Throughout history, artists have made countless paintings. Many have undoubtedly inspired, enthralled, and possibly even changed the lives of viewers. But only a few can be called icons.
Here are 8 of the most famous paintings in the history of Western art.
Most famous paintings
- Mona Lisa (c. 1503-06), Leonardo da Vinci
The Mona Lisa or La Gioconda has captivated viewers for centuries and is quite possibly the single most popular painting today. The Italian Renaissance artist and polymath Leonardo da Vinci has allegedly painted it between 1503 and 1506, and possibly until 1517.
The Mona Lisa was painted using oil as a medium on a Lombardy poplar panel. The piece is owned by the French Republic and hangs at the Louvre Museum, where it has been on permanent display since 1797.
The alluring work of art is thought to be a portrait of the Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini and may have been commissioned by her husband, the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo. However, the true identity of the subject — as well as the reason for her iconic smile — remains a mystery to this very day. Some have speculated that the portrait is of da Vinci’s mother or even of the artist himself in drag.
The Mona Lisa holds the highest insurance valuation for any painting. As of 2017, it was worth almost $800 million.
- The Starry Night (1889), Vincent van Gogh
One of the most recognizable paintings in the history of Western culture, The Starry Night is considered one of Vincent van Gogh’s best works. Ironically, the artist himself wasn’t too fond of the painting and, in a letter to his brother Theo, said that he was not satisfied with it.
The Starry Night shows the view through an east-facing window in van Gogh’s room at the asylum of Saint Rémy in France, where he had voluntarily admitted himself following the ear-chopping incident. The painting, an oil on canvas, shows the sky just before sunrise, along with the rooftops of an idealized village. Today, it belongs in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where it has been since 1941.
- The Scream (1893), Edvard Munch
The Scream shows the agonized face of a male subject standing on a bridge under a bloody orange sky. The image, which many have taken as symbolizing the anxiety experienced by modern man, is one of the most iconic in modern culture. Edvard Munch painted The Scream using oil, pastel, crayon, and tempera on cardboard.
Munch said that the idea for the painting came to him while he was out for a walk during sunset. Art scholars have reportedly pinpointed the exact spot — a fjord overlooking Oslo — where the Norwegian Expressionist artist was struck by inspiration for The Scream.
- Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), Johannes Vermeer
Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer painted this iconic study of a young woman during the 17th century. The painting is remarkable for its surprisingly modern and realistic look, which almost resembles a photograph.
Contrary to popular belief, Girl with a Pearl Earring is not a portrait. It is a tronie, a Dutch style of painting that depicts an exaggerated character or facial expression in costume. In this particular tronie, the subject wears a turban, a robe or dress, and an unusually large pearl earring.
Recently, experts have questioned whether the earring in the painting is actually made of pearl, given its improbable size and shape. According to them, the sheen of the material suggests that it may have actually been made of tin. The identity of the subject is also still a mystery, with some speculating that the girl in the painting was Vermeer’s maid.
- A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-1886), Georges Seurat
An excellent example of the pointillist technique, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is Georges Seurat’s most popular work. The oil on canvas painting depicts a suburban scene in which Parisians hang out on the banks of the Seine. The working class scene portrayed in the painting was a favorite subject of Seurat’s, in contrast to the bourgeois settings portrayed by his contemporaries.
Seurat first exhibited A Sunday Afternoon alongside the works of Impressionists in 1886. It quickly became popular and led to Seurat being acknowledged as the leader of Neo-Impressionism. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924.
- Guernica (1937), Pablo Picasso
Out of Picasso’s many, many remarkable artworks, Guernica can be rightfully called the one that is best-known.
Guernica, a gigantic oil on canvas painting, depicts the aftermath of the bombing of the Basque city of Guernica by German and Italian warplanes during the Spanish Civil War. It shows the suffering of the victims, humans and animals alike, amidst chaos and flames. In the painting, a mother cradles a dead child, a horse with a gaping wound in its side cries in agony, and a dismembered soldier’s severed arm grips a broken sword.
Guernica is considered one of the most moving and important anti-war paintings in modern history. Upon its completion, the painting was taken on an international tour to help bring attention to the Spanish Civil War. Today, it hangs at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, Spain.
- The Kiss (1907-1908), Gustav Klimt
Widely considered to be Gustav Klimt’s most famous work, The Kiss shows a couple in an intimate embrace, their bodies shrouded in extravagantly patterned robes. The Kiss, an oil painting with gold and silver leaf added, was created during the artist’s “Golden Period” and was influenced by the Art Nouveau style.
- American Gothic (1930), Grant Wood
American Gothic depicts a middle-aged couple standing together with stern expressions. The man holds a pitchfork while the woman wears a printed apron. The painting symbolizes the determination of the Americans who lived during the Great Depression.
According to artist Grant Wood, he was inspired to paint American Gothic after seeing the actual house in the painting’s background and imagining the type of people who would live in it. For the painting, the wife was modeled by Wood’s sister while the husband was modeled by their dentist. American Gothic is one of the most widely parodied paintings and one of the most famous paintings in modern art history.