16 Famous Renaissance Artists Who Achieved Greatness

During the Renaissance, art experienced radical and unprecedented development. This article lays out all the important painters, sculptors, and architects whose masterpieces helped transform the world of art.

Aug 15, 2021By Mia Forbes
milky way tintoretto pieta michelangelo school athens raphael
The Origin of the Milky Way by Tintoretto, ca. 1575; with Pietà by Michelangelo, 1498-1499; and School of Athens by Raphael, 1509-1511

 

The Renaissance was a time of great advancement in human understanding. Explorers began traveling across the globe, scientists developed new ideas and cities exploded into major hubs of trade and culture. One of the period’s most radical changes occurred in the world of art, as paintings, frescoes, and sculptures departed from the two-dimensional style of the previous centuries and took on a new, transcendent approach. Read on to discover more about sixteen Renaissance Artists and Old Masters who helped transform art forever.

 

16. Renaissance in Florence: Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446)

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The cupola atop the Church of Santa Maria del Fiore by Filippo Brunelleschi, 1536, via Smithsonian Magazine

 

Filippo Brunelleschi is considered one of the most important figures in the history of architecture. He spent years studying the ruins and remains of the ancient civilizations, especially the Roman Empire. By doing so, he gained an understanding of design and proportion that became his hallmark. Using ingenious and innovative engineering, Filippo Brunelleschi built the huge cupola atop Florence’s cathedral, the first large-scale dome constructed since antiquity.

 

Brunelleschi also worked in the fields of sculpture, mechanics, and drawing. He was also the first artist to formally explain the idea of linear perspective, a concept that became essential to late Renaissance painting.

 

15. Donatello (1386-1466)

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David by Donatello, ca. 1440-1460, via Italian Renaissance

 

Donatello is one of the best-known sculptors of the Renaissance, whose magnificent creations would go on to inspire many generations of craftsmen. Like the Renaissance itself, Donatello was born in Florence where he trained as a goldsmith. He went on to travel around Italy, together with Brunelleschi, seizing the opportunity to study the art and architecture of the ancient world.

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The influence of classical principles is evident in Donatello’s work. His most famous piece, the bronze David, was the first free-standing nude statue made since antiquity, paving the way for the rediscovery of antiquity in Europe.

 

14. Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)

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The Arnolfini Portrait by van Eyck, 1434, via The National Gallery, London

 

One of the earlier figures in Renaissance art, Dutch artist Jan van Eyck revolutionized Northern European painting and created some of the world’s most coveted masterpieces. This Renaissance artist produced a range of devotional, political, and personal works, mainly in the form of portraits and altarpieces. He was an industrious and versatile artist.

 

The most important of van Eyck’s portraits is The Arnolfini Portrait, painted towards the end of his career. It is notable for how the artist handles perspective in order to show the room in its entirety, and even more significantly, for the small mirror on the back wall. On close inspection, a figure can be seen reflected in it. It is widely thought that the figure represents the artist himself. Details like this transformed the way that people viewed art, asking the spectator to contemplate the relationship and role of the artist in his art. Van Eyck’s other masterpiece The Ghent Altarpiece has historically been considered so valuable that a whole host of forces, from Napoleon to the Nazis, have coveted it. Some even attempted to steal it.

 

13. Sandro Boticelli (1445-1510)

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Mystic Nativity by Botticelli, 1500, via The National Gallery, London

 

One of the legendary Florentine masters, Sandro Botticelli helped form the golden age of the Early Renaissance. Like many of his contemporaries, Botticelli was determined to recapture the aesthetic ideals of the ancient world, namely harmony, symmetry, and balance. Botticelli did not shock his audience with a dramatic or striking style. Instead, he conjured up a transcendent and serene atmosphere through his use of luminous color and refined brushstrokes. By building up layers of fine pigment, Botticelli gave his paintings a sense of depth and his human figures a sense of warmth, bringing the bodies to life.

 

Another factor that contributes to Botticelli’s success is the sheer density of his paintings: both his mythological and biblical scenes are typically filled with a wide range of figures, symbols, and images. The wealth of material present in Botticelli’s masterpieces allows the viewer to spend long stretches of time examining and contemplating the meaning and effect of the various elements.

 

12. Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)

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The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch, 1490-1510, via Sotheby’s

 

Hieronymus Bosch was the most important figure in the Early Netherlandish school of painting. His haunting and fascinating artwork achieved great success during his lifetime. Although few paintings by Bosch survive, the extant oeuvre exhibits a completely unique and astonishing approach to art. His paintings defy categorization and plunge straight to the heart of human anxieties about death, the afterlife, and the unknown. He painted a number of unsettling hell scenes, some of which are made especially disconcerting by his unexpected use of color. His most famous work The Garden of Earthly Delights shows a landscape teeming with naked figures and exotic plants and creatures. The fantastical image has led many art historians to credit Bosch as the father of Surrealism.

 

11. The Famous Renaissance Artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

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Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1519, via the Louvre

 

Leonardo da Vinci is arguably one of the most influential figures not only of the Renaissance but of art history itself. He provided unparalleled insight into a huge range of fields, from art to mathematics, engineering to astronomy. Remembered primarily as a painter, his most famous artworks, such as the Mona Lisa, top the list of most recognizable and reproduced paintings in the world. Da Vinci’s ability to produce such engaging and appealing images sprung from his understanding of technique. His study of perspective and proportion, epitomized in his Vitruvian Man, allowed him to reproduce reality with a remarkable degree of accuracy.

 

His private journals are filled with notes (most of them written backward) and diagrams covering many subjects. His scientific studies of mechanical inventions have attracted the most attention. They exhibit such an unprecedented technical understanding that the career of Leonardo da Vinci is considered by many the start of a new, modern era.

 

10. Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528)

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The Isenheimer Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, 1510-15, via Art Bible

 

German painter Matthias Grünewald was an artist of the Northern European Renaissance. Although only 10 of his paintings survive, they convey a very vivid and personal style with rich colors and dramatic expression. Light and shade, distorted figures, and striking subject matter are all combined in Grünewald’s masterpieces to create a sense of religious transcendence. Some art historians and scholars have often pitted Grünewald against his contemporary Albrecht Dürer. Although their styles vary greatly, many of Grünewald’s paintings have historically been attributed to Dürer.

 

9. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)

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Self-portrait by Albrecht Dürer, 1500, via Die Pinakotheken, Munich

 

By an early age, Albrecht Dürer had established a name for himself throughout Europe because of his incredible engravings. Dürer was a master of many artistic mediums, including watercolors, oil paints, woodblock prints, and drawings. However, engraving was where he really excelled. His masterpieces are laden with symbolic imagery and meaning that demand deep consideration from the viewer.

 

Dürer is also well-known for his self-portraits. He produced a sketch of himself while still a child which is one of the few juvenile artworks remaining from the Renaissance. He is also widely credited with introducing the form into mainstream art. Before Dürer, it was rare for an artist to depict himself, especially as the central focus of a piece. Yet, his intense full-face paintings showed how powerful it could be to create a relationship directly between the artist and audience.

 

8. Michelangelo (1475-1564)

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Pietà by Michelangelo, 1498-1499, via BBC

 

The legendary Florentine artist Michelangelo epitomizes the High Renaissance. Nicknamed Il Divine (the divine one) by his contemporaries, his work inspired a sense of awe and amazement. Michelangelo ingeniously married the bold and the soft, the dramatic and the subtle, to produce art the likes of which had not been seen before, and which later generations of artists would strive to recapture.

 

Michelangelo excelled in every artistic medium. This Renaissance artist painted the legendary Genesis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. His statues David and Pieta are some of the most recognizable sculptures in the world. As an architect, he designed the great dome of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. He also tried his hand at poetry with a number of devotional and romantic verses. His unparalleled skill and prolific output meant that Michelangelo immediately had great success. The Renaissance artist was the first artist to have a biography published during his lifetime.

 

7. Raphael (1483-1520) 

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School of Athens by Raphael, 1509-1511, via Web Gallery of Art

 

The legendary Italian Renaissance artist Raphael has been a hugely important factor in the history of art over the last five centuries. His life, though short, was incredibly fruitful. He produced a huge body of work that includes sculptures, buildings, frescoes, engravings, and paintings.

 

In Rome, Raphael extensively studied the principles of ancient art which are reflected in his work. His grasp of proportion, balance, and perspective allowed him to create harmonic, serene, and natural images which, along with the work of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, came to define the High Renaissance. So impressed were Raphael’s contemporaries that he was commissioned to produce large wall paintings in the Vatican buildings. These masterpieces would go on to inspire many generations of artists, who flocked to the Vatican to see the great paintings of the Renaissance masters.

 

6. Titian (1488-1576)

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Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian, 1520-1523, via The National Gallery, London

 

Tiziano Vecellio, known in English simply as Titian, transformed Renaissance painting through his mastery of form and color. Over the course of his long and successful career, Titian generated a multitude of masterpieces. He painted everything from portraits to landscapes, mythological spectacles to biblical scenes. What unites all these disparate pieces of art is Titian’s dramatic yet lifelike style. Using expressive brushstrokes, rich colors, and subtle contrast of light and shadow, he created some of the era’s most striking masterpieces.

 

This Renaissance artist is considered the founder of the Venetian school. Titian’s talents were recognized in a number of prestigious commissions. He was employed by some of Italy’s highest-ranking patrons, including Italian princes, Habsburg’s kings, and the Pope himself.

 

5. Hans Holbein (1497-1453)

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The Ambassadors by Holbein, 1533, via The National Gallery, London

 

Hans Holbein the Younger was a painter and printer from Germany whose portraits were prized among the European elite. The son of a prominent Gothic painter of the same name, Holbein began his artistic career at an early age. He first started painting murals and designing windows for his local churches. It was when he started painting portraits, however, that his success truly began.

 

After painting the likeness of legendary Renaissance humanist Erasmus, Holbein found his talents in great demand. He eventually left his wife and children to travel to England. There, he spent his remaining years as the official painter to King Henry VIII.

 

Alongside his lifelike portraits, Holbein is also famous for his masterpiece The Ambassadors. The image of two French ambassadors to the English court is drenched with symbolic meaning. This most notably includes the large skull stretched across the foreground, which is only seen clearly from a certain angle. Artwork like this embodies how Renaissance painters were inviting their audience to look at art in different ways.

 

4. Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574)

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The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari, 1568, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

As well as being a painter and architect in his own right, Giorgio Vasari is best known as the father of art history. His most important work is undoubtedly the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. This book was a collection of biographies of all the leading artists of the Renaissance, both from Italy and further afield.

 

Although undoubtedly afflicted by bias and exaggeration, Lives is the first port of call for information about the old masters. Vasari offers detailed insight into both their public and private affairs. Along with the biographies, the writer also offers his theories and thoughts about art in general. In fact, it is in Lives that the terms Renaissance, Gothic, and competition first appear in an artistic context.

 

3. Tintoretto (1518-1594)

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The Origin of the Milky Way by Tintoretto, ca. 1575, via The National Gallery, London

 

During the Renaissance, Tintoretto was one of the leading figures in the Venetian school of painting. While few details are known about his private life and personality, he must have been quite the character. Titian kicked him out of his workshop after only a few days. Other contemporaries nicknamed him Il Furioso (meaning The Furious), though this may have been down to his passionate painting style rather than his temper. The combination of bold brushstrokes and epic scale gives Tintoretto’s paintings a sense of majesty and drama.

 

His work embodies the Mannerist style that emerged during the High Renaissance, as a reaction against the harmony, symmetry, and proportion promoted by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci. Instead, artists like Tintoretto pursued extravagant, irregular, and exaggerated forms that achieve different, but equally remarkable effects.

 

2. El Greco (1541-1614)

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The Adoration of the Name of Jesus by El Greco, ca. 1578, via The National Gallery, London

 

The artist born Domenikos Theotokopoulos would later come to be known by the far simpler nickname of El Greco. Born in Venetian-controlled Crete, his youth was molded by the multitudes of different cultures he experienced living on the thoroughfare of Mediterranean trade. El Greco trained as an artist in Venice. He then worked in Rome and finally settled in Spain where he completed his most celebrated works. The influences from these various places resulted in El Greco’s utterly unique style.

 

His highly theatrical and fantastical paintings cannot be categorized under a single genre or school. El Greco brought together the haunting, elongated figures of the Gothic with the perspective and proportion valued during the High Renaissance. El Greco was a genius with color. He used a combination of bold, metallic, and opaque hues to conjure up an atmosphere. Some of his more abstract pieces are even considered forerunners of the Expressionist and Cubist movements that would emerge centuries later.

 

1. The Later Renaissance and Caravaggio (1571-1610)

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Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio, 1599, via Caravaggio.org

 

As one of the later artists of the Renaissance, Caravaggio was instrumental in the transformation of art. He combined the naturalistic Classical style favored by his forerunners with a new sense of drama, danger, and boldness. He came to embody the chiaroscuro technique through which he employed sharp contrast between light and darkness to produce highly vivid images.

 

Caravaggio’s paintings are often distinguished by their risqué, violent, or mysterious subject matter. Even in his religious work, the artist approaches biblical scenes with a novel perspective. He combined the transcendent with the grotesque. For models, he is thought to have used sex workers. Caravaggio endowed even his divine figures with a sense of humanity and natural warmth.

 

In Rome, his new approach to form, color, and subject inspired a vast crowd of younger artists. These artists became known as the Caravaggisti. On a broader scale, his work can be seen as the turning point that gave way to the Baroque movement.



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By Mia ForbesMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.