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There’s no doubt that art is, and has been through the ages, one of the most important 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, thought leaders in their culture, and had lasting impacts on the world around them.
The painters on this list span centuries. Inspirational artists lived during the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and there are even some 20th-century artists who made the cut. These painters are famous because their work is inspiring and started a movement or because they are genuinely amazing at their craft.
Famous Painters Prior to the Renaissance
The Renaissance is well known as a time where the arts flourished. Prior to this period, most paintings depicted religious events, and artists were not widely celebrated. The art was about the biblical story that was being depicted, not about 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, including The Transformation of Jesus, and his Icons, including The Virgin Mary, Cathedral of the Annunciation.
Photo Attribution: Theophanes the Greek, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Giotto di Bondone
Giotto can be thought of as 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 the human and realistic side of these images, which was a huge break from traditional bold and flat figures of traditional Byzantine art.
He was born around 1267, while the Renaissance is said to have begun around the 14th century, 0r 1300. This means that Giotti was alive and working when the movement began, so he may have had a huge influence on the art of the era and the later, more famous Renaissance painters.
Photo Attribution: Giotto di Bondone, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Greatest Painters 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. Although the most important painters of the Renaissance are also known for being Ninja Turtles, others are important as well.
Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo Da Vinci is the most well-known Renaissance painter and one of the most famous artists of all time. His masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, is on display at the Louvre in Paris, and his works have traveled around the world for people to see.
Da Vinci was well ahead of his time, not only in the arts but in science as well. His Vitruvian Man became a blueprint for modern medical science, and he is credited with designing the first prototype of a helicopter (though the carbon energy we use to power modern helicopters wouldn’t be discovered until centuries after his death). He also painted the most famous image of the last supper, which, unfortunately, has greatly 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.
Photo Attribution: Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Michelangelo will always be remembered as the artist who 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 take a tour through 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 of a sculpture 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.
Photo Attribution: Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Although a talented painter in his own right, Raphael’s name lives on in modern culture more as a ninja turtle than as an artist. I say this because unlike Da Vinci and Michelangelo above, or even Botticelli below, Raphael doesn’t have any paintings that most people would just know, the way they know the Last Supper or the Sistine Chapel.
Despite the lack of iconic paintings, Raphael was a master in his own right. 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 of the period. His most famous paintings are also at the Vatican. Known as the Raphael rooms, they include his greatest masterpieces like the School of Athens.
Photo attribution: Maksim Sokolov (maxergon.com), CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Donatello was not actually much of a painter, so he probably shouldn’t be included in a list of famous painters. However, as I included all of his Ninja Turtle brethren, I would be remiss not to include him and not explain why he’s not a famous painter.
Donatello is not a famous painter because he wasn’t a painter. However, excluding Michelangelo, he is one of the most famous sculptures 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.
Photo Attribution: Donatello, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
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.
Photo attribution: Sandro Botticelli, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Caravaggio was a 16th-century artist who lived and worked mostly 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 is what came to characterize the later Baroque style.
Photo attribution: Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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 important figure due to his influence. Many of the 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, most of his work was done in portrait. One of his most impressive works, Portrait of a Man , is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Rembrandt was born at the very end of the Renaissance and is wildly considered one of the most influential Baroque artists. Obsessed with truth over beauty, Rembrandt’s work 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 for being one of the first Western artists to promote etching and printmaking as an art form. He produced hundreds of etchings during his career of subjects similar to his paintings. These included self-portraits, landscapes, and religious motifs. He experimented greatly with this form, using a variety of techniques and papers to create unique results.
Photo Attribution: Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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, and I was blown away. 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.
The Most Famous 19th Century Artists
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, the most famous are Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Monet is arguably the most famous of the impressionists and is often credited with starting the movement. 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 really look like.
The Impressionists are the artists that made me fall in love with art. My 7th-grade art class had a segment on them, and I was in love. I would often visit the Art Institute of Chicago just to sit in the glory of the Haystacks and to see the huge catalog of impressionist works on display there.
Photo Attribute: Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Post Impressionism is a highly stylized form of Impressionism. It’s taking Impressionist art to the next level. This style became its own movement mainly because of one person, arguably the most famous painter of all time.
Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh is Post Impressionism. Although he had his contemporaries, his work is what defines the movement. His fantastic brushstrokes and vivid colors add an element of surrealism to the landscapes of the impressionists, creating works that are at once realistic and fantastical.
Although only a few years younger than the Impressionists, he wasn’t really a part of their crew. He studied their works and used them as inspiration for his own 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.
Photo Attribution: Vincent van Gogh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Gauguin was a contemporary and friend of Van Gogh. Many of his paintings are reminiscent of 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. This was a huge break from impressionism, where color was the dominant force, and early Renaissance paintings, where form was deemed most important.
Photo Attribution: Paul Gauguin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The American Naturalist Movement
While Europeans were busy with Impressionism, a different art movement was flourishing in the Americas. This was the naturalist movement, defined by nature and discovery. Naturalists depicted gorgeous landscapes and frontier land, which showcased the vast wildness of the newly discovered American landscape.
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.
Photo Attribution: Thomas Cole, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Other Famous Painters of the 19th Century
Although the impressionist and Naturalist movements are the most well-known art movements of the 19th century, there was a lot more going on. Here are the famous painters of the 19th century who wouldn’t be considered impressionists or naturalists.
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 to come out 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 wildly 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 important and weren’t doing great things, but unfortunately, we tend to celebrate and recognize European artists more readily.
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 at the time. Although he was one of the most famous artists of his time, history has almost forgotten him. The Impressionists made more of an impact on the art world overall, and his name is often missed when discussing great works of the 19th century.
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 did dabble in a style similar to impressionism. However, Sargent understood how the human eye works in ways that previous artists never could appreciate. Prior to 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 amazing, cohesive scene as the viewer steps back and takes it in as a whole.
Important Painters of the 20th Century
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 it to be appreciated 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 a variety of other objects were reconstructed using cubism.
This style had important ramifications for the art world. It led the way to abstraction, which gained popularity towards the middle of the 20th century.
Photo Attribution: Unknown, Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
O’Keeffe was mostly 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 around the world is what led the modern art movement. Rapid changes and growth of industry of the 20th century were new and scary, the fast-growing skyscrapers of big cities were something that the world had never seen before, and a return to the natural, rugged landscape of the western frontier was often romanticized.
O’Keeffe thrived during this era of massive change, war, and upheaval. Her art help ushered 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 often considered to be precursors to abstract movement.
Photo Attribution: Flickr, Jerome Decq, Whitney Museum of American Art
Salvador Dali is known for his surrealist paintings. ThePersistence 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 the surrealist movement, he was not the founder. Artist Andre Breton founded the movement in 1924, and Dali joined with him. However, differences in opinion as to 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 important surrealist artist, and only art historians will remember the name of the founder who wanted to expel him.
Photo Attribution: Flickr, Mike Steele, Museum of Modern Art
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 major motif throughout her work, greatly 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 what I would consider 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 both surreal and invoke a sort of feminist dismissal of childbirth and motherhood.
Photo Attribute: Ambra75, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
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.
Photo Attribution: Jackson Pollock, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
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 the subjects of art 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.
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 important 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.
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 will take parts from one style and integrate them into another to create bold, new works. 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.
Photo Attribution: dalbera from Paris, France, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Damien Hirst is also a painter and sculpture. 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 basically 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, which are 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 bring out the differences in each color, he’s exterminated with removing the white space and allowing the brilliant colors to coexist side by side as well.
Photo Attribution: Jonathan Deamer, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
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 messy, 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 said to be self-portraits.
Photo Attribute: Flickr, B, Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul (May — August 2021)
Takashi Murakami is a contemporary Japanese artist best 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 that he uses to make his work pop gives it a cutesy look and was greatly influenced by Japanese pop culture.
Although best known for these large-scale paintings, he also dabbles in other media as well. His sculptures, animated work, and posters all convey the same feeling of happy cartoony joy.
Photo Attribution: Tadeas Navratil, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
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 has the distinction of being 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.
Photo Attribute: Flickr, Jean BIGUE, Propped ( (Jenny Saville Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art)
Where are all the Women?
You may have noticed that not a lot of 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 names of 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 got 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 Famous Painters
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 just as missing as female painters but are probably just as famous in their areas of the world as Picasso is in ours.
Art and fame are both subjective. The fame is based on western ideas of famous paintings and important works, which might be vastly different from ideals in other parts of the world. However, the artists on this list are featured in museums, galleries, and history books around the world, and thus each deserves recognition. It’s the missing artists that I wonder about. I want to know who they are, where they lived, what their style is. Hopefully, in my study of art, I will find them.
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.