Since the emergence of the Italian Renaissance, the history of Western art began a fascinating course through different stylistic genres. While 15th-century painting focused on portraying the ideal, the subsequent movements explored many other aesthetics and ideas, often in reaction to their historical predecessor. And although there are many remarkable paintings to study from these different art movements, we’ve narrowed down the expansive list to 20 iconic works that span from the end of the 15th century all the way to the first half of the 1900s.
Among this list of masterpieces are some that are so well known they’ve become a part of popular culture, as well as others that, while famous in art circles, may not be as familiar. For instance, René Magritte’s Surrealist painting Treachery of Images, which features a rendering of a brown pipe accompanied by the recognizable phrase “This is not a pipe,” has been referenced in film as well as video games. Similarly, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa continues to inspire authors and filmmakers from around the world. On the other hand, some paintings that have eluded the same attention include Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Impressionist gem, Bal du Moulin de la Galette, and Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.
JAN VAN EYCK, THE ARNOLFINI PORTRAIT, 1434
Born in what is now Belgium, artist Jan van Eyck was an early master of the oil medium and used it to create meticulously detailed compositions. His most prominent work, The Arnolfini Portrait, remains an icon of the Northern Renaissance—encapsulating many of the aesthetic ideals and technical innovations of the time period. It depicts a wealthy merchant—presumed to be Giovanni di Nicolau di Arnolfini—and his wife in a lavishly decorated room which showcases their opulent wealth.
Fun fact: On the back wall of the room is a convex mirror that shows a reflection of two people, one of whom is very likely Van Eyck. The mirror itself is thought to suggest the eye of God observing the scene.
SANDRO BOTTICELLI, THE BIRTH OF VENUS, C. 1484–6
Created by Sandro Botticelli in the Early Renaissance (or the Quattrocento), The Birth of Venus is a stylistic depiction of the mythological Roman goddess, Venus. It is one of the first Renaissance paintings to display Classical inspiration and a prominent nude female figure.
Fun fact: The nudity depicted in The Birth of Venus was unusual—and rather daring—at the time.
LEONARDO DA VINCI, THE LAST SUPPER, C. 1495–1498
Since its completion at the end of the 15th century, The Last Supper has captivated audiences with its impressively large scale, unique composition, and mysterious subject matter. Leonardo da Vinci’s patron, Ludovico Sforza, asked him to paint Jesus’ final meal as described in the Gospel of John in the New Testament of the Bible.
Fun fact: Interestingly, Leonardo opted to illustrate the moment Jesus tells his followers that one of them will betray him, placing much of the painting’s focus on the figures’ individual expressive reactions.