This is a short and informative lesson on thirty of the world's most famous works of art. It is not meant as a definitive list but, rather, as a beginning step to learning about art history. I use this lesson for my high school and middle-school art students and find it is a great way to introduce my students to different artists, genres, and famous works of art that they will come across all their lives. Part one of this series, covers five famous Renaissance works of art.
We must, of course, begin our list of the thirty most famous works of art with the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.
The Mona Lisa, also known as La Gioconda, is the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. This painting has been made using oil paints on wood. The original painting size is 77 x 53 cm (30 x 20 7/8 in) and it is owned by the Government of France, displayed on the wall in the Louvre in Paris, France.
The painting depicts a beautiful Italian woman sitting within a stunning mountain landscape that recedes far into the distance. Da Vinci's sfumato technique of soft, heavily shaded modeling, is demonstrated throughout the painting. The Mona Lisa's enigmatic expression, which seems both alluring and aloof, has given the portrait universal fame.
Did You Know?
Napoleon kept the Mona Lisa in is bedroom!
Although da Vinci began work on his masterpiece while living in his native Italy, he did not finish it until he moved to France at King Francois I's request. The French king displayed the painting in his Fontainebleau palace, where it remained for a century. Louis XIV removed it to the grand Palace of Versailles. At the outset of the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte kept the painting in his bedroom.
The Mona Lisa has had a rough life!
In 1911, she was stolen, but fortunately the police were able to get her back. In addition to that, various vandals have attacked the famed masterpiece. There were two separate attacks in 1956, with one person throwing acid at the painting, and another pelting it with a rock. The damage is faint but still noticeable. In 1974, it was attacked with spray paint and in 2009 someone through a coffee cup at it. Fortunately, those incidents were blocked by the barrier of bulletproof glass that now encases Ms. Mona Lisa.
10. The Mona Lisa is truly priceless!
According to French heritage law, the painting cannot be bought or sold. As part of the Louvre collection, "Mona Lisa" belongs to the public, and by popular agreement, their hearts belong to her.
Mona Lisa at the Louvre
School of Athens
Next up is, The School of Athens. This large fresco painting has come to symbolize the marriage of art, philosophy, and science that was a hallmark of the Italian Renaissance. Painted between 1509 and 1511, it is located in the first of the four rooms designed by Raphael, the painting is located in the Stanza della Segnatura.
Take a virtual tour HERE.
"Between 1508 and 1512, under the patronage of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo painted the chapel's ceiling, a project which changed the course of Western art and is regarded as one of the major artistic accomplishments of human civilization." (Wikipedia) The most famous section of the Sistine Chapel is his painting, Creation, which sits in the center of the ceiling.
Michelangelo wanted nothing to do with the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.
"In 1508, 33-year-old Michelangelo was working on Pope Julius II’s marble tomb, a relatively obscure piece now located in Rome’s San Pietro in Vincoli church. When Julius asked the esteemed artist to switch gears and decorate the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, Michelangelo balked. For one thing, he considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter, and he had no experience whatsoever with frescoes. He also had his heart set on finishing the tomb, even as funding for the project dwindled. Nevertheless, Michelangelo reluctantly accepted the commission, spending four years of his life perched on scaffolding with his brush in hand. He would return intermittently to Julius’ monumental tomb over the next few decades." (History Channel)
What are fresco paintings?
Both Raphael's painting, the School of Athens and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel paintings are frescoes. Fresco is a technique of mural painting executed upon freshly laid, or wet, lime plaster. Water is used as the vehicle for the dry-powder pigment to merge with the plaster, and with the setting of the plaster, the painting becomes an integral part of the wall. The fresco technique has been employed since antiquity and is closely associated with Italian Renaissance painting.
The Last Supper
In 1495, Leonardo da Vinci began what would become one of history's most influential works of art - The Last Supper. The Last Supper is Leonardo's visual interpretation of an event chronicled in the Bible. The evening before Christ was betrayed by one of his disciples, he gathered them together to eat, tell them he knew what was coming and wash their feet (a gesture symbolizing that all were equal under the eyes of the Lord). As they ate and drank together, Christ gave the disciples explicit instructions on how to eat and drink in the future, in remembrance of him. It was the first celebration of the Eucharist, a ritual still performed.
Specifically, The Last Supper depicts the next few seconds in this story after Christ dropped the bombshell that one disciple would betray him before sunrise, and all twelve have reacted to the news with different degrees of horror, anger and shock.
Compare this earlier version of The Last Supper by the artist Duccio, to da Vinci's version of the last supper.
"Last Supper" is a failed experiment.
Da Vinci was known as an innovator and inventor. He was always trying to create new things. For the last supper, he altered the traditional methods of fresco painting and, while initially the results seemed good, over only a few decades the painting began to deteriorate.
The Birth of Venus
Botticelli painted the Birth of Venus between 1484-85. It was commissioned by a member of the Florentine Medici family, most likely Lorenzo di Piero francesco, who was a distant cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The birth of Venus was hung in his bedroom in the Villa in Castello, near Florence. The painting depicts the Classical myth of the birth of Venus, who is said to have been born of the sea, coming ashore on a shell, pushed along by the breath of Zephyrus
Quiz yourself to see What you learned about these famous artworks
What are Fresco paintings?
What is Sfumato?
Which artist used Sfumato in one of the artworks shown?
This concludes part 1 of the 30 Most Famous Works of Art. Follow this link to go to part two.
This article is meant for educational purposes and may be used by teachers, students, and art lovers alike. It works very well as an art lesson for middle-school and high school aged students, but is also an excellence primer course for anyone interested in improving their understanding of basic art history.
Author: Bruce Black
Welcome to Life Reimagined! I am a professional artist and long time art teacher, Over twenty-two years teaching and still going! I have painted all my life and love to inspire others to reach their creative potential. I hope this blog brings you inspiration!