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. 1484-6
Created 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.
Fun fact: The nudity depicted in The Birth of Venus was unusual—and rather daring—at the time.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Mona Lisa, c. 1503-1506
Almost 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.
Fun fact: The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, but it seems the thief made the painting famous. Newspapers spread the story of the crime worldwide, sparking international interest in the painting. When the artwork finally returned to the Paris museum two years later, it became celebrated as a masterpiece.
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.
Fun fact: Michelangelo was reluctant to take up the job. When he was asked by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling, he made it very clear that hated painting and preferred sculpture. He even wrote a poem expressing his frustrations.
Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656-7
Spanish 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.
Fun fact: The King and Queen are included in the painting. Above the princess' head, there's a dark wooden frame. Within it is her father and mother, King Philip IV of Spain and Mariana of Austria.
Dutch Golden Age
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch, 1642
In 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.
Fun fact: The painting is viewed by around 4,000 to 5,000 visitors daily at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Johannes Vermeer, Girl With a Pearl Earring, c. 1665
Another 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.
Fun Fact: Girl with a Pearl Earring is sometimes nicknamed the “Mona Lisa of the North.” This is partially due to the subject's captivating expression, and because of the mystery surrounding the piece itself.
Théodore Géricault, The Raft of The Medusa, 1818-9
The Romantic art movement emphasized emotion, the sublimity of nature, and the individual. Théodore Géricault's The Raft of The 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.
Fun fact: The Raft of The Medusa painting is huge, measuring around 16 feet by 23.5 feet. The raft itself was even bigger, measuring 23 feet by 66 feet.
Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830
Liberty Leading the People is a dramatic large-scale painting by French artist Eugène Delacroix. Created during the tumultuous French Revolution, it captures the spirit of the people's uprising.
Fun fact: The woman in the composition is known as “Marianne.” She has been the personification of the French Republic ever since the first French Revolution of 1789.
Édouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, 1863
Manet'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.
Fun fact: The clothed men in the painting were Manet's relatives—his brother, Eugène Manet, and his future brother-in-law, Dutch sculptor Ferdinand Leenhoff. The nude woman is Victorine-Louise Meurent, a popular muse of Parisian painters during late 1800s. She was nicknamed “La Crevette” (The Shrimp) because of her red hair and rosy complexion.
Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872
Impression, 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.”
Fun fact: The painting depicts the harbor of LeHavre in France, but Monet felt there wasn't enough detail to title the painting after the location. Therefore, the name Impression, Sunrise was given. Monet titled most of his paintings with “Impression” for this reason.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bal du Moulin de la Galette, 1876
The 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.
Fun fact: The subjects in Bal du moulin de la Galette were fellow artists, scholars, and close friends to Renoir. The painter asked them to join him at Maison Fournaise to pose for the composition.
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889
While 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.
Fun fact: This was not Van Gogh's first Starry Night. The year before, in 1888, the artist painted his original Starry Night, sometimes known as Starry Night Over the Rhône.
Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-6
French 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.
Fun fact: Seurat was just 26 years old when he completed this painting.
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893
One 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.
Fun fact: This painting inspired the killer's mask in Wes Craven's movie franchise, Scream. The director said of the painting: “It's a classic reference to just the pure horror of parts of the 20th century, or perhaps just human existence.”
Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-8
Austrian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt was famous for his dazzling use of gold and his masterpiece The Kiss is no different. Made in the Vienna Secession art movement—which is closely related to Art Nouveau—this intimate portrait captures a tender moment between a pair of lovers. He uses a flat, two-dimensional composition to enhance the luster of the gold leaf.
Fun fact: Love—whether romantic, platonic, or familial—is a common theme in Klimt's work. “Whoever wants to know something about me,” he said, “should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want.”
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907
Few 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.
Fun fact: Henri Matisse was Picasso's rival for years, and when Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was revealed, Matisse publicly criticized the painting. He believed it undermined modern art.
Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912
Although Marcel 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.
Fun fact: Duchamp's brothers hated the piece and tried to censor it. Duchamp had hoped to debut the painting in the Salon des Indépendants's spring exhibition of Cubist works. However, it was rejected by the committee, and the artist's brothers urged him to withdraw the work or paint over the piece. Duchamp refused to change his artwork and later recalled, “I said nothing to my brothers. But I went immediately to the show and took my painting home in a taxi. It was really a turning point in my life, I can assure you. I saw that I would not be very much interested in groups after that.”
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
Painted towards the end of the Cubist art movement, Pablo 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.
Fun fact: The main subjects in the painting are women. One powerful figure is depicted screaming in agony as she holds a dead baby in her arms. Another holds her arms in the air holding an oil lamp, signifying hope.
René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929
René 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.
Fun fact: The painting received some bad reviews from critics who thought it suggested the idea of nihilism. In an interview, Magritte defended himself by stating, “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had my picture ‘This is a pipe,' I’d have been lying!”
Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931
The Persistence of Memory was painted at the height of the Surrealist art movement and is 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.
Fun fact: Dalí was probably hallucinating when he painted the piece. Around the time of the artwork's creation, the surrealist was practicing his “paranoiac-critical method.” Dalí would attempt to enter a state of self-induced psychotic hallucinations so that he could create what he called “hand-painted dream photographs.”