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From the earliest cave paintings to modern artworks, we have always sought ways to express ourselves creatively. The most famous painters in the world were trailblazers who drew their subjects in new ways and explored new brush techniques.
Find out more about these talented painters who have created some of the most famous works in the history of art.
The Most Famous Painters In the World
Whether you’re a fan of Dutch masters or modern art, you can’t help but be impressed by these innovative painters and their greatest works.
21. Grant Wood
Best known for his portrayal of the American Midwest, Grant Wood was a key figure in the Regionalist art movement. Infusing subtle humor into his artworks, particularly in his masterpiece, American Gothic, Grant Wood captured the isolation of modern life.
He spent much of his life in Iowa, making 4 trips to Europe. Wood was not just an artist but also a jewelry and furniture designer.
He once famously said: “all the really good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.” Born in 1891, Grant Wood passed away in 1942 – his style was definitely avant-garde for its time.
Famous Grant Wood paintings: American Gothic, Woman with Plants, Daughters of Revolution.
20. Jacques-Louis David
Born in 1748, David was a Neoclassical French painter who sought to convey clarity and symmetry in his art. This was a reaction against the over the top Rococo style.
When he was only seven, David’s father was killed in a duel. His mother’s cousin, the famous artist Francois Boucher taught him how to paint.
David was a skilled portrait painter, often depicting royalty or political figures like the Emperor Napoleon. He was a key influence on other artists, including Ingres and Delacroix.
Famous David paintings: Oath of the Horatii, The Death of Socrates, The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries
19. Sandro Botticelli
This Italian painter’s real name was Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, although he was known as Sandro Botticelli. This last name means little barrel, and was coined by his brother.
Born in Florence in 1445, Botticelli was a humanist who thrived in the Renaissance period. The Medici family commissioned several of his artworks, including The Adoration of the Magi.
He painted parts of the Sistine Chapel, Events of the life of Moses, The Punishment of Korah and The Temptation of Christ. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence is where you can see three of the most important Boticelli paintings: Primavera, The Adoration of the Magi and The Birth of Venus.
Famous Botticelli paintings: The Birth of Venus, Primavera, Madonna and Child, Portrait of a Young Man, Madonna of the Book, The Adoration of the Magi
18. Edouard Manet
Manet was born into a wealthy family in Paris in 1832. Although Manet once said that he had “no intention of overthrowing old methods of paintings, or creating, new ones”, he certainly shook up the art world.
Édouard Manet portrayed his subjects in an uncompromising manner. In his painting Olympia, a courtesan stares directly out, while in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Manet deliberately plays with perspective and mirrors.
Although Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass was rejected by the Paris Salon in 1863, the painting stole the show at the Salon des Refusés created by Napoleon III. The artist considered himself to be a Realist, although he greatly influenced the Impressionists.
Famous Manet paintings: A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Olympia, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
17. Pieter Bruegel
There are actually two well known artists named Pieter Bruegel – Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger. However, it’s Pieter Bruegel the Elder who created the most well known artworks.
Born around 1525 in Breda which is now in the Netherlands, Bruegel was a pioneer of genre painting. He depicted religious scenes, peasants and folk culture in extraordinary detail. Games, dances, festivals and meals are all shown in his works.
The Tower of Babel is an intricate painting that symbolizes the futility of human effort.
Famous Bruegel paintings: The Tower of Babel (Vienna), The Harvesters, The Hunters in the Snow, The Wedding Dance, Children’s Games.
16. James Mcneill Whistler
This American artist based in the UK was born in 1834. Whistler was a key figure in the Aesthetic movement, which believed in art for art’s sake.
Whistler once said that “music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject-matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of color”. His style was influenced by Orientalism and he is considered to be a Pre-Impressionist.
The art collector Frederick Leyland first coined the term Nocturne to describe Whistler’s evocative night scenes. Whistler then adopted the expression for all his new paintings of the river Thames at night.
Famous Whistler paintings: Harmony in Gray and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander, Whistler’s Mother, Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket.
15. Henri Matisse
Renowned for his use of color and innovative cut-outs, Henri Matisse was a French artist born in 1869 in the South of France. Together with the artist Andre Derain, he created the Fauvism art movement.
Fauvism was characterized by bright primary colors and thick, flat brushstrokes. This Post-Impressionism movement freed up artists to use color in a more spontaneous way.
Matisse was not only a painter, but also a draughtsman, sculptor and printmaker. When his health declined in his late sixties, he cut out shapes from paper painted by his assistants. These collages were a whole new art form.
Famous Matisse paintings: Blue Nudes, Dance, The Fall of Icarus, The Snail.
14. Pierre-Auguste Renoir
A well-known French Impressionist artist, Renoir loved beauty and feminine sensuality. Born in Limoges in 1841, he started as a porcelain painter.
Renoir became friends with Frédéric Bazille, Alfred Sisley and Claude Monet. His painting, Dance at the Moulin de la Galette captures the light dappling over young people dancing.
As Renoir was adept at portraiture, he attracted some wealthy patrons including the banker Paul Berard. This financial security gave him a certain artistic freedom and in 1878 he decided not to exhibit with the Impressionists.
Instead, Renoir visited Italy and Guernsey and became a skilled sculptor as well as a painter.
Famous Renoir paintings: Bal du Moulin de la Galette, The Umbrellas, Luncheon of the Boating Party, Dance at Bougival, Girls at the Piano.
13. Peter Paul Rubens
Sir Peter Paul Rubens was a seventeenth century Flemish artist, and the leading proponent of Flemish Baroque style. His dynamic paintings of religious and allegorical subjects emphasized color and movement.
Rubens lived in Italy from 1600 to 1608. He was greatly influenced by the works of Caravaggio, Raphael and Titian.
The artist also loved to paint voluptuous women, and this style is often referred to as Rubenesque to describe the work of subsequent painters. Rubens also spoke 5 languages and was a skilled diplomat, negotiating peace between Spain and England.
He received knighthoods from both Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain.
Famous Rubens paintings: Elevation of The Cross, Self-Portrait, The Massacre of the Innocents, The Garden of Love.
12. Jackson Pollock
One of the most famous modern artists, Pollock helped to create the Abstract Expressionism movement. He invented a new way of working, by throwing and dripping thinned enamel paint directly onto a canvas on the floor.
Pollock then added further impact to these action paintings by using sticks and knives to smear the paint. These artworks became known as drip paintings.
As Jackson Pollock artworks are under copyright, we can’t reproduce them here. If you want to see some Pollock paintings in person, there are several on display at The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.
Famous Pollock paintings: Guardians of the Secret, Blue Poles, Full Fathom Five.
11. Johannes Vermeer
This 17th century Dutch painter specialized in intimate domestic scenes, often portraying women. Although Vermeer wasn’t particularly well known during his lifetime, his talent was recognized hundreds of years later.
Few artists have been so skilled at capturing the effects of light and making the ordinary extraordinary. Johannes Vermeer had 11 children and died at only 43 years old.
There are 34 confirmed Vermeer paintings, with 3 more unconfirmed. His most well known work, Girl with a Pearl Earring, is a masterpiece of Baroque art. This is not a portrait of an actual person, but a “tronie”.
Tronies are paintings of fictional figures. Notice the glittering pearl and the light on the girl’s lips.
Famous Vermeer paintings: Girl with a Pearl Earring (nicknamed The Mona Lisa of the North), The Milkmaid, The Lacemaker.
10. Edvard Munch
A Norwegian painter born in 1863, Edvard Munch was quite a tortured soul. In fact, he created his most well known work, The Scream, to represent his soul.
Munch’s mother died of tuberculosis a few years after he was born and he was raised by his father who suffered from mental illness. Two of his sisters died, and Munch himself was often ill as a child.
When he was not at school due to illness, he passed the time by drawing. Munch became a prolific painter and made 4 versions of The Scream, two which were stolen in art heists but later recovered.
Famous Munch paintings: The Scream, Anxiety, The Dance of Life, Jealousy.
9. Salvador Dali
The king of Surrealism, Salvador Dali was a Spanish artist who explored the realm of the subconscious in his art. Dali wasn’t just a painter and sculptor, he also made furniture, designed theater sets, window displays and jewelry and produced Surreal films.
Although not a painting, Dali’s Lobster Telephone is one of his most well known artworks, together with his melting clocks. The Persistence of Memory is widely regarded as Dali’s masterpiece, with astonishing technical details and a dream-like quality.
In fact, some of Dali’s best work was created while he was asleep. He called these works “hand painted dream photographs”.
The maestro fell asleep while sitting on a chair and holding a spoon with a plate underneath it. The spoon would fall from his hand when he slept, clattering onto the plate. Dali would then wake up and immediately paint the images that he dreamt of.
Famous Dali paintings: The Persistence of Memory, Melting Watch, Portrait of Paul Eluard.
8. Gustav Klimt
Known for his innovative use of gold leaf, Gustav Klimt was an Austrian Symbolist painter. Born in Vienna in 1862, Klimt was a key member of the Vienna Art Nouveau movement.
The founding president of the Vienna Secession, Klimt and 20 other artists rejected the conservative Vienna art exhibition known as the Künstlerhaus. He embraced the avant garde and was inspired by the Byzantine mosaics he saw in Italy to create his Golden Phase artworks such as The Kiss and Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. These artworks are adorned with gold leaf.
Klimt was known for his sensual portrayal of women. He is thought to have fathered 14 children.
Famous Klimt paintings: The Kiss, Judith and the Head of Holofernes, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.
7. Frida Kahlo
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo had a tumultuous marriage with Diego Rivera, a well known painter in his own right. Although they argued and had extramaritalaffairs, they painted each other for 25 years.
Frida’s life was marked by severe health problems which are reflected in her artworks. At 6 years old she was diagnosed with polio and she suffered chronic leg pain.
Aged 18, Frida was injured in a bus accident which damaged her spine and pelvis. She had to wear orthopedic corsets due to her weakened spine, and decorated them with a Communist hammer and sickle. Frida’s favorite art style was the self-portrait.
Famous Frida Kahlo paintings: The Two Fridas, The Wounded Deer, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.
6. Rembrandt Van Rijn
This 17th century Dutch artist is renowned for his oil painting techniques. Rembrandt was born in 1606 in Leiden and trained as a painter with Jacob van Swanenburgh and Pieter Lastman.
Although Rembrandt never travelled abroad, he was influenced by other Dutch artists like Pieter Lastman who had studied in Italy. Rembrandt was adept at painting a wide range of subjects, including self-portraits, landscapes, biblical scenes and animals.
He was particularly interested in the effect of light. Rembrandt painted in a highly realistic style that was unusual for the day, as seen in his Self-Portrait below.
Famous Rembrandt paintings: The Night Watch, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Self-Portrait.
5. Claude Monet
The iconic French Impressionist painter Claude Monet was a proponent of open-air landscape painting. After a period living in London where he made his famous Impression: Soleil Levant artwork, Monet returned to France.
Monet was inspired by Japanese art and planted an Asian style garden at Giverny. He painted the flowers at different times of the day, fascinated by the reflected light.
His Water Lilies series includes around 250 oil paintings. Monet designed a special room for the series at the Orangerie Museum.
He offered the series to the French State the day after the Armistice of 1918 as a symbol of peace. The artworks were installed in the museum a few months after Monet’s death.
Famous Monet paintings: Poppies, Impression: Sunrise, The Waterlily Pond, Woman with a Parasol
This highly influential Italian artist was a Renaissance architect, sculptor, poet and painter. After training as a sculptor, he carved the ‘Pietà’ for St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.
Michelangelo painted the extraordinary Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes between 1508 and 1512. A triumph of the Mannerist style, they combine idealization of the human form with unnaturalistic use of color.
The artist is also known for his marble sculpture of the biblical figure David. Created from 1501 to 1504, this 5.17metre statue can be viewed at the Accademia Gallery of Florence. A copy is situated in Piazza della Signoria.
Famous Michelangelo paintings: Sistine Chapel ceiling, The Creation of Adam, The Last Judgment – a fresco painting in the Sistine Chapel.
3. Pablo Picasso
One of the most famous painters in the world, Pablo Picasso was born in Spain yet lived most of his life in France. A talented ceramicist, printmaker, theater designer and sculptor as well as a painter, Picasso has had a lasting impact on modern art.
He created over 20,000 artworks, costumes, ceramics and prints. Picasso’s famous Blue Period is thought to have been inspired by the suicide of his friend Casagemas.
Picasso was also influenced by African and Oceanic art, particularly in his seminal artwork, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Together with the artist Georges Braque, he developed the principles of Analytic Cubism.
Famous Picasso paintings: Guernica, Child with a Dove, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
2. Leonardo da Vinci
The celebrated Italian polymath created some of the most famous paintings of all time. A talented draughtsman, architect, sculptor, engineer and artist, Leonardo was also an inventor.
He imagined all manner of innovations, such as a helicopter, calculator, parachute and diving suit. You can see the models for many of these inventions at Le Clos Lucé, the beautiful French chateau where Leonardo lived for several years.
Leonardo perfected the sfumato technique of painting. Translating as “soft” or “blurred”, this painting style creates subtle blending without harsh contours. The technique was used to great effect in Leonardo’s painting of the Mona Lisa.
Famous Leonardo paintings: Mona Lisa (also known as La Gioconda), The Last Supper, Lady with an Ermine, Virgin of the Rocks.
1. Vincent Van Gogh
This Dutch Post-Impressionist artist is considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time. Born in 1853, Van Gogh created around 2,100 artworks despite having had no formal training.
Vincent originally planned to become a pastor and took up painting when he was sacked, aged 27. He was inspired by Japanese woodblock prints as well as Dutch genre artworks.
Van Gogh was a prolific artist who produced 860 paintings, which did not sell well during his lifetime. He famously cut off his own ear after an argument with the artist Paul Gaugin.
The artist’s iconic Starry Night painting was made in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital. Unfortunately, Van Gogh took his own life aged only 37.
Famous Van Gogh paintings: The Starry Night, Bedroom in Arles, Irises, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, The Night Café.
To recap, these are some of the most famous painters in the world:
- Vincent Van Gogh
- Leonardo da Vinci
- Pablo Picasso
- Claude Monet
- Rembrandt Van Rijn
- Frida Kahlo
- Gustav Klimt
- Salvador Dali
- Edvard Munch
- Johannes Vermeer
- Jackson Pollock
- Peter Paul Rubens
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir
- Henri Matisse
- James Mcneill Whistler
- Pieter Bruegel
- Edouard Manet
- Sandro Botticelli
- Jacques-Louis David
- Grant Wood
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