Here’s a fun game to play if you ever happen to be in a room full of artists and/or art lovers. In the most nonchalant and innocent manner you can muster, ask the crowd what they think the most famous painting in the world is. Then sit back and enjoy, as you’re about to be treated to at least half an hour of debate that will more than likely escalate, possibly ending in heated exchanges and hurt feelings. Like the infamous “What is art?” and “Who is the best artist?” questions, “What is the most famous painting?” is a question that art aficionados of every level have an opinion on, though it probably has no right answer.
Despite the lack of any real method to determine the holder of this honor accurately, people certainly do try, and in recent years, the internet has allowed the flourishing of a huge number of “Most Famous Paintings” lists. While none of the available lists are perfect, and many are just examples of downright favoritism by anonymous contributors, what we can glean from these lists is a selection of paintings that are among the most famous ever to exist. By doing away with the ubiquitous need to rank these paintings, we can find ourselves a set of paintings that, in no particular order, are very well-known.
Of course, on this blog we’re mostly interested in those works that were created on that most excellent and beloved surface in the art world, that being canvas of course. So here’s a quick two-part look at fifteen canvases that can undoubtedly be referred to as some of the most famous in the world, focusing first on those pre-1900’s, and then those of the most recently past century.
As canvas is a relatively newly dominant surface in the world of art, it took a while after its invention for it to be the choice that prominent artists used for their masterpieces. Among those canvas-based pieces painted prior to the 1800’s that have become very famous are three in particular that stand out.
The first of these is Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, an infinitely well-known piece depicting the birth of the Roman goddess Venus emerging from the sea, birthed as a fully grown woman standing in a clam and attended by angels and a woman who seeks to clothe her. This gorgeous tempera on canvas work painted in 1486 is currently held in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and is a gorgeous representation of Early Italian Renaissance work.
Next we have the very different oil painting popularly known as The Night Watch. This 1642 piece by the master Rembrandt is actually called The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq. The painting depicts Cocq, who commissioned it, and his men as they prepare to embark on a hunt. It’s particularly notable for its use of chiaroscuro (light and shadow) and for having been once cut down on all four sides as well as having been at point point attacked by a vandal with a butter knife.
Our third pre-1800’s piece is by the lighting genius Vermeer, 1667’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. This elegant oil picture of a woman wearing an earring and turning toward the viewer is actually more than likely not supposed to be a portrait, but instead what is known as a “tronie,” which is best defined as a picture of an anonymous head that is more about what’s happening than depicting a real person.
Once the 1800s hit, canvas was king. Though of course other surfaces were still in use, many of the masterpieces of this era were done on canvas.
French Impressionist and world-renowned painter of scenes Pierre-August Renoir is first on our list with his incredible Luncheon of the Boating Party done with oil paints around 1880-1881. An excellent example of the Impressionist style, this work depicting a group of casual French revelers is famed for its bright colors and was controversially restored in 1954.
The next three paintings rounding out our pre-1900’s list are all by the same artist, possibly the most well-known artist of all time: Vincent Van Gogh. Three of Gogh’s amazing and most beloved works are Starry Night Over the Rhone, The Starry Night (which are often mistaken for each other) and Irises. The three were painted from 1888 to 1889 and are highly colorful, very stylized pieces. The two night scenes, in particular, are known for their depiction of stars and lights, and Starry Night is commonly listed in the top three most famous paintings ever.
It may seem odd that only seven of our fifteen famous canvases are from other centuries besides the 20th, but consider two things: First, as we’ve mentioned, canvas became more dominant as a surface the farther along history moved. Second, art and artists grew to be more and more visible and easy to view as technology advanced, leading to more reproductions of the art and a wider media-net for each piece to be caught in. Because of these things, as well as perhaps simply that modern people often prefer art from their own time, most of our list falls within the 1900’s, and we have some pretty interesting facts to back that choice up with. As always, stay tuned to this spot, as next up we’ll show you eight more incredible works of canvas art you’re sure to recognize.