20 of the World's Most Famous Art Pieces

Art history has delivered us some amazing paintings and sculptures, so limiting the list to twenty pieces is no small feat. Certain works will always rise to the top. In this list of the twenty most famous pieces of Western art, see how many you recognize. Do you agree with the list? Which work would be your twenty-first?

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

<i>Mona Lisa</i> by Leonardo da Vinci

It is no surprise to see the Mona Lisa at the top of this list. Da Vinci’s masterpiece is probably the most recognized artwork in the world today, and the most visited. Also known as La Giaconda, the painting is believed to illustrate the wife of wealthy Florentine merchant Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo. Alternative suggestions include Leonardo’s mother and a self-portrait of the artist. Why is this work so revered? It is a combination of the Mona Lisa and the distant backdrop that frames her, and the harmony that exists in the perspectival representation Da Vinci rendered so well. The Mona Lisa revolutionized portrait painting for future artists. His choice of clothing is not fashionable but rather timeless. This mysterious woman has subsequently become the subject of song and film titles and the works of other renowned artists, including Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol.

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

<i>The Creation of Adam</i> by Michelangelo

The Creation of Adam is the central element in Michelangelo’s large Sistine Chapel fresco. It is one of the most replicated biblical paintings in history, now blazoned on anything, from placemats to umbrellas. Here God breathes life into Adam, and the creation of man is central to the biblical creative narrative. God floats in a cloud of drapery and other human figures. He is portrayed as an older man, draped in a simple tunic, muscular yet real. The outstretched hands connect God to man and humanity. Michelangelo’s painting of Adam, created in the image of God, must be one of the most famous nudes in art history. Eve, created from Adam’s rib in the biblical narrative, is believed to be the figure tucked under God’s left arm. Given that Michelangelo was first and foremost a sculptor, his strongest skills in painting are the musculature and twisted forms in the reclining nudes. A major cleaning project of the work completed in the late 1980s revealed Michelangelo’s original bright color palette.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

<i>The Birth of Venus</i> by Sandro Botticelli

Botticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus, was commissioned by the influential Florentine Medici dynasty. Painting with tempera on canvas, rather than the more conventional wood panels used (like the Mona Lisa), showed a break away from traditional materials that were becoming popular at the time. The work is revered as a great treasure of the Renaissance, depicting a nude at the center of the painting referencing the ancient world. The Renaissance saw the “rebirthing” of the world of antiquity, not only in art, but also in architecture, philosophy, and poetry. Works by writers like Homer were regenerated and provide the background story for this picture. Venus is located at the center of the piece, riding upon a shell to the shore, after her birth from sea foam. She is blown from her right towards land by Zephyrus and the nymph Chloris, who guide her to shore. Pomona, the goddess of Spring, waits on shore for Venus’ arrival. Take note of her contrapposto stance, the detail in her hair and her unusually large neck.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

<i>Guernica</i> by Pablo Picasso

Guernica, a political protest piece in Picasso’s distinct cubist style, was a central attraction at the Paris World Fair in 1937. This large-scale monochromatic palette of gray, white and black was Picasso’s response to the recent bombing of the Northern Spanish town, Guernica. The attack by Hitler’s armed forces, sanctioned by Franco’s government against his people, was the first aerial saturation of a civilian population. It served as a “training mission” for Hitler and reduced the village to rubble, wounding or killing a third of the population. The painting is not easy to decipher, but the figures’ pain and grief are distinct. The far left figure is of a woman who is screaming and holding a lifeless child in her arms. A bull remains unharmed and calm while a horse in the center of the work is terrified and distressed. Dead and wounded figures, mutilated bodies and distorted faces writhe in agony. Guernica traveled the globe to raise awareness of the war, contributing to its worldwide fame. MOMA held it for 19 years in New York until civil liberties and democratic processes were restored in Spain.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

<i>Girl with a Pearl Earring</i> by Johannes Vermeer

Girl with a Pearl Earring, or the “Mona Lisa of the North,” is painted by the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. A deceptively simple portrait, Girl with a Pearl Earring is enigmatic. No name is given and all the audience sees is a girl who has a pearl earring and is staring back. Speculation around the girl’s identity ranges from being Vermeer’s mistress to being one of his 15 children. The girl’s hair is tied back in a blue band contrasting with the gold of her dress and is offset by the dark background, giving the painting its luminosity. Her mouth is open as though she is about to ask a question, but what is she thinking? The painting is a tronie rather than a portrait, depicting the subject’s head dressed in its Eastern turban. This headdress, together with the exceptionally large pearl, conjures up the exotic. The painting crossed the globe during the restoration of the Mauritshuis, gaining near-movie star status. The Girl with the Pearl Earring experienced further fame with the release of the films Girl with a Pearl Earring and St Trinians.

Campbell's Soup Cans by Andy Warhol

<i>Campbell's Soup Cans</i> by Andy Warhol

Campbell’s Soup Cans is just one in a series of paintings Andy Warhol made so incredibly famous through his use of the company’s branding. Painted by hand, with the use of stencils, closer inspection reveals that these cans are not identical in appearance or spacing. Each can represents one of the 32 flavors that Campbell’s had on offer in 1962. As a pop artist, Warhol became interested in the machine-like processes involved in mass production of such things as the Campbell’s soup can itself. In the climate in which Warhol was producing these works, the American public was becoming more and more reliant on mass-production. For Warhol, this would lead to society’s ultimately becoming more depersonalized and homogenous. Warhol saw the connection to the mechanical and the awareness of advertising, design, branding and mass production that the middle class was engaged in.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

<i>The Thinker</i> by Auguste Rodin

The Thinker is an iconic sculpture of a crouching figure, highly contemplative upon its stone plinth. At nearly 20 feet tall, the body is larger than life-size. The man sits deep in thought, twisting his body with his right elbow resting on his left knee, and his chin resting on his right hand. Rodin’s nude references sculptural works of Michelangelo and classical antiquity. Anticipated originally as part of Rodin’s Gates of Hell, Rodin is also referencing Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Thinker can be seen at the center of the top panel of these doors. When Rodin died, he gave the rights to cast further sculptures of The Thinker and other works. Castings of the sculpture can now be found across the globe, not just in the Rodin Gardens in Paris. Some 28 castings can be found anywhere from Melbourne, Australia to Buenos Aires, Argentina, cast in both plaster and bronze. Another casting adorns Rodin’s tomb in Meudon. In recent times a bronze casting, made for Ralph Pulitzer, sold for USD 15.3 million.

Number 1 (1950) Lavender Mist by Jackson Pollock

<i>Number 1 (1950) Lavender Mist</i> by Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock’s painting style was both confronting and controversial for the 1950’s American public. Breaking away from the traditions of the pictorial past, Lavender Mist embodies Pollock’s chosen style, which he had worked on since 1947. Pollock explored the characteristics of the paint itself and the surface it was applied to. Full of energy, the characteristic “dripping” technique was applied to a large scale canvas on the floor while Pollock walked around it. He applied paint straight from the industrial paint can, throwing, flinging and pouring paint across the surface with his sticks, brushes and turkey basters. In the heat of the action, he would fling other things in too, including sand and the occasional cigarette butt. In the tradition of ancient cave painters, Pollock signed the work in the upper left-hand corner with his handprints. Best seen up close, his action painting is rich in color and texture, which is lost in a photograph in a book or on a website. This action painting was a subset of the broader movement known as abstract expressionism.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

<i>Starry Night</i> by Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh’s magnum opus, Starry Night, is another exceptionally famous work that has constantly been replicated on bags, mugs, umbrellas and all manner of objects, a testament to its fame and popularity. It depicts the scene he saw from his room during his stay at a sanatorium. Van Gogh, not being the most robust of characters mentally, tried to chop off his ear, and eventually took his own life. Starry Night uses a strong color palette, with great energy created by the swirls of his brush. These characteristics have influenced generations of artists, making Van Gogh one of the most well-known and influential painters in Western art. Having completed thousands of works, Starry Night along with Café Terrace at Night and Sunflowers are amongst the most well-recognized paintings in the world, even an entire episode of Doctor Who was dedicated to the artist and his inner demons. Despite his skills, Van Gogh managed to sell only one of his works during his lifetime; ironic, given how they are now so revered that a single painting will command a USD 100 million price tag at auction.

American Gothic by Grant Wood

<i>American Gothic</i> by Grant Wood

Named from the style of the building in the background of this painting, American Gothic has long been a cultural icon of a nation. Painted in 1930s America, Wood’s painting represents America, Middle America, and small-town America all at the same time. Along with Thomas Hart Benton and some other artists, Wood’s style was linked to the Regionalist painting genre. Pictured here are a farmer and his daughter (although the actual models were Wood’s dentist and his daughter). Part of the fascination people have for the work is the contradictory readings people attribute to it. Some feel that Wood was mocking the Midwest, while others think it accurately represented the Midwesterner that he saw and painted. Either way, the work suggests hardworking individuals who toil the land, a conservative America that contrasted with the growing industrial culture of the time, and a symbol of the American heartland.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

<i>Nighthawks</i> by Edward Hopper

Hopper’s Nighthawks is another of the most famous American paintings of the twentieth century, depicting a snapshot of 1940s American culture. It depicts a quiet night scene, which some believe may have referenced Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night. Its simplicity of form is deceptive when it comes to understanding the narrative that is being told. Both Hopper and his wife were models for the painting. Like many of Hopper’s works, Nighthawks conveys the feeling of isolation, particularly in a crowd or a large city. For example, there is no door to the outer world of the big city, heightening a sense of isolation within the frame. The difference between the warm-colored interior and the cooler exterior highlights the sense of loneliness. The quiet conversation that the characters might be engaged in leaves us outside looking in. There is no sign of life in the buildings across the road. Hopper leaves questions unanswered for the viewer. Did the couple arrive together, or did they meet there? What about the man sitting alone? Why is he there late at night? This air of mystery has kept many a person guessing, and contributed to the painting’s fame.

Water Lily Pond by Claude Monet

<i>Water Lily Pond</i> by Claude Monet

Monet’s Water Lily Pond belongs to a series of paintings that Monet created at his property in Giverny. They capture the impressions light left reflected upon the water dappled through the tree branches and leaves. This particular work incorporates Monet’s famous Japanese bridge and the weeping willows that have become instantly recognizable to millions around the world. The suite of Water Lilies is on permanent display at the Museé de l’Orangerie in Paris. It was produced later in the artist’s life. Water lilies were a constant subject for the artist. A continued decline in Monet’s eyesight due to cataracts eventually affected how he saw the pond. The awesomeness of the original works’ harmony and intensity of colors eventually became darker, bluer and more blurred and abstract in their execution. Despite this, Monet’s contribution to art came from his ability to capture fleeting moments of time in the permanence of his canvas, making him a truly remarkable impressionist.

The Scream by Edvard Munch

<i>The Scream</i> by Edvard Munch

Second, only to the Mona Lisa, The Scream is the most iconic human figure in the history of Western art. This now famous expressionist painting by Edvard Munch is part of the artist’s autobiographical series the Frieze of Life. The Scream depicts a character who has recently walked along the bridge that extends from the left of the painting to the foreground. Curvy energetic forms rush around in the background in reds, blues, and yellows. Munch said the scene came from a moment of overwhelming anxiety and melancholy he experienced while out for a stroll with friends one evening. Stolen twice in dramatic heists from the Oslo Munch Museum, the painting has had its share of notoriety. The Scream also broke the record for the most expensive painting sold at auction in 2012 when it sold for just shy of USD 120 million. The Scream has also been parodied in other artists’ work, adding to its notoriety. Andy Warhol was commissioned to produce silk prints from a lithograph of the painting. Munch made the lithograph himself, allowing him to sell black and white copies at will. In Wes Craven’s Scream franchise, the killer wore a mask referencing on The Scream’s haunting face.

Venus de Milo by Alexandros of Antioch

<i>Venus de Milo</i> by Alexandros of Antioch

The Venus de Milo, thought to represent the Greek goddess Aphrodite, is the oldest inclusion on this list. One of the most famous sculptures in the world today, the Venus de Milo originated in Ancient Greece. She was discovered on the island of Melos (Milo in modern Greek) and is now housed in the Louvre in Paris, with millions of people visiting her every year. Carved sometime around 100 BCE by the sculptor Alexandros of Antioch, Venus is a partially clothed woman who is missing her arms. Much discussion has surrounded what she was originally doing, or holding, with them. The form of this sculpture lives up to the image of Aphrodite the Greek Goddess of Beauty, Venus being her Roman namesake. Certain schools of thought, however, believe she is Amphitrite, the Goddess of the Sea, while others have claimed she is a prostitute. Whatever her origin, there is no question she is one of the most iconic statues in the world.

David by Michelangelo Buonarroti

<i>David</i> by Michelangelo Buonarroti

David is the second of Michelangelo’s works, with a spot in the top 20 most famous art pieces. This time, Michelangelo shows his mastery over the sculpting of human forms from marble. His success in sculpture would ultimately influence his painting of the Sistine Chapel, especially the rendering of muscular forms in his majestic fresco. Nearly three times the size of the average person, David is no mean feat, especially given the initial intention to place the sculpture above the roof line of the Florence Cathedral. Michelangelo’s skill in chiseling can be seen in David’s beautiful form, its muscles, and David’s expression. It serves as a stellar example of High Renaissance art and the use of the contrapposto pose. The slingshot that David used to kill Goliath in the Old Testament story can be seen slung over David’s left shoulder. He holds on to the stone he uses to kill the giant in his right hand. More recently, visitor numbers have been restricted to reduce vibrations, given the small fractures found in David’s ankle.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí

<i>The Persistence of Memory</i> by Salvador Dalí

Looking for a world-famous, tiny painting that packs a huge punch? Enter the self-proclaimed genius Salvador Dalí and his famous droopy clocks in crazy dreamlike landscapes. Of all his work, The Persistence of Memory is arguably his most famous, executed with Dalí’s usual detailed precision. The initial reaction is often, “What am I looking at?” The painting immediately turns our sense of normality on its head with its malleable clocks and the strange arrangement of objects within this dreamy landscape. The Persistence of Memory challenges many viewers on first glance, and yet its sense of fun draws you in a seductive attack on what is real. An autobiographical aspect, the sea and hills are reminiscent of the artist’s Catalonian home landscape. At the center is the deformed character, with its large nose and its eye with its equally large eyelash that extends to the contours of the nose. Dalí’s famous clocks were supposedly born out of the artist’s response to looking at melted cheese. And then, of course, there are those links to Freud, the unconscious and the dreamscape, where irrational thoughts in our minds play out.

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

<i>The Kiss</i> by Gustav Klimt

The Kiss is an exotic and opulent-looking work with rich oils and layers of applied gold leaf. The Kiss is an instantly recognizable work with countless reproductions on posters, bags, ceramics, and vases that have been produced around the world. Strikingly modern, influenced by the curvy sinuous lines of Art Nouveau, the work has a strong organic feel to it. Painted in an almost perfect square, Klimt’s masterpiece differs from the more common rectangular surface. The Kiss captures the light through its overarching golden hue, giving the painting its luminous quality. Klimt’s use of gold was no doubt inspired by his trip to Italy, and the stunning Byzantinian mosaics found in Ravenna’s basilica. Central to the work is a woman intimately embraced by her male companion. Their elaborate robes are delineated with the female’s curvilinear and circular forms, and the rectangular decorative elements of the male’s cloak. The couple, lost in the intensity of the moment, kneel on a patch of flowers. The woman wears a tight-fitting dress that highlights the curves of her body, while he envelops her with his arms and his gown.

The School of Athens by Raphael

<i>The School of Athens</i> by Raphael

While many people rush to the Vatican to view the Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s frescoes are equally worth a visit. Commissioned by Pope Julius II to decorate his suite of apartments, The School of Athens decorates the wall of the Stanza della Segnatura. It is possibly Raphael’s most recognizable work. The School of Athens was painted after Raphael was summoned to Rome by the Pope. The painting is framed in a splendid architectural setting. The School of Athens links the Renaissance to antiquity. Raphael painted the philosophers of the ancient classical world conversing, sharing and learning from each other. The eye is drawn to the two central figures, Aristotle and Plato, important influences on Western thinking. Pythagoras, of triangle fame, is seen on the left, working out his mathematic formulae. Raphael’s self-portrait is found at the bottom right-hand corner, dressed in white and standing beside Ptolemy whose back is to the audience. Raphael’s mastering of linear perspective creates an excellent illusion of depth of space in this painting.

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette by Edward Renoir

<i>Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette</i> by Edward Renoir

This painting is arguably Renoir’s most famous work, depicting a lively and energetic atmosphere in a Parisian dance garden, the Moulin de la Galette. As an Impressionist, Renoir sets about capturing the moment through his brush strokes and use of color. His palate is vivid with a mix of blues, oranges, pinks and reds, helping to create the sense of movement the viewer experiences in the painting. Dapples of light are cast through the leaves upon those visiting the garden, further enhancing this sense of movement. Central to the painting is the subject of fun and pleasure experienced on the outskirts of Paris. Through loose, almost sketch-like brushwork, Renoir added a feeling of movement. There is also a sense that everyone knows each other, for example, the familiarity of the two central women, one flirting with the man before her while the other leans in over her shoulder.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

The <i>Last Supper</i> by Leonardo da Vinci

Another of Da Vinci’s works, The Last Supper, comes in a close second to his Mona Lisa. Its fame was further boosted when it found itself at the center of Dan Brown’s novel and subsequent film based on it, The Da Vinci Code. Da Vinci completed a difficult composition here with its long table and placement of 13 characters into the painting’s narrative. The Last Supper depicts the moment when Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. Capturing the intrigue and desperate desire to know who it will be, the apostles engage in conversation and speculation. Judas is seated on the left-hand side of the painting and is wearing a blue robe. Christ shares the bread as his body and the wine as his blood, the holy sacraments still taken today during Communion by the Catholic community. The work has faced serious deterioration since its completion at the end of the 15th Century. Since then, cleaning with caustic solvents, attempts to remove it from the wall, humidity, and bombings in World War II deteriorated its condition. Its most recent restoration, which took 20 years, involved placing the painting in a specialized environment to help reduce further deterioration. Viewers are only accepted by reservation and are allowed in for 15 minutes only.