There are many thousands of paintings in art galleries around the world, but most of these are unknown to everyone except a handful of museum curators and academics. Sometimes, however, an artwork transcends national or cultural barriers and becomes an integral part of world history.
Such paintings are known by their names, even if most people wouldn’t recognise them by sight. But there comes a point in every intrepid traveller's life when they wish to seek out these masterpieces for themselves, so in this article, I am going to take you on a tour of the finest art galleries in Europe and North America to seek out the ten most famous paintings in the world.
Of course, like anything else in art, my opinion is subjective. There are many famous paintings which are not on the list. But after talking with a few arty friends, we concluded that these ten artworks represent the very best paintings from some of the world’s most influential artists. So grab yourself a cup of coffee and let's get this culture trip started.
1. Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci (The Louvre, Paris)
I couldn’t write this list without mentioning what is, without doubt, the most famous painting in the world. The Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo Da Vinci between 1503 and 1517, is said to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant, Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo. The subject's enigmatic smile captures the imagination and gives the painting a sense of mystery which has endured for centuries. However, the unusual materials used by Da Vinci means the painting has lost some of its original colour and detail. This has led many to be somewhat underwhelmed upon seeing it for the first time. But fear not - the painting is on display in the Louvre, Paris, where it can be seen alongside other notable works including Raphael's Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, The Venus De Milo, The Raft of the Medusa and Vermeer’s The Lacemaker. So, I promise, you won’t come away disappointed.
2. The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci (Santa Maria Delle Grazie Monastery, Milan)
The second painting on the list is another Da Vinci, the Last Supper. Painted at the height of the Renaissance between 1495 and 1498 it depicts the Last Supper of Jesus and his twelve disciples. The work is often referred to as a fresco but it is not a true fresco because it was painted on dry rather than wet plaster.
Unfortunately, this means it has not stood the test of time as well as some other frescos, with extensive restoration being required over the passing years. But enough of the original painting survives to get a sense of the drama when Jesus declares that one of the twelve disciples present will betray him. You can see the painting for yourself in the Santa Maria Delle Grazie Monastery in the heart of Milan.
3. The Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
For the next painting, we’ll have to leave Europe and take a flight to New York to see one of the most celebrated paintings by one of the world’s most famous artists. Starry Night, painted by Vincent Van Gogh in Saint-Remy Arles during the summer of 1888, depicts the stars and moon in the night sky above Provence. Typical of Van Gogh, in this his most prolific period, it is painted in an Impasto style which shows each brushstroke of the artist. The painting can be seen at the famous Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, where it is on display alongside other famous works by Piccaso, Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse and Andy Warhol.
4. The Scream, Edvard Munch (National Gallery, Oslo)
Ask anyone to name three famous paintings and they will most likely mention this one. “The Scream” by Edvard Munch is one of two paintings which depict the inner torment of the Artist following the death of both his mother and sister in 1893. This painting is significant because it is regarded as one of the first forms of expressionism, a movement which would later include works by Paul Cezanne and Claud Monet. The painting is on display in the National Gallery, Oslo. A little out of the way for some perhaps, but well worth a visit, not only to see the painting but because Oslo is one of Europe’s most relaxing and beautiful cities. Cheap fares to Oslo are available from most major hubs in Europe and North America.
5. The Girl With a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer (Mauritschuis, The Hague)
This next painting is one of the most intriguing works by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, made famous by the film of the same name. The Girl With a Pearl Earring depicts a girl wearing an exotic silk dress and oriental turban with a large pearl earring in her left ear. The painting is regarded as the “Dutch Mona Lisa” because of the slightly ambiguous expression of the sitter, whose identity is unknown. The painting is on display at the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague. This fine museum also contains notable works by other artists including Rembrandt, Hans Holbein the Younger, Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Hals - paintings which don’t quite make this list but are well worth seeing anyway.
6. Guernica, Pablo Picasso (Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid)
The next painting is one of the most evocative paintings by Pablo Picasso. Painted towards the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1937, it depicts the bombing of the city of Guernica by the Luftwaffe in support of the Spanish Nationalist leader Francisco Franco. The bombings killed some 300 civilians and caused outrage across Europe. This is a must-see painting for everyone, not just art lovers because it is regarded as one of the first anti-war paintings. You can see this thought-provoking artwork in all its majestic glory at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid where it sits alongside other notable works by Salvador Dali and Joan Miro.
7. The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)
Back to Italy now for another Renaissance piece. The Birth of Venus, painted by Botticelli between 1484-85 depicts the emergence of the Goddess Venus from the Mediterranean sea around Cyprus. Venus is seen standing on a giant scallop shell and the soft almost translucent texture of the paint is meant to convey the goddess as a pearl. But perhaps the best thing about this painting is its location, on display at the Uffizi Gallery in the centre of Florence. This is the ideal artwork to see while exploring the beautiful Tuscan region and Florence itself. Other notable paintings on display at the Uffizi include Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Carravaggio’s Medusa and Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch.
8. The Night Watch, Rembrandt (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
After Van Gogh, Rembrandt is perhaps the best-known artist in the world, and the Night Watch is his most famous painting. Some mystery and intrigue surround the painting which depicts a group of Militiamen led by Frans Bannicnck Cocq and his Lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch. Legend has it that Bannicnck didn’t like the painting when he first saw it, going so far as to call it a monstrosity. But whatever his thoughts then, it is regarded as one of the finest Rembrandt’s today. The painting is known for its dark shadows and oversized canvas which stands some 4.37m high. You can see this painting for yourself at the world-famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam where it sits alongside other renowned Dutch artists including Van Gogh, Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals.
9. Bathers at Asnières, Georges Seurat (The National Gallery, London)
For the next painting, we have to hop across the English Channel to London. The Bathers at Asnières, painted by Georges Seurat in 1884, depicts bathers in the River Seine close to Paris. The painting is famous for its tranquil sensibility which is achieved thanks to Seurat’s clever use of colour and technique which gives an almost translucent waxy appearance to the figures. The painting is on display in the National Gallery in the heart of London where it sits alongside other notable works by the likes of Van Gogh, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Hans Holbein, Monet and Cezzane. This is one of the finest art collections in one of the finest cities in the world, so you won’t be short of things to do here.
10. The Kiss, Gustav Klimt (Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna)
The final painting is Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, painted in an Art Nouveau style during the height of Klimt’s golden period between 1907-08. The painting depicts a couple wearing elaborate robes embracing each other in a passionate kiss. It caused quite an outrage when it was completed in 1908, with some people calling it pornographic. As a result, it became one of Klimt’s most infamous works. But this should not overshadow the quality and significance of the painting. Fortunately, this was recognised by the Austrian Government which agreed to purchase the work before it was even finished. You can make up your mind about the painting at the Österreichische Galerie, Belvedere Place, Vienna. This former Royal Palace houses the national collection which includes works by several other notable Austrian artists including Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele.
When compiling this list I tried to look for notable paintings located in different major cities across Europe and North America. Destinations include London, New York, Paris, Florence and Madrid. With many cheap flights to these cities available, you’ll be able to combine a visit to see some beautiful and awe-inspiring paintings with other sightseeing and shopping activities.