We learn about famous paintings, masterpieces, from when we are quite young. Even at this age, we can appreciate something of the beauty produced by form and color. As we explore museums and galleries, we pick up our own taste for beauty, cultural appreciation, and our own consideration of what a masterpiece is. Often enough, our explorations bring us back to a canonical masterpiece which we can now appreciate in a new light, a new state of mind; only after we have expanded our knowledge of what makes a painting masterful.
Here Are 25 Of The Most Famous Paintings In Museums
25. Lamentation Of Christ By Giotto
Giotto’s Lamentation shows us a beautifully choreographed scene of mourners around the body of Christ, mirrored by the angels who toss in agony up in the blue heavens. This scene is taken from Giotto’s fresco work done at the arena chapel in Padua, Italy. Giotto, here, was breaking with an established tradition of painting, the Byzantine, and ushering in the dawn of The Renaissance. His use of landscape, the stone wall, leads the eye down to Christ and the grief-stricken face of Mother Mary.
Giotto frames Christ by two bulky figures who have turned their backs to us, an original compositional feat for the time, and offered this divine scene as something very human. We can connect with the mourners because of this intuitive realism that Giotto has brought into his fresco. Giotto is instigating a new visual language to express scenes of religious significance.
24. The Garden Of Earthly Delights, Detail From Hell By Hieronymus Bosch
Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych showing the progression from Paradise through to Hell. The paintings for each section are large and filled with wonderful, startling, imaginative devices which art historians have puzzled over. As is seen from this detail, the canvas is packed with enigmas and a flurry of scenes that overwhelm the viewer. Bosch’s skill in rendering his fantastical vision excites and shocks the viewer. His surreal canvas is covered with strange figures that draw the viewer in.
The hilarity and terror of Hell are almost impenetrable to the viewer’s sense-making faculty but, nonetheless, our emotions are evoked as if we did understand. We know we are seeing Hell in all its gore and it is awful in every sense of the word. Bosch has managed to convey terror, revulsion, and wonder through incoherency.
23. The Last Supper By Jacopo Tintoretto
Tintoretto’s The Last Supper shows a wonderful preoccupation with the effects of light in a dimly lit interior. Tintoretto is changing the usual perspective of The Last Supper to create an interesting composition. We might think of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous rendering with the use of linear perspective. Here, we are guided by the illuminations of light: the shadow cast from a serving woman’s neck leads our eye directly to Jesus Christ.
Wonderful, airy, angels emerge like the rising of smoke to suffuse the room. It is a canvas filled with movement. Tintoretto infused the canvas with alluring beauty, one that is arranged by the play of light. Tintoretto is welcoming the viewer into a scene where the light of Christ consumes and informs our vision.
22. The Hunters In The Snow By Pieter Bruegel
Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow recedes far beyond to the village under the lofty crags draped in snow. Bruegel has created ambiguity around the warm feeling of returning home and the lack of food the hunters appear to have returned with. The distant ice-skaters enjoy what winter has offered them whilst the hunters, in the foreground, along with their gaunt hunting dogs, have been up against the ravages of winter.
The painting evokes this narrative-making faculty in the viewer; it asks them to understand the dynamic of village life. However, Bruegel has not let this element dominate the aesthetic of a village in the cold wilderness. The white of snow drapes the scene with lone crows perched upon the leafless trees. The wide expanse of winter is braved by the village folk tending a flame.
21. View Of Toledo By El Greco
El Greco’s stunning painting over Toledo is strikingly ahead of its time. The huge clouds clamber over the city diffusing darkness over the environment. It also creates a backdrop for the buildings which stand rigidly in comparison to the brushed bushes of the foreground. The river begins just below our eye in the right-hand corner and we follow it up the bridge. There is not a person in sight, just the austere marble-like buildings crouched on the hill.
This is a more emblematic than a realistic view of the city. El Greco seems to be offering us a symbolic representation of our relationship with the divine, as seen through nature; the overwhelming clouds, and flowing countryside. We feel the clouds are close to unleashing a storm, a presentiment which already has the city crawling away, down the hillside. This painting beautifully expresses the symbolic meaning between the city, as made by man, and the power of the Divine.
20. The Triumph Of Bacchus By Diego Velazquez
In this painting, Velazquez has merged the classical figure of Bacchus with the contemporary Spanish reveler. What makes this painting interesting is how the artist plays with the viewer’s attention. As the god Bacchus looks away, the two men smile knowingly towards the viewer, happy to be partaking in this bacchic rite. In fact, these two men remind us of people we could see in any local pub.
Velazquez’s contrast between the classical figure and the commoners is stark and amusing. Bacchus looks away whilst crowning a commoner with the laurel leaf; the gift of wine, and unwinding, is for everyone. The looks of the two men seem to invite, seem to be smiling and saying, “you are the same as I.”
19. The Nightmare By Henry Fuseli
The terror of a nightmare is often accompanied by a weight on the body; the stress that some dream has inflicted upon the mind and body. Fuseli’s image manages to give a visual language to the torment and the incomprehensible nature of the nightmare. A gremlin sits on the woman’s stomach, paralyzing her. It is the witching hour. A black mare sticks its head through the curtains with opaque eyes. Fuseli is giving the viewer a miraculous visual experience of the irrational frame of a nightmare.
The lady’s soft gown is rendered taut by the gremlin who sits, patient and unknowable in his quest. It turns to look at the viewer with an uncanny glare as if he is reproaching the viewer for unsettling his mission. Fuseli’s Nightmare shows an extraordinary feat of imagination in approaching this subject and bringing life to something we would rather keep behind the curtain.
18. Newton By William Blake
Blake had an individualized style that veered away from the Neoclassical/Romanticism of his day. Blake’s images are wrought with symbolism and alluring simplicity. It is this that makes his paintings so captivating. In Newton, Blake manages to show why he felt a disdain for the great scientist. Newton is measuring a scroll-like object instead of being aware of the color behind him; he is hunched over, measuring, instead of living and noticing the beauty of nature that he cannot measure.
Blake’s use of the classical nude in an unfathomable environment (some commentators believe he is at the bottom of the sea) is a way of representing this symbolic idea. Blake has delicately paralleled forms to warn us against turning our backs on the chance and mystery of life. Newton’s fingers spread out like the compass; his hips and back roll over like the scroll; the scroll he is measuring seems to be flowing from his own body, bereft of color or intrigue.
17. The Death Of Sardanapalus By Eugène Delacroix
Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus creates a spectacular rhythm within this painting by his use of color. The rich red starts at the top left-hand corner and spills down diagonally. Delacroix has used this rich color to parallel the violence which populates the scene. Bodies are splayed out, a man tugs at a richly garbed horse, lavish jewelry crowds the foreground, all floating on this red river.
Delacroix has not left much unattended space; he has crowded it with movement and drapery to mimic the mood of the painting. The viewer is engrossed in the subject until they get to the eponymous Sardanapalus, reclining, spectating calmly on the bed. He lies in stark contrast to the events of the foreground. It is the man who will commit suicide after all his pleasures have been destroyed. This moment caught by Delacroix is both harrowing and alluring.
16. Snow Storm – Steam-Boat Off A Harbour’s Mouth By J.M.W. Turner
Turner proved to be ahead of his time with this impressionistic rendering of a snowstorm. Unlike his contemporaries, he was trying to paint the impression, emotionally and visually, of what it felt like to be in a snowstorm. This led him to pioneer an early form of abstraction. The eddy of monochromatic color envelopes the viewer while a brief sight of clarity lingers only precariously in the middle of the canvas.
There is a story, now held to be apocryphal, that Turner was strapped to the mast of a ship during a storm to experience the violence of nature. It can be seen why this could have been believed. Turner’s rendering is intuitive and dramatic, pulsing with energy and subsuming. It is a brilliant composition that shows the human inability to withstand the extremes of nature.
15. The Magpie By Claude Monet
Monet has managed to capture a snowbound scene of quietude in this famous painting. Only a few houses can be seen amongst the snow-laden branches; a couple of footsteps appear before the gate. The horizon is obscured by the snow that covers the land, making it hardly visible as to where the sky begins. Monet’s scene is a beautiful impression that manages to connote feelings of a solitary walk on a bright winter’s day.
The magpie perches on the fence, the only explicit form of life in the painting. There is no reason why Monet painted this besides the fact that it moved him. This scene of nature can move us because of an inherent aesthetic sense that moves inside of us. Monet does not need to reach for some higher symbolic meaning because everything is right in front of him.
14. The Lane Of Poplars By Alfred Sisley
This delicate rendering of a lane of poplar trees in this famous painting entices the viewer with its use of orthogonal lines. Sisley seems to be inviting us down the avenue amongst the light-dappled trees. Two figures take to the road, oblivious of this wonderful avenue that Sisley has made available for us. The rich color given off by the light gradually darkens towards the vanishing point.
A river runs to the left and a few houses can be seen further in the distance. Sisley has painted this wonderfully ambient, light-drenched, scene of meditative ease. There is no rush, no frantic crowds of energy but a relaxing walk down an avenue of trees. The shadows are growing long, hinting that the day is coming to an end, for a time of tranquil reflection perhaps. Sisley has ordered his canvas with small delicate brushwork, and the colors seem to merge into each other, creating a rich world of quiet beauty.
13. Montagne Saint-Victoire With A Large Pine By Paul Cézanne
Cézanne has wonderfully portrayed this scene by building up fields of color to create a painting of incredible depth. Cézanne would spend a large amount of time trying to understand the environment in which he painted and trying to understand how to paint what he perceived. We can make out the forms below the mountain as fields and houses, but on closer inspection, elements of each seem to blend and collide.
It is a part of Cézanne’s beautiful aesthetic that gives the impression of forms coming into view, as when we are processing our environment as we gaze. Our focus reaches out to take the entirety but is enabled to detail the specifics, instead we see vague impressions and the blending of color all around us.
12. Wheatfield With Crows By Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh has painted a harrowing scene. The crows in this famous painting, a mere two or three strokes of a brush, are either leaving or returning to the wheat field. The black of the night seems to be slowly engulfing the blue of the day; a path winds away from view. Van Gogh’s painting style manages to effect form so well that we know what we are looking at whilst at the same time the colors seem to be expressing more than they entail.
Van Gogh’s powerful use of color and his method of painting work together to produce an emotionally charged painting. The blackness that is seeping in through the blue sky tells us of imminent disaster; the crows are like burgeoning anxiety. Van Gogh’s strong emotional resonance with his subject creates this alluring expressionism that transforms a natural landscape into an emotional one.
11. Tahitian Landscape By Paul Gauguin
Gauguin’s famous painting brings a fresh vibrancy to late-nineteenth-century art. There is a wonderful melody created by the rich color. Gauguin has managed warmth from an anti-realistic coloring scheme, and in this sense, the painting is more realistic for this experimental touch. The lone figure carries some supplies while a dog waits by the wayside. The yellow field is interspersed with a rich gradation of green and orange. The colors bring out the sun for the viewer.
Gauguin had felt fed up with France and had traveled to Tahiti to reinvigorate his pleasure for painting and to rekindle his ability for expression. We can see here in this vibrant landscape scene that Gauguin offered an alternative to painting naturally by painting in this expressive manner. The landscape is not only aesthetically pleasing by this new method, but the image begins to act as a symbol of a free expressiveness, unhampered by a controlled naturalism.
10. The Pink Cloud, Antibes By Paul Signac
Signac’s style resembles a mosaic in its subtly mixed colors. It is an almost perfect abstraction from nature whilst simultaneously belonging to that impressionistic mood that knows this pleasing image will never exist again. Signac’s cloud is a messenger of the sun; it holds the light and spreads it over the canvas in a lovely display. The single sail is dwarfed by the size, drifting easily in its reflection.
Signac’s pointillist technique places minuscule areas of color next to each other to parallel the gradations of color which we see in nature; how our brain processes the effect of light and color. Signac freezes this moment in time to re-establish it as a natural memory we may have of a lonesome sail.
9. Separation By Edvard Munch
Munch had a piercing ability to express the internal drama of not only individual angst but the passions that exist between two individuals. In Separation, the man slumps off clutching at his heart which seems to have spilled over onto his hand – he must hold it in place to stay alive. The symbol of the woman now morphs into the environment becoming a part of the beach and the sky. This famous painting is a wonderful metaphor for how the memory of love persists in the physical world.
Munch’s painting style emphasizes inner emotion, and how that inner emotion reacts with the world around us. It is not needed for Munch to study precision in color or form for him to display what he wishes. He has painted in block colors, giving the viewer these obvious figures. We understand much of the man by only a few details of the face; it is more the color. The somewhat ‘careless’ application of paint adds to this direct and forceful feeling of separation.
8. Improvisation 28 (Second Version) By Wassily Kandinsky
Kandinsky’s abstractions were highly influential in the twentieth century. It showcased an aesthetic quality that painting need not have an object to evoke emotion and meditation. Kandinsky’s title for this famous painting, Improvisation, reminds his viewers of a certain musicality which he is trying to emulate through color and line. Kandinsky must have been aware of the inherent sense-making which perception consists of. In Improvisation 28, we can make out faces, eyes, landscape, houses without any coherent space. In fact, the forms we see are merely lines and color which we presume are these familiar things.
Kandinsky is asking the viewer to appreciate the composition as one appreciates a piece of music. It is how one feels a harmonic movement through a piece, the contrasts of sections, and the dynamics of sound. We can find beauty also in line and color without any coherent ‘meaning’ or object.
7. The Large Blue Horses By Franz Marc
Franz Marc’s composition is a cascade of form. The softness with which he has composed the horses and is mirrored in the environment creates a harmony worthy of music. Marc gains much but his anti-realistic coloring. The blue horses are serene, majestic, almost heavenly. Their grazing heads evoke a feeling of ease and comfort, of repast and togetherness. The juxtaposition of primary colors meets the viewer in a comforting expressiveness.
Franz Marc has managed to express the serenity of nature without naturalism. The ivory trees flow through the canvas. Nothing in this image seems jarring or cutting. It all flows in this sensuous color creating a unity of form. This simple scene of horses grazing has been transformed into a harmonious appreciation of nature by Marc’s use of color in this famous painting.
6. The Anxious Journey By Giorgio De Chirico
De Chirico’s claustrophobic composition puzzles our perspective like an anxious mind giving too much attention to itself. However, the emptiness in this famous painting, despite the canvas being filled with forms, is remarkable in its effect. De Chirico is well known for his enigmatic style and here we can see why. The train puffs out its smoke behind a short brick wall as if impatient. The power and sight of the train are ominous, reminding the viewer of a caged beast.
De Chirico was a source of influence for the Surrealists who felt that he was their predecessor in his ability to portray inwards states of the mind. His shadowed colonnades are steeped in mystery, foreboding, and loneliness. The order of the canvas is strict and confining. With architectural forms, de Chirico has managed to evoke something of the inward self.
5. Dynamism Of A Cyclist By Umberto Boccioni
Boccioni’s Futurist painting is in praise of motion and of speed. There is something glorious in the cyclist who has been abstracted into a series of forms. Much like the Cubist method, Boccioni is playing with how we perceive a form when it is in motion. It is about breaking through the strict forms of rational space to enter a new space where the forms have been destabilized and wonderful.
Boccioni’s color adds to this feeling of speed; it creates an aesthetic out of motion. The blue in the top right flows swiftly into the center where it is offset by golden yellows. The blue is further picked up by the face of the man, only recognized by the general lines. White emanates from the pulsing yellows, purple and blue, like a train discarding its smoke, though they are only wheels. Boccioni’s cyclist is determined and beautiful, giving us a new visual appreciation for speed.
4. Lovers By René Magritte
Magritte was a master of playfulness and follows in the footsteps of de Chirico for his ambiguity and enigmatic resonances. In this famous painting, Magritte lures us in with an uncanny painting of two figures, the lovers, kissing. They never touch because their heads are wrapped up in white sheets. What can we make of this? We needn’t make anything of it, though the mind is accustomed to doing so – is it about the inability for two individuals to never really see each other, understand each other?
Magritte’s highly realistic painting style creates a perfect opportunity to disrupt this realism by his use of enigma. Magritte’s image is humorous. The kiss, which seems to be so passionate, falls flat to affect. There is a confidence in both the lovers that makes the white sheets the more absurd. Magritte enjoyed the riddles of psychology and philosophy and he commanded an astounding ability to reproduce such riddles onto a canvas.
3. Guernica By Pablo Picasso
Picasso’s rendition of the 1936 bombing of Guernica is a powerful symbol of destruction. Picasso realized that naturalism would not have portrayed the experience of terror as effectively as his Cubist method. The canvas strikes us as chaotic and difficult to interpret; the use of monochromatism, the loose, partial forms, and the distortion of the figure. The forms are flattened and fragmented inside this one building.
The reality of destruction has destroyed a way of representation. Picasso feels that any kind of naturalism would put reason and artificiality into the canvas which would vitiate the meaning, and power, for Picasso. Bombing and destruction is the fragmentation of forms, inducing chaos.
2. Metamorphosis Of Narcissus By Salvador Dalí
Dalí’s meditation on the Narcissus myth is a wonderfully precise yet elusive image. Dalí is interested in how we perceive, and what we make of our perceptions. We can see Dalí’s use of the double-take, where we perceive an object as something else before we realize what it is. Although, for Dalí and the Surrealists, they would wonder which perception is ‘real,’ and what our unconscious is telling us; how we delude ourselves.
Dalí’s painting style, which he would call ‘hand-painted color photography,’ encompasses both reality and delusion. The stony figure of Narcissus turns into the hand holding the egg, which flowers the narcissus. Dalí contrasts the passing of time with perception, real or deluded, to give a new visual exploration of the Narcissus myth – the myth having so much to do with perception. It is about how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us.
1. Nighthawks By Edward Hopper
Hopper’s famous painting here is reminiscent of de Chirico in its sense of loneliness evoked by architecture. Hopper, however, has opted for realism to achieve this effect. The large window displays a few people at night under the artificial light and the street outside feels cold, empty, and without sound. The two men at the bar seem to mirror one another, a woman in red looks blank, and an old man tends the bar.
There is an undeniable feeling of stagnation. So much so that it unsettles the viewer. Hopper has elevated the small-time bar to represent something compelling about human life; about loneliness and solitude; about waiting; about how our time is spent in the solitary night. Hopper’s realism brings this home with force. The limited view, as though caught as one walked by, seems to emphasize this remoteness of individuality.
The Curiosity Of Famous Paintings
When we explore famous paintings, we are searching for our own aesthetic sense and how this reflects our own understanding of ourselves and the world. We are often shown famous paintings that have been seen, in a wider cultural context, to evoke feelings of beauty and experience which we can all relate to. However, these paintings sometimes do not approach our own feelings of the world. We need to undertake our own unofficial education of painting to find and appreciate our own visual language.