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, covered five famous Renaissance works of art. Part two will cover Baroque artists into Neoclassicism.
Supper at Emmaus
Caravaggio (1571–1610), was a Baroque era artist working in Italy, mostly Milan and Sicily. He is best known for his dramatic paintings, which combined a heightened sense of emotion along with dramatic lighting - similar to a spotlight on stage actors. Caravaggio's paintings often had dark backgrounds and a strong sense ofchiaroscuro.
The painting, Supper at Emmaus, is one of Caravaggio's most famous works. In this painting, Christ has just revealed himself to two of his apostles, Luke and Cleopas. Both apostles are reacting to this news in the instant that it is occurring. A third figure, presumably a groom, stands in the background, but does not seem to be comprehending what is happening. This large painting is arranged to put the viewer into the scene, almost as if there is a fourth seat with the viewer in it.
Pay attention to the figure's torn clothes and the way they seem to be real people. This is a departure from the more stylized forms of mannerism or the Renaissance. Also, look at the basket of fruit that seems about to fall off the table. Everything in this scene seems to be caught in a moment of action, and we have the sense that we are in a real-life drama.
Short Film on The Supper at Emmaus.
Full Caravaggio Documentary HERE.
What is Baroque art? (1600-1750)
The Baroque is a period of artistic style that started around 1600 in Rome, Italy, and spread throughout the majority of Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. The term, baroque, describes something that is elaborate and highly detailed.
Baroque artworks often contained a sense of drama, grandeur, and emotion. In painting, artists would typically use darkly lit backgrounds and earth tones, with the main subjects up front and in stark light. Another compositional element of baroque art is the use of long angles moving through the composition.
Take a moment and think about the composition of Caravaggio's painting, Supper at Emmaus.
Dieg Velázquez (1599 -1660) was a Spanish painter, the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV of Spain and Portugal, and of the Spanish Golden Age. His painting Las Meninas is a masterpiece now hanging in the Prado in Madrid Spain.
Las Meninas is a large (10.5' X 9') royal portrait, with the focus on the princess, Infanta Margarita Teresa. But really, it's more of a group portrait of the royal court. Even the king and queen get in on it. In the background, there is a mirror with two people being reflected in it. They are King Philip IV of Spain, and Mariana of Austria. The artist depicted is Velazquez himself. On the stairs in the background is the queen's chamberlain, Don José Nieto Velázquez. The ladies in waiting are doña María Agustina Sarmiento de Sotomayor (on the left) and doña Isabel de Velasco (on the right). The princess’s chaperone is Marcela de Ulloa. She is over the shoulder of one of the ladies in waiting. The bodyguard, whose name is lost to history (but some modern scholars believe it might be Diego Ruiz de Azcona), remains behind the scene. In the right corner are Maria Barbola and Nicolas Pertusato, who are most often identified as the "dwarfs" at court. The dog's name is also unknown.
What is Velazquez painting?
Popular belief is that Velazquez is painting the king and queen’s portraits. They are standing in front of the canvas, out of view, and are reflected in the mirror. Others believe the angle is all wrong and that Velazquez must be painting someone else. Perhaps, he is painting us, the viewers, immortalizing us as kings and queens ourselves. When you look at the gaze of the figures, they all seem to be staring past the canvas and directly at the viewers, giving us a first-hand look at what it was like to be a member of the royal family.
Far more than a simple royal portrait, Velazquez seems to be philosophizing on the very nature and importance of painting. He is showing us the full capacity of painting to not only duplicate nature, but to cause us to think and participate with the work of art as collaborators in its subject.
Girl With a Pearl Earring
The girl with the pearl earring is a beautiful example of Baroque portraiture. Also known as the "Mona Lisa" of North, this painting by Dutch artist, Vermeer, shows off his skill in capturing not only the shape of the girl's head, but also a tender expression upon her face.
While this painting remains in many ways as enigmatic as da Vinci's Mona Lisa, there are some clues as to its meaning. The mystic St. Frances De Sales (1567-1622) wrote that women should protect their ears from unclean words and only hear chaste words. This passage is from the Devout Life (1608) and is referred to as the "oriental pearls of the gospel." From this, scholars have attributed the pearl earring in the girl's ear to represent chastity and the scarf around her head represent an oriental aspect.
Vermeer is also known for his paintings, The Milkmaid, and Girl with a red hat.
Who is the "Girl with a Pearl Earring"? The truth is, scholars don't know. However, there is strong evidence that the girl may have been his sixteen-year-old daughter, Maria. Vermeer is known to have used family members in other paintings, and it seems probable that he used Maria for this one.
Rembrandt's Self Portrait
Rembrandt van Rijn, (1606-1669) was a Dutch artist of the Baroque era, known early on for his portrait paintings and his uncanny ability to capture people’s emotions in a painting. In his paintings, uncompromising realism led some critics to call him the painter of ugliness over beauty.
Over the course of his long career, he painted eighty self-portraits, which tracked his moods, physical development, and financial status. While these self-portraits undoubtedly represent an introspective look at the artist’s life, they were also a commercial success, as many people clambered for self-portraits of famous artists.
This particular self-portrait was when the artist was 63 years old and was completed just a few months prior to his death. The artist, despite his age and poor health, has painted a picture of a proud and self-assured artist who knows he has earned a position in the pantheon of the world’s greatest artists.
Other works by Rembrandt
Oath of the Horatii
Visitors to the Paris Salon of 1785 were captivated by the painting, The Oath of Horatii, by Jacques Louis David. This large painting (11' x 14') depicts the Roman story, in which three brothers are chosen to fight three apposing soldiers from Alba. This was in lieu of continuing a full-scale war with Alba and the victor of this battle would be considered the victor of the war. The painting shows the moment when the three brothers are swearing allegiance to Rome. Of course, the Horatii win. To the right are the women of this story, who weep with the realization of how the conflict will affect them. One of the sisters was engaged to a man from the rival family, and she knows that someone she cares about will most certainly die in the battle.
David has made a remarkable painting that is considered by many to be the height of Neoclassical painting. The subject is of a Classical nature and is attributed to ethical Roman ideals, in which the participants put loyalty above personal ambition. What’s more, it has a limited background and raking light, which gives it the feeling of an ancient Greek or Roman relief carving.
When viewing this painting, one cannot help but reminisce on the time that it was painted and the political atmosphere of France at that moment. David was a political figure in the French Revolution, and this painting can be seen as a call to defend Rome. Or, in other words, a call for revolution against the monarchy of France and in favor of returning to the democratic ideals of Rome.
Test yourself and see what you remember from this lesson as well as the first lesson.
If you missed the first lesson you can find the 30 Most Famous Works of Art: Part 1. HERE.
This lesson is meant for educational purposes only. I use this as part of my middle-school and high school art curriculum.
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!