The Top 10 Most Important Paintings of All Time

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It’s a well known fact that paintings and art, in general, are inherently subjective things.  Sure, we can talk about “famous” art, but fame does not equal quality; at the end of the day, all talks about the best or worst art of any kind come down to one basic question:  what IS art anyway?  No one has the definite answer and, if they claim to, then they are filthy, filthy liars and what do we do with liars?

That’s right, maple syrup enemas, but we’re getting off track.  The point is that it’s impossible to talk about the Top 10 Paintings of All Time without judging each one in its own respective category.  So… that’s exactly what I did?  And… here they are, I guess?

10. No. 5, 1948 (Jackson Pollock)

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The most: Expensive

Pollock’s abstract, almost violently expressionist, style tends to divide people into two large groups: those who think that he ran the greatest long con in history by disguising paint drippings as art, and those who think that he was just really untalented and most of his paintings were meant to be bowls of fruit.  There however is a third, tiny group of people who genuinely admire Pollock’s work and are ready to pay big money for it. 156.8 million (adjusted for inflation), real American dollars, to be exact, which is what Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 fetched in 2006 after being sold to an anonymous buyer.   Remember kids, if you’re rich then it is “eccentric” instead of “batcrap retarded.”

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9. The Arnolfini Wedding (Jan van Eyck)

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The most: Easter Egg-y

This 1434 oil painting is believed to show an Italian merchant with his wife and one of the pimpest hats in the history of pimping which, as I’m sure you know, ain’t easy.  Looking at it, it’s easy to dismiss this portrait as just another piece of old art featuring dead rich folks but, if you go all CSI on it and zoom in on the small, round mirror in the back you will see a map pointing to the location of the HOLY GRAIL!

OK, not really, but the mirror does show two additional characters standing in the room in front of the Arnolfinis, one of them allegedly van Eyck himself.  Scholars assume that the artist used a magnifying glass to paint the fine details on this completely unnecessary part of the scenery thus creating one of the first Easter Eggs in art history and an early documented example of Facebook mirror photography.

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8. Black Square (Kazimir Malevich)

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The most: Simple

The Ukraine-born Malevich is credited as the creator of Suprematism which, to my surprise, is an actual name of a real art form.  The basics of Suprematism boil down to “simple geometric shapes” and Black Square might be the style’s greatest example.  It’s bold, yet timid.  Passionate, yet lifeless.  Square, and yet round…

Fine, so it’s just a black square, but even though looks more like a parody of a real painting, don’t let it fool you; almost every work by Malevich is worth upwards to a million dollars. You are free to let that totally depress you.

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7. Composition 8 (Vasily Kandinsky)

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The most: Artsy

Though no one has a definite answer to the question of “What is art?” many people may agree on something like “Whatever is created to convey a message from the author” and, in this regard, Kandinsky out-arts all the other suckers in the business.

Kandinsky spent his life trying to find the perfect combination of shapes and colors to show people just how he saw and experienced the world.  Now, looking at Composition 8, you’re in your rights to think that he was obviously a dangerous loon with at least three schizophrenias, but modern researchers believe Kandinsky was in fact suffering from synesthesia, a condition which sort of mixes one’s senses.  A person with synesthesia might thus actually hear color and see music and, if that was the case with Kandinsky, then that man lived in a colorful, melodious universe that us mere mortals can only dream of ever understanding.

Composition 8 does at least try to explain it though, making it a true example of “art” if there ever was any.

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6. The Third of May 1808 (Francisco Goya)

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The most: Gritty

Goya’s The Third of May 1808 is…disturbing, to say the least.  It shows a Napoleonic firing squad killing a bunch of Spanish guys who participated in the resistance against Bonaparte’s army.  It’s not heroic, it’s not inspiring, and you can clearly see dread and pants-wetting fear in the eyes of the guy with the outstretched arms as he’s on his knees, waiting for the painful, hot lead death that is coming in the next 2-3 seconds.  Geez, you can almost picture Goya with heavy eyeliner, listening to industrial metal while painting this.  But that’s the thing: no one has done this before.  Up until then all paintings of war were about glory and honor, which you’d expect from people who obviously have never seen a real war.Goya put an end to it.  He gave the entire war painting genre a gritty reboot, which technically makes The Third of May 1808 the Batman Begins of the art world.

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5. Guernica (Pablo Picasso)

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The most: Trippy

You can’t really see it here, but Picasso’s Guernica is HUGE, measuring 11×25.6ft .  It features humans, animals and buildings, all depicted in that famous Picasso style which I still claim was an inside joke of his that got out of hand, but let’s move past that.  Guernica is definitely one of the most all-encapsulating Picasso works, but what really sets it apart from the others is its message.  Examining it, you can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable. The twisted faces, the solemn colors…it’s all a little…unnerving.  And that’s the point, because the painting was meant to represent the horrors of war.

Not only does Guernica perfectly capture the weird style of Picasso it also conveys his anti-war message like no other painting could.  Plus, if you do acid in front of it, you will see things that man was never meant to see.

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4. American Gothic (Grant Wood)

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The most: Parodied

American Gothic is the perfect example of being in the right place at the right time.  When it first came out it certainly did OK.  Magazines and newspapers reprinted the painting while it hanged comfortably in the Art Institute of Chicago but, with the onset of the Great Depression, it became something more to the people.  It became a symbol of an unwavering spirit in the face of adversity, celebrating the struggling Midwestern Americans who held their own during desperate times.  So naturally, with time, it became the most satirized piece of popular culture in the U.S.

Name a franchise, character or location and chances are that there’s an existing American Gothic parody of it.  Yes, there’s a Muppet version.  Dexter?  Yeah, it exists.  Grim Fandango?  You betcha.  And yes, of course there’s a porn version of it.  That just goes without saying.

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3. Saturn Devouring His Son (Francisco Goya)

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The most: Terrifying

Hey look, it’s our friend Francisco “Raven” Goya, with a solid helping of sanity-shattering nightmare fuel.  Look at that thing. Look at its bizarre hobo beard. Look at the huge anime-esque eyes and the bodybuilder physique.  LOOK AT IT TOTALLY EATING A GUY AND LETTING YOU KNOW THAT YOU ARE NEXT.  Crap on a stick, that is some sick stuff. But it has a reasonable explanation.  That monster thing is Saturn, a Roman god said to devour his children because it was foretold that one of them will overthrow him.  It is pretty gruesome, but at least there’s some reason behind it.  However, why Goya decided to paint THAT in his dining room will remain a mystery to all of us who don’t constantly hear the crying of a thousand infants in our heads like Goya obviously did.

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2. The Birth of Venus (Sandro Botticelli)

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The most: Easily used as a substitute for porn

Look, we’re all guys here (unless you’re a woman, in which case I’d like to apologize for how my gender behaves on the Internet).  Yes, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is beautiful with the colors and the composition and all that other crap but here’s the thing: that Venus is totally hot.  Not too skinny, not too chubby, her hair might very well be blonde, red or light brown and ,though she’s naked, she only lets you see enough to kick-start your imagination into a wild frenzy.

In short, it’s everything that good pornography should be AND it’s socially acceptable to hang on your living room wall.  Hahaha, it’s almost as if the concept of pornography and erotica was retardedly arbitrary and subjected to constantly changing social norms. But that would be stupid.

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1. Campbell’s Soup Cans (Andy Warhol)

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The most: Genre-defying

Warhol’s Campbell Soup series of paintings, of which there are 32, tell so much with so little, and I totally understand it if anyone out there just felt like punching me in the throat for that sentence.  But it’s true.  When you think of a non-surreal or non-abstract example of something that defied the concept of art being just pretty pictures and portraits, you think of Warhol’s paintings.  When you want a great example of truly modern art, you think of Campbell’s Soup, which also skillfully hail back to Warhol’s early days as a commercial artist.  And when you get down to it, it’s basically a parody of the boringly cliché bowl of fruit.  Not many other paintings manage to do all that while showing a tin can full of salty cat urine (oh you all know it’s true).

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BONUS: Mona Lisa (Leonardo da Vinci)

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The most: Likely to offend people if you don’t include it on a list of greatest paintings ever

There is almost nothing new anyone can say about Mona Lisa. You know the painting, you know the author, you’ve seen and puzzled over Liz’s half smile, which is like a ray of sunshine shining through a sea of gray clouds on a timid spring’s day, filling your soul with hope and happiness but also making you miserable at the same time because you know no real woman could ever compare to Mona Lisa so in your desperation you order a high-quality latex mask with her face on it and stick it on a mannequin made from three pillows stuffed inside women’s clothing which you’ve bought at a thrift store at three in the morning and…sorry, I forgot where I was going with this.

Anyway, like I was saying, it seems that everything that could have been said about Mona Lisa was said already, so you would need to start making some pretty bizarre claims about it to get the media to pay attention to you.  Bizarre stuff like how “she” might actually be a man. [Insert Austin Powers quote here]. At least, that’s what a bunch of Italian researchers are claiming – that Mona Lisa is actually based on Leo’s effeminate young artist friend, thus opening a possibility for a future Da Vinci Code/Crying Game crossover.

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Written By Rick Raule


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46 Comments

  1. “The Rape Of Europa” by Italian Artist Titian (1477-1576) which hangs at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston Massachusetts.

  2. As of February 2012, The most expensive painting ever sold at Auction is now “The Card Players” by Paul Cezanne at $250,000,000 which now bumps Jackson Pollack’s “No. 5” into second place.

  3. Art is so subjective that it is hard to criticize this list. However here are my thoughts. I am not a big fan of 20th century art and so the Pollock and Malevich do very little for me. In my opinion Picasso did far superior works to Guernica, but because of its historical significance I don’t have a big problem with it being on the list. A similar comment applies to American Gothic and Campbell’s Soup Cans. I would have put something by Vermeer on this list, but that is just me. I might have added Whistler’s Mother because of its historical significance as well. Finally I don’t think there is any question that the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world and definitely should be number one.

    • “Mona Lisa”, the most popular ?……YES. Impressive ?……….BIG TIME NO !! I saw it at the Louvre and found much more beautiful paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci alone in that museum

    • @ little_sam : You mentioned on your post about the painting “Whistler’s Mother”. I was in Paris in June of 1988 and went to the Musee D’Orsay. Going through that museum is like a maze of adventure. I just happened to turn a corner there, and lo’ and behold, there it was, “Whistler’s Mother” I stood almost frozen as I stared at it. That was certainly one of my big highlights of visiting Paris.

    • Mona Lisa: Most overrated and yet also under appreciated. I know there coflicting, but what I mean is Lisa’s smile is not all that impressive. In fact, I suspect it was accedental. What I do find astonoshing is the backdrop. It, like my statement, is confllicting. The foredrop is simpe, pleasent, and direct. The backdrop is full of ominous moutains, whick spike like flames and fade into a murky yellow sky that looks mor like a polluted lake, full of oppressing clouds. On MONA’S (NOT YOUR’S) right, we see a winding and steep path, but on the other side, we se nothing where it should continue. Also, now this I’m less sure about so don’t quote me this time, we see on HER right a strange dark gray light black bulge, which could be anything. This conflict is what I view as Da Vinci’s porpuse, but i could be horribly wrong. I dont know (and neither do you!).

      • Hello Ed. I enjoyed reading your post on the MONA LISA. Its either this month’s or last month’s issue of National Geopgraphic that has an article on a recently found Da Vinci and going to experts and curators to find out about its authenticity. One very important point that was made in the article is that you can identify a Da Vinci by observing the lips of the person that he painted. There were close views of the MONA LISA’S lips and for some reason he (Da Vinci) was an expert at painting. The painting is no bigger than a regular sized sheet of paper (8 1/2 x 11), but its a great and interesting story that you should read. I saw the MONA LISA at the Louvre in Paris, and quite frankly in my opinion, I was not very impressed with it. I did visit the Musee D’Orsay which is the “annex” to the Louvre and saw “Whistler’s Mother” which in a way was exciting to see as its popularity rivals other famous paintings as well.

        • I know im about 6 months late, but thanks for the reply. I’ll see if i can manage to fish out that article.

    • Well, there was one thing that Jackson Pollock did like. And that was consuming MAJOR AMOUNTS OF BOOZE !!!. Rent out the movie entitled “Pollock” starring Ed Harris as Pollock and Marcia Gay Harden (who won the Academy Award for best supporting actress) as Pollock’s Long suffering wife, and also artist Lee Krasner. It’s a very good movie in my opinion whether or not you like Pollock or not.

  4. I love this list, being an art major, but my favorite painting didn’t make the list. So here it is for my own amusement, Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

    Vincent Van Gogh – “At present I absolutely want to paint a starry sky. It often seems to me that night is still more richly colored than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues, and greens. If only you pay attention to it you will see that certain stars are lemon-yellow, others pink or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance. … it is obvious that putting little white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky.” (Letter to Wilhelmina van Gogh, 16 September 1888)

  5. Okay, sorry to do this again, but my 2nd favorite painting, which I saw in Chicago last year is “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” which has been the background on my iPhone ever since. They actually let you take photos of the original. I was shocked. It was difficult to get a shot because so many people were going right to it see study the dots of paint up close.

    • @ TopTenz Master. Just a friendly tidbit for you. The painting that you have posted was by the French Impressionist Georges Seurat, completed in 1884. Translated literally into French, it is called : “Un dimanche apres-midi a L’ile de la Grande Jatte”

      • I am very familiar with the impressionists, (Art History at 8am to 11am every M-W-F at Virginia Commonwealth University) but Seurat was the only artist I connected with. You can see something new in this painting every time you look at it. Ferris was onto something, I tell you.

        • thanks for this one TTM, i actually hadn’t seen or heard of this painting until I saw a reference to it in Family Guy ( I know, I know, just don’t flame me for it) and always wondered what it was called and where it was housed, amazing, thanks!

  6. From American Gothic: ” It became a symbol of an unwavering spirit in the face of diversity”

    Shouldn’t that be “in the face of adversity?”

  7. great list! i love art and love your writing style! I lived in Madrid for a year and had the opportunity to see Guernica at the Reina Sofia. it might jsut seem like an abstract bunch of doodles when you see it on your computer screen but when you are standing right in front of you can actually feel the chaos and tension of the spanish civil war coming off it. breath taking.

    also for the mona lisa, some recent research in 2008 (well not so recent) connects a charcoal sketch in Spain called La Giaconda as a preliminary sketch of the same model. a german researcher discovered a diary from a student of Da Vinci’s making a connection between the subject of both pieces and Lisa Gherardini, wife of Giuliano de Medici. speculation is that he had commissioned it as a wedding gift for her. although i’m not sure all of this has been 100% certified, most of the links of research on google and news stories point to this being the most compelling answer to the Mona Lisa question.

  8. I must comment again. No.9 “The Arnolfini Wedding” by Jan Van Eyck (and its my understanding that there are only 22 Van Eyck paintings that remain to exist on earth). If you look between the man and woman holding hands, you will notice an object shaped like a “gear” behind them which is a mirror. If you take a magnifying glass and look at that gear shaped mirror behind them, you will see the BACKS of the man and woman holding hands. This is testimony to the attention to detail in which Van Eyck put into each and everyone of his paintings. Its almost of photographic quality.

  9. A Most Important Paintings list with Andy Warhol at number one? Without Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Rembrandt…hell, even Caveman Paintings are a lot more important than Warhol’s. Only hipsters think that Warhol’s art matters.

    • Absolutly agree. Somthing so recent cannot yet be judged because you havn’t yet seen what effect it will make. Sure, the bowl of fruit parody idea was clever, but if thats all it takes, there’s more than one clippings of “The Farside” that are voucheing to be the most importent work of art ever. Honestly, Warhol?

  10. Seriously? Slagging off Pollock. A bit poor.

    Interestingly, analysis of his work shows the presence of fractal structure, which is not present in similar works by any other artist. There’s definitely something to what he was doing.

  11. I don’t know about anybody out there who has his or her opinion of each of these paintings, but if it we’re me, if I could own just one of the Top Ten listed here, I wouldn’t have NO financial problem for the rest of my life !! Reading about a Jackson Pollock painting that fetched over $150 million dollars last summer sounds pretty good to me !!

    • Brian, do you like any lists on this site? It seems every list is a failure. I’m not sure why you continue to frequent toptenz.net if we are constantly “failing”. The negativity is getting to be a bit much. Try finding a list you like and giving some positive comments. You might find it suits you. Have a great evening and a better tomorrow.

  12. “the black square” by Malevich is actually more important then just the start of a new genre in art. It goes back to Stalin and communism. Stalin hated Malevich and his simplistic art, since it was an expression of creativity. He banned the painter from painting, and because of that Malevich painted the black square. It was the painting that defied the Soviet Union.
    its also pretty interesting that there have been many duplicates, but the one hanging in russia’s state heritage museum is the real one because it has the artists fingerprints on the back.

  13. No, just no. I am glad you are trying to bring proper respect to The Arnolfini Wedding but you might wanna get rid of this to save face. Call them your favorites and i might not laugh.

  14. The three main innovator in the whole Art-history to me are:
    1. Giotto (di Bondone): the very first “humanizator” of the human figure he’s also considered the “father” of the perspective applied to the paitinting (…I mean what would be the entire Occidental Art without him? Whatever we see in pictures, we owe it to him).
    2. Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), the lyrical painter of poverty. Not only Popes and rich or noble aristocracy’s memebers in his Art but also women (a prositute?) drowned in the Tiber River (Rome) and featured as the Holy Mary, like in the “Death of The Virgin” (Louvre museum, Paris).
    3. Vasilij Kandinsky, the contemporary poet of the shapes. every colour and every shape in his painting recalls a sound, a motion; that’s all on the basis of the synesthesia.
    Furthermore: we still don’t know that much about the painting (mainly fresxcoes but also woods) of the Roman Age but for sure there were famous and amazing painters also at that time.
    P.S.
    i do like a lot Monna Lisa but I’d say Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks” is ceratinly the more “masterpiece” among his many masterpieces (there are two versions but I think the Louvre’s is somehow more “complete” than the one kept in the Nation gallery of London).
    P.P.S.
    Sorry for my bad english!!!

  15. Any top ten list that does not include Michelangelo seems deficient. American Gothic has not relevancy outside of the United States. A better choice for Picasso is Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which most art historians regard as the first truly modern painting. Selecting one Goya would have been one too many, but two?

  16. Inga Pukenaite on

    I just want to applaud the writer of this top-10, because it was so highly entertaining to read! Just LOVE the whole thing

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