Since the emergence of the Italian Renaissance, the history of western art began a fascinating course through different stylistic genres. While 15th-century painting focused on portraying the ideal, the subsequent movements explored many other aesthetics and ideas, often in reaction to their historical predecessor. And although there are many remarkable paintings to study from these different art movements, we've narrowed down the expansive list to 20 iconic works that span from the end of the 15th century all the way to the first half of the 1900s.
Among this list of masterpieces are some that are so well known they've become a part of popular culture, as well as others that, while famous in art circles, may not be as familiar. For instance, René Magritte's Surrealist painting Treachery of Images, which features a rendering of a brown pipe accompanied by the recognizable phrase “This is not a pipe,” has been referenced in film as well as video games. Similarly, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa continues to inspire authors and filmmakers from around the world. On the other hand, some paintings that have eluded the same attention include Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Impressionist gem, Bal du Moulin de la Galette and Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase.
Want to brush up on your art history knowledge? Scroll down to take a short-listed tour of 20 of western art history's most famous paintings.
Brush up on your art history knowledge by learning about these famous paintings.
Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484-6Created in what is called the Early Renaissance (or the Quattrocento), The Birth of Venus is a stylistic depiction of the mythological Roman goddess, Venus. It is one of the first Renaissance paintings to display Classical inspiration.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Mona Lisa, c. 1503-1506Almost everyone is familiar with The Mona Lisa‘s enchanting smile. Painted in the High Renaissance by polymath Leonardo da Vinci, it exhibits naturalistic painting techniques as well as a smokey background using sfumato.
Michelangelo, The Sistine Chapel ceiling, 1508-1512
Michelangelo spent four years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for Pope Julius II. It is not only renowned for its incredible scale, but also for its complex composition and Classical inspirations.
Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656-7Spanish artist Diego Velázquez was the court painter for King Philip IV and known for his expressive portraits which captured the physical likeness and personality of his subjects. Las Meninas is his most revered work and still lauded by art historians today for its complex design. It shows the infanta Margaret Theresa surrounded by ladies in waiting, a chaperone, a bodyguard, a chamberlain, and even Velázquez himself.
Dutch Golden Age
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch, 1642In the 17th century, Dutch artists became inspired by Northern Renaissance painting techniques in an era known as the Dutch Golden Age. Rembrandt van Rijn's The Night Watch is a massive group portrait in which the figures are nearly life-size. It showcases the artist's dramatic use of light and shadow.
Johannes Vermeer, Girl With a Pearl Earring, c. 1665Another of the most acclaimed paintings to emerge from this period is Johannes Vermeer's enticing portrait, Girl With a Pearl Earring. It portrays an anonymous woman wearing “exotic” blue-and-yellow clothing and sitting before a stark black background.
Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-9The Romantic art movement emphasized emotion, the sublimity of nature, and the individual. Théodore Géricault's The Raft of Medusa depicts a historical shipwreck off the coast of modern-day Mauritania, where sailors survived treacherous conditions to find a safe haven. The painting's use of scale and drama makes it a cornerstone of French Romanticism.
Eugéne Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830Liberty Leading the People is a dramatic large-scale painting by French artist Eugéne Delacroix. Created during the tumultuous French Revolution, it captures the spirit of the people's uprising.
Édouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, 1863Manet's large-scale masterpiece, Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (or The Luncheon on the Grass), bridges the gap between the Realist and Impressionist art movements with its modern approach to style and subject matter. Featuring a nude woman picnicking in the company of two well-dressed men, it derives inspiration from Classical paintings of female nudes while placing it in a contemporary setting.
Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872Impression, Sunrise depicts a hazy blue-hued seascape dotted with small boats and a bright orange sun. In fact, its radical use of expressive brushstrokes to portray a sunrise is what sparked the Impressionist art movement and named its creator, Claude Monet, the “Father of Impressionism.”
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bal du Moulin de la Galette, 1876The Bal du moulin de la Galette, or the Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, is among Renoir's most celebrated pieces. Like many other Impressionist works, it was painted en plein air, and offers a glimpse into life and leisure during France's Belle Époque.
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889While the Impressionist movement was preoccupied with portraying light in its painting, the Post-Impressionist movement focused on color. And few artists are as renowned for their use of color as Vincent van Gogh. The Starry Night was created late into the Dutch painter's short career and depicts the view from his window in the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-6French artist and color theorist Georges Seurat was one of the inventors of Pointillism, a painting technique that applies paint to the canvas using small dots of color. His massive magnum opus, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte displays his mastery of the unique style.
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893One of the pioneers of Norwegian Expressionism, Edvard Munch‘s stylistic approach to conveying emotion, particularly feelings of anguish, is best displayed in his iconic masterpiece, The Scream.
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907Few artists can boast a portfolio as numerous and diverse as Pablo Picasso. A pioneer of several different styles, he is perhaps best known for his works in Cubism. And while Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is often considered to be a proto-Cubist painting, it still exhibits an interest in shapes, perspective, and simplification of forms.
Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912Although Duchamp's painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was initially rejected by the Cubists as being too Futurist in style, the work was subsequently recognized as an example of both movements and a modern masterpiece. Like the Cubists, it utilizes fragmentation and simplification of shapes, and like the Futurists it portrays movement.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
Painted towards the end of the Cubist art movement, Picasso's Guernica is one of the most prominent examples of anti-war art. It captures the anguish of both people and animals that is caused by unnecessary violence.
René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929
Magritte's Surrealist paintings are known for their unique sense of irony and wit. One of his most famous pieces, The Treachery of Images, insists that the pipe depicted “is not a pipe” because it is simply a representation of one.
Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931
The Persistence of Memory was painted at the height of the Surrealist art movement and considered to be Salvador Dalí's most iconic works. It displays outlandish subject matter evocative of a dreamscape. Even today, the melting clock is synonymous with the Spanish artist's name.
Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, 1939
Many of Frida Kahlo‘s paintings explored her personal life through Surrealist imagery. The Two Fridas was created after the Mexican artist separated from her husband Diego Rivera and explores two sides of herself joined by clasped hands and a long vein. Although it is classified as Surrealist in style, Kahlo insisted that it portrayed her life, and was quoted as saying, “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.”