outlandish creative thinking, and determination. Blended together, all of these attributes produce outstanding works of genius that continue to thrill, some hundreds of years after their initial creation.
We've put together our list of the 15 greatest painters of all time, taking into consideration all of these factors. While you may have a few names you'd like to see on this list, there's no denying that the artists selected have made an indelible impact on art and culture as we know it.
15 Greatest Painters of All Time
Leonardo da Vinci
Not only did Leonardo da Vinci experiment with mediums, but he also innovated different ways of creating striking compositions. In fact, his signature triangular composition is still used today and is widely considered one of the most visually pleasing painting layouts. He was also an early advocate of studying anatomical models to perfect his art, something that was illegal at the time.
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While Michelangelo may have viewed himself as a sculptor, his placement on this list shows his true genius. Though relatively few Michelangelo paintings survive, those that do are considered some of the best in the world. His ability to quickly master fresco painting and take it to new heights is evident in both the Sistine Chapel Ceiling and The Last Judgement, which continue to inspire artists today.
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This powerhouse of Baroque painting is also one of the first female artists to see great success. She was also young and producing professional art by the age of 15. Through the course of the 17th century, Artemisia Gentileschi created dynamic and explosive paintings that feature her trademark chiaroscuro and rich colors. While her art was sometimes overshadowed by her Baroque peer Caravaggio, over time her incredible skill and role in pioneering female artists have come to be appreciated.
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Rembrandt van Rijn is so famous that even today we call this Dutch master by his first name. Painting everything from genre scenes to landscapes to great historical and mythological paintings, Rembrandt was the dominant force in Dutch art for much of the 17th century. His masterful use of light, as well as his refined and expressive approach to painting have made him a favorite amongst art lovers to this day. If you want to see his work in person, look for his portraits or illustrations from the Bible as they are among his most well regarded.
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British Romantic painter JMW Turner is known as a forerunner of modern art. Coming from traditional Neo-classical painting, Turner began striving for realism in his work—which was unheard of at the time. Through thousands of watercolors and oil paintings, he experimented with light, color, and brushwork. He even worked on his oil paintings outside, something that would later influence the Impressionists.
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Vincent van Gogh
Though he is seen today as one of the most influential painters in Western art, Vincent van Gogh was not commercially successful during his lifetime. Since the early 20th century, however, his masterful paintings have been prized for their expressive emotion. Filled with dramatic brushstrokes and bold color, the Post-Impressionist painter's artwork is a roadmap to modern art.
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Leading Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne has enjoyed a lasting legacy thanks to his innovative approach to perspective, vivid color palette, and use of painterly brushstrokes that were meticulously arranged into geometric forms. In fact, his preference for breaking down forms and using bold tones has often led him to be called a precursor to Cubism.
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From bringing his easel out of the studio and into the environment to his landmark studies of time and light, Claude Monet is perhaps the most beloved of all Impressionist painters. In fact, his painting Impression, Sunrise is credited with launching the entire art movement, and his series of water lilies is a part of his lasting legacy with over 250 iterations of the subject.
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As part of the Impressionist group, Mary Cassatt had a significant role in shaping the movement's legacy. The American artist broke boundaries with her loose brushstrokes and luminous colors and is well known for her focus on mothers and children as her subjects. Her intimate depictions showing even the most ordinary moments in motherhood were revolutionary at the time and had helped forge her legacy and pave the way for future female artists.
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Tamara de Lempicka
Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka was a superstar of the early 20th century. Rubbing elbows with the avant-garde in Paris, she turned away from Impressionism—the popular style of the time—and focused on blazing her own trail. The graphic quality of her work and their rich, vivid colors made her a leader of Art Deco painting and earned her the nickname “The Baroness with a Brush.” Today, her work continues to be used as inspiration for designers and is emblematic of this Golden Age.
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In an 80-year career that moves through multiple styles and over 20,000 works, Pablo Picasso is undoubtedly one of the most recognized names in Western art. His role in launching Cubism would be enough to cement his status in the history books, but Picasso did much more. He is recognized for showing how Classical art can be mastered—and then manipulated—to become something new, fresh, and modern.
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Her highly intimate series of self-portraits and the embracement of her cultural heritage are just some of the things that make Frida Kahlo one of the greatest painters of the 20th century. Today she has become a pop culture icon, but this shouldn't overshadow her great skill as a painter and her innovations in bringing Mexican culture to a wider audience. Her deeply personal self-portraits also point to a new direction for modern artists, where art was about expressing inner emotion rather than attempting to please a collector or patron.
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Pioneering artist Georgia O'Keeffe managed to turn a standard type of painting on its head with her creative vision. While flower painting is a long-held tradition, no one had ever done it quite like O'Keeffe. Not only was she one of the first American artists to create abstract drawings, but her zoomed-in depictions of flowers have remained unique throughout history. Drawn to the American Southwest, O'Keeffe's explosive artwork helped bring attention to a new part of the country at a time when modern art was focused in New York City. “As soon as I saw it, that was my country,” she said of New Mexico, where she eventually made her home. “I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly.”
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American painter Jackson Pollock is best known for his innovative painting technique. By dripping paint on the canvas, the Abstract Expressionist created dynamic, abstract artwork that revolutionized the art scene. Pollock used the force of his whole body to splash and pour paint on his canvases, upending traditional notions of how painters were meant to operate. His studio often came with him in his work with some paintings containing nails or cigarette butts within the pigment.
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