- Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa
- Pablo Picasso’s "Guernica"
- "Liberty Leading the People" by Eugène Delacroix
- "The Raft of the Medusa" by Géricault
- "Impression, Sunrise" by Claude Monet
- "Déjeuner sur l’herbe" by Édouard Manet
- “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Hokusai
- "The Scream" by Edvard Munch
- "Les Demoiselles d’Avignon" by Pablo Picasso
- The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali
“Nature is the source of all true knowledge. She has her own logic, her own laws, she has no effect without cause nor invention without necessity.” - Leonardo da Vinci
Every day, between 15,000 and 20,000 people visit the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. It’s arguably the most famous painting in the world. However, there are plenty of other artists who’ve made their mark on the world of art. Degas, Auguste Renoir, Frida Kahlo, Kandinsky, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Courbet, Seurat, Klimt, Pissarro, Mondrian, Caravaggio, Warhol, Caillebotte, Pollock, Goya, etc., there are plenty of famous painters.
From the Renaissance to modern art, here are the 10 most famous paintings in history.
Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa
Who doesn’t know the famous Mona Lisa?
Even if you haven’t seen it in the Louvre, you’ll probably recognise this piece. It was painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the 16th century. The piece portrays a woman to be the wife of Francesco del Giocondola, a Florentine nicknamed Lisa Gherardini.
The story is that Leonardo da Vinci was contacted by Francis I of France, packed his bags, and settled in Château du Clos Lucé, one of the king’s residences. The oil painting was then displayed in Versailles and is currently on display in the Louvre.
It’s particularly famous due to the fact that it was stolen in 1911 by an Italian who wanted to take it back to its country of origin.
Art lovers enjoy the composition, which is quite original for the time. It’s quite similar to how we have our ID photos. Many have noticed that the Mona Lisa’s eyes follow you around the room. In fact, it’s still being studied today and shows just what a genius Leonardo da Vinci was.
Pablo Picasso’s "Guernica"
Picasso’s most famous piece, Guernica, is currently on display at the Reina Sofia in Madrid and measures 3.5m by 7.8m. It’s one of the most important pieces of the 20th century as it portrays the bombing of the town of Guernica in 1937 by Nazi and Italian planes. Pablo Picasso wanted to show the horror and suffering of the Spaniards during the civil war so he depicted the bombardment that left 2,000 dead.
The composition and scale of the piece make it both impressive and shocking. For a long time, the work was kept at the MoMA in New York in accordance with the creator’s wishes. It wouldn’t return to Spain until 1981 after Franco had died.
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"Liberty Leading the People" by Eugène Delacroix
This is without a doubt one of the most famous pieces in the Louvre. Liberty Leading the People was painted by the Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix in 1930 and was shown in the Salon de Paris in 1831. It was initially called “Scènes de barricades” in reference to the July Revolution that followed the French Revolution. During the Borbon Restoration and under the reign of Charles X, barricades were put in in Paris to defend the freedom of the country. This led to July Monarchy.
Delacroix chose to represent liberty as a woman wearing the Phrygian cap, a symbol of the revolution, and holding the French flag. Her posture echoes ancient statues.
The work is often thought of as a symbol of democracy and the French Republic. It’s been displayed in the Louvre since 1874.
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"The Raft of the Medusa" by Géricault
The piece was initially called “Scène de Naufrage” (Shipwreck Scene) by Théodore Géricault and it’s one of the most famous pieces of the Romantic movement. This work is 491cm tall and 716cm wide and was painted between 1818 and 1819. It portrays an event that took place in 1816 on the Senegalese coast.
A royal frigate wrecked on the African coast. The captain, lacking in experience, poorly managed the situation; there weren’t enough lifeboats for the number of sailors and the remaining officers had to construct a raft with materials found on board. Of the 150 men on the raft, only 10 survived the storms and cannibalism that ensued.
In order to paint this piece, Géricault had to do a lot of research to make it as realistic as possible. In the background, a lifeboat is drawn to represent hope even though they won’t see it.
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"Impression, Sunrise" by Claude Monet
Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” was painted in 1872 and marked the beginning of the Impressionist movement. Claude Monet replicated the port at Le Havre in a style that was completely new at the time. Rather than the serious and current themes of Romanticism, Monet focused on everyday scenes like sunrises.
The name “Impressionist” came from art critics at the time making fun of the style from the piece’s name and made impressionism part of art history. This was particularly true in the magazine Le Charivari, which made fun of artists such as Renoir, Pissarro, and Monet.
The magazine famously said:
“Monet, Pissaro, and Morisot seem to have declared war on beauty.”
This critique at the time spurred on the impressionist movement. By detaching themselves from the academic approaches of the time, impressionist painters took joy from painting everyday moments with more vibrant colours. With this piece, Claude Monet became a leader of the movement.
Some of his best paintings are from his series on Water Lilies.
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"Déjeuner sur l’herbe" by Édouard Manet
“Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (Luncheon on the Grass) is a hugely famous piece. While it's now considered by many as one of the first modern pieces, it was rejected by the Salon jury in 1863. It was displayed in the Salon des refusés the same year and caused a lot of controversies.
The naked woman in the foreground accompanied by two men shocked Parisians at the time. The work was criticised for both its subject and its style.
By painting this picture, Édouard Manet had broken all the rules of the time. The perspective isn’t respected and the shadow and light detach the figures from the undergrowth. This style of painting wasn’t appreciated at the time but it is what made Manet one of the most popular artists of our time. He’s often studied in art classes.
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“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Hokusai
This piece by the Japanese painter Hokusai was largely inspired by the impressionist painters of the time. It was made in 1830 or 1831 during the Edo period and it’s known in Japanese as The Great Wave or The Wave.
It’s part of a series known as “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” and is famous for its use of Prussian blue. It’s particularly famous for how it blends traditional Japanese printing with a Western perspective.
"The Scream" by Edvard Munch
The Scream, painted in 1893, is the most famous piece from the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. As an expressionist painter, he’s often mentioned in the same conversations as Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin. However, The Scream is a quintessential example of expressionism.
The Scream shows a humanoid figure looking horrified at the viewer. The background isn’t sharp but you can see a bridge and a railing in a swirl of oranges and blues. You can also make out other silhouettes.
This piece by Munch is inspired by fear and anxiety. Munch is often described as a tortured artist. He was scarred by events such as the early deaths of his sister and mother and his family also had a history of mental health issues.
The work is known around the world and is rather popular. In fact, the face in this piece was the inspiration for the mask in the film “Scream”.
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"Les Demoiselles d’Avignon" by Pablo Picasso
Initially titled “Le Bordel d’Avignon” (The Avignon Brothel), this piece by Picasso marks the arrival of Cubism. Painted in 1907, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is the result of an experiment conducted by Picasso and his friend Georges Braque.
Picasso received a letter from Cézanne referencing the world being made of squares and circles. The artist decided to use these terms to represent the world using geometric shapes. He did a few sketches before arriving at the piece we know today.
The people in the painting are deformed and geometric. The painting caused quite the scandal in the art world but it introduced contemporary art. While it's not a good example of realism, it's a good example of artists depicting their subjects in new and interesting ways.
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The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali
“Persistence of Memory” is one of the most famous pieces by the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. Painted in 1931, this oil painting shows the beach of Portlligat with clocks melting in the sun. Dali seems to share the idea that anxiety and the passage of time are becoming a reality. Most people just refer to this one as “The Melting Clocks”. The artist was apparently inspired by melting Camembert cheese at the end of a meal. To enjoy this piece, you’ll need to go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Of course, these aren't the only great artists. There's more than one masterpiece, after all. There are famous artists from all over the world and from throughout history so consider getting in touch with a private tutor to teach you about art history or technique.