Top 10 Paintings that Everyone Should Know


Art can provide relaxation from the stresses of everyday life, however it is not always possible to know of all the key art paintings that are memorable, and indeed provide art that everyone should know and appreciate. Given we now all have online access, there is no barrier to access to these fine art masterpieces with a few clicks of the keyword. I have summarised some of those key paintings in this list of what I consider to be the current top ten.
There is no doubt that there has been an explosion of artists over the last few centuries, however this should not detract us from the great 'masters', who created art paintings that for artistic, technical and/or intensity, have stood the test of time. Art is always a subjective choice, and given accessibility to the location.

Among millions of art paintings, there are some original art that have transcended time and culture and have made their place in art history. Below is a compilation of 10 art paintings throughout history that everyone should know due to their various technical or intense, finite content.


  1. The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (1503-1506) - Italian Artist

Located in the Louvre Museum in Paris, Francis within the Denon Wing and in the Mona Lisa Room.

The Mona Lisa is the probably the most famous original art painting in oils. This portrait painting is truly memorable to all, and the one that people around the globe can all identify. Leonardo Da Vinci, the scientist, artist, mathematician, engineer, was a unique individual using both the left and right sides of his brain. Even with this memorable painting, he presents a new viewpoint for the portrait, which was neither the profile nor the full face. The Mona Lisa is often contemplated for many hours as to whether she is smiling, or frowning. She is truly a lady full of secrets and mystery, which she clearly has no plans to share at any cost. 
    It is truly amazing to think that it took Da Vinci about 10 years to paint the lips of the Mona Lisa.

    1. The School of Athens by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino) (1509-1511) - Italian Master

    Located in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican City, within the rooms known as Stanze Di Raffaello.

    The School of Athens has revolutionized contemporary portraiture, with Raphael using an intelligent approach to expand the architecture of pictorial space. He mastered techniques like foreshortening and perspective, which give a touch of reality to art paintings with parts facing the forefront, having larger dimensions to appear closer to the viewer and having the same focal point. This affords the painting unique realism, and indeed make his paintings masterpieces for all time.

    This painting is representative of the Italian Renaissance period from 1300 to 1600. Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 to paint frescos (or wall paintings) within the Vatican. Rafael's masterpiece is the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the Renaissance.

    The School of Athens painting features Plato and his student Aristotle as the central figures of the scene, displaying some 21 key Greek philosophers is in this matrix. Rafael uses a series of useful symbols as tools for clarification. to show Plato and Aristotle (his student), each holding their respective books (the Timaeus and Nichomachean Ethics) and making left and right gestures with their hands. Plato is displayed as an old, grey man filled with wisdom; whereas Aristotle is shown as handsome and well dressed man. This powerful stream for viewers can be interpreted as a difference of two philosophical schools.

    All of the philosophers depicted in the painting have "double identities"; and represent portraits of Raphael's contemporaries of the Renaissance era in disguise.


    1. The Last Judgment by Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni) (1536-1541) - Italian Master

    Located in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City.

    This painting is one of the most recognizable and imitated pictures of all time! Painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, which provides a number of European artists with a wealth of images and ideas to plunder. The roof is the story of Genesis (full of prophets, saints and sinners) and Adam at the time of creation. It essentially heaven and hell upon the second coming of Christ, as those blessed or saved ascend on the left, whereas the damned descend to hell on the right.

    This painting was truly controversial and caused much ado between the world of art and religion, even resulting in some of the nudity being covered at one stage by his student, Danielle da Volterra.
    1. Venus of Urbino by Titian (or Tiziano Vecellio) (1538) - Italian Artist

    Located in Uffizi Gallery Museum in the Hall of Tiziano (New Hall 83).

    This portrait painting by Titian changed the game with the way he displayed his secular subjects, often sexual and maliciously mythological, conveying pleasure in erotic pleasure in a sophisticated way. Titian transformed the history of art and gained the sponsorship of the rich and famous, members  of the Royal Court.
    In the case of the Venus of Urbino, our female subject is presented as more courtier goddess, whilst acting as a reminder of the duties of a wife A synergy of eroticism, motherhood and fidelity, but also littered with hidden meanings. Venus of Urbino is painted in oil, to achieve a new luxury. The woman depicts a Renaissance woman, who represents the goddess Venus, symbolising love, beauty and fertility.

    The dog in this art painting represents marital fidelity, which can only be left to the imagination to determine the exact connotations the artist had in mind.


    1. The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio) (1599-1600) – Italian Artist

    Located in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome in the Contarelli Chapel.

    This Caravaggio art painting is one of a trilogy about Saint Matthew, which also include 'The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew' and 'The Inspiration of Saint Matthew'.
    Painted in oil paint, this painting depicts the moment that Saint Matthew is inspired to give up his work as a tax collector, to follow Jesus as told in the first book of the new Testament, in the Gospel of Matthew at 9.9.
    Matthew is sitting at a table with four other men. Christ and Saint Peter entered the room, and Jesus is pointing directly to Matthew. A beam of light illuminates the face of men of the table who are seeking Christ, which brings together two different worlds: the power of the immortal faith and the worldly alternate reality. There does exist some debate as to which man is Saint Matthew in this picture, although the bearded man reappears in the other two paintings.

    My interesting fact about this oil painting is that it has remained on exhibition in the same place since its completion for 410 years!


    1. Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez (1656) - Spanish Artist

    Located in the Museo Nacional Del Prado of Madrid, Spain.

    This oil painting's name translates from Spanish to 'Ladies in Waiting' and seemingly displays a 'snapshot' of several members of the Royal Court of Spain in a room of the Royal Alcazar of Madrid.

    Diego Velázquez provide an ingenious composition, in which he displays the act of painting the royal household of Spain. This is one of the most analyzed paintings becoming the focus of the historical perspective art for many years. The interesting representation of the King Phillip IV and Queen Mariana of Austria is, in fact, that they are perhaps spectators outside the space of the image and cannot be reflected in a small mirror on the back wall of the studio. The focal point is the child, the daughter of the King, who will usher in a future of Spain as a beacon of hope and modernity.
    This painting is much debated particularly as the artist, appears in the painting himself which turned the Royal portraiture painting into essentially a "photobomb".

    My interesting fact is that the UK has its own version of Las Meninas, which housed at the Kingston Lacy Estate in Dorset. Yet again there is much debate as to who actually painted this smaller replica of this great artwork.


    1. The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh (1889) - Dutch Painter

    Located in the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown Manhattan, New York on 53rd Street.

    Van Gogh’s The Starry Night is the perfect example of the movement of Impressionist painting, who threw caution to the wind with his way sweepingly open and completely new to display colour brushstrokes. Impressionism stressed sentiment and poetry behind an image rather than simply represent what the artist could see.

    Sadly in  December 1888 Van Gogh suffered a mental breakdown that led to self-mutilation of his left ear, and later he voluntarily admitted to a nursing home. The scene unfolding before us in the starry night is the view from his east-facing room in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole lunatic asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, just before the window of the sunrise. He omitted to paint the bars through which he painted this masterpiece.

     The Starry Night is considered to be his greatest masterpiece, and was painted just months before Van Gogh committed suicide. 


    1. The Scream by Edvard Munch (1893) - Norwegian Artist

    Located in the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway.

    Edvard Munch gave this painting the German name of 'Der Schrei der Natur', which translates as the Scream of Nature. Thus encapsulating how the agonised facial expression impacts the landscape.

    This painting (which recently sold at auction for $ 120 million), is one of the most vivid, disturbing and iconic original art pieces ever made. Munch, a Norwegian expressionist obviously created a work from a fragment of his imagination invaded by dark matter. The central figure is clearly suffering from a private moment of anguish and despair, while people around him seem to be blissfully unaware of their fears and their demons.

    There are actually four versions of this painting, as Munch created two painted versions. The second version is at the Munch Museum which is also in Oslo, along with a pastel version. The fourth version, which is another pastel was the painting mentioned above, which fetched $120 million in May 2012.

    Scream is an icon of original modern art, which defines the perception of our age as a time tormented by anxiety and uncertainty. Munch exhibited expressive style on both a psychological and emotional level.

    It is interesting that The Scream has been the subject of several successful armed robberies in recent times. the latest robbery in 2004 where both The Scream and Madonna were stolen, would result in The Scream being lost for two years until it was recovered.

    1.   Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937) - Spanish Artist

    Located in the Museo Reina Sofia, which is in Madrid, Spain.

    Pablo Picasso is arguably the most famous and prolific artist of the 20th century, as he created about 13,500 paintings and hundreds of thousands of prints, engravings, illustrations and sculptures. Whatever the medium or style, Picasso had a hand in a radical change of all.

      Picasso was an uncompromising opponent of the Nazi German involvement in the Spanish Civil War, and his masterpiece Guernica, was his response to the bombardment of the Basque village of Guernica. He cleverly uses black and white to depict a fractured Guernica, as war drains it of life and colour. Guernica is a fractured composition in black and white that drained all the colours. This oil painting truly demonstrates the ravage of war on man and beasts with symbolism and interpretation of the hidden images within this art.

      The Guernica was painted at the last minute by Picasso, as the mural was only commenced on 1 May 1937, which was three weeks before it was due to be exhibited. It was completed until two weeks after the pavilion, where it was to be located, had been opened.

      1. Interchange by Willem de Kooning 1955 - Dutch/American Artist

      Located in the Private Collection of Kenneth C. Griffin who is the founder and CEO of Citadel Global Investment Management (on loan at the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois).

      There is not much to say about this contemporary abstract painting, which is expressionism by an artist who suffered with Alzheimers Disease.

      This oil painting is also known as "Interchanged" and is on the list as it has the highest paid price for a painting. A record breaking 300 million US dollars were paid by Kenneth Griffin, who already has a noteworthy art collection. 


    1. It is clear that Italy would appear to produce a wealth of talented fine artists, and equally that the best art is clearly produced using oils. Oil painting allows a depth of colour and detail, which will stand the test of time as demonstrated by these masterpieces. Clearly, these art paintings are beyond the reach of affordability of most individuals. They are nevertheless artwork to inspire, offering reflection as to the mindset and message of the artist.

      Here are a selection of my personal photographs from the Vatican City. Why not check your knowledge as to whether you can identify any of them?

      Rome image 1 by Elle Smith Rome Image 8 by Elle SmithRome Image 4 by Elle SmithRome Image 5 by Elle SmithRome Image 2 by Elle Smith Rome Image 3 by Elle Smith   Rome Image 6 by Elle Smith Rome Image 7 by Elle Smith  Rome Image 9 by Elle Smith

      Please feel free to view my original fine art in my Online Art Gallery where I have created oil paintings on canvas inspired by my own life experiences and thoughts. Click here to access the Inspired By Elle online art gallery. 

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