Countless painters have delighted people with their paintings down the centuries. Many have actually inspired new thoughts and pushed the boundaries of artistic expression. Such painters are remembered even today for their legacy and their works have become part of the current human civilization and heritage.
In almost every major city of the world, there are galleries and museums that celebrate the most accomplished artists of older and current times. Their paintings reflect the values and attitudes of the times and offer a window into the societal and cultural concerns of the age in which they were created. A small number of these paintings survive the test of time to become actual timeless works of art that are remembered beyond the lifetime of their creators.
100 Greatest Paintings of All Time (Video)
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60. The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba by Claude Lorrain
This painting was made in the year 1648 and features Queen Sheba making a visit to Jerusalem to meet King Solomon, a common Biblical scene. The painting is made memorable due to the significance of the event as well as the beautiful classical buildings in the surroundings.
59. Starry Night by Van Gogh
Starry Night is one of the best-remembered paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, by far the most well-known Dutch painter. It is particularly well known for depicting the modern art tradition and is recognizable by its deep blue swirls representing the night sky. The painting represents a break from the traditional techniques that were focused on capturing realism. Currently housed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, this painting is also one of the most commonly reproduced works of art in popular culture for its color scheme.
58. Girl with Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer
If the Mona Lisa is considered to be the best work of da Vinci, then this painting which is also called the Dutch Mona Lisa should be the best painting by Johannes Vermeer. This painting features a portrait of a girl wearing a very distinguishable earring that reflects the light beautifully. Made a few decades after the Mona Lisa, it features a high degree of realism and can be seen at the Mauritshuis Gallery in the Netherlands.
57. Guernica by Pablo Picasso
Picasso was one of the denizens of modern art and Guernica represents the culmination of his artistic output. Made in 1937, this painting was inspired by the Spanish Civil War. Painted in shades of black and white, it is a vocal protest against genocide and other heinous crimes committed during times of war. It became one of the most impactful paintings with a political message and was instrumental in ending the Civil War.
56. Madame Recamier by Jacques-Louis David
This painting features a portrait of Juliette Recamier who was a popular Parisian socialite in the early seventeenth century. The portrait features her reclining on a settee dressed in white, with mostly antique furniture around her. It is a unique painting that David was unable to complete it. Nonetheless, it offers an excellent example of the artistic prowess of the painter, especially his ability to produce translucent colors as seen in the attire of Madame Recamier.
55. Royal Red and Blue by Mark Rothko
In 1954, Rothko painted his creation titled Royal Red and Blue which at first glance resembles a wash of three different colors. This is an oil painting on canvas and is an abstract expression that is also known as No. 1. Estimated to be worth $50 million, this is one of the most visited paintings at Sotheby’s and has been exhibited at famous galleries of the world such as the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.
54. The Lock by John Constable
John Constable was a famous English painter who is regarded as one of the best the nation has produced. The Lock is part of his River Stour series of paintings which shows a villager trying to get a small barge to cross the river by opening a gate. A giant tree can be seen in the background, completed with a heavily overcast sky.
53. Whistler’s Mother by James Whistler
Whistler’s Mother painted in 1871 became famous when it was featured in the Bean movie released in 1997. It features the painter’s mother seated on a chair and posing for her son. It is rumored that she was a last-minute replacement for the model whom Whistler intended to paint on that day. Anyhow, the painting is regularly exhibited at museums around the world but is the property of Musee d’Orsay.
52. The Kiss by Gustav Klimt
This is an interesting painting from the early twentieth century and is known for its detailed patterns. The Kiss features a couple embracing each other and is a symbolic representation of love. The painting has been made in the art nouveau style which also features a luxurious mix of colors and textures. Gold leaf has been used heavily in the painting which was an inspiration from the mosaic work the artist said at the San Vitale Basilica in Ravenna.
51. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso
If it’s Picasso, then it has to be one of the best examples of modern art. This 1907 painting features African inspired art probably for the very first time in European painting. Picasso was probably inspired to feature these in his painting after visiting the African exhibit at Palais du Trocadero in Paris. As Picasso was a native of Barcelona, the women in this painting are supposed to be prostitutes from Picasso’s native city.
50. Composition with Red Blue and Yellow by Piet Mondrian
This painting is much smaller than the other paintings included in this list, and perhaps this is what makes it famous and unique. Measuring only 18 inches as a square, it is rich in art history. All the three essential aspects of art, namely composition, color, and form are at work here. Primary colors are used to create this painting along with white and black. It is also said that this painting was a harbinger of the Minimalist tradition in painting.
49. Grande Odalisque by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Made in the year 1814, the Grande Odalisque is famous because it was ordered by Queen Caroline who was also the sister of Napoleon Bonaparte. It is made in the Mannerist style which was the style that later evolved into Romanticism and was a shift away from the Neo-classicist style. The woman featured in the painting is most likely a concubine seated on her couch. It was a rather amusing painting at the time because the proportions of the body are quite unrealistic.
48. Wanderer in Fog by Caspar Friedrich
This painting, made in 1819, is a good example of the Romantic style which revered nature as the primary source of inspiration and truth. This painting features a man with his back towards the viewer standing on the top of a rock and observing his surroundings. Because of the vantage point offered by the perspective, it is possible for the viewer to also enjoy the view and partake in the enjoyment of the stranger.
47. Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp
Nude Descending a Staircase is an experimental painting made by Duchamp who was widely known for his cubic style and appreciation of futuristic styles in painting. Since this style was particularly new for American viewers, the painting received a lot of criticism when it was showcased in 1912. Over time, people have learned to appreciate its unique representation of form, time and movement, whereas its title drew considerable attention from the viewing public.
46. Creation of Adam by Michelangelo
Rome’s Sistine Chapel features this classic masterpiece by Michelangelo and is the best reflection of the Renaissance values as it focuses on the relation between man and God. Michelangelo is supposed to have created this painting in the first decade of the 16th century and is one of the best representations of the Biblical scene of the creation of man. In addition to this painting, the Sistine Chapel features 8 other paintings representing different scenes of the Book of Genesis.
45. The Night Watch by Rembrandt
No list of the most famous paintings in the world can be complete without a mention of Rembrandt, possibly one of the best and most famous painters of the seventeenth century. Housed in Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands, this painting features Captain Cocq and some guards on the move. Rembrandt was regarded as one of the leading lights in representing light and shadow in his paintings, and The Night Watch is no exception.
44. Dogs Playing Poker by Cassius Coolidge
This is actually a collection of paintings rather than a single painting, with all the paintings featuring a number of dogs of different breeds playing poker. The painting was made by Cassius Coolidge, a popular American painter in the early years of the 20th century. The painting invokes humor for showing dogs engaging in typically masculine behaviors such as smoking and playing cards sitting around a table. In 2015, the painting was auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York for $658,000.
43. Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Rubens
Massacre of the Innocents is one of the famous Biblical paintings of the world as it features the incident as narrated in the Gospel of Matthew. This painting is estimated to have been painted in 1636 and Rubens was inspired to create this painting after a visit to Italy during the early years of the 17th century. It also seems to have been inspired by the Italian painter Caravaggio and his great contemporaries.
42. The Flower Carrier by Diego Rivera
The Flower Carrier is a famous painting by the American painter Diego Rivera. It was painted in 1935 and is currently housed in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A sharp cry against capitalism, it shows the pain that human beings suffer in this exploitative system. Noticeable for the excessive burden that the man seems to be carrying, and the helpless woman who seems to be helping him carry it.
41. Arnolfini by Jan van Eyck
Arnolfini is one of the best representatives of art that was created in Northern Europe during the Renaissance. According to most estimates, this painting was made in the year 1434 which makes it one of the earliest paintings of modern times. In fact, it is even believed to be one of the earliest oil portraits. The painting shows an Italian couple which has been surmised to be an engagement of the couple. It uses the orthogonal perspective to paint an interior space for the first time.
40. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Édouard Manet
This particular painting raised quite a stir when it was first exhibited because of the way in which it featured a party of young Parisians enjoying a picnic in the outdoors. It was rejected for being exhibited at the Academie des Beaux-Arts exhibition mainly because the painting featured a nude woman while the men in the painting are fully clothed. This painting made in the nineteenth century seems to be inspired by the Renaissance style and is one of the later reminders of the classical tradition in painting.
39. Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix
Contrary to what most people believe, this painting is not about the French Revolution. In fact, it represents the 1830 Revolution in France that resulted in the ouster of King Charles X. It is largely an allegorical painting in which the revolution is represented as a woman carrying the French flag. Behind her is an assortment of the different strata of French society walking towards their freedom.
38. Nighthawks by Edward Hopper
This painting was made in the year 1942 and features four modern characters at a diner engaged in different activities. It is one of the best depictions of the isolation that people experience in a modern urban setting. Even though each person in the painting appears to be lonely, they choose to avoid conversation or any kind of interaction with each other. Another interesting feature of this painting is that it has been compared with Van Gogh’s famous painting Café Terrace at Night.
37. The Scream by Edvard Munch
The Scream is Edvard Munch’s most famous painting that was made towards the end of the nineteenth century. The unique thing about this painting is that it is made with a combination of oil paints and pastel. Instead of using a canvas, Munch painted this on cardboard. It is quite a popular painting because it represents the state of anxiety and loneliness marked by the modern world.
36. Rain’s Rustle by Leonid Afremov
Rain’s Rustle is a popular and famous painting by Israeli painter Leonid Afremov and features a burst of color in oil paint on canvas. In fact, Afremov was famous for cityscapes that featured rain and lighting. The unique thing about this painting is that it was created entirely by using a palette knife, which few painters did at the time. This creates the effect of the unique strokes that add a certain depth to the panting.
35. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat
This is one of the most famous French paintings of all time, created by Seurat using the pointillist method and is a sizable painting for its time. It features a scene along the Seine River where a number of Parisian citizens are seen to be enjoying the weather. The painting was made intermittently for several years and was eventually completed in 1886 and was exhibited soon after.
34. The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli
According to the legend, Venus was a goddess who was born in the sea. This painting depicts the landmark event in Roman mythology and features the goddess standing on a shell that floats on the sea. The painting is currently housed at the Uffizi Gallery in the Italian city of Florence. This is one of the oldest paintings on this list since it is believed that the painting was created in the latter decades of the fifteenth century.
33. King Philip’s Family by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez
This painting offers a richness in themes that is comparable to none. The family shown in this portrait is that of Spain’s King Philip IV posing inside an artist’s studio. Velazquez has truly outdone himself with this painting which simultaneously features a composition, a self-portrait and detailed brushwork. The impact of all this activity on the viewer is pure delight. There is also a mirror that shows the faces of King Philip IV and his Queen.
32. Medusa’s Raft by Theodore Gericault
This is an extremely dramatic painting that was inspired by the tragic deaths of more than 100 sailors in 1818 when a French navy ship sank near the African coast. The scene shown in the painting represents the 15 sailors who were rescued after 13 days of being adrift at sea and having gone through terrible experiences. The painting correctly shows the horror and desperation of the men and is one of the best instances of art taking inspiration from real-life incidents.
31. Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali
The melting watches of this painting and known to all as Salvador Dali made these timepieces unforgettable in his painting The Persistence of Memory. Perhaps the best known visual representation of time through watches, this painting inspires people to think about their life and how they have spent their time. Many people have also interpreted this poem in scientific terms which is a testament to its timelessness and ability to inspire generations of artists and art lovers.
30. The Son of Man by Rene Magritte
Rene Magritte’s painting The Son of Man is the signature work of the artist and the biggest reason for his fame. It is originally meant to be a self-portrait and shows a man wearing a hat and coat, which his face hidden behind a green apple. It is a particularly important painting because it reflects the theme of hidden and revealed objects, suggesting that people are more interested in the things they cannot see than the things that are visible to them.
29. Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch
This painting features an extremely busy scene showing the earthly delights, perhaps one of the first manifestations of the surrealist style of painting. The painting can be divided into three scenes, one of which features Christ handing over Eve to Adam. Creatures from Hell are also featured in this painting. Overall, there is heavy use of symbolism in this painting, which makes it one of the busiest paintings to be created since the Renaissance.
28. Sunrise by Claude Monet
This is one of the most famous paintings of Monet, the chief proponent of the Impressionistic style in painting. This particular painting titled Sunrise was painted in 1874 and features a sunrise scene in Le Havre, which is Monet’s native town and also a port city. Basically, this painting offers a perfect example of Monet’s skill over showing light and shadow in his paintings, a feat that he could easily accomplish by the deft strokes of his brush.
27. Self-Portrait by Van Gogh
This is probably one of the finest self-portraits made by any artist. Even though Van Gogh made several self-portraits in his lifetime, this one has particularly endured the test of time and is unique in that it features him without his characteristic beard. He had famously presented it to his mother on her birthday. Interestingly, this painting is also among the most valuable paintings, famously bought by a private collector for more than $71 million two decades ago.
26. The Portrait of Dora Maar by Picasso
Dora Maar was a good friend of Picasso’s and also a well-known photographer of her time. She features in this abstract portrait by the famous artist and can be seen seated and pleasantly smiling. The most notable feature is her hand on which she rests her head and the different directions of her gaze. This is an interesting painting as it shows a variety of shapes and colors that was characteristic in the truest celebration of Picasso’s art.
25. Three Musicians by Picasso
An interesting bit of history about this painting is that Picasso made two paintings with the same title, i.e. Three Musicians. The painting was made in 1921 in a town near Paris. The painting features a trio of musicians towards the left side, one of whom is a comic figure which was a common staple used in paintings of the time. Particularly notable is the bright musician in the center who serves as the focal point of this painting.
24. American Gothic by Grant Wood
American Gothic is a 20th century painting by Grant Wood after he was inspired by the sight of a nondescript dwelling called the Dibble House on one of his trips across the US. Even though the house featured in the painting is real, the two people seen in it are not its real inhabitants. The man is modeled on a dentist Wood knew while the woman is modeled on Wood’s own sister. The painting was featured at a competition in Chicago and received third prize.
23. The Bridge at Narni by Corot
This is a famous painting by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot who was a famous French painter of the nineteenth century. He was a widely travelled painter which gave him lots of inspiration for making landscape paintings. The Bridge at Narni depicts a scene in the Narni region of Italy and has been made using oil paints.
22. The Naked Maja by Lucientes
This is a female nude posing for the artist and as can be expected became quite a controversial painting at the time of its creation. In fact, Lucientes got into a lot of trouble because this was right in the middle of the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, the painting was made on the commission of the then Prime Minister of Spain. Even though much conjecture has taken place about who the woman featured in the painting is, her identity still remains a mystery.
21. No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock
This is one of the best known abstract paintings made in the expressionist style by Jackson Pollock in the 1948. On first look, the painting features a drizzle of different colours against a dark background. Even though it did not generate a lot of excitement at the time, it is today one of the most talked about abstract paintings. In 2006, it fetched $140 million at an auction. It can be seen at a private collection in New York nowadays.
20. The Great Wave of Kanagawa by Hokusai
Hokusai may not be as well known as many western painters but he has been an inspiration for many of the most famous painters we know today. He produced a series of prints of Mount Fuji which made him famous the world over. This painting is part of that collection and shows a giant wave endangering boats along the coast of Kanagawa.
19. The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel
Pieter Brugel was known for representing common people in his paintings, which makes his paintings a convenient window into the lives of ordinary people in the sixteenth century. His paintings feature seasonal activities and this one in particular shows some farmers working on a wheat farm while some other workers are shown to be resting. It is a highly detailed painting and is testament to Brugels keen observation.
18. Olympia by Edouard Manet
Edouard Manet made this famous painting of Olympia in 1863, but it was not showcased until two years later. It was a highly scandalous painting at the time because it features a nude female who is being served flowers by her servant. There were threats to its safety which is why the administration of the Salon where it was exhibited had to take additional precautions to handle any threats.
17. The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel
This painting by the famous Dutch painter Bruegel has been made in the traditional Renaissance style and features the myth of Icarus who was killed because he flew too close to the sun. The painting is currently exhibited at the Musee des Beaux Arts in Brussels and is one of the most visited exhibits. The painting has been made in a landscape style and measures 112 cm x 73.5 cm in its dimensions.
16. The Beheading of John the Baptist
This famous painting is known by several names, including the Decollation of Saint John. The event shown in the painting is a holy event for Catholic Christians all over the world which gives added importance to this painting. It is an excellent example of representing liturgical practices through art and history. To date, this painting is widely reproduced and its reproductions are housed in various churches and galleries of the world in the 21st century.
15. The Third of May by Francisco Goya
Francis Goya was a famous nineteenth century painter from Spain and was influenced by Napoleon’s defeat by the Spanish forces. As it is clear from the painting, the theme of the painting is liberation particularly in the context of Spain’s turbulent history. It celebrates the defiance of the Spanish rebels when being stared in the face by death at the hands of Napoleon’s soldiers. There is considerable detail in the painting as it shows a good play of light and darkness.
14. Nympheas by Claude Monet
Claude Monet, known for his impressionistic style of painting, created this masterpiece in the later years of his career. This is a culmination of almost 250 paintings by Monet and is also known as Water Lilies. These paintings are also famous because of the fact that at the time of making these paintings, Monet was suffering from eye cataracts, due to which some of the paintings were completed by other painters.
13. Dance at the Moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
This is a famous 1876 painting made by Renoir and is regarded as one of his best paintings. The painting shows a typical scene of a Sunday afternoon. It is believed that the scene takes place in the Moulin de la Galette in Paris. For many years, the painting was on display at the Museum of Arts of Paris and enjoys great admiration from people the world over.
12. Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Another masterpiece by Renoir, this is a painting that was made a few years after Bal du Moulin and was featured for public viewing in 1882. It is one of the most highly prized paintings as it fetched $125,000 at an auction in the year 1923. Today, the painting can be found on display at the Phillips Collection.
11. Happy Accident on the Swing by Fragonard
This is an 18th century painting by Fragonard even though the identity of the painter is still not known with certainty. Despite this little weakness, it remains one of the best masterpieces. Made in the Rococo style, this painting features a woman enjoying a ride on a swing with her dress billowing due to the air. A man in hiding in the nearby shrubbery and is able to peek up her dress.
10. Café Terrace at Night by Van Gogh
This is a classic Van Gogh oil painting made in 1888 which features a night time café in the city of Arles in France. The café is brightly lit up in yellow light which is contrasted with the dark street and the starry night sky. Patrons are shown dining in the café under what some critics have described as lighting that is too harsh on the eyes. The painting is housed at the Kroller Muller Museum in Otterio.
9. View of Toledo by El Greco
View of Toledo is dated between 1596 and 1600 which is the peak of Renaissance painting. El Greco was one of the most popular painters in Spain and led the Renaissance culture. He may be called one of the pioneers of landscape painting in this era as the main subject of his painting. The painting shows Toledo city but the topography is not entirely realistic. However, the painting is known for its depiction of dark and light contrast, especially the sky.
8. The Hay Wain by John Constable
The Hay Wain is an iconic English painting in the Romantic style and features a typical rural landscape. The region is believed to be along the Stour River since Constable was known to frequent this area regularly as a child. The hay wain or cart is the focal point of this painting and a house can also be seen nearby. The painting is regarded as one of the most remarkable paintings made by an English painter.
7. Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth
This painting is dated around 1948 and is made by Wyeth who was among the most famous 20th century painters in the US. His depictions of the American rural landscape are widely appreciated for their realistic value. This particular painting features a young woman looking at a house while lying in a grassy field. This woman was a real person whom Wyeth knew who could not walk properly due to a muscular and nervous disorder.
6. Irises by Van Gogh
After Sunflowers, this is probably the most famous paintings by Van Gogh. Made in 1889, Irises is also one of several paintings that Van Gogh made at the time featuring these flowers. In fact, he even made several prints featuring irises. This was one of Van Gogh’s last paintings which he made before shooting himself with a revolver. In 1987, this painting became the most expensive one to be sold in history, fetching almost $54 million at an auction.
5. The Fighting Temeraire by JMW Turner
This painting was made in 1839 and features a warship from the Royal Navy which had been used in the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805. In this painting, the ship is shown to be drawn by a small boat to a harbor where it is going to be retired. The setting sun in the background suggests that the ship has seen its best days.
4. School of Athens by Raphael
Raphael who is one of the famous four leading lights of the Renaissance, made this famous painting in the year 1511. The painting is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the painter and is the epitome of Renaissance painting and famously features the ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Plato. Originally, Raphael made this painting in the form of a fresco for the owner of the Apostolic Palace which is one of the famous buildings of the Vatican.
3. The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
The Last Supper was also painted by Leonardo da Vinci and is among his most famous paintings. It is currently situated in the Santa Maria monastery of Milan. It is believed to have been one of Vinci’s early paintings and is one of the best paintings in the world to depict Jesus having the last supper with his disciples. The Last Supper is perhaps one of the most popular tourist attractions of Milan.
2. Sunflowers by Van Gogh
Few still life paintings are as famous across the world as this painting by Van Gogh. Distinguished easily by the cheerful gold hues, this painting features a bunch of sunflowers inside a vase. So popular was this painting that Van Gogh produced an entire series of his Sunflower paintings. The most popular version is the fourth version and is housed at London’s National Gallery.
1. The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
Made in the early sixteenth century, the Mona Lisa is today the most widely recognized painting worldwide and is in fact a part of popular as well as classical culture. There are many theories about the real identity of the woman featured in the painting and her unique smile. The Mona Lisa is currently housed in the Louvre Museum in France and an estimated 6 million people come to see it every year.