20 Famous Paintings From Western Art History Any Art Lover Should Know

Must Know Paintings

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.

 

Italian Renaissance

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484-6

Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli, “The Birth of Venus,” c. 1484–1486. (Photo: Uffizi via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

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.

 

Leonardo da Vinci, The Mona Lisa, c. 1503-1506

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, “The Mona Lisa,” c. 1503–6. (Photo: Louvre via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

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.

 

Michelangelo, The Sistine Chapel ceiling, 1508-1512

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Photo: Stock Photos from Creative Lab/Shutterstock

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.

 

Baroque

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656-7

Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez

Diego Velázquez, “Las Meninas,” 1656-7. (Photo: Museo del Prado via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

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.

 

Dutch Golden Age

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch, 1642

The Nightwatch by Rembrandt

Rembrandt, “The Nightwatch,” 1642. (Photo: Rijksmuseum via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

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.

 

Johannes Vermeer, Girl With a Pearl Earring, c. 1665

Girl With a Pearl Earring Painting

Johannes Vermeer, “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” c. 1665. (Photo: Mauritshuis via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

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.

 

Romanticism

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-9

Raft of Medusa by Gericault

Théodore Géricault, “The Raft of Medusa,” 1818-9. (Photo: Louvre via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

The 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, 1830

Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix

Eugéne Delacroix, “Liberty Leading the People,” 1830. (Photo: Louvre via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

Liberty 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.

 

Realism—Impressionism

Édouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, 1863

Painting by Manet

Édouard Manet, “Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe,” 1863. (Photo: Musée d'Orsay via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

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.

 

Impressionism

Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872

Impressionist Painting by Monet

Claude Monet, “Impression, Sunrise,” 1872. (Photo: Musée Marmottan Monet via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

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.”

 

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bal du Moulin de la Galette, 1876

Impressionist Painting

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Bal du moulin de la Galette,” 1876. (Photo: Musée d'Orsay via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

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.

 

Post-Impressionism

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, “The Starry Night,” 1889. (Photo: MoMA via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

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.

 

Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-6

Post-Impressionism Painting by Seurat

Georges Seurat, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” 1884-6. (Photo: Art Institute of Chicago via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

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.

 

 

Expressionism

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch, “The Scream,” 1893. (Photo: National Gallery of Norway via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

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.

 

Cubism

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907

Painting by Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso, “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon,” 1907. (Photo: MoMA via Wikimedia Commons [Fair Use])

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.

 

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912

Cubist Painting

Marcel Duchamp, “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2,” 1912. (Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons [Fair Use])

Although 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

Guernica (Picasso)

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.

 

Surrealism

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929

Treachery of Images by Magritte

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 by Salvador Dalí, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Upper Midtown.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

The Two Fridas

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.”

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Margherita Cole

Margherita Cole is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and illustrator based in Southern California. She holds a BA in Art History with a minor in Studio Art from Wofford College, and an MA in Illustration: Authorial Practice from Falmouth University in the UK. When she’s not writing, Margherita continues to develop her creative practice in sequential art.

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