The Greatest Paintings in History
Following are a collection of the greatest paintings in history. These are in no particular order and their proportions have been cropped to create a consistent presentation. Each painting has below it the Artists name, the painting title and the year it was painted followed by a personal commentary.
Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, c. 1512
An incredibly powerful piece which is part of the monumental Sistine Chapel ceiling all painting single handedly by the tireless Michelangelo. Michelangelo not only painted the 5,000 square feet area in Fresco while lying on his back in only 4 years, but within it are contained some of the most memorable creations in all of history. This scene in particular, depicting the creation of Adam exquisitely captures the precise moment when God has his moment of genius and creates mankind in his likeliness. Michelangelo was a true master in composing a scene, in highly original ways and building a sense of suspense by capturing the heightened moments. There are a number of aspects about this painting which make it so memorable. Our immediate focus is drawn to the hands, which are within reach of one another but remain tantalisingly distant. One can almost anticipate the action when these hands meet and the rapid movement of God suggests this event to be inevitable. The depiction of God gliding powerfully and purposefully within a form of a human brain is another brilliant commentary. God is in the midst of his great creation. Adam on the other hand rests gracefully and beautifully, a perfect creation, embodying an optimism of humanity. One cannot question the execution of such a masterpiece, but it is the composition and creativity which combine to make this one of the greatest paintings in history.
Sandro Boticelli, The Birth of Venus, c.1468
The incredible creativity of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, I believe took some inspiration from Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus. When comparing the two next to one another their are some distinct similarities such as the hovering figures exaggerated by the flowing material juxtaposed by the elegant and graceful central and still figure. They are both creation stories, one mythological and the second biblical and considering the magnificent execution and composition achieved by Boticelli and the fact that they were both from Florence, there is no surprise that the influence of Boticelli penetrated all future Florentines. While Michelangelo took inspiration from Boticelli, one cannot question the unique achievements of both men and paintings. Boticelli’s paintings are instantly recognisable as his style, subjects and compositions are highly original and unique. Michelangelo no doubt created a greater realism, but it is this beautiful, stylised romanticism and mythological themes that transport the viewer of a Boticelli piece to a new world all-together. Boticelli’s bright, warm colours and distinct line-work create clean, inviting artworks that one cannot but enjoy. Boticelli achieves a rare beauty, grace and innocence in Venus making this one of the Greatest paintings in history.
Rafael, The School of Athens, 1509
While Michelangelo may have taken inspiration from Boticelli, Rafael was no doubt influenced heavily by Leonardo Da Vinci and in particular The Last Supper in his School of Athens masterpiece. The piece is a depiction of the world great philosophers and thinkers throughout history. The figures, some of which are highly engaged in debate and all with their own unique response and relationship to others is reminiscent to the individual reactions expressed in the last supper but like Michelangelo, Rafael created something highly original. Rafael’s masterpiece perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the High Renaissance where optimism in humanity and the potential of human thought and creativity was at it’s height. The vast classical space in which the philosophers are composed is an ideal creation, showcasing the heights to which mankind can build but also the grace and beauty we can achieve through beautiful white marble arches which open up to the heavens. This idealic setting is the perfect environment for the great minds to debate and challenge ideas and to strive ever further for greatness and beauty. The painting includes most of the great classical philosophers, but as many of their physical appearances were not described or captured Rafael used a creative solution, often using the portrait of his contemporaries to represent the philosophers. The lone central figure at the front, for example is believed to be Michelangelo depicting Hericulitus. Of the two dominant central figures, believed to be Plato and Aristotle, an older Leonardo Da Vinci portrait is believed to have been used for Plato. The young graceful man two positions left of Michelangelo is believed to be a portrait of Rafael himself, while an older Donatello in the the dark maroon cloke to the right oversees proceedings in a reflective mood. This great painting is a celebration of human achievement and a call of action for future generations to aspire to the feats achieved by the great men of the past. The composition and depth of the painting is quite ingenious and steps and encompassing nature of the arch allow the feeling of a tight and united group while maintaining great prominence to each individual and allowing room for their own personalities and preferred method of engagement. Rafaels The School of Athens is without doubt one of the Greatest Paintings in history and successfully captures the best in mankind.
Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Grande Odalisque, 1814
Ingres’ intimate and flirtatious nude portrait is incredibly iconic. Similar to Boticelli, the execution is a somewhat romanticised depiction rather then strict realism with softened curve forms and a beautiful warm glow of the female figure. The nude strikes a brilliant balance with the subject having a sense of confidence and familiarity with the subject, with the peacock fan heightening the sensual mood. This is counterbalanced by a the womans hand with the one outstretched pinky finger indicative of trepidation to be involved in the piece and the hand clinging to the curtain ready to cover her body if at any point she feels uncomfortable. Her expression and pose is both inviting and yet somewhat defensive as her back turns to the audience covering her private parts, while her body twists clearly interested in the viewer. This painting draws the viewer in and perfectly captures the beauty of the female nude while creating an interesting psychological game. Every great painting tells a number of stories and this intriguing artwork by Ingres certainly does that, making it one of the greatest paintings of all time.
Caravaggio, The calling of St Matthew, 1599-1600
Caravaggio is without a doubt one of the all-time great artists. His short and tragic life is perhaps the only reasons that he is not held on the same pedestal as Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Rafael, but to have achieved so much in just 39 years, it is difficult for one to question his genius. Like many of the great artists before, such as Da Vinci and Michelangelo, Caravaggio recognised the power that could be contained in a hand gesture to convey one’s mental state. Caravaggio’s work is always distinct for it’s rare power and passion, often in very dark, shadowy tones counterbalanced in a dramatic way with warm low lights, which warm the faces of his subjects and the deep reds which they often wear. There’s no doubt that he learnt a great deal from the dark and moody environments created by Leonardo Da Vinci and The Calling of St Matthew with the prominence of the soon to be pointing hand has taken inspiration from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. But what Caravaggio creates is something all together unique. Few artists, perhaps none have been so successful in creating depth in their work and while Da Vinci and Michelangelo often romanticised the human figure, Caravaggio was often more honest in his representations showing some of the ugly truth in humans such as wrinkles, old age and general stress. Like Rafael’s School of Athens masterpiece, what makes this artwork fascinating are the different personalities and mental states. The different states of awareness heighten the sense that we have just stumbled across an exact moment as the figures on the left still remain oblivious to the significance that is unfolding. This draws the viewer into the moment and creates an added sense of anticipation as these figures will no doubt soon react in a similar sense to the other shocked members. There is some debate as to which of the three figures to the left is St.Matthew as there is a degree of disambiguate with the pointing figures and one expects this to be quite deliberate as this heightens the confusion and exaggerates the soon to be moment of revelation. Whether the bearded man is in the process of pointing to himself or pointing to the tax collector heavily pre-occupied by money is unclear although following paintings on the subject of St.Matthew which depict the bearded man are perhaps confirmation that he is St.Matthew and his acceptance of Jesus’ calling will also be a rejection of the obsessed money focused past, emphasised by the two far left figures, who are still oblivious to the significant moment in which they are part. Jesus and the bearded man are certainly the central figures in the piece and Caravaggio cleverly uses the cast shadow to exaggerate important exchange. From the shadows Jesus arrives to help lead St.Matthew into the light.
Eugene Delacroix, Orphan Girl at the Cemetery, 1823-1824
There are few paintings quite as beautiful and more alive the Eugene Delacroix’s Orphan Girl at a Cemetery. The woman’s vulnerability is palpable with water whelped eyes, low position looking upward, mouth a gasp and shoulders exposed. The landscape is also reminiscent of a mysterious Leonardo Da Vinci landscape exaggerating the hopelessness with a baron landscape, filled only with gravestones. Similar to Ingres’ masterpiece the success of this painting is the great juxtaposition which it conveys. The vulnerability and sense of hopelessness is counterbalanced by the woman’s unquestionable beauty and natural elegance which draws the viewer in to want to help. Her basic clothing and hopeless worldly predicament is counterbalanced by a godliness grace – her hair swirls like poetry and her cheeks are flushed red with life. The sky itself glows in warm pastels and illuminates her skin as a signal of hope in contrast to the gloomy reality which she currently faces – perhaps there is hope in the heavens. One cannot help but sympathise with this woman and it this level of engagement which makes it such an attractive piece and one of the Greatest Paintings in History.
Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-1498
Needing little introduction, Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ was and continues to be one of the Greatest and most famous Paintings in history. In it’s time it was revolutionary and is arguably one of the most influential paintings on the artists who followed. Raphael’s School of Athens, clearly took inspiration, while the striking hand gestures and emotional faces no doubt influenced Michelangelo and Caravaggio. Sadly, Da Vinci’s experimental nature – using oil paints on Stucco led to extreme damage of the artwork within just a few years of its conception as moisture in the stucco irreversibly destroyed much of the colouring and detail. Despite this, it is the composition and emotional gestures that helped to make this a work of genius. Some early copies of the artwork help us to gain a better understanding of the original vibrancy of the colours.
Claude Monet, Poppies, 1873
While a number of Claude Monet’s paintings could be candidates in this exclusive list of great masterpieces, such as his Water Lillies or Grainstack, Poppies perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the Impressionist movement with it’s rash confident strokes and romantic scenes en plein air. The impressionists who sought to capture a moment and a certain light had to work rapidly by necessity or the moment would be lost. In Poppies, Claude Monet captures the two figures at separate moments along their journey, highlighting the pace at which the impressionists worked. The idyllic country scene, with fields of poppies, the figures in fine dress and the manor in the background on a fine sunny day creates a most pleasant harmony and one of the most iconic and greatest paintings in history.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Self-portrait, 1661
Self-portraits make an ideal subject as few can appreciate the time and patience required to create a masterpiece quite like an artist. As they say ‘practise makes perfect’ and Rembrandt certainly had a great deal of experience with self-portraits. By 1661 Rembrandt was a true master of his craft. This portrait conveys confidence with its bold strokes, which certainly must have influenced the Impressionist movement. Rembrandt’s warm light contrasted by shadow and dramatic reds is likely to have taken some inspiration from Caravaggio’s palette. Portraits are an effective way to immortalisation. In this self-portrait Rembrandt captures a confident, curious figure. The glow helps to further elevate his significance, in a similar manner to how Renaissance artists elevated holy figures. His beret, curly locks and attire are iconic to our modern perception of an artist and portraits were an effective tool for marketing and branding and Rembrandt must have been well aware of this. This portrait in endearing. One can sense from this portrait that Rembrandt was a warm and honest man. It is this psychological aspect and Rembrandt’s ability to capture a moment in time, which makes this one of the Greatest Paintings in History.
Jacques Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784
Like the greats before him, Jacques Louis David understood the power of hand gestures to depict a person’s mental state. A patriotic painting symbolising the Horatii Brothers just moments before going to battle against the Curiatii Brothers, representing Rome against it’s rival city Alba Longa. The tension in the room is palpable with the three brothers united in a bold stance. The mid-brother holds his brothers waste tightly – a sign of unity and some last minute nerves. The father, the central figure appears to be blessing his sons and their weapons for their heroic sacrifice and prays to God to watch over them. Like his sons, the father is muscular and clearly also a past warrior leading by example to this proud family. To the right, woman and children weep, knowing that only one of the men will survive in the deadly battle against the Curaitii brothers. The woman closest is especially distraught, the sister of the men and wife of one of the Curaitii Brothers – her day will inevitably end in great loss. The detail of this painting is incredible, with muscles flexing, one can almost feel the blood running through the men’s veins. Like Da Vinci and Caravaggio, Jacque Louis David uses dark tones in the background, heightening the drama of the moment and drawing the viewers attention to the illuminated characters. Like Caravaggio’s works red is prevalent against the stark shadows and this elevates the passion, being the colour of blood.
Great Paintings frequently capture historical moments, but few are as memorable and poignant as J. M. W Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed. Few moments have been as pivotal as the Industrial Revolution and a driver of such vast change opinions were radically parted, some excited by the new found possibilities and others concerned about the consequences. Turner masterfully captures the moment and his commentary is unmistakably on the side of the latter. An undeniable truth of the Industrial Revolution is that man’s power over the world and nature grew. Our perception of speed would now be different for ever. The slow, tranquil pace of rural life would never be the same again. Turner captures all of this as the menacing black steam locomotion cuts through a serene, warm landscape appearing out of no where and disrupting the landscape, which will never be the same. In the above image it is difficult to make out but a rabbit runs in front of the train desperately and hopelessly trying to escape this re-defined man made idea of speed. This is not only a commentary on speed but the very turning point when nature became at the mercy of man kind – a dramatic shift from the rest of history. Turner was a master at capturing the sublime and previously his paintings had been occupied by the wrath of an extreme nature. No artist was more well suited as Turner to capture this shift in power, no less sublime.
Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Ambrose Vollard, 1910
Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Ambrose Vollard, 1910. From the Medieval ages through to the High-Renaissance, art continued to evolve to become increasingly realistic. This was achieved through a greater understanding of nature, perspectives, light and learning from the achievements of great artists who came before. This desire for realism was later interrupted by the Impressionists, who as their name suggests captured a mood or feeling in as much as creating realism. This shift in priorities sparked great creativity from future generations such as Pablo Picasso who deliberately abandoned all previous conventions striving to continuously create something new. Picasso was heavily influenced by tribal art and this is evident in much of his work. His developments of Cubism as seen in the Portrait of Ambrose Vollard abandons traditional perspective taking a subject and depicting in from various angles chopped and stitched together. Picasso’s portrait of Ambrose Vollard is not his most aggressive example of Cubism but this perfectly captures the beginnings of the cubist movement, which later led to Modern Art as we know it. While distorted, it is clear that Ambrose is a proud, strong man. Ambroses’ pose and the execution is reflective and the colours, with a great contrast from his warm face to dark body and background, as well as the rich texture and cubist patterning help to make this one of the Great Paintings in History.
Salvador Dali, Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity, 1954
Salvador Dali, like all of the great artists had multiple masterpieces which could have made this exclusive list. This piece perfectly captures Dali and the movement he sparked – it is Sexy, Controversial, highly Creative and of course Surreal. In a similar tactic to that used by Michelangelo, Dali uses an element of movement approaching a still figure – heightening the inevitable anticipation of contact. This Surreal piece is largely made up of Rhino horns, which are quite deliberately phallic. Dali cleverly uses shadow to to outline the female form. The female figure who on tippy toes and leaning toplessly over a broken rail is clearly in a promiscuous pose. As the title suggests and like Ingres’ Grande Odalisque and many of the other great masterpieces this piece also has a juxtaposing nature which elevates it to be something more meaningful then straight eroticism. The woman has a godliness like beauty. Her flowing locks are somewhat reminiscent of Boticelli’s Venus. The white seemed leggings and pure and heavenly backdrop also emphasise a sense of innocence which the title – young virgin further supports. This juxtaposition creates a beauty and innocence rather then just a raw sexual desire. Like all of the Great Paintings, this masterpiece cannot be ignored, it draws the viewer in and engages us on multiple levels making it one of the true masterpieces of history.
I hope you enjoyed this journey through the greatest paintings in history. This is the beginning of our journey to find the all time great artworks, please stay tuned as this list continues to grow and evolve.