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Fantastic artwork is all around us. Some paintings are so ingrained in our cultural iconography that we see them displayed in pop culture and don’t even always get that there’s a famous painting behind it. Others are household names that even the most disinterested in art could point out.
To celebrate these paintings, we’ve developed a list of the most important artworks of all time. Many of these paintings will be easily recognizable by name, others by sight, or numerous pop culture references.
Some of the paintings on this list are obvious; others might not be so. They range throughout history, from the 13th century to the 20th century. Some were created by the most famous artists of all time, while others are one-hit wonders of the art world.
Here are the most famous paintings of all time.
The 25 Most Famous Paintings of All Time
The Son of Man (Renee Magritte, 1964)
This surrealist painting features an image of a dapper man wearing a business suit with an apple in front of his face. The imagery and title instantly connect the work to the biblical story of Adam and Eve, where the apple is often considered the forbidden fruit that led to man’s fall.
Magritte considered The Son of Man to be a self-portrait. The apple purposefully only partially hides the face, and Magritte was trying to showcase that humanity can become obsessed with trying to see the hidden things that might be right outside of our views.
The Son of Man is currently in a private collection
Las Meninas (Diego Velazquez 1656)
Las Meninas (The Ladies in Waiting) is an epic work depicting the children of the Spanish court. The central figure of the painting is Margaret Theresa, then age 5, daughter of King Philippe IV.
The painting is renowned for its intricacies and details in composition. Velazquez painted himself in the background as a viewer to the scene, looking towards the viewer of the painting, which offers a unique perspective of the artist watching the viewer. Additionally, the King and Queen are in the image, but only as small reflections in the mirror on the wall, which creates the impression that they are standing with the viewer, seeing the scene unfold in the same way.
Las Meninas is on display at the Museo del Prado in Madrid
Girl with a Pearl Earring (Johannes Vermeer, 1665)
Girl with a Pearl Earring is a masterpiece from the Dutch Golden Age. Although this period also includes Rembrandt, a more well-known artist, Girl with a Pearl Earring is often more widely celebrated in art history and current culture than most of Rembrandt’s works.
The painting depicts a young girl wearing an orange-tinted dress and blue turban, with the namesake pearl earring dangling from an ear. The dress is not typical of the period and location, which gives the girl a sense of exotic intrigue.
Often referred to as the Dutch Mona Lisa, Girl with a Pearl Earring is often referred to and parodied in pop culture. Famous stand-ins include Marge Simpson, Squidward, and Kermit the Frog, in addition to a variety of people and animals. Even the famed street artist Banksy parodied this painting in spray paint, replacing the earing with an alarm box.
Girl with a Pearl Earring is on display at Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands.
Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (John Singer Sargent, 1183-1884)
Madame X is wildly regarded as Sargent’s best work. It depicts Madame Pierre Gautreau, an American socialite in Paris, in an elegant black dress and standing in what was considered a sexually suggestive pose.
The original painting was scandalous. Sargent’s original composition depicted one shoulder strap falling off the shoulder in what was a highly suggestive scene at the time. The poor reception led Sargent to revise the painting with an intact strap, which is how it is currently displayed.
Although an embarrassment for both Sargent and the model Gautreau at the time, the scandal led to the painting’s (and arguably the artist’s) notoriety. Art scholars and historians debate why the artwork was received so poorly and examine it within the lenses of history, politics, and high society at the time.
Madame X is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Dogs Playing Poker (Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, 1894)
It might be odd to see Dogs Playing Poker on the list of most famous paintings in the world. There is no doubt that other paintings are better and more influential, but often fame isn’t about being good; it’s about being well known. Dogs Playing Poker is one of the most well-known paintings of all time.
What might not be well known is that it is more than one painting. The original was created in 1894, and there are 18 versions of the series. Coolidge was commissioned to create these to advertise cigars, but they became pop culture icons and still are today.
This painting has appeared in shows such as Cheers, Roseanne, and The Simpsons. It’s appeared in commercials, on album covers, and in film. The imagery of this painting is everywhere. It’s so ubiquitous that many of us don’t realize that the original work was created in the 1800s.
The original “Poker Game” is currently in a private collection.
Nighthawks (Edward Hopper, 1942)
Although it might not be known by name, the 1942 work by Edward Hopper is known well by the imagery. Nighthawks is the painting that features a diner with four people inside, lighting an otherwise empty and abandoned street.
This painting is often parodied and reimagined for pop culture. The most famous rendition is Gottfried Helnwein’s 1984 poster, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, which replaces the original patrons with Hollywood’s dearly departed stars of the 1950s – Humphry Bogart, Marylin Monroe, Elvis Presley, and James Dean.
Nighthawks has been featured and parodied in a variety of media. Poems and short stories have been written about the patrons, and it’s been featured in television shows from the Simpsons and That 70’s Show to CSI.
Nighthawks is currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.
No 5 (Jackson Pollack, 1948)
Pollack’s drip paintings are not known by name. It’s hard to remember a name when it’s only “No 5” or “No 7”. However, the imagery and style from the drip paintings are iconic, regardless of what we call it.
No 5 was chosen for this list because it is one of the most expensive paintings sold. In 2006, it sold for 140 million and was the top-grossing painting at the time (and is still in the top 10!). Number 11, Blue Poles, is almost equally as famous.
Pollack’s drip paintings changed the face of art. Their 1949 feature in Life Magazine thrust abstract expressionism into the mainstream and started an entire movement. We can trace most of the drip painting imagery we see in pop culture to Pollack’s work. These paintings are famous even without world-renowned names.
No 5 is currently in a private collection.
Guernica (Pablo Picasso, 1937)
Guernica is one of the most famous paintings by the world-renowned cubist Picasso. Created in response to the bombing of Guernica, Spain, by the Germans in World War II, the painting is a haunting reminder of the pain and suffering caused by war.
This work is not pretty. It’s grotesque and, at times, challenging to view. The deformed figures Picasso is known for convey pain and suffering in this image. Depictions of screaming women, dead babies, and figures caught in the flame are impossible to forget but a powerful reminder of the horrors war inflicts, particularly on the innocent.
Guernica is currently on display at Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid.
Nymphs and Satyr (William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1873)
Bouguereau is known for sticking to the classical and academic painting style during the impressionist wave of the 19th century. His most famous painting, Nymphs and Satyr, features nude nymphs pulling a reluctant satyr into a pool. According to art historians, the satyr is the villain of this piece. He was spying on the bathing nymphs, and they are pulling him to the pool to “cool him off.”
This painting is renowned for its classical subject matter, academic artistry, and brilliant use of light. Although it might not be known by name, most people will recognize the imagery depicted in the painting. It was highly acclaimed at its first showing in the Parison Salon but hidden away in storage for nearly a half-century due to the nudity depicted.
Nymphs and Satyr is on display at the Clark Institute in Williamstown
Relativity (M.C. Escher, 1953)
Though not technically a painting, the imagery depicted in M.C. Escher’s lithographic print is so ingrained in the collective conscious that it needed to be included on this list.
Many people might not immediately recognize the name but know what you are talking about when you mention the image of the random staircases that seem to defy the laws of physics. The print depicts seven stairways and three different gravity sources, with people on the stairs going about their days as this is normal.
The imagery from Relativity features heavily in pop culture. It’s made appearances in cartoons like Futurama and Family Guy, the new hit television series Squid Game, older movies like Labyrinth, and in video games, shows, and even record covers.
As a print, there are numerous copies of the first run, one of which is in the MOMA collection in Los Angeles, though it’s not currently on display.
Café Terrace at Night (Vincent van Gogh, 1888)
Van Gogh is one of the most important and influential artists of all time, so it makes sense that his work would be featured. Café Terrace at Night depicts a café in the French city of Arles lit under the evening stars. The café Van Gogh used as a source image is still standing and was redecorated in the 1990s to replicate the painting.
Although not prominently highlighted in pop culture, it has been featured in film and television. It made its first appearance in the 1950s Kirk Douglas film A Lust for Life and was shown in a 21st-century episode of Dr. Who.
Despite its lack of movie fame, the imagery in the painting is hard to forget. The bright yellows of the café lights are a splendid juxtaposition against the dark alley and dark blue sky. The energetic brushstrokes that Van Gogh is known for make the café come to life, letting viewers feel like they are there at the café.
Café Terrace at Night is on display at the Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo
Water Lilies (Claude Monet, 1897-1926)
Monet enjoyed painting the same scene numerous times to create a series. He painted the image at different times of the day and in different seasons to highlight how light and atmosphere affect our perception of a scene. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his water lilies series.
Water Lilies is a series of 250 paintings depicting water lilies in various lights and reliefs. Some are up close, while others are full scenes of the pond with a Japanese bridge. The paintings with the bridge are the most recognizable and showcase the impressionistic style Monet made famous.
Paintings in the Water Lilies series are on display at a variety of art museums around the world, and some are in private collections.
Campbell Soup Cans (Andy Warhol, 1961-1962)
The Campbell Soup Cans painting is renowned for its simplicity and innovation in bringing art into pop culture commercialism. Warhol spearheaded the pop art movement, creating various images that showcase American culture and consumerism in new lights. The Campbell Soup Cans are the most recognizable of these works.
The soup can paintings are actually 32 images of Campbell soup cans placed together in one display. They are all the same, except for the flavor of soup displayed on the packaging. According to Warhol, the work was meant to celebrate modern culture and showcase artistry in the everyday.
Although the paintings were not well received at their first opening, they are now celebrated as the forerunners of the pop art movement. This painting led to changes in how we, as a culture, view and use art. It made lasting impacts on art, fashion, film, and industry.
The original soup can paintings are displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Washington Crossing the Delaware (Emanuel Leutze, 1851)
If there’s a painting that every American has seen, it’s the image of George Washington crossing the Delaware River as a celebration of America’s war for independence. This painting is featured in history books and in various venues that promote American exceptionalism.
The iconic image of bravery and perseverance displayed in Washing Crossing the Delaware is so famous that it appears on US currency, on the back of the New Jersey State Quarter. It’s also been parodied extensively in pop culture and political commentary.
There were originally three versions of this painting, but the first was on display at the Kunsthalle in Bremen and was destroyed in an air raid during World War II. One hung in the West Wing of the White House for many years before being sold to an art museum.
The surviving iterations of Washington Crossing Delaware are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, and the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Winona.
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (Georges Seurat, 1884-1886)
Everyone recognizes this painting, but few know the name. Do you recall a painting of a spring picnic along a river, with a woman in the foreground in a black dress with a large bustle, holding an umbrella? It’s eerily reminiscent of impressionist paintings but a tiny bit too crisp to be considered one. This is Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
This painting was crafted utilizing the pointillism technique, a form of painting where the artist uses small dots, or points, of color on the canvas to create an overarching image. Seurat was one of the first to use this method and the first to execute it on such a large scale. This work is widely regarded as the start of the neo-impressionist movement.
This work is often referenced in pop culture. It’s appeared in shows such as the Simpson’s and The Office, in film, such as Ferris Buellers Day Off, and even in video games. A park in Ohio was designed based on the painting, and a 1984 Broadway musical, Sunday in the Park with George, was inspired by the painting.
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is on display at the Art Institute, Chicago.
Vitruvian Man (Leonardo DaVinci, 1490)
The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo DaVinci is famous not only for its use in popular culture but for its also for its depiction of human anatomy. As one of the earliest works showcasing realistic proportions, it’s often used as a symbol of modern medicine, health, and fitness.
The image portrays a man with his arms and legs spread, housed inside a circle and a square. It’s the earliest realistic depiction of human proportions in relation to math and anatomy that survives today. Vitruvian Man is often considered a work in science and medicine rather than a work of art.
Though the Vitruvian Man is a drawing rather than a painting, its incorporation into our cultural iconography makes it essential to include on this list. The fact that a drawing survived for over 500 years and is seared into our collective conscious is a testament to how relevant it really is.
Vitruvian Man is located at the Gallerie Dell’Accademia in Venice but is only displayed every six years to protect the work from damaging light.
American Gothic (Grant Wood, 1930)
Is there anything more ingrained in American cultural imagery than the painting of a man and woman standing outside their farmhouse, pitchfork in hand? Although many assume that American Gothic portrays husband and wife, it was initially intended to be an image of a father and daughter.
Wood meant the painting to be a celebration of America’s rural Midwest communities, but many people from the communities were offended by how they were depicted. However, as the Great Depression grew, the painting morphed into a symbol of America’s resiliency. It came to represent the pioneering spirit of Middle America and the resolve to persevere regardless of or even despite the odds.
American Gothic is one of the most parodied paintings in pop culture. Thousands of famous characters have been recreated in front of the farmhouse, from Homer and Marge Simpson to Darth Vader and Princess Leia. The representation is not limited to fictional characters, as celebrities, artists, and even political figures have been featured in front of the farmhouse.
The original imagery is also often used to make a political or cultural statement. The original characters have been represented donning masks, using cell phones, dressed for Christmas, or displayed with any number of items intended to make a statement about the current state of the world.
American Gothic is on display at the Art Institute, Chicago.
The Persistence of Memory (Salvador Dali, 1931)
Better known as Melting Clocks, the Persistence of Memory created imagery that’s now ingrained in the collective consciousness. This surrealist painting depicts various clocks melting in a dreamlike desert landscape. Although often interpreted to represent the relative nature of time, Dali himself claimed that his inspiration was cheese melting in the hot sun.
Dali leaned into the fame that the Persistence of Memory brought. He produced a sequel, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, in 1954 and created various sculptures and lithographs carrying the same theme.
The Persistence of Memory is consistently referenced, parodied, and featured in pop culture iconography. It’s used to convey dreamlike states and the concept of wasted time. This painting has made appearances in cartoons, video games, and movies and has been parodied with various animals, foodstuffs, and cartoon imagery.
The Persistence of Memory is on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The Scream (Edvard Munch, 1893)
The Scream is one of the most well-known and parodied artworks of all time and one of the most important pieces by an artist who isn’t typically well known. The painting depicts a human figure with his hands on his cheeks, screaming on a bridge, with a wild, expressionistic background.
The screaming man appears to be in agony. The painting is often interpreted to symbolize the anxiety associated with the human condition. Munch himself indicated that anxiety was the inspiration for this piece, noting that he was overcome with anxiety while out on a walk watching the sky turn blood red at sunset.
As noted, The Scream is one of the most parodied works of art. Fictional characters, animals, political figures, cartoons, and nearly everything you can think of have replaced the figure portrayed in the original work. It’s been used to poke fun and convey moods, make viewers laugh, and make them think. Amateur artists often put their original characters on the bridge in place of Munch’s original figure. The imagery is replicated repeatedly in both pop culture and the art world.
There are two versions of The Scream, one is on display at the National Gallery, Oslo, and the other is on display at the Munch Museum, Oslo.
Sistine Madonna (The Two Cherubs, Raphael, 1513-1514)
Although the complete painting, the Sistine Madonna, may not be seared into our pop culture brains, the image of the two cherubs at the bottom of the picture is. The cherubs are only a tiny portion of the painting as a whole, but they appear extensively in pop culture imagery, especially around Valentine’s Day.
The two cherubs from the Sistine Madonna are the adorable cupids you see on Valentine’s Day calendars. They are lying next to each other, each looking rather bored, one with his hand on his chin and the other with his head resting on crossed arms. Both cherubs are looking up, and those familiar with the whole painting will know that they are looking up at the angels in the scene above.
The Sistine Madonna is on display at the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden
The Starry Night (Vincent Van Gogh, 1889)
Arguably Van Gogh’s most famous painting, The Starry Night, is a brilliant masterpiece of movement and color. Featuring whirls of blue to represent the night sky and bright circles of yellow to represent the moon and the stars, this is one of the most widely acclaimed and recognized paintings globally.
Van Gogh painted this masterpiece during a stay at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, where he was being treated for what we now understand to be depression and possibly bipolar disorder. The image likely depicts the view from his window at the asylum, though he fabricated much of the town for the piece.
The Starry Night imagery is everywhere. It’s on t-shirts, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, blankets, and anything else people buy and has been referenced in songs, film, and other artworks. The work is often parodied, with the tree in the foreground becoming either a hero or a villain. Even the hit game series Super Mario Brothers pays homage to this fantastic piece. “The Painted Swampland” level in Super Mario Wii U was clearly inspired by The Starry Night.
The Starry Night is on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo, 1508-1512)
The Creation of Adam is the most iconic part of the Sistine Chapel. This fresco, located on the chapel ceiling, depicts the biblical Adam reaching towards, but not quite touching, the God that just created him.
Commissioned by Pope Julius II, The Creation of Adam is only one panel in an epic masterpiece meant to showcase the biblical story of Genesis visually. The complete painting consists of nine separate panels and covers the entire ceiling.
The Creation of Adam is frequently parodied and reproduced in pop culture. It’s often used to celebrate a creator, with Jim Henson or Shigeru Miyamoto replacing the god figure and their beloved creations (Kermit the frog and Mario, respectively) replacing Adam. It’s also used to poke fun at pop culture or make a political or religious statement. The God-image has been replaced with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Adam has been recreated rudely rebuffing God, and cats have replaced both figures in the image.
The Creation of Adam is on display at the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.
The Birth of Venus (Sandro Botticelli, 1480s)
According to myth, the Goddess Aphrodite arose fully formed out of seafoam. The 15th-century painting, Birth of Venus, is Botticelli’s representation of the goddess’s arrival on land.
The painting portrays Venus standing atop a giant clamshell, blown to shore by two lesser gods. An attendant waits on the coast, cloak in hand, ready to cover the goddess when she arrives. The painting more aptly showcases the arrival of Venus rather than her birth, but it was dubbed “The Birth of Venus” in the 19th century, and the name stuck.
As you would expect, The Birth of Venus is highly parodied and recreated. Many fictional characters have found themselves in the clamshell, from Ms. Piggy to Black Widow. The imagery is also often used to celebrate female celebrities. Marilyn Monroe was featured in the clamshell on numerous occasions, and even Beyonce used the painting as inspiration for some maternity photos.
The painting has also been used to make a social statement about cultural beauty standards. In this version, the Venus is much thinner, and her breasts are larger. Artist Lauren Wade edited a photo of the painting to expose the ridiculous way that fashion magazines photoshop models to fit their arbitrary standards.
The Birth of Venus is on display at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
The Last Supper (Leonardo Da Vinci, 1490s)
The Last Supper is undoubtedly the most famous and iconic religious painting ever created. The Duke of Milan commissioned this massive Renaissance mural to renovate the Santa Maria Delle Grazie, a vital area church.
The Last Supper depicts the biblical Jesus dining with his 12 apostles when he breaks the news that one will betray him. Part of the artistry of the piece is the variety of reactions visibly apparent in the apostles. Some react with anger, others shock and disbelief. These emotions are still prominent in the painting even after five centuries.
As such an iconic piece, it’s no surprise that it’s often recreated in pop culture. Many movies and television shows, from the Simpson’s to The Sopranos, have used the imagery of The Last Supper. Although it’s often used for promotional purposes, it’s also been used to pay homage to the original work, make a statement, or poke fun at pop culture.
The Last Supper is a mural at the Santa Maria Delle Grazie, Milan.
The Mona Lisa (Leonardo Da Vinci, c 1506)
There is no doubt that the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting of all time. Even people who know nothing about art know of The Mona Lisa. Although the property of the French Republic and not for sale, it was insured for as much as 100 million dollars back in 1962! If you adjust for inflation, it would be worth over $800 million in today’s dollars. To put that in perspective, the most expensive painting ever sold (according to public records) was bought for about half that, at $450 million.
The Mona Lisa is considered Da Vinci’s greatest masterpiece. Thought to be a portrait of Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini, the painting showcases the idealized version of womanhood celebrated in the Renaissance period. She is poised and noble, yet the corners of her mouth turn up in an almost mysterious smile.
It’s not just the portrait that makes this work so masterful. The detailed background and perfect blending showcase Da Vinci’s expertise. The viewer can get a glimpse of a whole different world behind the enigmatic beauty, and this method of exposition in a painting was unheard of for the time.
The Mona Lisa is on display at the Louvre, Paris.
Why Are These the Most Famous Paintings?
It’s challenging to look at humankind’s entire body of work over the last thousand years and pick 25 to call the most famous paintings of all time. There are hundreds of other paintings that could have been picked for this list.
These paintings were chosen because they are household names, they are often recreated and parodied in pop culture, or because of their importance and influence in the art world. If you had to make a list of 25 paintings and call them the most famous paintings of all time, how many from this list would you include? Which ones would you replace, and what would you replace them with?
The amount of influential artwork in the world is staggering, and although we have to limit our lists of the “best” and “most important,” that isn’t meant to take away from some of the other notable works of art that didn’t make the list.
Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.