Some of the greatest works of art in the world were created with the refined medium of oil paints. Oil is an extremely complicated to use material, and far more difficult to master than its cousins, acrylics and watercolors, which is perhaps why it was the medium of choice for some of history’s most masterful painters. Oil paints also create a more quality, long-lasting work, though anything as old as some of the famous oil paintings we’ll be going over in this guide have undergone some restoration efforts to keep them in shape.
Whether you’re an aspiring oil painter, a student of the arts, or both, this guide will cover some of the world’s most famous oil paintings, the artists who created them, and give a little historical context so you can appreciate them even more. Get started with your own oil painting adventures with this introduction to oil painting course, and this guide on oil painting techniques for beginners.
9. The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1909)
Painted between the years of 1908 and 1909, The Kiss by Gustav Klimt depicts two lovers caught in a golden embrace on a flowery meadow. It is widely thought of as one of the earliest modern works of art, largely due to its medium
Created with a mix of oil paints and gold leaf, extremely thin strips of gold hammered down into sheets, the painting combines the style of the popular Art Nouveau with the medieval mosaics of centuries past. It was this somewhat experimental look – not to mention the “decadent” golden embrace of the two lovers, which was actually accused of being pornographic at the time – that made it one of the first truly modern pieces. Learn more about contemporary art in this course.
8. The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn (1642)
Painted all the way back in 1642 by the famous Baroque painter Rembrandt, The Night Watch depicts the militia company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem vanRuytenburch. We know this because its full name is actually The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, not to mentione it was commissioned by the Captain too (or so they say.)
Its popular nickname The Night Watch is actually an inaccurate description, one that was attributed to it due to a dark varnish on the painting that gave the misconception of the scene taking place at night. Dark varnish or no, the painting is famous for Rembrandt’s masterful use of lighting to direct the viewer’s eyes to the key figures in the piece.
7. The Scream by Edvard Munch (1893)
The Scream, a disturbing Expressionist piece created by Edvard Munch, depicts a terrified looking figure on a bridge, a long stretch of blue river and a wavy orange sky in the background. The painting was inspired by what seems to be a panic attack, or a feeling of overwhelming distress, experienced by Munch one evening while taking a walk in the city, which he later recounted in his diary.
What some people don’t know is that the figure in the image isn’t the one doing the eponymous screaming. It’s covering its ears and reeling at the “scream of nature,” which Munch describes hearing during his anxious episode on the bridge. While it isn’t exactly subtle with its themes, The Scream is undoubtedly one of the most emotionally raw paintings out there.
6. The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1486)
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli was commission by the famous Medici family during the early Italian Renaissance, and depicts Venus – Roman goddess of fertility and beauty, among other things – standing at the shore in a large shell, and surrounded by wind gods and a Nymph.
One reason it is such a famous painting is the depiction of Venus as a nude, which was seen as innovative and even daring, after a long period during the Middle Ages when painting unclothed figures was seen as un-Christian. Learn more about this period of art history in this course.
5. Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937)
Guernica is a disturbing Cubist work by the famous Pablo Picasso, done in 1937 in response to bombings by the Italian and German militaries, upon the small Spanish village that the painting is named after. It is a ruthless depiction of the pain and destruction caused by war, depicting the mangled, abstracted bodies of humans and animals caught in the blast.
In a time before the internet and widespread news media, this painting actually helped spread the word about the civil war in Spain to the rest of the world, after a series of gallery tours.
4. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1665)
The rather unconventional portrait Girl with a Pearl Earring by the Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer is commonly referred to as the Dutch Mona Lisa, mostly due to the slyness of the girl’s smile and the mysterious nature surrounding both her identity and the painting’s creation. Who commissioned it? Who is the girl in the painting?
The answers to these questions are largely unknown, but there’s no doubting its prevalence in our culture. This is a painting even non-art history buffs will recognize.
3. The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo (1512)
Speaking of paintings anyone will recognize… The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo is just part of the larger fresco painting that makes up the ornate ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but there’s no doubting the worldwide fame and recognition of this isolated segment, featuring God reaching out and breathing life into Adam. This is one of the most famous religious paintings in the world. Study this story and the rest of the Old Testament in this religious studies course.
2. Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1889)
Starry Night by the post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh is just one of the painter’s huge collection of famous paintings, which sadly went overlooked during his lifetime and found their place in art history after his passing. Starry Night in particular is most famous for its tranquility – the swirling night sky illuminated by stars – and its composition, with the large towering structure to the left balanced by the moon and town on the right.
1. Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (1506)
This is it. The rather small but undeniably infamous painting that attracts crowds from all over the world to pack themselves into the Louvre and gawk at its mysteries. What else is there left to say about the Mona Lisa? It’s the most famous and well-known oil painting on this list!
Maybe you’ll paint the next famous oil painting. Check out this course on getting started with oil paints, and take some pointers from this oil painting guide.