The 10 Works of Art Everyone Should Know

Fine art is considered a cornerstone of modern civilization, yet many people are unfamiliar with some of the greatest paintings throughout history.

We don’t mean to make anyone feel guilty, of course. Just about everyone can recognize the Mona Lisa when they see it, but names like Michelangelo and Raphael are more commonly associated with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles nowadays. It’s not unusual to lack an expansive knowledge of art history, so we’d like you to know that some of the most beautiful and thought provoking creations of all time are only a single Google search away for those who know what to look for. After all, if you’ve ever been taken aback by a painting at an art fair, there’s a chance the artist drew inspiration from a timeless classic.

To get you up to speed with the fundamentals of the art world, we’ve compiled 10 of the most significant works of art that everyone should know about. Test your knowledge by seeing how many paintings you can recognize!


10: The Last Supper

As one of the most celebrated creations by Italian Polymath Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper continues to be a hallmark for any picture or movie depicting scenes from the bible. Tragically, very little of the original painting exists today, though restoration attempts have helped preserve the image.


9: The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dali’s 1931 painting of melting watches may be a relatively modern painting, but its significance in the art world remains noteworthy. Even if you never knew it was called The Persistence of Memory, you’ve almost certainly seen it referenced in works such as Gary Larson’s The Far Side.


8: The Creation of Adam

If you’ve ever taken an introductory course pertaining to the analysis of art, there’s a good chance you’ve talked about The Creation of Adam. Not only is Michelangelo’s 1511 fresco an iconic piece of the Sistine chapel, it’s also one of humanity’s most contemplated images due to the significance of the outstretched finger reaching for Adam’s limp hand.


7: The Birth of Venus

For all that has been said about The Birth of Venus throughout the centuries, scholars still debate the source of inspiration for this classic Sandro Botticelli painting. Even Botticelli’s reason to paint this iconic piece is uncertain, though historians do date The Birth of Venus to around 1480.


6: The Scream

Although The Scream has been lampooned numerous times in both horror movies and in cartoons such as The Simpsons, don’t be tricked into thinking this painting is a laughing matter. One of the four versions of The Scream was actually sold for over $120 million at an auction!


5: American Gothic

Grant Wood’s American Gothic is another work both celebrated and parodied to this day, which makes it surprising that the painting faced heavy criticism when it was made in 1930. In fact, when it was submitted to a contest at the Art Institute of Chicago, American Gothic was only awarded a bronze medal.


4: The School of Athens

Considered one of Raphael’s masterpieces, The School of Athens is considered “the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the Renaissance.” It’s believed that every prominent Greek philosopher is featured in the painting, but scholars can only identify commonly depicted figures such as Socrates with any certainty.


3: The Night Watch

Formally known as Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Rembrandt’s 1642 painting is known for both its attention to detail and its sheer size. This massive work is nearly 12 feet long and more than 14 feet wide!


2: Dora Maar au Chat

As one of the most distinct artists throughout history, it’s hard to pin down just one painting by Pablo Picasso to define his unique style. Dora Maar au Chat is a depiction of Picasso’s lover Dora, and the harsh details in the painting alludes to their troubled relationship.


1: The Garden of Earthly Delights

When it comes to ambitious, intricate works of art, Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Early Delights is a pinnacle of depth and complexity. Believed to be read as a story from left to right, this triptych depicts the creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, leading to the main panel featuring the title’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” With the numerous men and women in the garden engaging in all kinds of earthly pleasures, what follows is a grave depiction of the world devoid of joy presumably following the fall of man. Though scholars can agree on this baseline understanding of the work, The Garden of Earthly Delights features a myriad of details that could keep onlookers unpacking its layers of meaning for days.

Few details are known of Bosch’s life, which makes is hard for historians to glean precise meaning from the painting. However, the legacy left by The Garden of Earthly Delights is immensely significant. Even if you don’t want to spend hours analyzing every part of Bosch’s world, at least you now know it exists alongside other classic works if you change your mind.

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