The Nine Most Famous Paintings in the World

The Birth of Venus

This list celebrates what I, self-appointed art czar, have deemed the most recognizable paintings on Earth. How did these works - many by otherwise obscure artists - become so well-known? Through arbitrary inclusions in schoolbooks? Via parodies? Or because of the timeless quality of the work? The answer may be all of the above.

  1. Mona Lisa (Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1505). Louvre, Paris. Likely the most famous painting in the world, even more so since Dan Brown wrote a big famous novel about it.
  2. The Last Supper (Leonardo da Vinci, 1495-1498). Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Leo nabs first and second place on the list with this, the most popular (and most copied) religious painting in history. Too bad he painted it on a rapidly-decaying church wall; these days it's barely visible to the naked eye.
  3. The Birth of Venus (Sandro Botticelli, c. 1485). Uffizi, Florence. Another Renaissance favorite, this huge canvas may best be known to computer and design geeks as the image once used to brand Adobe Illustrator. The image has also inspired scenes in artsy movies from Baron Munchausen to Antonia's Line to Prospero's Books.
  4. American Gothic (Grant Wood, 1930). Chicago Art Institute. The relatively unknown Wood created an icon for Depression-era America when he painted his dentist and his sister as a downbeat farmer/daughter duo (many incorrectly assume the portrait is of a married couple). Probably better-known for its spoofs and knock-offs.
  5. The Scream (Edvard Munch, 1893). Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo. Let's hear it for the Norwegians! Three paintings first, then a woodcut, Munch's simple but dramatic composition became a hit with beat poets, designers, then finally jokesters, who used the image whenever they needed to illustrate a horrifying idea (e.g., "President Quayle"). The popularity of this one painting won the anxiety-laden Munch the title of "Father of Expressionism".
  6. Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte (Georges Seurat, 1884-1886). Chicago Art Institute. History's most notable Pointillist, the non-prolific Seurat scored big with his gigantic, highly stylized depiction of a busy park outside of Paris. So popular it even inspired a hit Broadway musical (Sunday in the Park with George). I bet the French wish they'd held onto this money-maker.
  7. The Starry Night (Vincent Van Gogh, 1889). Museum of Modern Art, New York. Though Van Gogh's style is instantly recognizable no matter which of his many canvases you choose, The Starry Night is probably his most universally-known - perhaps because he painted no variations of it, unlike much of his other subject matter. No Broadway musicals here, but in the 1970s it did inspire Don McLean's hit song "Vincent".
  8. The Great Wave of Kanagawa (Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1831-1833). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Possibly the only Asian painting to be recognized outside of Asia by non-scholars, Hokusai's work was just one of his 36 views of Japan's Mt. Fuji, and has in slightly more recent times been a hit with surfer dudes and '80s hair metal bands (it went nicely with those sleeveless "rising sun" t-shirts).
  9. Arrangement in Black and Grey, Portrait of the Artist's Mother (James McNeill Whistler, 1871). Musée d'Orsay, Paris. This list's final entry was a tough call: Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling? Well, it's really famous for just one detail ("God's finger touching Adam's finger"). Edouard Manet's Luncheon on the Grass? Edward Hopper's Nighthawks? Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat? I choose the Whistler painting for its sheer goofiness and for Whistler's relative obscurity. How this painting became so well-known is beyond me. One of the few American works at the Musee d'Orsay, this must have been Paris' revenge for Chicago acquiring La Grande Jatte.