The Top 20 Most Famous Paintings of All Time
Let’s tackle a much-talked-about idea in art history—what are some of the most famous paintings ever?
This is a big topic, of course. How do you even know what “most famous” exactly means when talking about art? Of course, everyone has their own opinion, and there’s no one way to define the best artwork. However, it’s undeniable that certain paintings in the past have impacted the course of art history and have remained in the public’s fascination for centuries, and continue to be studied and written about for these reasons.
We are going to go through twenty of the most famous paintings ever and provide you with some history and context of them, too.
1 – Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David (1793)
This 1793 painting depicts a murdered French revolutionary named Jean-Paul Marat, and it is an iconic image of the French Revolution. Marat was a radical journalist with who the artist, David, was politically aligned.
Marat was murdered by Charlotte Corday, one of his political enemies, who did not attempt to flee the scene following the murder; David chose to focus on the glory of Marat rather than the action of his murder and therefore omits Corday from the scene.
Marat is idealized—his skin appears like porcelain, and his face softly glows similar to how Christian martyrs were painted. David painted a likable hero, an almost religious figure, in an attempt to transfer the sacredness of the Catholic Church to the new French Republic.
2 – Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1665)
Girl with a Pearl Earring has sparked the inspiration for novellas, poems, films, and more. Painted around 1665, it is widely regarded to be Vermeer’s most famous painting, and you’ve probably seen it before in one medium or another.
It is a tronie—a Dutch term of an exaggerated depiction of an imaginary figure—rather than a portrait. Here, the girl is a sort of character who wears what would’ve been perceived at the time as exotic dress, headwear, and jewelry. Vermeer’s skill in painting soft, subtle light is highlighted in the shining pearl and her luminescent skin, and it has a mysterious air that’s captured the attention of history.
3 – Olympia by Edouard Manet (1863)
Infamous might be a more accurate description than famous—either way, Olympia undeniably caused quite a scandal when it was first displayed. Manet chose to reinvent the female nude subject by painting her rather crudely with a blunt, graphic style.
The painting includes a prostitute with a black servant, which was common for the time, but not depicted in paintings. The servant is giving Olympia flowers, possibly a gift from a lover.
When Olympia was exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon, it caused an uproar—viewers apparently had to be physically restrained as to not ruin it. The fact that a prostitute unflinchingly and brazenly stares at the viewer was too much for many to handle, despite the fact that many of these viewers likely frequented courtesans.
4 – The Bridesmaid by John Everett Millais (1851)
This fascinating artwork depicts a striking orange-haired young woman sitting behind a plate, and the word holds quite a bit of symbolism.
The young woman is passing a piece of wedding cake through a ring—Victorian viewers would’ve understood that she was partaking in a ritual where a young woman did that nine times in order to see a vision of her true lover. It seems as if she is contemplating marriage. She is wearing an orange blossom sprig, which represents chastity, and her expression is ambiguous as to her feelings towards marriage.
Millais was a renowned painter during his lifetime and was a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of English artists.
5 – The Swimming Hole by Thomas Eakins (1885)
Here, the American artist’s interest in the concept of Arcadia—an idyllic, innocent place of classical times—is highlighted. Men bathe together innocently, all of whom have idealized classical bodies, and Eakin’s skill in depicting motion and anatomy is very evident.
The work caused a bit of controversy because the figures are identifiable as him and his students (he taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) and further implicated him with indecent behavior. He eventually resigned from his teaching position.
6 – The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh (1885)
Van Gogh bluntly depicts the realities of rural life in this oil-on-canvas composition. The atmosphere is rather grim, an eerie and unpleasant green, and the figures have rough working hands. The painting is not flattering of its subjects, and van Gogh realistically captures the hardship of rural life of the time.
Van Gogh himself was very fond of the painting, which he thought conveyed an authentic and real message, but the work was received unfavorably by those close to him, who viewed the figures as crude and unskillfully painted. Now, it is considered to be one of his masterpieces.
7 – Self-Portrait with Saskia in the Parable of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt (1637)
The religious theme of the prodigal son was a common subject for the Protestant art world of the time. Here, Rembrandt paints himself and his wife, Saskia, in the moral composition.
To be honest, Rembrandt’s made so many works that there are a lot that could be on this list—but this is just one that highlights an interesting Protestant artwork of the prolific Dutch Golden Age. This is one among many self-portraits.
8 – What’s New? by Paul Gauguin (1892)
This Post-Impressionist work belongs in Gauguin’s “1st Tahiti Period” during which he traveled to French Polynesia to create artwork in a sort of rejection of European society.
Gauguin is a fascinating figure because he broke away from Impressionism in favor of Symbolism. He was inspired by the “primitive” art forms and lifestyles of Africa, Asia, and French Polynesia, which is reflected in his work. Here, he paints figures that have a distinct weight to them, and he employs patterns as part of the composition as well as a decoration for their clothes. He was particularly inspired by Tahitian women during his time there and ideas of leisure.
9 – Danaë by Gustav Klimt (1907)
In Greek mythology, Danaë was a princess and the mother of the hero Perseus. She was a popular subject in the early 20th century for artists, who employed her image to symbolize love, beauty, and transcendence.
Klimt’s work is very recognizable for its style, most notably dramatic angles, gold pattern, and stylized eroticism. Here, she is shown in a state of arousal, as this was when she was visited by Zeus and would subsequently give birth to Perseus.
10 – Venus and Mars by Sandro Botticelli (1485)
This Early Renaissance work is a mythological scene portraying Venus and Mars with four young satyrs playing behind them. Boticelli was commissioned by the famous and powerful Medici family for this work, like many others of his most famous works. In fact, the Medicis served as models for this painting, heightening their importance.
The work was possibly meant to commemorate a wedding, and many view this work as an idealized view of love and beauty. This painting displays his interest in Classical themes, much like the Medicis and other Humanists of the Early Renaissance.
11 – Faticida by Frederic Leighton (1864)
Frederic Leighton was an English academic painter, sculptor, and writer. His work was very expensive during his lifetime and was rigidly academic—meaning it was in the styles embraced by prestigious institutions such as the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He painted classical, historical, and biblical subjects.
Here, he paints a classical portrait of a woman. Her expression remains relatable and has a modern feel to it—she sits slumped in her chair, hand resting upon her face, with a blank face that shows she is lost in thought or perhaps just bored. Although she wears classical garb, the piece feels timeless.
12 – At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1889)
The Moulin Rouge was a Montmarte nightclub in Paris, France, which became popular among artists of the time. This painting depicts “the training of the new girls by Valentin ‘the Boneless,’” who was a nightclub star dancer well-known for his flexibility. The work offers an interesting view of the clientele of the party spot in between dance performances, a moment in between the draw of the spot.
This painting was actually purchased by the owners of the nightclub and was subsequently hung above the bar.
13 – The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger (1533)
Hans Holbein the Younger memorializes two wealthy men and depicts them in a very distinguished, powerful manner. They are two political ambassadors in their 20s, and all of the objects around them emphasize their worldly characters and wealth—a globe, instruments, and books surround them. There are some hints at religious divisions of the time, as well.
Hans Holbein the Younger was part of the Northern Renaissance in Germany and most often did painting and printmaking. His work was prized during his lifetime, and he is still considered to be amongst the greatest portraits of the 16th century. In addition to portraits, he made quite a bit of Reformation propaganda.
14 – Judith and her Maidservant by Artemisia Gentileschi (1623)
Artemisia Gentileschi is an amazing figure in art history. She established herself as a well-known and respected painter of her time, making her one of the only women to do so. In fact, she was creating professional work as a fifteen-year-old. A large number of Gentileschi’s paintings depict women from the Bible, myths, and allegories, often in a very naturalistic style for which she was known, including this work.
Judith and her Maidservant is one among many masterpieces of hers and is full of drama, characteristic of the Baroque era to which it belonged. There is strong directional lighting and apparent movement and is generally much more direct and bold than many other paintings depicting the subject of Judith around the same time.
Like all of Renoir’s work, The Luncheon of the Boating Party is full of vibrant, light colors, and depicts a pleasant scene of Parisian leisure. All of the models used for the painting were friends of the artist who, in this painting, are immortalized in a moment of happiness. The work lets the viewer inside the painting—you really feel like you are one at the table, watching an easy-going luncheon unfolding in front of you.
The style of the painting is distinctly Renoir, as well. In his Impressionist style, he has a delicate and fleeting sense of light and air, while the people in his painting feel very real and specific. This is one of Renoir’s most famous paintings.
16 – Portrait of Maria Teresa de Vallabriga on horseback by Francisco Goya (1783)
In this composition, the famous Spanish painter depicts a portrait of Maria Teresa de Vallabriga. Goya was staying with the Luis family during the summer of 1783, at which time Goya completed around fifteen portraits for the family. Maria Teresa de Vallabriga was the wife of Don Luis.
Equestrian portraits were well-known traditional subjects that Goya chose to bring back in this painting. The portrait is distinguished—she wears an elaborate deep blue dress and a large black hat and is riding among dramatic mountains. Sunshine filters through the clouds to spotlight Maria’s face and the horse’s body.
17 – Saint Jerome Writing by Caravaggio (1605)
The painting depicts Saint Jerome who was a very popular subject for painting at the time. Carravagio painted several images of Jerome meditating or writing. Here, Jerome is reading intently and has an extended arm out holding a quill. The lighting is dramatic, intensely illuminating Saint Jerome’s body as he sits at the desk.
In Roman Catholicism, Saint Jerome is a Doctor of the Church recognized for his research and contributions to theology and is often depicted writing.
18 – A Cotton Office in New Orleans by Edgar Degas (1873)
A Cotton Office in New Orleans is an aptly-named oil painting by Edgar Degas. The composition captures a scene inside his uncle’s cotton firm in New Orleans, which he painted on a family visit in 1873. At the time, Degas was at a sort of crossroads in his career as he had not had significant success selling his artwork.
Although Degas is well-known for his depiction of ballet dancers, the artist’s ability to capture a candid moment full of movement shines through in this office scene as in the rest of his work.
This painting is famous because Degas was the only major Impressionist painter to actually travel to the United States and paint subjects from there. This work is both a painting of family and a fascinating depiction of post-Civil War capitalism in the United States.
19 – Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (1503)
Da Vinci’s painting is famous for its depiction of a young woman with an ambiguous soft smile—in fact, we now use the term “Mona Lisa smile” to explain similar mysterious expressions. Although it is a portrait of an Italian noblewoman, which is a fairly straightforward subject, the Mona Lisa has become famous due to da Vinci’s skill in painting light, softness, and the human form. It is also interesting in its likeness to the contemporary depictions of the Virgin Mary.
Lastly, for the time, the painting differed from many portraits of the time because da Vinci created an imaginary background, which was a newer practice.
In addition to being one of the most famous, Mona Lisa is also one of the most famous paintings in the world. It’s become a symbol of the Renaissance, as well, and its image has been replicated and referenced in countless other forms over the years. It has been on permanent display at the Louvre since 1797.
20 – Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (1884)
Although now it is considered George’s Seurat’s greatest masterpiece, when Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was first debuted in Paris, it was not well received. You might have noticed the trend here—several of these “famous paintings” were not necessarily famous in a good way at first.
The work depicts a scene of French leisure along the banks of the Seine River. Despite all of the figures in the composition, it feels eerily quiet and static due to the style in which Seurat painted it.
This painting is a beautiful example of Seurat’s skill and dedication to Pointillism—using tiny dots of color to achieve unique illusory effects. Pointillism branched off of Impressionism; both were very interested in new ways to depict light and shadow, but Pointillism adopted dots specifically to explore this.
Pointillism was a term coined by critics who ridiculed the practice; now, we don’t use the term pejoratively as it once was.
What do you think? Which is your favorite, and why? Are there any paintings that you would’ve liked to see here?
You might be wondering, “where are the most famous paintings?” These paintings are in safe keeping all over the world, mostly throughout Europe and the United States. Maybe, if there’s one you especially like, you could see it in person if it is nearby where you live. Additionally, if any of these works stood out to you—whether totally based on aesthetics or if one of these stories is particularly fascinating to you—you can bring them into your home by purchasing a high-quality print from the Soul of Art.
As we mentioned at the beginning, defining the most famous paintings of all time is a pretty tough task—but all these here have especially fascinating stories, were painted with obvious skill, and were part of fascinating eras of art history.