Home Magazine 30 seminal oil paintings of Modern Art

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Accepting the challenge of Modern times, modern painters simultaneously embraced and subverted art-historical tradition, refusing to conform to convention and using realistic subject matter, but also by challenging the three-dimensional perspectivism established by the Renaissance painting. 

A new freedom from traditional subjects and modes of representation, with Èdouard Manet, who can, perhaps, be considered as the departure point for Modern Art. The spiritual vision of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. The herdlike masses of modern society in James Ensor’s paintings. How we see our own age - wracked with anxiety and uncertainty - as Edvard Munch did. Chagall’s cubist fairy tale. The whole idea of of movement, of speed, that was in the air at the beginning of the XX Century, as we see with Nude Descending a Staircase No.2by Marcel Duchamp. The revolution of the Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich applied to bodily experience, the fundamental theme of Western art since the Renaissance. Until the Synthetic polymer paint on canvas used by Andy Warhol in his iconic Campbells’ Soup Can. All this, and many more masterpieces in this list - obviously not exhaustive - that we have joyfully composed.


1. The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe) by Èdouard Manet, 1863

The most recognizable and admired of impressionist works, that broke away from the classical conventions, was being rejected by the French Salon. The presence of a nude woman - possibly a prostitute - among clothed men, bourgeois menpresented in a modern setting was not eligible for that period. The modernist revolution of pictorial space begins here. 


Èdouard Manet, The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe), 1863, oil on canvas, 208 cm × 264.5 cm (81.9 in × 104.1 in), Musée d’Orsay, Paris.


2. Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet, 1872

This prominent, striking and candid painting provoked most visitors, at the French Salon des Refusés, unable to recognize the scene in the port of Le Havre, the boats and sailors, and outraged over such a graffiti. There was a talk of an “impression” - as the critic M. Louis Leroywrote - from which the members of the Impressionist group decided to take their name.


Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Oil on canvas, 48 cm × 63 cm (18.9 in × 24.8 in), Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris.


3. Models by Georges Seurat, 1886-1888

Here, Seurat seems to offer his response to criticism of Pointillism, his daring neo-impressionist painting technique informed by scientific theories of light, color, and optics. Life-size bodies, nude women - one of the noblest and most revered subjects in the history of art - posing in front of his most provocative manifesto works: A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. 


Georges Seurat, Models (Poseuses), 1886–1888, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 98 3/8 in., The Barnes Foundation.


4. Christ's Entry into Brussels by James Ensor, 1888

In response to the French pointillist style, Ensor used scandalous and aggressive freedom. Not exhibited publicly until 1929, Christ’s Entryinto contemporary Brussels in a Mardi Gras parade is a forerunner of twentieth-century Expressionism. A crude, ugly, chaotic, dehumanized sea of masks, clowns, allegorical figures and caricatures, rendered with knives, spatulas, and both ends of Ensor brush. 


James Ensor, Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889, 1888, Oil on canvas, 252.7 × 430.5 cm (99 1/2 × 169 1/2 in.), The J. Paul Getty Museum.


5. Country Road in Provence by Night by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

Road with Cypress and Starmore strongly reflects the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh's belief of the spiritual wisdom in death. The evening star, barely visible, on the left of the painting; the cypress tree “proportioned and beautiful like an Egyptian obelisk” in the middle; the emerging crescent moon on the right side as symbols of infinity and eternity.


Vincent Van Gogh, Country road in Provence by night, 1890, oil on canvas, The Kröller-Müller Museum.

Read also Van Gogh through the eyes of the Cinema.


6. At the Moulin Rouge: Two Women Waltzing by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1892

Around 1880, theMontmartredistrict became the centre for the lesbians of Paris. Two women embracing each other while waltzing in a café concert, as the avant-garde artist shows, stepping across the boundaries of “socialexpectations”. An iconic memorial of Parisian nightlife at the end of the nineteenth century.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge: Two Women Waltzing, 1892, Oil on cardboard, 93 x 80 cm, Národní Galerie, Prague.


7. Spirit of The Dead Watching by Paul Gauguin, 1892

This post-impressionism canvas appears in the background of another Gauguin painting, his Self-portrait with Hat, indicating the importance he attached to it. Banned as "a veritable encyclopaedia of colonial racism and misogyny” and formally related to Manet's Olympia, Gauguin’s erotic Tahiti tries to represent the Polynesian fear of the tupapaú, or spirit of the dead.


Paul Gauguin, Manaò tupapaú (Spirit of the Dead Watching), 1892, oil on jute mounted on canvas, support: 28 3/4 x 36 3/8 inches (73.02 x 92.39 cm); framed: 45 5/8 x 53 1/16 x 5 1/4 inches (115.89 x 134.78 x 13.33 cm), Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

Read also The history of the false Paul Gauguin


8. The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893

An icon of modern art, the 1895 pastel-on-board version of the painting was sold at Sotheby's for a record US$120 million at auction in 2012. The Scream, which “could only have been painted by a madman”, is autobiographical, an expressionistic construction based on Munch's actual experience of a scream piercing through Norwegian nature while on a walk.


Edvard Munch, The Scream (Norwegian: Skrik, German: Der Schrei der Natur), oil, tempera, pastel and crayon on cardboard, 91 cm × 73.5 cm (36 in × 28.9 in), National Gallery and Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway.


9. The large Bathers by Paul Cézanne, 1898–1905

The largest of Cézanne's pictures is exceptional among his work. Formal inits aspect, classic in its monumentality. For thirty years, in paintings of women bathers, he arranged the nudes in a triangle. Here, in a symmetrical pattern of the trees and river, the abstract nude females give the painting tension, mystery and density.


Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1898–1905, Oil-on-canvas, 210.5 cm × 250.8 cm ( 82 78 in ×  98 34 in), Philadelphia Museum of Art.


10. Family of Saltimbanques by Pablo Picasso, 1905

For the Spanish Picasso, the stillness andwanderingof these saltimbanques stood for the melancholy of the vagabond underclass of artists, with whom he identified. Striving for recognition, during his first years in Paris, the family of acrobatsand dancers represents Picasso’s most important painting of his early career.  


Pablo Picasso, Family of Saltimbanques, 1905, oil on canvas, overall: 212.8 x 229.6 cm (83 3/4 x 90 3/8 in.) framed: 240.4 x 256.3 cm (94 5/8 x 100 7/8 in.), Chester Dale Collection, © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

More works by Pablo Picasso on Kooness.


11. Danaë by Gustav Klimt, 1907

Used as the quintessential symbol of divine love, and transcendence, Danaëwas a popular subject in the early 1900s for many artists. The Austrian symbolist painter Klimt declines the subject in an erotic, sensual experience. While imprisoned in a bronze tower, Danaëis seduced by the god Jupiter, symbolized here as the golden rain flowing between her legs.


Gustav Klimt, Danaë, 1907, 77 cm × 83 cm (30 in × 33 in), Galerie Würthle, Vienna, Austria.


12. Dance by Henri Matisse,1910

Recognized as "a key point of Matisse’s career and in the development of modern painting, this Dance,in a strong read,was specifically conceived for the Russian businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin. A preliminary version of this work, known as Dance (I) is a climax of luminosity, with paler colors and less details. 


Henri Matisse, Dance, 1909-1910, oil on canvas, 260 x 391 cm, © Succession H. Matisse.


13. I and the Village by Marc Chagall, 1911

The title of this work evokes the relationship of Chagall to his Belarus, peasant town. the abstract faces and pupils of a goat and a man meet, in a kaleidoscopic set of fantastic colors and folkloric imagery. The significance of the painting lies in its seamless integration of Cubist construction, semiotic elements and Eastern European folktales.


Marc Chagall, I and the Village, 1911, oil on canvas, 6' 3 5/8" x 59 5/8" (192.1 x 151.4 cm), Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

More works by Marc Chagall on Kooness.


14. Nude Descending a Staircase No.2 by Marcel Duchamp, 1912

This Modernist classic, which has become one of the most famous of its time, was rejected by the Cubists as being too Futurist, and ridiculed, at the 1913 Armory Show, in New York City. “My aim was a static representation of movement”, said Duchamp, influenced by stroboscopic motion photography. 


Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912, oil on canvas, 57 7/8 x 35 1/8 (151.8 x 93.3 cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art.


15. Black Square by Kazimir Malevich, 1915

The first version of what is invoked as the "zero point of painting" was done in 1915. Appeared as part of a design for a stage curtain, Black Squarewas painted over a more complex and colorful composition. Malevich declared the square a work of Suprematism (Everything you need to know about Suprematist art), accompanying the complex transition between representational painting and abstract painting.


Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915, oil on linen, 79.5 x 79.5 cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.


16. Nude Sitting on a Divan by Amedeo Modigliani, 1917

The beautiful, partially draped, woman seated with crossed legs against a red background "exemplify his position between tradition and modernism”, Italian Renaissance’s nudes and provocative contemporary women, simultaneously abstracted and detailed. This nude is notorious in modern art history for its sensational public reception and for its sale, in 2010, at a New York auction, for $68.9 million. 


Amedeo Modigliani, Nude Sitting on a Divan, 1917, 100 cm × 60 cm (39.4 in × 25.6 in), Private collection.


17. The Embrace by Egon Schiele, 1917

In this large canvas, Austrian painter Egon Schiele, a protégé of Gustav Klimt, and his wife Edith Harms lie on a rumpled white sheet over a yellow cover with their arms interlocked. Although Schiele was an early exponent of Expressionism, this portrait is not described as grotesque, erotic, pornographic, or disturbing, as the previous nudes or kneeling girls. 


Egon Schiele, The Embrace, 1917, oil on canvas, 98 x 169 cm, Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere Vienna, Austria.


18. On White II by Wassily Kandinsky, 1923

The most famous painting of Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky in which white, the color of life, peace and silence, is predominant. An array of abstract geometric shapes reflect the artist’s inner emotions and consciousness inspired by music. Colors, lines and forms as a possibility to convey a deep sense of transcendental spirituality.


Wassily Kandinsky, On White II, Oil on canvas, 41.3 × 38.6" (105.0 × 98.0 cm), Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.


19. The Harlequin’s Carnival by Joan Miró, 1924-25

One of the most outstanding Surrealist piece of Spanish painter Joan Miró in which he “automatically” painted the subconscious, but also his own life experiences and memories. A carnival o magical elements, strange forms and squiggly shapes that for Mirówere “a mean to express his inner life through visionary art”.    



Joan Miró, The Harlequin’s Carnival, 1924-25, oil on canvas, 66 cm × 90.5 cm (26 in ×  35 58 in), Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.

More works by Joan Miro on Kooness


20. American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930

American Gothicis one of the most popularimages, frequently parodied, of 20th-century rural Americana. Named after the house’s architectural style, it depicts a farmer with a pitchfork standing beside his daughter, dressed in a colonial print apron. The most famous farm couple in the world became a satire of small-town life. 


Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, oil on beaverboard, 78 cm × 65.3 cm ( 30 34 in ×  2534 in) © The Art Institute of Chicago.


21. Ad Parnassum by Paul Klee, 1932

Ad Parnassumwas painted during a turning point in Klee's artistic style and is now considered a masterpiece in pointillism. Thecomposition, one of his largest paintings, is dominated by the shape of a pyramid, Influenced by Klee’s trip to Egypt three years prior. Different techniques and compositional principles combined in a multi-layered mosaic-like work.


Paul Klee, Ad Parnassum, 1932, oil on canvas, 100 cm × 126 cm (39 in × 50 in), Kunstmuseum Bern, Switzerland.


22. Victory Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian, 1942

The Dutch abstract painter Piet Mondrian’s appreciation of boogie-woogie, as “destruction of melody which is the destruction of natural appearance; and construction through the continuous opposition of pure means, dynamic rhythm”, influenced his last, unfinished work. Conceived in expectation of victory in World War II, it was a reflection of buildings and straight streets of New York.


Piet Mondrian, Victory Boogie Woogie, 1942–44, Oil and paper on canvas, 127 cm × 127 cm (50 in × 50 in), Kunstmuseum, The Hague. Formerly owned by Samuel Irving Newhouse, Jr. and Emily and Burton Tremaine / The Miller Company Collection of Abstract Art.


23. Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942

One of the best-known images of twentieth-century art by American painter Edward Hopper was inspired by “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet”. The viewer is shut out from the carefully constructed scene by no reference to an entrance. Unconsciously, Hopper was painting the separate and remote life in a large city.


Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942, oil paint on canvas, 84.1 cm (33.1 in) × 152.4 cm (60.0 in), Art Institute of Chicago © Friends of American Art Collection.

Read also Hopper's Landscapes at Fondation Beyeler


24. Full Fathom Five by Jackson Pollock, 1947

An assortment of objects embedded in the surface, including cigarette butts, nails, thumbtacks, buttons, coins, and a key, contribute to Pollock’s earliest “drip” painting’s dense and encrusted appearance. The title, which comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, seems likely to have played an important part in the 'creative accident’ of the new, revolutionary painting process.


Jackson Pollock, Full Fathom Five, 1947, Oil on canvas with nails, tacks, buttons, key, coins, cigarettes, matches, etc., 50 7/8 x 30 1/8" (129.2 x 76.5 cm), Gift of Peggy Guggenheim, © 2020 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York..


25. The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth, Myself, Diego and Senor Xolotl by Frida Kahlo, 1949

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo said, "Women - among them I - always would want to hold him in their arms like a new-born baby.” This embrace is a self-portrait that celebrates the couple's union and that roots Frida and Diego Rivera in the Mexican earth and in the ancient dark/light duality of a pre-Columbian universe. 


Frida Kahlo, The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth,Myself,Diego and Senor Xolotl,1949, Oil on canvas, © the artist.


26. Golconda by René Magritte, 1953

The famous image of “raining men” dressed all the same, by Belgian surrealist René Magritte, is ambiguous and fun, but it also makes us aware of the falsity of representation. Golkonda is a ruined city in the state of Telangana, India, the center of legendary diamond industry and a synonym for 'mine of wealth’. What we see isn’t exactly real. 


René Magritte, Golconda (Golconde), 1953. The Menil Collection, Houston. © 2019. C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

More works by René Magritte on Kooness


27. Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí, 1954

It is a 1954 re-creation of the artist's famous 1931 work The Persistence of Memory, where the landscape from the original work has been flooded with liquid desires and suspended items. After the atomic bomb explosions of August 1945, Dalíbecame very interested in nuclear physics and the quantum world. He sought to replicate this in his art.


Salvador Dalí, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, 1952-54, Oil on canvas, Image: 10 in x 13 in, The Dalí Museum, Gift of A. Reynolds & Eleanor Morse, Worldwide rights © Salvador Dalí. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017 / In the USA © Salvador Dalí Museum, Inc. St. Petersburg, FL 2017.


28. No 1 Royal Red and Blue by Mark Rothko, 1954

This majestic large-scale canvasis a Color Field oil painting by the Abstract Expressionist artist Mark Rothko. In 2012, the painting sold for US$75.1 million at a Sotheby’s auction.Bright colour schemes, the reds and blues, with deliberately hazy edges. Rothko wanted us to stand close to each multi-layered mural and feel a part of the painting. 


Mark Rothko, No 1 Royal Red and Blue, 1954, oil on canvas, 288.9 cm × 171.5 cm (113¾ in × 67½ in), private collection.

Read also The last Rothko's blue-chip painting finally sold


29. Campbell's Soup Cans by Andy Warhol, 1962

Subverting the idea of painting as a medium of originality, Andy Warhol made America’s daily meal the subject of this work consisting of thirty-two canvases, one for each of the flavors sold at the time by Campbell’s. As a former commercial illustrator, the genius of Pop Art made New York's Avant Garde a majorart movement in the United States.


Andy Warhol, Campbell's Soup Cans, 1962, © 2020 Andy Warhol Foundation / ARS, NY / TM Licensed by Campbell's Soup Co. All rights reserved.


30. The Drowning Girl by Roy Lichtenstein, 1963

One of the most representative paintings of the pop art movement, The Drowning Girl is Lichtenstein's most acclaimed work. Based on original art by Tony Abruzzo and derived from a DC comics panel and Hokusai’s Great Wave, it depicts a woman on a turbulent sea, the quintessence of melodrama. “As directly as possible, from a cartoon, I draw a small picture to projectonto the canvas, and then I play around until it satisfies me.” 


Roy Lichtenstein, The Drowning Girl, 1963, oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 171.6 cm × 169.5 cm ( 67 58 in ×  66 34 in), © Museum of Modern Art, New York City.



Cover image: Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942, oil paint on canvas, 84.1 cm (33.1 in) × 152.4 cm (60.0 in), Art Institute of Chicago © Friends of American Art Collection.

Written by Petra Chiodi

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