As artists, young or old, it’s important to know the art that came before. It helps artists understand their own work and learn from the past. There are so many paintings that exist in the world, probably more than we can count. But which ones are the most important to know? This list will guide you through paintings that are most important — not just because they’re famous, but also because they changed the art world into what it is today. This blog goes through some famous and some not-so famous paintings that are all iconic in their own right.
Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434
This painting was created during the height of the Renaissance period. This highly detailed painting works as more than a piece of art, but as a documentation of marriage. In fact, van Eyck included lots of symbolism that encouraged this idea. Art historian Erwin Panofsky revealed that the mirror represents the eye of God, the dog represents fidelity, and the lack of shoes represents that they are in a sacred space. Above the greater meaning of this painting, what is most iconic is van Eyck’s ability to paint with such realism, even going as far as to paint the couple’s reflection in the mirror.
This painting represents the great skill of painting that was at the forefront of the Renaissance, especially with the attention to perspective in the rounded mirror! It represents the skill that the period encouraged and the talent that van Eyck had.
The School of Athens, Raphael, 1509-11
If you go into Google and type in “Renaissance” this is sure to be one of the first images that pops up. The School of Athens has become known as a symbol for the Renaissance period. Raphael painted images of some of the brightest minds in history (like Plato and Aristotle) to depict philosophy — a growing theme during the time period.
The Renaissance period pushed a rebirth of art and literature, and this painting represented both! It was also made with perfect mathematical perspective, which was rare at the time. It represents more than just figures but the cultural shift in Italy during this period.
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1638-39
This work is the most famous painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, and was Artemisia's way to depict herself as the theme of painting. Although it is a self-portrait, Artemisia captures her side profile as she paints while dressed in expensive clothes, although we can assume that these were not the clothes she painted in. This painting fits within two themes: a self-portrait and an allegorical painting, making it interesting based off theme alone.
This painting is special for many reasons, but first because of who it was made by. Artemisia Gentileschi was the first female artist to attend an Academy of Art in Florence (this gave her permission to sign documents without her husband’s permission, making her an independent painter — a rare occurrence). Since there were not many other female painters at the time, this painting is iconic because it represents a feminist theme, a bold statement in the 16th century. This is why it is considered to be the most famous self portrait by a female artist.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Katsushika Hokusai, 1820-31
This print is part of a series that is meant to show the beauty of Mount Fuji — the sacred symbol of Japan. At first glance, this print looks like a beautiful ocean scene, but if you look closer, you’ll notice that the wave threatens to overtake three boats, a symbolic image of the change within Japan that was occurring at the time.
Hokusai shows how Japan, at the time, had rejected western culture and was peacefully isolated, but during the rise of industrialization they felt like their peace was threatened. This piece represents more than beauty, but political conditions in the 1820s.
Breakfast in Bed, Mary Cassatt, 1881
This painting depicts a mother and child as they awaken and eat breakfast in the morning. It was one of many of Cassatt’s paintings from the impressionist movement and is painted with the familiar brushstrokes of artists from that movement. Cassatt’s painting shows the simplicity and comfort of this image with muted colours and soft brushstrokes.
Breakfast in Bed perfectly represents what Cassatt’s work strives to do — represent the lives of women and the domestic sphere during her time. Many of the male artists of the time did not represent women fully, but showed their interpretation — or gaze — of women. Mary Cassatt’s painting fights against that norm as she immerses herself and her work into life as a woman.
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1886
Georges Seurat depicts a regular afternoon scene, but what makes this work remarkable is how he does it. This is not painted with blending like we usually see, but with pointillism! Seurat places small dots of colour next to each other on this large scale painting to make it look seamless.
This painting is one of the founding works of the neo-impressionist art movement. Seurat’s innovative pointillism technique was a way for him to play with optics and how our eyes interpret colour. This painting pushed the technique forward and is one of the most recognizable artworks from the neo-impressionist period.
The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali, 1931
The Persistence of Memory is one of the most famous paintings by Spanish artist Salvador Dali. In this painting, Dali tries to show the human mind and the concept of time with melting clocks. This image allows viewers to escape reality and dive into a world where time is no longer real.
It is one of the works that defined and encouraged the surrealist movement — a movement based on dreams and the subconscious mind. Because of its ability to capture an unreal — or "surreal" — world, Dali’s painting is now seen as a symbol for the surrealist movement.
Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937
Guernica was made by Picasso in his iconic abstract/cubist style, but that is not the only reason why it is so famous. This painting was made during WW2 and was a way for Picasso to express his anger about a Nazi bombing in Northern Spain. Some of the brutalities this piece shows are a mother mourning her child, a shocked bull, a soldier trapped under a dead horse, two women watching in shock, and another woman trapped in a fire.
This painting now lives on as a symbol of human suffering and is used in protests around the world. It is one of the most powerful and well known anti-war paintings in history.
Number 1 (Lavender Mist), Jackson Pollock, 1950
Jackson Pollock was one of the founders of abstract expressionism, and this painting reveals the drip painting technique that he created and used during that time. Drip paintings were a way for Pollock to document the process of the painting, rather than the final result. Since he dripped his paint on the canvas, we can see the artist’s movements, even 70 years later!
Number 1 (Lavender Mist) is one of his most famous paintings, and one reason for that is its size. This artwork is ten feet wide, so viewers can become consumed by his movements.
Man Changing into Thunderbird, Norval Morrisseau, 1982
This series of paintings are meant to represent the spiritual transformation of Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau. Within his Ojibwe culture, Morrisseau was given the spirit name of Copper Thunderbird during a healing ceremony. This image shows Morrisseau’s transformation in a visual way, with him as a young man at the beginning and as a thunderbird by the end. The thunderbird is a sacred animal in Ojibwe beliefs, representing one of the most powerful spiritual beings.
These works are painted with Morrisseau’s iconic x-ray style, which shows the exterior as well as the interior of a subject. Morrisseau is often considered to be the first Indigenous artist to break through the otherwise white art scene in Canada at the time. Man Changing into Thunderbird is one of Morrisseau’s most impressive pieces, since it reveals his personal transformation and was something he wanted to paint for 15 years. It has even been regarded as “the best work of [his] career” by art critic Gary Michael Dault.
There is so much wonderful art that has flooded history – this list is only the beginning! If you want a deeper look into art history, take a look at our Art History Timeline that dates from prehistoric cave paintings to contemporary art.
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