Home Art 14 Most Famous Paintings: Masterpieces in Art History

14 Most Famous Paintings: Masterpieces in Art History

by Lois Earles

Each year, paintings worth billions of dollars are sold across the world through different international auction houses. In addition, there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of paintings being held in museums across the world. However, only a handful of these paintings ever attain the prominence to, truly, be considered famous. This article lists 14 most famous paintings in history.

14 Most Famous Paintings: Masterpieces in Art History

Since the word famous is subjective, it is important to cast the net as wide as possible when comparing different paintings so that the decision you made regarding the most famous paintings can be as impartial as possible. Therefore, this list contains paintings in different categories and from different times.

Most Famous Oil Paintings

1. Mona Lisa (1503-06, Oil on Poplar Panel, Louvre Museum, Paris)

Mona Lisa

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Considered one of the finest pieces of art at the Louvre Museum, Paris, Mona Lisa, which was painted by Leonardo da Vinci, remains the masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance. It is also considered the most famous oil painting portrait in the museum. Of the over 6,000 paintings in Louvre Museum, 90 percent of visitors go straight to the Mona Lisa painting.

This painting has also been described as, “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world.” Mona Lisa was painted in oil on a white Lombardy poplar panel and is famous for the puzzling expression of the main character (said to be an Italian noblewoman, Lisa Gherardini), the impressive illusionism, and the extremely unique alignment. It also other distinctive characteristics that make it attractive.

Researchers claim that this portrait was painted between 1503 and 1506, but there appears to be a contradiction in the actual period because some scholars believe that da Vinci was still working on this work of art in 1517. Since the painting was bought by King Francis I of France, it remains the property of France. Therefore, it has hung in the Louvre Museum since 1797.

Mona Lisa is perhaps the most highly prized oil painting in the world as it holds a record for the highest insurance estimation in history: $100 million in 1962. Currently, this valuation equates to about $660 million.

2. The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh (889, Oil on Canvas, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA, New York City)

The Starry Night

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Painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1889, The Starry Night is a stunning oil on canvas piece of art that hangs in the MoMA. Regarded as one of the most renowned paintings in Western art, this painting portrays the Post-Impressionist painter’s outlook from his haven room (with an imaginary village underneath) in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France.

Although Van Gogh painted several other paintings with the exact view, The Starry Night is the only one that depicts nighttime. It’s viewed as the artist’s magnum opus—his stroke of genius.

3. The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1907-1908, Oil and Leaf on Canvas, Belvedere, Vienna)

The Kiss

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Created by Gustav Klimt, an Austrian Symbolist painter, between 1907 and 1908. The Kiss is a sparkling piece that many scholars say represents the height of Klimt’s “Golden Period.” The painting was initially done with oil on canvas, but Klimt later added a gold leaf, silver, and platinum for additional sparkle.

The painting depicts two lovers hugging while wearing robes of an Art Nouveau elegance. This explains why the painting was initially named Liebespaar, or the lovers.

Currently, this famous oil painting hangs in the Baroque building complex, the Belvedere, in Vienna, Austria. It is regarded as a masterpiece of the Vienna Succession and is Klimt’s most celebrated piece.

4. Girl with the Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (c. 1665, Oil on Canvas, Mauritshuis, The Hague)

Girl with the Pearl Earring

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Painted by Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch Golden Age painter, around 1665, the Girl with a Pearl Earring painting is an oil on canvas portrait. It has had several names over the centuries, including its current name, which was formulated in the 20th century. Apart from the pearl earring, the girl in the painting also wears a striking dress and an oriental turban.

Currently, the work hangs in the Mauritshuis, an art museum in The Hague, the Netherlands. Since its creation, this painting has been a major subject in literature, including Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel, “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, an imaginary story of the work’s design.

5. Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937, Oil on Canvas, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid)


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Painted in 1937 by Pablo Picasso, a celebrated Spanish artist, Guernica is one of his best-known works. The painting was created during the Spanish Civil War. So, the black and white oil on canvas portrays the suffering that humans and animals went through amid the chaotic violence.

Picasso painted it in his Paris home in the aftermath of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy’s bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country town in Spain. This attack was ordered by Spanish Nationalists. Because of its shocking depiction of the carnage of war, critics have always regarded this work of art as one of the most powerful anti-war paintings in history.

Guernica is believed to have brought the necessary attention to the Spanish Civil War. It is 3.49 meters tall and 7.76 meters wide, and it features a pierced horse, a woman wailing, flames, a bull, and mutilation. Currently, this painting hangs in the 20th-century art museum, the Museo Reina Sofía, in Madrid, Spain.

Most Famous Pastel Paintings

6. The Chocolate Girl (circa 1743-44, Pastel on Parchment, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden)

The Chocolate Girl

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Created between 1743 and 1744 by Jean-Étienne Liotard, a celebrated Swiss artist, The Chocolate Girl is considered the artist’s masterpiece. It features a girl serving chocolate. She is carrying a tray with a ceramic chocolate cup and a glass of water. The serving maid is believed to be a certain Nanneri Baldauf.

This painting has been owned by several people, including Francesco Algarotti and August III of Poland. Since 1855 this painting has hung in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

7. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944, Pastel and Oil, Tate Britain, London)

Three Studies

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Painted by Francis Bacon, a famous Irish-born British artist, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is a triptych with images that are based on the Eumenides or Furies of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. These canvases depict three twisting anthropomorphic beings set against a level of a scorched orange background.

One thing that sets this painting apart from other popular pastel paintings in history is the fact that it was finished within two weeks. It summarizes several themes that Bacon had explored in his previous works. Critics regard this painting as Bacon’s first masterpiece.

8. Blue Dancers (1897, Pastel, Pushkin Museum in Moscow)

Blue Dancers

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Created by Edgar Degas, a renowned French artist, in 1897, Blue Dancers features four female Ballerina dancers at backstage practicing. The four dancers are dressed in blue dancing outfits. Although the four lack the dramatic poses of Degas’s previous works, they convey an informal nonchalance that is similar to an image of dancers warming up.

The most notable aspect of this painting is its magnificent color. The artist uses it as an animated likelihood in and of itself. Furthermore, the color appears to hold the four dancers together tightly, with the dominant blue color forming the foundation.

Most famous watercolor Paintings

9. Young Hare (1502, Water Color, Albertina, Vienna)

Young Hare

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The Young Hare painting is a creation of Albrecht Durer, a famous German artist, that was painted in 1502. This piece of art has been widely acknowledged as Durer’s masterpiece of observational art, together with his later work, “Great Piece of Turf”. As its name suggests, this painting features a calm young hare resting.

The image of the hare is rendered with nearly photographic accuracy. However, Durer noted that painting the subject was particularly challenging because its fur had to face different directions, and the hare needed to be spotted with lighter and darker spots all over.

There is also a debate about how Durer captured the hare’s image so accurately, with some critics suggesting that perhaps he sketched it and filled in the specific details from a dead hare.

10. Maine Islands (1922, Watercolor and Charcoal, Stonington Harbor, Maine)

Maine Islands

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Although its main theme is nature, this Maine Islands painting doesn’t show a real site. Instead, it highlights the animated potential of color and form. It depicts a calm scenery of distant islands within an edge of strong, uneven diagonal lines. Created by John Marin, an early American modernist artist, in 1922, Maine Islands is one of his most famous works that have internal frames.

With an internal frame, the central image is viewed through the elements painted by the artist at the structure’s edges. This style creates the impression of looking through the window. The diagonal lines also suggest the idea of bursting through an imagined barrier. These lines also help to guide the viewer’s eyes into the distance.

11. Reclining Woman (1916, Watercolor, Leopold Museum, in Vienna)

Reclining Woman

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Painted in 1916 by Egon Schiele, a popular Austrian painter, the Reclining Woman painting is considered one of the most expensive watercolor paintings in history. In 2013, this painting was sold in an online auction on the Auctionata website for a whopping $1.96 million. It features an image of a half-naked woman, lying face down, in a sensual and impressionistic style.

This painting is considered Schiele’s masterpiece. The rawness of the lines and theme makes it unique. It also represents Schiele’s unique ability to symbolize the human body between nudes, unintentional poses, and lines of color and pencil.

Most famous Acrylic Paintings

12. A Bigger Splash (1967, Acrylic on Canvas, Tate Britain, London)

A Bigger Splash

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Painted by the celebrated British painter, David Hockney, A Bigger Splash is a huge pop art painting measuring 242.5 centimeters by 243.9 centimeters. It features an image of a swimming pool with a modern house on the side. An unseen person seems to have jumped into the pool from a diving board, causing a splash.

This piece of art was painted in California between April and June 1967, when Hockney served as a lecturer University of California, Berkeley. It was designed to depict a normal day in California, warm and sunny. Most critics are surprised at Hockney’s unique ability to capture the calm and contoured nature of California life in his painting.

13. Campbell’s Soup Cans (1961-1962, acrylic, Museum of Modern Art in New York)

Campbell’s Soup Cans

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Also referred to as 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans, the Campbell’s Soup Cans painting is a unique piece of art created by Andy Warhol, a popular American artist between November 961 and March 1962. The painting features 32 canvases, each measuring 20 inches in height and 16 inches wide. Also, each canvas has a painting of a Campbell’s Soup can.

This is a non-painterly work of art produced through a screen printing process and depicts images originating from the popular culture and belongs to the pop art movement. There is an ongoing debate about what could have motivated Warhol to choose Campbell’s Soup Cans as the main subject, with some people claiming that he needed a new subject after he abandoned comic strips.

14. White Center – Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose (1950, acrylic, The Royal family of Qatar)

White Center

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Painted by Mark Rothko, a renowned American abstract painter of Latvian Jewish descent, the White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) painting is an abstract piece of art that represents Rothko’s unique multiform style. In this style, the painter puts together several blocks of coated, harmonizing colors on a huge canvas.

From top to bottom, this painting features a yellow horizontal rectangle, a black horizontal stripe, a narrow white rectangular band, and the bottom half is lavender. The top half of the rose ground is profound while the bottom half is light.

In Summary

If you love art, this information will help you to understand the history of painting and know some of the most famous paintings that exist and the celebrated painters that created them.