Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
It is no surprise to see the Mona Lisa at the top of this list. Da Vinci’s masterpiece is probably the most recognized artwork in the world today, and the most visited. Also known as La Giaconda, the painting is believed to be the wife of wealthy Florentine merchant Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo. Alternative suggestions include Leonardo’s mother and indeed a self-portrait of the artist himself. So why is this work so revered? It is a combination of the Mona Lisa herself and the distant backdrop that frames her, and the harmony that exists in the perspectival representation Da Vinci rendered so well. The Mona Lisa revolutionized portrait painting for future artists. His choice of clothing not fashionable, but is rather more timeless. This mysterious woman has subsequently become the subject of song and film titles and the works of other renowned artists, including Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol.
The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo
The Creation of Adam is the central element in Michelangelo’s large-scale Sistine Chapel fresco. It has long been one of the most replicated biblical paintings in history, now blazoned on anything from placemats to umbrellas. Here God breathes life into Adam and the creation of man central to the biblical creative narrative. God floats in a cloud of drapery and other human figures. He is portrayed as an older man, draped in a simple tunic - muscular yet real. The outstretched hands connect God to man and humanity. Michelangelo painting of Adam, created in the image of God, must be one of the most famous nudes in art history. Eve, created from Adam’s rib in the biblical narrative, is believed to be the figure tucked under God’s left arm. Given Michelangelo was foremost a sculptor, his transferring of skills to painting are seen in the reclining nudes’ musculature and twisted forms. A major clean of the work, completed in the late 1980s, revealed Michelangelo’s original bright color palette.
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The Birth of Venice by Sandro Botticelli
Botticelli’s famous painting, Birth of Venus, was commissioned by the influential Florentine dynasty the Medicis. Painting with tempera on canvas, rather than the more conventional wood panels used (like the Mona Lisa), showed a break away from traditional materials that were becoming popular at the time. The work is revered as a great treasure of the Renaissance, depicting a nude at the center of the painting referencing the ancient world. The Renaissance saw the “rebirthing” of the world of antiquity not only in art but also architecture, philosophy, and poetry. Works by writers like Homer were regenerated and provides the background story for this picture. Venus is located at the center of the piece riding upon a shell to the shore, after her birth from sea foam. She is blown from her right towards land by Zephyrus and the nymph Chloris who guide her to shore. Pomona, the goddess of Spring, waits on shore for Venus’ arrival. Take note of her contrapposto stance, the detail in her hair and her unusually large neck.
Guernica by Pablo Picasso
Guernica, a political protest piece in Picasso’s distinct cubist style, was a central attraction at the Paris World Fair in 1937. This large-scale monochromatic palette of gray, white and black, was Picasso’s response to the recent bombing of the Northern Spanish town, Guernica. The attack by Hitler’s armed forces, and sanctioned by Franco’s government against his people, was the first aerial saturation of a civilian population. It served as a “training mission,” for Hitler and reduced the village to rubble, wounding and killing a third of the population. The painting is not easy to decipher, but the figures’ pain and grief are distinct. The far left figure of a woman, who is screaming, holds a lifeless child in her arms. A bull remains unharmed and calm while a horse in the center of the work is terrified and distressed. Dead and wounded figures, mutilated bodies, distorted faces writhe in agony. Guernica traveled the globe to raise awareness of the war, contributing to its worldwide fame. MOMA held it for 19 years in New York until civil liberties, and democratic processes were restored to Spain.
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer
Girl with a Pearl Earring, or the “Mona Lisa of the North,” is painted by the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. A deceptively simple portrait, Girl with a Pearl Earring, is enigmatic. No name is given and all the audience sees is a girl, who is a pearl earring, starring back. Speculation around the girl’s identity ranges from being Vermeer’s mistress to one of his 15 children. The girl’s hair is tied back in a blue band contrasting with the gold of her dress and is offset by the dark background, giving the painting its luminosity. Her mouth is open as though she is about to ask a question, but what is she thinking? The painting is a tronie rather than a portrait, depicting the subject’s head dressed in its eastern turban. This headdress, together with the exceptionally large pearl, conjures up the exotic. The painting crossed the globe during the restoration of the Mauritshuis, enduring near-movie star status. The Girl with the Pearl Earring experienced further fame with the release if the films. Girl with a Pearl Earring,