Famous Painters: Survey Highlights Top 5 Most Famous Artists + Others You Need to Know

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There’s no doubt that art is, and has been through the ages, one of the most critical aspects of human culture. Famous painters throughout the ages have used their work to inspire, influence, and even criticize their current environments. Art is a means of communicating a visual message from one era to the next and has been appreciated by historians, art lovers, and regular people alike. 

While appreciating the work itself, it’s also important to recognize and celebrate the artists who created it. They were often pioneers of new ways of thinking and thought leaders in their culture and had lasting impacts on the world around them. 

The Top Five Most Famous Painters of All Time

According to a survey, Leonardo Da Vinci, the prolific 15th-century artist, is the most famous. Out of 173 respondents, 25% named Da Vinci the most renowned painter.

Da Vinci has stiff competition for his title. Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh are close on his heels. Picasso was selected by 21% of respondents, while 17% chose Van Gogh. Michelangelo and Monet rounded out the top five with 13% and 6%, respectively.

graph showing the results of the survey on famous painters

The survey, conducted over social media and via Survey Monkey, required respondents to write in their answers has a 7% margin of error.

Leonardo Da Vinci

Our survey suggests that Leonardo Da Vinci is the most famous artist. More people visit his masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, than any other painting globally, with an average of 10 million visitors per year. 

Da Vinci was well ahead of his time, not only in the arts but also in science. His Vitruvian Man became a blueprint for modern medical science. He designed the first prototype of a helicopter (though humanity didn’t discover the carbon energy used to power modern helicopters until centuries after his death). He also painted the most famous image of The Last Supper, which, unfortunately, has dramatically deteriorated over time. However, you can still see it, housed in its original location, at the Dominican convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan.

Mona Lisa

Photo Attribution: Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pablo Picasso

Picasso is one of the founders of the artistic style known as Cubism. This style takes a subject and cuts it up into squares, then rearranges the squares in new and unexpected ways. The subversion of how one expects to view a subject allows viewers to appreciate it for its parts rather than the whole. This form is what made Picasso a household name.

His works showcase humans with eyes, ears, and mouths in unexpected and uncomfortable places or in upsetting proportions to other parts. Although humans were an important subject, they weren’t the only subject treated in this manner. Buildings, instruments, and various other objects were reconstructed using Cubism.

This style had significant ramifications for the art world. It led the way to abstraction, which gained popularity towards the middle of the 20th century.

Woman's Head by Picasso 1986 Yugoslavia stamp

Photo Attribution: Unknown, Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh is Post Impressionism. Although he had his contemporaries, his work defined the movement. His fantastic brushstrokes and vivid colors add an element of surrealism to the landscapes of the Impressionists, creating images that are at once realistic and fantastical.

Although only a few years younger than the Impressionists, he wasn’t a part of their crew. He studied their works and used them as inspiration for his Post-Impressionist work. His most famous and iconic painting, The Starry Night, is displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Unfortunately, Van Gogh suffered from mental illness, and he took his own life in 1890. He wasn’t appreciated as an artist until decades after his death.

Vincent van Gogh Starry Night

Photo Attribution: Vincent van Gogh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Michelangelo

Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the iconic scene depicting the Creation of Adam. The entire ceiling is a masterpiece, and anyone visiting Rome or the Vatican needs to tour the chapel to see it in all its glory. Although not as famous, The Last Judgement is another iconic Michelangelo painting located in the Sistine chapel. In my opinion, this piece is more impressive than the ceiling!

Although famous for these works, Michelangelo was more a sculptor than a painter. His statue of David is one of the most iconic sculptures of all time and can still be viewed in all his glory at the Accademia Gallery in Florence.

Michelangelo - Creation of Adam (cropped) 

Photo Attribution: Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Claude Monet

Monet started the Impressionist movement, an 18th-century art style that celebrates light and color over form and function. A French Impressionist painter, Monet was highly dedicated to his work. He would often paint the same scene many times, during different seasons and times of day, to capture how light changes with time. One of the best examples of his perseverance in this pursuit is his series Haystacks, which includes numerous paintings of a simple haystack at various times throughout the year. 

The entire Impressionist movement is named after Monet’s work. Critiques complained that his Impression, Sunrise, was just a sketch or impression of a painting, not a finished piece of work. 

 

Monet - impression-sunrise

Photo Attribute: Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

How We Measure Fame

Survey results are consistent with other measurements of fame. Emily Clare, a publisher at Fine Art Tutorials, says that you can measure a fine artist’s fame by sale prices, media representation, and even internet searches.

Picasso’s portrait of Marie-Therese Walter sold for 67.5 million at a recent auction, while Monet’s Water Lilies sold for 54 million in 2014. Da Vinci’s Salvador Mundi holds the record for the most expensive painting ever sold, fetching 450 million dollars at a 2016 auction.

Paintings by top artists are pop culture icons. The Last Supper, The Creation of Adam, and The Starry Night appear in various games, films, and television shows. According to search engine analytic software Moz, monthly organic search results for the top three have Da Vinci at 252,000 searches, Picasso at 200,000, and Van Gogh at 196,000.

Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Michelangelo are all household names, and it’s not surprising that they would be considered the “most famous.” However, the generational differences in responses may help us understand how the concept of fame changes over time. Although the sample size from each generation is not large enough to be statistically significant, the data does suggest intriguing trends. 

People in their 30s Prefer Picasso

People in their 30s were overwhelmingly likely to name Picasso the most famous, with 39% of this cohort choosing the Spanish artist. Maggie Lovitt, former anthropologist and Managing Editor of Entertainment at Wealth of Geeks, has an interesting theory about why that might be. According to Lovitt, a trending sound on TikTok says, “I like it. Picasso!”. She sees this movement more with older millennial creators in their 30s and thinks there could be some correlation between the trend and this age group citing Picasso as the most famous.

Amy Jensen, a marketing specialist at the Erin Hanson Art Gallery, and Emily Clare, have a different take. They believe Picasso’s fame is a testament to his prolific nature as an artist. His massive body of nearly 55,000 pieces of work makes it easy for people to consume, and his revolutionary approach to art makes him memorable.

graph of survey results showing famous painters selection by age group

Older Generations Embrace Renaissance Artists

Another interesting result is that older Americans view Renaissance artists as the most famous. Approximately 50% of respondents over 40 chose either Da Vinci or Michelangelo, while younger generations were more likely to choose Van Gogh or Picasso.

Clare has numerous theories as to why older generations prefer Renaissance artists. She believes we honor Renaissance artists for their technical mastery and attention to detail, making them particularly appealing to older generations who may have a greater appreciation for the skill required to create such impressive works.

This theory is consistent with survey results. Respondents who rated themselves as knowledgeable about art were more likely to choose Da Vinci as the most famous painter. He was the only choice for the 1% of participants who rated their art knowledge as a 10, on a scale from 0-to 10.

Clare’s other theory involves the Renaissance Artist’s nexus to the Catholic Church. The Church commissioned most of their paintings, resulting in works filled with biblical imagery. Claire thinks the religious motifs may make their work more appealing to people over 40, who are more likely to be religious.

graph of famous painters by self rated art knowledge

 

20 Influential Artists Throughout The Centuries

Fame is not the only measure of an artist’s influence. Popularity can vary based on art knowledge, generational differences, and various other factors, as we can see from our survey results. 

Some artists may not have appeared in the survey results, but their influence is essential not only to the art world but also to the advancement of our culture. 

 These 20 inspirational artists lived and worked during various significant historical periods. You will find artists from the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and even the 20th-century. These painters are famous because their work is inspiring and started a movement or because they are genuinely fantastic at their craft. 

Famous Painters Prior to the Renaissance

The Renaissance is well known as a time when the arts flourished. Before this period, most paintings depicted religious events, and artists were not widely celebrated. The art was about the biblical story expressed, not any particular artist. However, a few painters of the Middle Ages and before did make a name for themselves.

Theophanes the Greek

Theophanes the Greek is probably the most famous of Byzantine artists. Byzantine art is known for its bold depictions of religious icons. Although Christianity was a common theme, Greek and Roman myths were also portrayed.

Theophanes lived in the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, in the 12th century. He is known for his frescos and icons, including The Transformation of Jesus, The Virgin Mary and Cathedral of the Annunciation.

Feofan Donskaja

Photo Attribution: Theophanes the Greek, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Giotto di Bondone 

Giotto di Bondone is a precursor to the Renaissance. He lived and flourished in 14th century Florence, the same city where the movement began. Although his subject matter was still religious, he focused more on these images’ human and realistic side, a massive break from traditional bold and flat figures of conventional Byzantine art.

He was born around 1267, while the Renaissance is said to have begun around the 14th century, 0r 1300. Di Bondone was alive and working when the movement started, so he may have had a huge influence on the art of the era and the later, more famous Renaissance painters.

His most important work, The Kiss of Judas, is part of the frescos inside the Scrovengni Chapel in Pauda, Northern Italy. This chapel was declared a world heritage site in 2021.

Giotto - Scrovegni - -31- - Kiss of Judas

Photo Attribution: Giotto di Bondone, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Great Artists of the Renaissance

The Renaissance is the era where art exploded, and artists became celebrated for their craft. It’s known as a return to the arts, the classics, and a move away from strictly religious iconography.

Two Renaissance artists, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo, appeared in the top five, but here are seven additional influential Renaissance artists that you should know. 

Raphael

Although a talented painter in his own right, Raphael’s name lives on in modern culture more as a ninja turtle than an artist. I say this because, unlike Da Vinci and Michelangelo above, or even Botticelli below, Raphael doesn’t have any paintings people would know the way they know The Last Supper or the Sistine Chapel.

Raphael was a master in his own right despite the lack of iconic paintings. Born into the art business, His father was a court painter for the Duke of Urbino, and Raphael assisted him from an early age. His paintings, although not world-famous, are masterfully done, displaying the bold colors and figures that were common in the period. His most famous images are also at the Vatican. Known as the Raphael rooms, they include his greatest masterpieces like the School of Athens.

famous painter raphael

Photo attribution: Maksim Sokolov (maxergon.com), CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Donatello

Donatello was not much of a painter, so he probably shouldn’t be included in a list of famous painters. However, as he’s a famed Renaissance artist, it would be remiss not to include him and not explain why he’s not a renowned painter.

Donatello is not a famous painter because he wasn’t a painter. However, excluding Michelangelo, he is one of the most famous sculptors of all time. His Bronze statue David, on display in the Bargello Art Museum in Florence, is one of the earliest known nude male statues in existence.

famous painter donatello

Photo Attribution: Donatello, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Sandro Botticelli

Botticelli painted the iconic Birth of Venus,  the masterpiece depicting the goddess Venus being born out of a clamshell on the ocean shores. This painting alone would earn him a spot on any list of the most famous painters in the world, but it wasn’t his only important work.

He was commissioned decades before Michelangelo to paint scenes in the Sistine Chapel. Two of them, Youth of Moses and Punishment of the Sons of Korah, are still displayed today. He painted a vast array of religious scenes, including quite a few depictions of the Madonna and child. 

 

birth of venus

Photo attribution: Sandro Botticelli, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Caravaggio

Caravaggio was a 16th-century artist who lived and worked mainly in Rome. His paintings showcase the human condition, with both his subject’s emotional and physical state on full display in his works.

Caravaggio’s dramatic use of lighting greatly influenced the art of the later Baroque period, which started in the early 17th century, right around the time of his death. His subjects are painted with bold colorations and dramatic red capes or drapes, set in front of a dark, shadowy background. This immense contrast between light and dark characterized the later Baroque style.

La decapitación de San Juan Bautista, por Caravaggio

Photo attribution: Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Diego Velazquez

Diego Velazquez is the epitome of the Spanish Golden Age of art, which coincided with the Italian Renaissance. However, he lived towards the end of the Renaissance era, when Baroque was the major artistic style.

Although he didn’t have a large body of work, Velazquez is an essential figure due to his influence. Many other artists on this list drew inspiration from him, including the impressionist Manet and the surrealist Dali. Even Sargent drew inspiration from Velazquez’s style.

As a court painter on the court of King Philip IV of Spain, his work mainly consisted of portraits. One of his most impressive works, Portrait of a Man, is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Portrait d'homme (Diego Velázquez, 1630) Photo Attribution: Diego Velázquez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn placed 6th in the survey of famous artists. Born at the very end of the Renaissance, he is wildly considered one of the most influential Baroque artists. Obsessed with truth over beauty, Rembrandt showcased a realism that was unmatched before his time. While other artists would try to even out flaws to make their work more beautiful, Rembrandt painted what he saw, warts and all.

Rembrandt is also renowned as one of the first Western artists to promote etching and printmaking as an art form. He produced hundreds of etchings during his career. These included self-portraits, landscapes, and religious motifs. He experimented extensively with this form, using various techniques and papers to create unique results.

Rembrandt - Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son - Google Art Project

Photo Attribution: Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

Hieronymus Bosch 

Bosch is different than the rest of the Renaissance painters. While they were busy depicting classical scenes with a humanist and natural approach, Bosch was creating surrealism. He was centuries ahead of his time and, therefore, not generally thought of as a Renaissance painter.

I had the opportunity to visit the Bosch art center when I visited the Netherlands. I didn’t realize that a Renaissance-era artist was dabbling in surrealism! Although he does follow the trends of bold forms and figures of the period, his figures are often grotesque, disfigured, and engaged in tantalizing and morbid acts, which was unheard of in art during his time.

Hieronymus Bosch 089 (detail) Photo Attribution: Hieronymus Bosch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Most Famous 19th Century Artists

The Impressionists

The Impressionists, as a group, are the most famous painters of the 19th century. Although there are about a dozen painters associated with this group and style, Claude Monet is the most famous, ranking number five in the survey of popular artists. 

Other important artists of the movement include Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Impressionism was a turn away from the classical and religious themes of art. Instead, the painters focused on nature and landscapes. Rather than depicting their images with bold and bright colors, the Impressionist used light and shading to give an “impression” of what the scene would look like, resulting in beautiful paintings that almost appear more realistic than their precursors. 

Post Impressionism

Post Impressionism is a highly stylized form of Impressionism. It’s taking Impressionist art to the next level. Vincent Van Gogh made Post-Impressionism its own movement, but he had one contemporary who deserves recognition as an influential artist. 

Paul Gauguin

Gauguin was a contemporary and friend of Van Gogh. Many of his paintings are reminiscent of the Impressionist style. However, his bold colorations and use of black outlines around flat surfaces in many of his works cement his place in Post Impressionism.

Gauguin’s later work evolved into Synthetism, a style where color and form have an equal role. Synthetism was a considerable break from Impressionism, where color was the dominant force, and early Renaissance paintings, where form was deemed most important.

Paul Gauguin 099 

Photo Attribution: Paul Gauguin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The American Naturalist Movement

While Europeans were busy with Impressionism, a different art movement flourished in the Americas. The Naturalist Movement, defined by nature and discovery, was the dominant style in North America. Naturalists depicted gorgeous landscapes and frontier land, which showcased the vast wildness of the newly discovered American landscape.

Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole is the most famous of the American Naturalists. He founded the Hudson River School of painting, including artists like John Barrow, Frederick Church, and Harriet Peale.

The Naturalist Movement and the Hudson River School showcased the idea that humans and nature could coexist in harmony. The work was the idealized version of nature – peaceful pastors and serene mountains were often the subject of the illustrations. 

Thomas Cole - The Voyage of Life Childhood, 1842 (National Gallery of Art)

Photo Attribution: Thomas Cole, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Other Famous Artists of the 19th Century

Although the Impressionist and Naturalist Movements are the most well-known art movements of the 19th century, more was going on. Here are the famous painters of the 19th century who wouldn’t be considered impressionists or naturalists.

Hokusai

You may have never heard of Hokusai, but I guarantee you have seen his work. Hokusai created the Great Wave, one of the most famous works of Japan. This painting depicts an immense wave, stylized in the traditional Japanese form, with Mt. Fuji in the background.

Hokusai is important because he’s one of the earliest examples of a painter from the East becoming recognized in the West. As you can see, the earlier periods featured on this list only have only European artists. That doesn’t mean that Asian artists aren’t influential and doing great things, but unfortunately, we tend to celebrate and recognize European artists more readily.

Great Wave off Kanagawa2

Photo Attribution: After Katsushika Hokusai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

William Adolphe Bouguereau

William Adolphe Bouguereau was a French painter who lived and worked around the same time as the Impressionists. However, as a strict traditionalist, he can not be included in that movement.

Bouguereau focused on classic subjects and was a master of form. Some of his paintings are so realistic that they almost look like photographs, which weren’t even invented. Although he was one of the most famous artists of his time, history has nearly forgotten him. The Impressionists made more of an impact on the art world overall, and his name is often missed when discussing great artists of the 19th century.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Dante And Virgil In Hell (1850) Photo Attribution: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

John Singer-Sargent

John Singer Sargent is arguable the most important American artist of the 19th century. While the Impressionists across the ocean were playing with colors and landscapes, Sargent was working with abstract brushstrokes to create a cohesive image, well before abstraction became a well-known movement.

Sargent can’t be considered an abstract artist. He is known for his bold figures and dabbling in a style similar to Impressionism. However, Sargent understood how the human eye works in ways that previous artists never could appreciate. Before Sargent, immense detail was paid to each and every brushstroke so that the image was as cohesive up close as it was from a distance. Sargent subverted that. His paintings look like a mess of abstraction when viewed up close but come together to form an impressive, cohesive scene as the viewer steps back and takes it in as a whole.

John Singer Sargent - Repose Photo Attribution: John Singer Sargent, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Important Painters of the 20th Century

The 20th century ushered in a variety of art movements and styles. Form and function were no longer necessary, and artists experimented with shape, color, pattern, and texture in new, abstract ways. 

Many the famous 20th-century painters are renowned for pushing boundaries and challenging viewers’ expectations. 

Georgia O’Keeffe

O’Keeffe mainly was a watercolorist and is very well known for her paintings of both the early New York skyscrapers and western scenes of New Mexico. This contrast in landscapes in the US and worldwide led to the modern art movement. Rapid changes and industry growth in the 20th century were new and scary. The fast-growing skyscrapers of big cities were something that the world had never seen before, so the public romanticized a return to the natural, rugged landscape of the western frontier.

O’Keeffe thrived during this era of massive change, war, and upheaval. Her art helped usher in the Modern Art Movement, and she is often considered the mother of Modern Art. Her close-up depictions of flowers (often considered by male artists to be depictions of female genitalia, a rumor that O’Keefe herself vehemently denied) are precursors to abstract movement.

famous painters georgia okeefe flower

Photo Attribution: Flickr, Jerome Decq, Whitney Museum of American Art

Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali is known for his surrealist paintings. The Persistence of Memory, the vision of clocks melting in a desert wasteland, is one of the most well-known paintings of the twentieth century and portends a feeling of hopelessness in the face of passing time. This painting has been ingrained in pop culture. Imagery from this work has appeared in famous television shows, magazines, movies, and works by later artists.

Although Dali is often associated with Surrealism, he was not the founder. Artist Andre Breton founded the movement in 1924, and Dali joined him. However, differences in opinion on whether Surrealism should be political led to Dali’s trial and near expulsion from the group. This is interesting because today, he is known as the most famous Surrealist artist, and only art historians will remember the name of the founder who wanted to expel him.

dali- the persistence of memory famous painters

Photo Attribution: Flickr, Mike Steele, Museum of Modern Art

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo is a Mexican artist best known for her self-portraits that betray a hint of surrealism. She was in a horrific bus crash at an early age, which left her dealing with chronic pain. The pain is a significant motif throughout her work, extensively illustrated in her Wounded Deer, a self-portrait of her face interposed on the body of a dying deer.

Although most of her work consists of self-portraits, she does have a body of surrealist and feminist paintings. My Birth is a disturbing image of an adult head emerging from the birth canal, and My Nurse and I depicts Frida’s head on a baby’s body being breastfed. These paintings are surreal and invoke a feminist dismissal of childbirth and motherhood.

kahlo wounded dear
Frida Kahlo, The Wounded Deer, 1946, Mudec Milano, 3 Maggio 2018

Photo Attribute: Ambra75, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Jackson Pollack

Jackson Pollack is one of the artists who pushed abstraction into the mainstream. His drip paintings are masterful works that convey a sense of movement and emotion without an actual subject, which was unheard of at the time.

Although his contemporaries, William de Kooning and Mark Rothko, are just as important to the development of the Abstract Movement, Pollack earned his place as one of the most famous painters because he is more well known and widely celebrated in pop culture. The drip paintings and their debut in Life Magazine in 1949 brought Abstract Expressionism to the forefront of the Modern Art Movement.

pollack she wolf

 

Photo Attribution: Jackson Pollock, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol is to art what Henry Ford is to industry. He made turned art into a wide-scale manufacturing effort. He had workers who helped him complete paintings and turned his silkscreen printings into images that could be reproduced again and again.

However, he is also one of the most well-known artists of the Pop-Art Movement. This form sought to change art subjects from the fantastic and mythical to the everyday. Instead of religious scenes, subjects were everyday items like soup cans. The subjects included real pop culture icons, like Marilyn Monroe, rather than characters from myth like Aphrodite.   

Warhols famous paintings

Photo Attribution: Sourced from Wiki Commons Creative Commons, Original appeared on Christie’s

Famous Contemporary Artists

Contemporary artists are the ones who are living and working in the here and now. It’s hard to know which will live on through history as the most influential artists of the 21st century, but some are already showcased in museums and galleries across the world.

These are the most famous painters of our time, and only history will know if they will be celebrated and remembered centuries from now.

Jeff Koons

Although Jeff Koons is most well known for his massive metal balloon art sculptures, he’s also a prolific painter. His paintings are often bold, vivid, and have a hint of sexuality (sometimes more than a hint).

His work is like a mash-up of Cubism, Realism, and Abstraction. He integrates parts from one style into another to create bold, new creations. Koons has also subverted the classical, adding flowing orbs to famous classical paintings or scribbling over the top of cultural icons (Obviously reproducing the original rather than destroying it!).

Koons is regarded as one of the most famous painters of our time and will likely go down in history as an important sculptor of this century.

balloon art sculpture

 

Photo Attribution: dalbera from Paris, France, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons 

Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst is also a painter and sculptor. It seems like many contemporary artists, like their historical forebearers, prefer to dabble in a variety of the arts rather than stick to one medium. He is most famous for his 1991 sculpture The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which is a large shark in resin.

However, he’s a prolific painter as well. His works are abstract, using dabs of color to make a scene. The most famous paintings are his spot paintings, small dots of various colors spread over a canvas. Hirst claimed that these paintings were “pinning down the joy of color.”

Many of his paintings convey the same feelings. Although the spot paintings have the structure of white space around the dots, which truly brings out the differences in each color, he’s experimented with removing the white space and allowing the brilliant colors to coexist side by side.

hirst art  

Photo Attribution: Jonathan Deamer, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Tracy Emin

Tracy Emin is an icon of feminist art. Most of her work subverts the expectation that women be chaste, virginal, and motherly. Using examples of her own life, she showcases feminine sexuality and humanity in much of her work.

Her most well-known piece is a sculpture called My Bed. It’s a look at a messy bed, which was her safe haven during a four-day bout of depression. The dirty, disheveled bed put the artist’s entire life and mental state on display in a way that art had never done before.

Emin is an important feminist painter of this century as well. Much of her work is a self-portrait and revolves around female sexuality. She has numerous paintings depicting open legs and vaginas, many of which are also considered self-portraits.

I never Asked to Fall in Love - You made me Feel like This, 2018 By Tracey Emin

Photo Attribute: Flickr, B, Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul (May-August 2021)

Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami is a contemporary Japanese artist known for his large-scale, flat, bright characters. His work looks like mosaics of happy, smiling flowers, faces, or pop culture icons. The glossy surface he uses to make his work pop gives it a cutesy look and is greatly influenced by Japanese pop culture.

Although best known for these large-scale paintings, he also dabbles in other media. His sculptures, animated work, and posters all convey the same feeling of happy cartoony joy.

murakami smiling flowers

Photo Attribution: Tadeas Navratil, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Jenny Saville

Jenny Saville is a contemporary British painter most well known for her realistic depictions of the human body. She doesn’t shy away from portraying humanity at its most raw; nude, flawed, and sometimes broken.

Saville’s painting Propped is the most expensive painting ever sold at auction by a living female artist. It is a raw self-portrait that works to dismantle the conventional notions of feminine beauty.

famous painter jenny saville propped

Photo Attribute: Flickr,  Jean BIGUE,  Propped ( (Jenny Saville Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art)

Runners Up – More Influential Artists

Choosing only 25 influential artists is a daunting, if not impossible, task. Here’s a tiny sampling of artists that didn’t quite make the list but are significant in their own right. 

Artemisia Gentileschi was the first woman to become a member of the Academia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. Female artists often weren’t remembered as their male counterparts were, and most people wouldn’t recognize her name today. 

Bob Ross made painting accessible to millions of people. His pictures aren’t spectacular and influential like those on this list, but fans will remember him for showing generations of children that they can be artists. 

Banksy showed that street art could send a political message and continues to use his art to send messages to the world. Banksy is the only currently working artist to receive a vote in the survey, with a single respondent selecting him as most famous. 

Whistler, Vermeer, Hopper, Wood, and many more are celebrated in museums worldwide. The list could span volumes if we included all of them. 

Where Are All the Women?

You may have noticed that not many female artists are on this list. Unfortunately, women were not celebrated as artists and were not really allowed to even dabble in the art form before the 19th century. Mary Cassatt was groundbreaking for her ability to break out of the sexism of the time and be celebrated as an artist in her own right. Before that, the most important artworks made by women were woven tapestries.

It’s a shame that the women who created these masterpieces have been lost over the centuries. Some of the tapestries are even more spectacular and took even more craftmanship than the oil paintings, but as is the case with many women’s ventures, they never achieved similar acclaim.

Fortunately, times are changing, and we found more female artists to celebrate as we get into recent art history. Hopefully, this trend will continue, and the list of famous painters of the 21st century will include an equal number of men and women!

Thousands of Important and Influential Artists

This list is limited to just a handful of the most famous and well-known painters throughout history. The reality is that no list could be all-inclusive. There are painters whose names have been lost to time that may have been better than anyone on this list. Artists from non-Western countries are absent just as much as the female painters but are probably just as famous in their areas of the world as Picasso is in ours.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Famous Painters

Who was the Most Famous Painter of All Time?

According to our survey and other measures of fame, Leonardo Da Vinci is the most famous painter of all time. Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh take second and third place, respectively. Michelangelo and Monet round out the top five. 

What Styles Did the Famous Artists Paint In?

Important artists spanned centuries and painted in a wide variety of styles. This list includes artists who painted in the classical style of the Renaissance, with bold flat figures and abstract painters whose style was meant to convey emotion rather than imagery. 

The rest run the gambit of artistic styles. We see Impressionists, Surrealists, Naturalists, and Baroque artists on this list. The manner each artist used depended on the time period in which they worked. Artistic movements come and go, and each has its essential artists. 

Who is America’s Most Famous Artist?

Many of the important artists on this list are European. They worked at a time when the United States was still young, and the arts weren’t as widely celebrated here.

No American artist was selected as the most famous in our survey. However, two American artists are commonly celebrated and would be considered the most famous American painters: John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. 

Mary Cassatt was an Impressionist, and she spent a lot of time studying in Europe under Degas. However, she is from Pennsylvania and spent much of her early career in the US. 

John Singer Sargent is one of the most well-known American artists. His style showcases the abstract in the real. Art students often study Sargent, and although not as famous as other artists on the list, he’s more influential in art circles. 

Who is the Most Famous Painter?

It’s hard to say who the most famous contemporary painter is. Banksy, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Jenny Saville can all be considered the top artists of the day. Only time will tell who history remembers the most. 

What is Fame?

To understand the survey results and the generational differences in choosing an artist to name as the most famous, we need first to understand the nature of fame.

Lovitt thinks of fame as a cultural concept that extends from the innate need to create in and out-groups within society. Society bestows fame upon individuals deemed as “more” than the baseline. The notion of fame can only persist while culture sustains this relationship.

Fame isn’t always related to talent. Van Gogh was not famous in his time, despite the extraordinary works of art he produced. His sister-in-law championed his case after he passed away, securing his position as one of the most famous artists. Van Gogh’s iconic work may have been lost if not for her persistence.

Fine Art Fame

Fine art fame doesn’t follow the same trends as other modern types of fame. Due to her work in marketing current artists, Jensen often considers the idea of fame from a fine art perspective. She finds it interesting that the most famous painters are typically deceased masters from the past. In contrast, famous people associated with other art forms tend to be alive and actively creating.

Jensen’s theory of why fine art fame is so different from fame in music or film is that art has stagnated. In her experience, the media focuses more on art that pushes an agenda than on beautiful art that people enjoy consuming. Uneven media attention leads to a disconnect. Skilled artists producing breathtaking work don’t get the same media attention as bananas taped to walls.

Will Davinci and Picasso Hold Their Titles?

Fame is fickle. Davinci has held prominence for centuries, but we can already see a slight trend of younger generations preferring Picasso or Van Gogh. As attitudes towards art change, will we see movement on the list of famed artists, or will people change their opinions as they grow and learn more about art history?

Only time will tell. For now, Da Vinci can stand tall as the most famous painter of all time.

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