11 Most Famous Artworks & Their History

There are numerous paintings and artworks created and shown all over the world and yet only a few of the artworks are recognised by people of all backgrounds and ages. These famous paintings and sculptures have left vivid impressions in the minds of the audience for centuries and will do for many more to come. And still only the minority of spectators know the mysterious stories that moved artists to the creation of the masterpieces so well-known today. Here‘s a list of the most popular artworks and their stories:

1. The Last Supper - Leonardo da Vinci

Tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic, 460cm x 880cm, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, 1495-1498

The famous mural painting is situated in the Convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazia in Milan, Italy. It shows Jesus with his twelve disciples at the Last Supper as it is told in the Gospel of John 13:21. It depicts the apostles’ reactions when Jesus told them one of them would betray him. It was originally created with Jesus’ feet visible at the bottom. But in 1652, builders sliced the bottom of the painting while installing a door. There are several symbols hidden, such as in the figure of Jesus himself; his body forms a triangle with its outstretched arms, the sign for deity. The piece is revolutionary because of its perfect central perspective., a technique that had not been mastered back then.

2. David - Michelangelo

Marble statue, Galleria dell‘Accademia, Florence, 1501-1504Marble statue, Galleria dell‘Accademia, Florence, 1501-1504

“David” was sculpted in the Renaissance. He is more than five meters (16 feet) tall and therefore the first freestanding colossus statue since Roman antiquity. The figure derives from the Christian history of David against Goliath in the Old Testament. The statue stands in Florence and is seen as the town’s landmark. Michelangelo was the first artist able to portray David so true to life. This is because his proportions had been altered, to perfect a realistic image for observers on the ground. If he lay flat on the ground one would notice that his head is too big.

3. Mona Lisa - Leonardo da Vinci

Oil on poplar, 77cm x 53cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1503-1506

One of the most famous paintings in the world was believed to be an impression of the artist himself in drag but researchers have concluded that the portrait probably shows Lisa del Giocondo, a wealthy member of a Florentine Family. La Gioconda (in English, the cheerful) as “Mona Lisa” is known in Italian, shows a mysterious smile, which gives her an arcane expression. It is difficult for the observer to comprehend the smile, due to the Sfumato (in English, smoke) special technique which Da Vinci used. It is generated by drawing innumerable deposits.

4. The creation of Adam - Michelangelo

Fresco, 280cm x 570cm, The Sistine Chapel, Rome, 1508-1512

Situated on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the artwork was painted by Michelangelo over the course of four years. All this time the artist was standing on a scaffold and painted from this position on the ceiling. The fresco is part of a complex iconographic scheme and is chronologically the fourth in the series of panels depicting episodes from Genesis. The piece “The Creation of Adam” shows the moment when Adam, whose left arm is extended in a pose mirroring God’s, receives the spark of life. This legendary artwork is in addition to Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” the most replicated religious painting of all time.

5. Girl with a Pearl Earring - Johannes Vermeer

Oil on canvas, 44.5cm x 39cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague, 1665

The painting shows an unknown girl in front of a black background. The pearl earring is particularly noticeable, as is the interaction between model and observer/artist. She is looking directly out of the painting; her mouth is slightly open and her expression seems sensual and maybe teasing. This has led to lots of speculation and makes the painting highly controversial. Tracy Chevalier dealt with the topic in her novel The Girl With A Pearl Earring, published in 2001, which Peter Webber turned into a movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth in 2003.

6. The Thinker - Auguste Rodin

Bronze sculpture, Garden of Rodin Museum, Paris, 1880-1904

Though there are now dozens of casts of Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture “The Thinker” around the world, it had a much smaller origin. Rodin originally created a 70cm version in 1880 as the central component to a bigger sculptural work called “The Gates of Hell.” Inspired by Dante’s Inferno, the piece which was first called “The Poet”, was conceived as a representation of Dante himself. The re-dubbed sculpture was exhibited on its own in 1888 and then was enlarged in 1904 to the depiction we know today.

7. The Starry Night - Vincent van Gogh

Oil on canvas, 73.7cm x 92.1cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 1889

The painting depicts the view from the east-facing window of Van Gogh’s asylum room at Saint-Rémy-de Provence, just before sunrise. It is regarded as being among Van Gogh’s finest works and one of the most recognised monuments in the history of Western culture. “The Starry Night” is the only nocturne in the series of views from his bedroom window of the psychiatric hospital. The artist suffered from episodes connected to depression and mania. In one outburst he cut off his own ear and sent it to his friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin.

8. The Scream - Edvard Munch

Oil, tempera, pastel and crayon on cardboard, 91cm x 73.5cm, National Gallery, Oslo, 1893

The artwork has five separate versions, two of which created using tempera and crayon are located respectively in the National Gallery and the Munch Museum, both in Oslo. The third version is privately owned and was created using pastels while the fourth is a black and white lithograph. The final version is also hanging in the Munch Museum and it made headlines in recent years for being stolen in 2004 and recovered in 2006.

9. Broadway Boogie Woogie - Piet Mondrian

Oil on canvas, 127cm x 127cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 1942-1943

The painting was completed in 1943, shortly after Piet Mondrian moved to New York in 1940. Compared to his earlier work, the canvas is divided into a much larger number of squares. Although he spent most of his career creating abstract work, this painting is inspired by clear real-world examples: the city grid of Manhattan, and the Broadway boogie woogie music to which Mondrian loved to dance.

10. American Gothic - Grant Wood

Oil on beaverboard, 74.3cm x 62.4cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 1930

The painting exhibited in the Art Institute of Chicago was originally envisioned using Wood’s mother. However, the artist used his sister to pose for him along with his 62-year-old dentist. Some observers have suggested that the man pictured is meant to be a farmer but others say he is a preacher, using his pitchfork as a prop to rail against the devil and evil. Might the window’s curtains hide a secret? Do the geranium flowers in the background signify melancholy? Who is Wood’s sister meant to symbolise? A wife, a daughter? Her dress reminds us of values of former times. Wood never cleared up any theories on his work so the mystery and debate over “American Gothic” rage on decades after the artist’s passing.

11. NightHawks - Edward HoPper

Oil on canvas, 84.1cm x 152.4cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 1942

Hopper was inspired to paint the late-night diner scene by an intersection in the Greenwich Village area of New York where he lived. The painting shows three customers lost in private thoughts. There is no social interaction. The characters seem as remote from the observer as they are from one another. Hopper depicted the anonymity one can feel in big cities. He modelled for the males in the painting while his wife Josephine sat for the female. She also gave the painting its name.

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