Famous Paintings and the Stories Behind Them

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From time to time, the words that tell the story about a painting can be more captivating than the actual portrait itself. Below you can find an overview of some famous paintings, their creators, and the story or meaning behind them.

1. The Starry Night

The Starry Night

This painting of Van Gogh consists of an enchanting color palette which makes up the beautiful swirls. The Starry Night painting is truly captivating, so does the story behind it.

The inspiration for the painting came from an actual view of a mental institution where Van Gogh was a patient. The scenery was a view from an east-facing window of his asylum bedroom in Saint-Paul-de-Mausole just before sunrise. This was painted on the winter of June 1889 while he was in the institution.

The brightest star in the painting is Venus which was said to be visible in Provence during dawn in the spring of 1889. The moon painted in the picture was also visible through the iron-barred window and is a waning gibbous moon. The only element in the painting that was not visible from his bedroom window was the village. The village was said to have come from a sketch drawn from a hillside above the village of Saint-Rémy de-Provence.

2. The Scream

The Scream

The Scream was a painting of Edvard Munch and has attracted people and even scared some. The story of how this painting was created is pretty interesting. The inspiration for this painting came one day while Munch was walking through the city streets along with his friends. He then stopped and looked at the sky as it was setting and had the color of blood red. He also heard faint creaking noise coming from under the city. Due to this setting, he felt that there were infinite screams coming from nature.

After that incident, he then went on to make the picture, painting the clouds blood red. Later on, Edvard Munch described the personal anguish behind the painting. He said that for several years he was almost mad. His painting, The Scream, portrays how he was stretched to the limit and that he later gave up hope of ever being able to love again. Did you know that The Scream has been stolen back in 1994? You may read our article, Which Famous Paintings Have Been Stolen? for more information.

3. The Persistence of Memory

The Persistence of Memory

This painting was made by Salvador Dali and is one of his most recognizable and famous works of art. It is also deeply personal just like his other paintings.

It was said that he made the painting in the midst of a hallucination. It was made when Dali had perfected his paranoid-critical method. This method of painting is when an artist will attempt to enter a meditative state of self-induced psychotic hallucinations. In this state, Dali would make what he called a “hand-painted dream photographs.”

4. Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa

Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting entitled Mona Lisa holds the Guinness World Record for having the highest known insurance valuation in history of $100 million in 1962. The title of the painting came from the word Mona which is an Italian polite form of address that is similar to Madam and from the name Lisa.

The subject of this famous painting is believed to be Lisa Del Giocondo who is a wife of a wealthy silk merchant. She and her husband moved to a different home where they had their second child. To celebrate the move to their new house and the birth of their second child, the husband named Francesco del Giocondo commissioned Leonardo to paint the portrait of his wife.

5. Whistler’s Mother

Whistler’s Mother

Dubbed as the Victorian Mona Lisa, Whistler’s Mother is the most-notable work of the American born, British-based painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Its original name was Arrangement in Grey and Black – Portrait of the Painter’s Mother. This name followed Whistler’s theme of naming his art pieces like musical compositions. However, the public gave it a nickname of Whistler’s Mother because the portrait was, in fact, the painter’s mother. It was said that her mother became the replacement model when the original model could not make the appointment.

6. The Night Watch

The Night Watch

The creator of this painting, Rembrandt, is considered to be one of the best artists in the world. Creating many masterpieces which remained a true wonder to other artists. The Night Watch is one of his paintings. Completed in the year 1642, the shown characters are Captain Frans Banning Cocq and company. The creator, Rembrandt was expensively paid to create this painting.

7. The Guernica

The Guernica
Spanish flag marking the place of exhibition of Picassos painting Guernica in Paris during the World Expo in 1937 Agfacolor

The style of the creator of this painting has created many wonders on the canvas. Guernica was called the best work of art by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. In 1937, the German and Italian warplanes bombed the area of Guernica. The bombing took many innocent lives and gave the Government an idea and asked Picasso to create a painting about the events in Guernica.

8. Portrait of Dr. Gachet

Portrait of Dr. Gatchet

This painting is another one of Van Gogh’s famous works. It’s the very last famous portrait that Van Gogh painted in 1890, before taking his own life. The person in the painting is Dr. Paul Gachet, who tended to Van Gogh in the final months of his life. It is said that they both had a rowdy but friendly relationship. He was interested with his doctor that he painted a portrait of him.

9. Arnolfini Portrait

Arnolfini Portrait

Dutch painter, Jan van Eyck, is considered to be the inventor of oil painting. Oil painting is a technique he used often to create even the tiniest details. This portrait shows a couple that is marked by a Latin sign that translates to “Jan van Eyck was here 1434”. The back wall has a mirror in it in the painting that shows the whole scene and two entirely different entities.

10. American Gothic

American Gothic

This is a modern painting by an American artist named Grant Wood. The painting depicts a farmer with his daughter by the side, both standing together in the entrance of the house. The way he found inspiration to make this painting was that another artist took him on a drive around Iowa so they can find inspiration for their next work. And while they were driving around, he saw a small house that’s built with a Gothic style. Grant drew the house and after getting the owner’s consent, he thought about creating a painting with people whom he deemed perfect for a Gothic style house like that. The painting depicts two characters which are his sister and his dentist.

11. The Last Supper

The Last Supper

This is another one of Da Vinci’s work, which is made famous by the characters and artwork quality. This painting portrays the strained and surprised disciples of Jesus. This was when Jesus predicted that one of the disciples will betray him. The painting was believed to have been finished in the year 1498. This was made to be a part of the renovation for the old church and monastery. The painting was made at the request of the Duke of Milan.

Every painting has a story behind it, and every stroke can be used to create words hidden on the canvas. Other than the painting, the story or meaning behind the portrait can be a lot more interesting than you think.

12. Saturn Devouring His Son

Saturn Devouring His Son

It is the artwork of Francisco Goya. This Spanish artist created this masterpiece from 1819 through 1823. The Idea of painting came through the Greek story of the Titan Cronus (Romanized as Saturn), who ate each of his children at birth, fearful that one of them would overthrow him according to predictions.

The picture contains Saturn eating his son in which the head and a portion of his child’s left arm is chewed. The right arm seems consumed as well, but it may have been folded in front of the body and kept in place by Saturn’s thumbs.

The painting is from his dark collection Francisco painted at Quinta del Sordo and never exhibited in public. It made its way after his death and was named Saturn devouring his son by others.

13. The Girl With Pearl Earring

The Girl With Pearl Earring

 The girl with a pearl earring is by Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch golden age painter.

The painting is estimated to be pictured on canvas around 1665. It shows a European female wearing an unusual outfit, an oriental headdress, and an earring that appears to be a large pearl. Based on the specular reflection, the pear form, and the vast size of the earring, Dutch astrophysicist Vincent Icke questioned its material in 2014, arguing that it seems more like polished tin than pearl.

It was given its current name near the close of the twentieth century after the earring worn by the girl depicted there. Since 1902, the painting has been in the Mauritshuis in The Hague’s collection, and it has been the subject of several literary adaptations. It was voted the most beautiful artwork in the Netherlands by the Dutch public in 2006.

14. Van Gogh Self-Portrait

Van Gogh Self-Portrait

Another painting from Van’s work in which he painted himself as a model in 1889. It was one of roughly 32 self-portraits he painted over ten years, and they were an essential part of his work as a painter because he often lacked the funds to hire models.

The picture shows the calm eyes that he mentioned to his brother in the letter. ” You will need to study [the image] for a while. I believe you will see that my facial expressions have become much calmer, albeit my eyes remain insecure, at least to me.” It confirmed that it is his self-portrait. He completed this painting shortly before departing from Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, in southern France. The portrait is now on display in Paris’s D’orsay Museum.

15. Lady With An Ermine

Lady With An Ermine

Lady with an Ermine is one Renaissance portrait created by Leonardo da Vinci. This Renaissance masterpiece was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan (known as il Moro), for whom Leonardo worked from c.1482-99. 

The artwork is put together with a layer of white gesso and a layer of brownish underpaint. The image depicts a half-height woman with her face angled at a three-quarter angle toward her right.

The Princes Czartoryski Collection, which included the Lady with an Ermine, was sold to the Polish government for €100 million on December 29, 2016, by the Princes Czartoryski Foundation. It is now on display in the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków and is considered a national treasure of Poland. It is now on display in the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków. Furthermore, it is viewed as a national treasure of Poland. 

16. The Great Wave Of Kanagawa

The Great Wave Of Kanagawa

The great wave of Kanagawa is a work of a Japanese ukiyo-e artist in Hokusai woodblock print. He produced it between 1829 and 1833. It is his most well-known work, and it is considered the most identifiable work of Japanese art in the world.

The canvas consists of boats, water, and mountains. Mount Fuji looms in the backdrop, while the big wave threatens three boats off the coast of Sagami Bay (Kanagawa Prefecture). Its wave, which is sometimes mistaken for a tsunami, is more likely to be a massive rogue wave.

17.  Christina’s World

“Christina’s World” is one of the most famous paintings by American artist Andrew Wyeth. Created in 1948, this artwork is renowned for its realistic depiction and emotional depth, and it remains one of the best-known examples of American realism in art.

The painting depicts a woman lying in a field, looking towards a distant farmhouse and its surrounding buildings. The woman in the painting is Anna Christina Olson, a neighbor of Wyeth’s in Cushing, Maine. Christina suffered from a degenerative muscular disorder, likely polio, which left her legs paralyzed from the waist down. Despite her condition, she refused to use a wheelchair and chose to crawl around her home and the surrounding property. Wyeth was inspired by the sight of Christina crawling across a field and decided to capture the moment and her determination in his painting.

18. Arnolfini Portrait

Arnolfini Portrait

The “Arnolfini Portrait,” also known as the “Arnolfini Wedding Portrait,” is a famous painting by the Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck, dated 1434. It’s one of the earliest and most intricate examples of Northern Renaissance art, and it’s renowned for its intricate detail and use of symbolism. The painting is housed in the National Gallery, London.

The portrait depicts Giovanni di Nicolao di Arnolfini, a wealthy merchant from Lucca (a city in Tuscany, Italy), and his wife, Costanza Trenta, standing in a room that appears to be their home in Bruges, Belgium. While the painting is often referred to as a wedding portrait, this interpretation has been the subject of debate among art historians. Some suggest it might be a general portrayal of the couple or a commemoration of their marriage, rather than an actual depiction of their wedding ceremony.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the painting is its wealth of symbolic elements, which have been widely studied and interpreted:

  1. Mirror: The convex mirror in the background is a focal point and reflects two additional figures in the room, one of whom might be presumed to be van Eyck himself. Around the mirror are tiny, meticulously painted scenes from the Passion of Christ.
  2. The Couple’s Attire: Their lavish clothing is indicative of their wealth and social status. The green dress of the woman, often mistaken for maternity wear, was actually a fashion of the time and not necessarily a symbol of pregnancy.
  3. The Dog: At the couple’s feet is a small dog, symbolizing loyalty and fidelity.
  4. The Chandelier: Only one of the candles in the ornate chandelier is lit, which some interpret as a symbol of the all-seeing eye of God, or as a representation of the couple’s unity (one flame, two people).
  5. The Fruit on the Window Sill: This could symbolize fertility and wealth, or even the fall of man and original sin, depending on interpretation.
  6. The Gesture of the Hands: The joining of the hands is seen by many as a key element, often interpreted as a gesture of marriage or mutual consent.
  7. Signature: Above the mirror, Jan van Eyck’s signature reads “Jan van Eyck was here 1434,” which adds to the mystery of the painting. This could be a simple artist’s signature or an indication of van Eyck as a witness to a contractual agreement, such as a marriage.

The “Arnolfini Portrait” is renowned not only for its rich symbolism but also for its technical mastery. Van Eyck’s use of oil paints allowed for an unprecedented degree of fine detail and luminosity, contributing to the enduring fascination and study of this masterpiece. The painting continues to be a subject of extensive art historical inquiry, with various interpretations adding to its intrigue and allure.

19.  Cyclops

Redon's Cyclops

“Cyclops” is a notable painting by the surrealist artist Odilon Redon, created in the late 19th or early 20th century. This work is part of Redon’s exploration into the world of the mythic and the fantastic, which became a central theme in his later work. Unlike many of his contemporaries in the Surrealist movement, Redon’s interest lay more in the dreamlike and the mystical rather than the shockingly bizarre or psychologically unsettling.

The painting depicts a mythical scene centered around the figure of a cyclops, a creature from Greek mythology typically portrayed as a giant with a single eye in the middle of its forehead. In Redon’s interpretation, however, the cyclops does not appear menacing or grotesque, as might be expected from traditional mythological depictions. Instead, the creature seems to be in a state of contemplation or gentle curiosity, peering over a landscape at a reclining female figure, who appears oblivious to its presence.

The female figure in the painting is often interpreted as a nymph or a goddess, embodying an ethereal and serene beauty. The cyclops, towering over her, seems to be captivated by her presence, suggesting themes of unrequited love or forbidden desire. This portrayal is a departure from the typical representations of cyclopes in mythology, where they are often depicted as brutish and fearsome.

20. Death of Marat

Death of Marat

“Death of Marat” is a famous painting by the French artist Jacques-Louis David, completed in 1793 during the turbulent times of the French Revolution. This painting is not only a remarkable work of art but also a powerful political statement, capturing a significant moment in French history.

The subject of the painting, Jean-Paul Marat, was a radical journalist and politician, a leader of the Montagnard faction, and a key figure in the French Revolution. Marat was known for his fiery writings in his newspaper, L’Ami du peuple (The Friend of the People), through which he became a voice for the sans-culottes, the radical working-class militants of Paris. His journalism was influential and deeply divisive, advocating for revolutionary ideals and playing a significant role in the escalating tensions of the period.

Marat suffered from a debilitating skin condition that often required him to spend long hours in a medicinal bath for relief. It was in this setting, in his bathtub, that he was assassinated by Charlotte Corday, a young woman from Normandy. Corday, who was sympathetic to the more moderate Girondin faction, saw Marat as a dangerous instigator of violence and a key figure in the radical excesses of the Revolution, particularly the September Massacres. On July 13, 1793, she gained an audience with Marat under the pretense of providing him with a list of enemies of the Revolution and stabbed him while he was in his bath.

21. Frescoes, Villa of the Mysteries

Frescoes, Villa of the Mysteries

The Frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries, located near Pompeii in Italy, are among the most significant and intriguing artworks from the ancient world. These well-preserved frescoes date back to the 1st century BCE and were discovered in 1909. The villa, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, was a luxurious Roman house or villa that likely belonged to a wealthy and influential family.

The frescoes cover the walls of a large room, which is believed to have been a triclinium or dining room. The paintings are renowned for their vivid colors and dynamic compositions, as well as for the mysteries surrounding their content and purpose.

The frescoes are significant not only for their artistic excellence but also for the light they shed on religious practices in the ancient Roman world. They provide valuable insights into Roman life, beliefs, and aesthetics. The Villa of the Mysteries remains a crucial site for understanding Roman art and culture, and the frescoes are a highlight for visitors to Pompeii.

As with many ancient artworks, the exact meaning of the frescoes is still subject to interpretation, and they continue to fascinate both scholars and the general public. Their enigmatic nature invites ongoing exploration and speculation, making them an enduring subject of interest in the field of art history.

22. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe

“Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (“Luncheon on the Grass”) is a famous painting by Édouard Manet, first exhibited at the Salon des Refusés in Paris in 1863. The painting is renowned for its daring composition and became a pivotal work in the development of modern art. It caused a significant scandal at the time of its unveiling due to its unconventional depiction of nudity and its stark break from traditional artistic norms.

The painting features a nude woman casually lunching with two fully clothed men in a rural setting. The woman, unabashedly naked, gazes directly at the viewer, while the men, dressed in contemporary clothes, seem engaged in conversation, oblivious to her nudity. In the background, another female figure is seen bathing in a stream. The juxtaposition of the nude woman with the clothed men was a stark divergence from the classical treatment of nudes, which typically placed them in mythological contexts.

The initial public and critical reaction to the painting was largely negative, with many viewers and critics shocked by its content and style. However, over time, “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” has been recognized as a seminal work in modern art. It broke with traditional techniques and subjects, paving the way for future artistic movements, and remains a key work in understanding the transition from traditional to modern art. The painting is now held in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

23.  Ophelia

Ophelia

“Ophelia” is a famous painting by British artist John Everett Millais, completed between 1851 and 1852. It’s one of the most renowned works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of English painters, poets, and critics founded in 1848 who sought to revive the detail, intense colors, and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian art.

The painting depicts Ophelia, a character from William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet,” in the moments just before her death, as described in Act IV, Scene VII. In the play, Ophelia is driven to madness after her father, Polonius, is killed by Hamlet, her lover. She falls into a stream and drowns, an event that is not seen but described by Queen Gertrude. Millais chose to illustrate this tragic scene with a deep focus on realism and attention to detail.

24.  The Gross Clinic

The Gross Clinic

“The Gross Clinic,” painted by Thomas Eakins in 1875, is considered one of the most significant works in American art history, particularly noted for its raw, unflinching portrayal of surgery and its powerful depiction of scientific inquiry. The painting is a large work, measuring approximately 8 by 6.5 feet, and it represents a significant moment in both the history of medicine and art.

The painting’s central figure is Dr. Samuel D. Gross, a renowned American surgeon and a professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. In the work, Dr. Gross is depicted delivering a lecture in a surgical amphitheater while performing a surgical procedure to treat osteomyelitis of the femur. He is surrounded by various figures, including surgeons, students, and the patient, who is undergoing surgery. One of the key features of the painting is its vivid and detailed depiction of the surgical procedure, which was groundbreaking for its time.

25.  Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee

The painting “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt van Rijn is a powerful depiction of the biblical event where Jesus calms a storm on the Sea of Galilee, as described in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament of the Christian Bible.

Rembrandt’s portrayal captures the dramatic tension between the agitation and calmness of the sea. The left side of the painting depicts huge threatening waves and the disciples struggling to save the small boat, while the right side shows a much calmer sea. The contrast between the two sides symbolizes the shift from fear and turmoil to peace and tranquility, with the clouds receding and the sky clearing.

The painting also highlights the disciples’ fear and desperation in the face of the storm, contrasting with the tranquility of Christ. Rembrandt’s masterful use of light and shadow emphasizes the impending miracle, as Christ rules the waves from a haven of calm, soon to be fully visible as the clouds recede.

The artwork serves as a visual retelling of a pivotal story in the gospel narrative, revealing the battle between human frailty and nature, between faith and fear. Rembrandt’s ability to unveil the inner worlds of humankind through his art is evident in this painting, as he captures the inner turmoil and external realities of the disciples.

“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” is not only a significant biblical narrative but also a testament to Rembrandt’s artistic prowess, showcasing his ability to combine a history painting with a seascape. Unfortunately, the painting was stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and remains missing to this day, making it one of the most famous unsolved art thefts in history.

This masterpiece continues to captivate art enthusiasts and serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring power of Rembrandt’s artistry and the unresolved mystery surrounding its disappearance.

26. Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom

Jack the Ripper's Bedroom

“Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom” is a painting created by Walter Sickert, a German-born British painter, sometime in the early 20th century. Sickert, a prominent figure in the Camden Town Group of artists and a major influence on British avant-garde art, was known for his often somber and realist depictions of urban life.

The painting is intriguing and controversial, primarily due to its connection with the infamous and unidentified serial killer Jack the Ripper, who terrorized the Whitechapel district of London in the late 19th century. The title of the painting alone evokes a sense of mystery and darkness associated with the Ripper’s gruesome crimes, which included the brutal murders of at least five women, all of whom were prostitutes.

“Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom” remains an enigmatic piece, capturing the dark, foreboding atmosphere of a period marked by fear and mystery. It’s a testament to Sickert’s ability to evoke mood and narrative through his art, and it continues to fascinate both art enthusiasts and those interested in the lore of Jack the Ripper. The painting, like the Ripper case itself, leaves many questions unanswered, adding to its enduring allure and mystique.

27. Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

“Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear” is a famous painting by Vincent van Gogh that reflects his artistic prowess and personal struggles. Van Gogh painted this self-portrait in January 1889, a week after he left the hospital where he had been treated for cutting off most of his left ear. This act of self-mutilation was a desperate response to a heated argument with his fellow painter Paul Gauguin, who had come to stay with him in Arles, in the south of France.

The incident with his ear occurred during a period of intense mental distress for Van Gogh. He had hoped to set up a studio in the south of France where like-minded artists could share ideas and work side by side. However, after the argument, Gauguin left, and with him, Van Gogh’s dream of the studio.

In the painting, Van Gogh is seen wearing a fur cap, a recent purchase made to secure his thick bandage in place and to ward off the winter cold. The Japanese print in the background of the painting is a nod to Van Gogh’s fascination with Japanese art, which he believed held a purity and simplicity that western art lacked.

Despite the personal turmoil he was experiencing, Van Gogh returned to his house at the beginning of January and immediately began painting again. He worked on this self-portrait during the weeks following his return home. The painting is a frank statement of his self-perception at the time, with controlled and considered brushstrokes creating tension and an otherworldly atmosphere.

Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear” is a powerful testament to his resilience and his belief in the healing power of art. Despite his mental health struggles, he continued to create, producing a body of work that remains influential and celebrated to this day.

28.  Guernica

Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso

“Guernica” is one of the most powerful and significant works of art of the 20th century, painted by the renowned Spanish artist Pablo Picasso in 1937. This monumental work, measuring 3.49 meters (11 ft 5 in) tall and 7.76 meters (25 ft 6 in) wide, is a profound statement on the horrors of war and a poignant anti-war symbol.

The painting was created in response to a specific tragic event during the Spanish Civil War. On April 26, 1937, the town of Guernica in the Basque Country of Spain was heavily bombed by the German and Italian air forces, acting in support of the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco. This attack resulted in widespread destruction and civilian casualties, marking one of the first aerial bombings targeting a civilian population.

“Guernica” has since become an iconic work of anti-war art and a universal symbol of the suffering war inflicts upon individuals, especially innocent civilians. The painting has inspired countless works of art, protests, and political movements and remains relevant as a powerful statement against violence and war.

29. Two Tahitian Women

Two Tahitian Women

“Two Tahitian Women” is a celebrated painting by French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, created during his stay in Tahiti between 1891 and 1903. Gauguin was drawn to Tahiti due to his fascination with what he perceived as the island’s exotic and primitive culture, which he believed held a purity and simplicity that Western society lacked.

The painting depicts two women of Tahiti, one holding mango blossoms. The women are dressed in traditional Tahitian attire, and their calm, serene expressions are a testament to Gauguin’s idealized view of the Tahitian people. The curves of their figures, along with the vibrant colors and the tropical setting, reflect Gauguin’s signature style and his appreciation for Tahitian culture and aesthetics.

Gauguin’s Tahitian period, during which he created “Two Tahitian Women,” was one of the most productive and significant phases of his career. His works from this period, characterized by bold color, simplified forms, and a departure from traditional Western notions of perspective and modeling, had a profound influence on the development of modern art.

However, it’s important to note that Gauguin’s depictions of Tahiti and its people were heavily romanticized and did not necessarily reflect the reality of life on the island. His works, including “Two Tahitian Women,” should be viewed as his personal interpretations rather than accurate representations of Tahitian culture.

Despite the controversy surrounding Gauguin’s views and depictions of Tahiti, “Two Tahitian Women” remains a significant work in the history of art, embodying the artist’s search for an untouched paradise and his break from traditional Western artistic conventions.

30. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

“Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” also known as “The Lady in Gold” or “The Woman in Gold,” is a painting by Gustav Klimt, completed between 1903 and 1907. The portrait was commissioned by Adele’s husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a Jewish banker and sugar producer. Adele Bloch-Bauer (1881-1925) came from a wealthy Viennese Jewish family, and was renowned for her salons, where she invited intellectuals and creatives into their home. It was in the late 1890s that she met Gustav Klimt.

The genesis for this picture dates back to 1903 when Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer commissioned Klimt to paint a portrait of his wife, Adele. Klimt began work that winter and labored over the painting for four years, creating numerous sketches in the process. The painting is considered the pinnacle of Klimt’s Golden Style and includes African, Asian, Byzantine, and Egyptian references.

However, the painting’s history is marked by controversy and struggle. The painting was stolen by the Nazis in 1941 and displayed at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere. In 1946, despite the Annulment Act which voided Nazi transactions, and the efforts of the lawyer hired by the family, Dr. Gustav Vinesh, the Bloch-Bauers were forced to relinquish most of their art collection, including “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” to the Austrian State, supposedly on the basis of Adele’s will.

The painting’s fate changed in 1998, when the Austrian government introduced the Art Restitution Act, which led to the return of the painting to its rightful owners. The story of Gustav Klimt’s “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” is particularly appealing due to the mesmerizing gold-flecked painting itself, which set a record price of $135 million when it was sold in 2006, and the David-and-Goliath tale featuring a feisty octogenarian heroine – Ms. Bloch-Bauer’s niece Maria Altmann – taking on a recalcitrant Austrian government. In the end, Ms. Altmann got the portrait back, marking a rare instance of justice when it comes to the return of art looted during the Nazis’ reign of terror to its rightful owners or their descendants.

31. Lascaux Cave Paintings

Lascaux painting

The Lascaux Cave Paintings, discovered in 1940 in the Dordogne region of southwestern France, are among the most famous and significant prehistoric art sites in the world. These paintings, estimated to be over 17,000 years old, provide a remarkable insight into the lives and minds of our Paleolithic ancestors.
The caves were discovered by chance by four teenagers, Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas. They stumbled upon the cave entrance when Ravidat’s dog fell in a hole. The boys explored the cave system and were astounded by the multitude of paintings and engravings they found on the walls.

The Lascaux Caves quickly became a major archaeological and cultural site after World War II. However, the influx of visitors led to environmental changes in the cave, such as the introduction of light, heat, and humidity, which began to damage the paintings. As a result, the cave was closed to the public in 1963.

To preserve the paintings and still allow public access to their beauty, a series of replicas were created. The most complete of these, Lascaux II, opened in 1983 and replicates the Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery sections of the original cave. Subsequent replicas and digital exhibits have been made to bring the experience of these ancient artworks to a broader audience.

32.  Primavera

Primavera

“Primavera,” also known as “Allegory of Spring,” is a famous painting by Sandro Botticelli, created around the late 1470s or early 1480s. The painting is one of the most recognized works of the Italian Renaissance and is housed in the Uffizi Museum in Florence.

The painting was likely commissioned for the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, a cousin of the powerful Italian statesman and patron of the arts, Lorenzo Medici. The painting depicts nine figures from classical mythology in a garden, but no story has been found that brings this particular group together.

In the painting, Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, is seen embracing the nymph Chloris, who transforms into Flora, the goddess of spring. Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, dominates the center of the painting, with a blindfolded Cupid firing his arrow of love. On the left, the three Graces, minor goddesses with virtues like those of Venus, are shown dancing in a circle. The composition is closed by Mercury, the messenger of the Gods, recognizable from his helmet and winged sandals.

While it’s generally agreed that “Primavera” depicts themes of love, marriage, sensuality, and fertility, the precise meaning of the work continues to be debated. The painting’s title, which means “Spring” in Italian, was given by the art historian Giorgio Vasari around 1550 when he viewed it.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding its exact meaning, “Primavera” remains a significant work in the history of art, embodying Botticelli’s mastery of line and color, and his fascination with classical mythology and Neoplatonic thought.

33. Portrait of Madame X

Portrait of Madame X

“Portrait of Madame X” is a famous painting by John Singer Sargent, an American artist known for his skillful and elegant portraits. Completed in 1884, the painting is a striking portrayal of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, an American expatriate who lived in Paris and was renowned for her beauty and controversial reputation in French society.
Virginie Gautreau was a socialite and a notorious figure in Parisian high society, known for her distinctive appearance and rumored affairs. Sargent, keen to establish his reputation in Paris, sought her out as a subject, seeing in her a perfect blend of beauty and sophistication that could make for a captivating portrait.
Initially, “Portrait of Madame X” was a source of disappointment and frustration for Sargent. However, over time, it has become one of his most celebrated works. It’s admired for its technical brilliance and its daring departure from the norms of its era. The painting is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and remains an enduring symbol of Belle Époque society and its complexities. The story of Madame X and her portrait is a fascinating glimpse into the interplay of art, society, and reputation in the late 19th century.

34. Untitled

“Untitled” (1982) is one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s most iconic works, featuring a black skull gnashing its teeth against a blue background. Basquiat, who was fundamentally rooted in the New York City graffiti scene of the 1970s, used a graffiti style in his paintings, which was often related to cartoons.

In “Untitled,” Basquiat’s painterly intelligence is evident in the way he uses thin, thread-line splashes of white in a very specific and controlled way, giving the disembodied, screaming skull a sense of depth and interiority. This painting is a testament to Basquiat’s ability to push back against the flattening of the skull into a pure symbol of death and against being treated just as a graffiti painting.

Despite his early death at the age of 27 due to a drug overdose, Basquiat’s influence on the art world has been profound His vibrant painting style and his ability to infuse his works with social commentary have cemented his place as a significant figure in American art.

“Untitled” (1982) set several records when it was sold for $110.5 million in 2017, including for a work by any American artist, for a work by an African-American artist, and as the first work created since 1980 to make over $100 million. This sale marked a historical moment and further cemented Basquiat’s status in the art world.

35. Flaming June

Flaming June

“Flaming June,” painted by Frederic Leighton in 1895, is one of the most famous and iconic works of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, though it was created at the tail end of the movement’s prominence. Known for its vibrant color, sensuous subject matter, and technical prowess, the painting is a quintessential example of Victorian-era British art.

“Flaming June” depicts a young woman, draped in a sheer, flowing orange gown, asleep in a sunlit scene. The vibrant orange of her dress, which gives the painting its name, contrasts strikingly with the tranquil blue of the sea and sky in the background. The figure is curled into a semi-fetal position on a marble bench or parapet, suggesting a relaxed, almost dreamlike state.

The subject’s identity is not clear – she could be a modern woman in repose or an allegorical figure representing sleep or summer. The flowing drapery and the positioning of the body showcase Leighton’s mastery of capturing fabric and the human form. The woman’s pose is both naturalistic and classically influenced, reminiscent of figures from ancient Greek and Roman art.

36. At the Moulin Rouge

At the Moulin Rouge

“At the Moulin Rouge” is a renowned painting by French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, completed between 1892 and 1895. This artwork is celebrated for its vivid depiction of the bohemian nightlife in Paris at the end of the 19th century and is one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s most famous and iconic works.
The Moulin Rouge was a famous cabaret in the Montmartre district of Paris, known for its extravagant shows, flamboyant patrons, and as a hub for the artistic and literary life of the city. Toulouse-Lautrec was a frequent visitor and became a fixture of the Montmartre social scene. He was drawn to the colorful and often chaotic nightlife, and his paintings reflect the vibrancy and energy of this world.
“At the Moulin Rouge” is an important work in the canon of Post-Impressionism. Toulouse-Lautrec’s style is characterized by his focus on the lives of ordinary people, his candid depictions of the Parisian nightlife, and his innovative use of color and form. This painting, in particular, is celebrated for its vivid portrayal of a specific place and time and its influence on the development of modern art.

37. The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors

“The Ambassadors” is a famous painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, created in 1533. The painting is a double portrait of Jean de Dinteville, a wealthy landowner and the ambassador of the King of France, and his friend Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur.

The painting is much more than just a portrait. It’s also a still life painting featuring numerous meticulously rendered objects that reflect the occupations and interests of the two men. The table they’re leaning against is piled with objects: books, musical instruments, globes, and fancy star charts. These objects tell us something about the sitters, although some of the symbolic meanings have been lost over time.

One of the most famous aspects of “The Ambassadors” is the anamorphic skull that appears at the bottom of the painting. This distorted image can only be viewed correctly from a specific angle or with a special mirror, and it adds a layer of mystery and intrigue to the painting.

The painting largely celebrates the importance of the two men and their political affairs, while also subtly celebrating their close friendship. It’s suffused with hidden meanings and symbolic features, showcasing Holbein’s attention to detail and his influence from the meticulous realism of early Flemish painting.

“The Ambassadors” is housed in the National Gallery in London and is one of the most popular paintings in the gallery’s collection. Despite the passage of time, the painting continues to captivate viewers with its intricate details and the enigmatic presence of the anamorphic skull.

38. Girl With Balloon

“Girl With Balloon” is one of the most famous works by the anonymous England-based street artist, political activist, and film director known as Banksy. Created in 2002, it features a simple, yet evocative image of a young girl reaching out toward a red, heart-shaped balloon that is drifting away. The artwork quickly became one of Banksy’s most iconic images and a symbol in popular culture, known for its poignant simplicity and potential interpretations.
A particularly famous incident involving “Girl With Balloon” occurred in October 2018 when a canvas print of the artwork was auctioned at Sotheby’s in London. Moments after it was sold, the artwork partially shredded itself, thanks to a shredder that Banksy had secretly built into the frame years before. The partial shredding created a new piece of art, later renamed “Love is in the Bin.” This act was seen as a critique of the commercial art world and further cemented Banksy’s reputation as a provocateur.
“Girl With Balloon” has become more than just a piece of street art; it’s a cultural icon, representing the power of visual imagery to provoke thought and evoke emotional responses. It’s also a testament to Banksy’s unique approach to art-making, which often involves a blend of dark humor with graffiti executed in a distinctive stenciling technique. The artwork remains a poignant symbol in contemporary art, reflecting themes of youth, loss, and the elusive nature of happiness.

39. Judith Slaying Holofernes

Judith Slaying Holofernes

“Judith Slaying Holofernes” is a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque artist. The painting is based on a story from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith in the Old Testament, which details the assassination of the Assyrian general Holofernes by the Israelite Judith.

In the biblical narrative, the Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar sent his general Holofernes to besiege the Jewish city of Bethulia. Judith, a beautiful young widow, resolves to save her people by slaying Holofernes herself. After reciting a long prayer to God, she dons her finest clothes to seduce him. Once Holofernes has drunk enough wine to become intoxicated, Judith decapitates him with his own sword, winning a decisive victory for the Israelites.

Gentileschi’s painting depicts the dramatic climax of this story, with Judith and her maidservant in the act of beheading Holofernes. This painting is a testament to Gentileschi’s mastery of Baroque realism, with its emphasis on proximity to the picture plane, strong chiaroscuro, and realistic details.

The painting was likely either commissioned by or gifted to the Medici, Florence’s ruling family.  However, in the late 18th century, the Medici duchess, disgusted by the horror of the scene, banished this painting to a dark corner of the Uffizi, where it remained until the late twentieth century.

Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes” is a powerful depiction of a woman triumphing over a tyrannical man, a theme that was popular among Italian Baroque artists The painting continues to strike its viewers with both revulsion and awe at the skill of the artist who so convincingly transformed paint into a vivid scene of struggle and victory.

40.  Myra

“Myra” is a controversial and provocative painting created by British artist Marcus Harvey in 1995. The artwork gained notoriety for its subject matter and the technique used in its creation, sparking intense debate and public outcry, particularly in the United Kingdom.
The painting is a large-scale portrait of Myra Hindley, one of the most infamous criminals in British history. Hindley, along with her partner Ian Brady, was responsible for the Moors murders, which took place between 1963 and 1965. The pair kidnapped, sexually abused, and murdered five children, aged between 10 and 17, burying their bodies on Saddleworth Moor near Manchester. The crimes shocked and appalled the nation, and Hindley’s image — particularly her police mugshot taken after her arrest — became ingrained in the British public consciousness as a symbol of pure evil.

41. Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket

Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket

“Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket” is a painting by James McNeill Whistler, an American-born artist, created around 1875. The painting depicts a fireworks display in London’s Cremorne Gardens, a popular spot for people to gather near the River Thames at night.

When Whistler first exhibited “Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket” in 1877, it became the center of a significant controversy The renowned art critic John Ruskin accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. Ruskin was not aware of the effort and theory that had gone into the painting when he accused it of being a public insult. He had berated Whistler’s paintings long before the event leading up to the trial, even denouncing Whistler’s art as “absolute rubbish”.

This criticism led to the infamous Ruskin vs. Whistler Trial, which took place on November 25 and 26, 1878. The trial was disastrous for Whistler, who won a farthing. After all the court costs, he had no choice but to declare bankruptcy. Whistler was forced to pawn, sell, and mortgage everything he could get his hands on.

42. Salvator Mundi

Salvator Mundi

“Salvator Mundi,” meaning “Savior of the World” in Latin, is a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most renowned figures of the Italian Renaissance. The painting depicts Jesus Christ in Renaissance dress, making the sign of the cross with his right hand while holding a transparent, non-refracting orb in his left. The artwork has gained fame not only for its artistic and historical significance but also for the mystery, controversy, and staggering sale price it has commanded in recent years.
The exact history of “Salvator Mundi” is shrouded in mystery. The painting is believed to have been created around the late 15th or early 16th century. For many years, its whereabouts were unknown, and it was even thought lost. The painting re-emerged in the 20th century but was initially mistaken for a work by one of Leonardo’s followers, rather than by Leonardo himself.

The painting gained widespread public attention in 2017 when it was auctioned by Christie’s in New York and sold for a staggering $450.3 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at auction at the time. The sale created a media sensation and brought “Salvator Mundi” into the limelight.

However, the painting’s authenticity and the high sale price have sparked considerable debate and controversy. Some critics and art historians have raised questions about the extent of the painting’s restoration and how much of the original work remains. The identity of the buyer was initially kept secret, adding to the painting’s mystique. It was later reported that the buyer was Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the painting was supposed to be displayed at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, though its public presentation was postponed.

43. The Two Fridas

“The Two Fridas” is a double self-portrait by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, painted in 1939 during her divorce from artist Diego Rivera. This painting is one of Kahlo’s most iconic works and her first large-scale oil painting, as she usually painted on smaller canvases due to health conditions that often confined her to bed.

The painting depicts two nearly identical Fridas seated on a bench, holding hands against a stormy background. The Frida on the left is dressed in a white Victorian-style dress, while the Frida on the right is in a traditional Tehuana dress. The Frida on the right holds a miniature portrait of Diego Rivera, and the Frida on the left holds a pair of forceps cutting into a vein, which spills blood onto her white dress. This vein winds around the two Fridas and connects their two hearts, which are visible over their clothes.

This painting is an intimate portrayal of two versions of Frida after her divorce from Diego: one that Diego loved, and the other that he no longer loved. It is a reflection of Kahlo’s heartbreak endured during her divorce from Rivera and perhaps throughout their relationship.

In 1947, “The Two Fridas” was acquired by the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Institute of Fine Arts) in Mexico City. The purchase price was 4,000 Pesos (about $1,000) at that time and an additional 36 Pesos for the frame. This was the highest price that Frida was ever paid for a painting during her lifetime.

“The Two Fridas” is a masterpiece that uses symbolism through different elements, reflecting a crucial segment of Kahlo’s life, her divorce from Diego. The remarkable anatomy and perfect double portraiture as a subject further marked it as famous. Today, a reproduction of this painting is on display in the Frida Kahlo Museum in Coyoacan, Mexico.

44. The Ghent Altarpiece

The Ghent Altarpiece

The Ghent Altarpiece, also known as “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” is a large and complex Early Flemish polyptych altarpiece. It was completed in 1432 and is attributed to the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. This masterpiece is located at Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, and is renowned for its detailed iconography, technical brilliance, and monumental size.
The Ghent Altarpiece remains a profound testament to the artistic skill of the Early Flemish painters and a significant piece of cultural heritage, embodying deep spiritual themes and remarkable artistic innovation.

45. Juan de Pareja

Juan de Pareja

Juan de Pareja (ca. 1606-1670) was a 17th-century Afro-Hispanic painter, born in Antequera, Spain. He is largely known today as the subject of the iconic portrait by Diego Velázquez, but he was also an artist in his own right. Pareja was born into slavery and was enslaved in Velázquez’s studio for over two decades, where he assisted Velázquez by stretching canvases and grinding paint.

Pareja was freed by Velázquez in Rome in November of 1650 After attaining his freedom, Pareja forged an independent career as an artist. One of his most notable works is “The Calling of Saint Matthew” (1661), which depicts the biblical story of Levi, a Jewish tax official, being surprised by Jesus’s request to follow him. Levi accepts, changes his name to Matthew, and goes on to write the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible.

Pareja’s self-portrait shows him in 3/4 view, his head turned toward the onlooker, his gaze neutral. This self-portrait is a sly rendering in his own hand, contrasting with Velázquez’s famous painting of him, “Portrait of Juan de Pareja” (ca. 1650), where he is depicted with fuller lips and curlier hair.

Pareja’s story sheds light on the role of slavery in creating the art and material culture of Spain’s Golden Age. His journey from an enslaved painting assistant to a renowned artist is a testament to his talent and resilience. His work and life have been brought back to the public’s attention by an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter”.

Also, if you are thinking about selling your paintings, you may read our post about where to sell or consign your high-valued paintings for more information.

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