Home Magazine The greatest artworks of all time: the definitive list of the best art pieces ever created

Of the millions of artworks created throughout history, there are some pieces that seem to stand the test of time. For their subject matter, balance of form, composition or ineffable beauty, there are some artworks which boast a “greatness” upon which we generally seem to agree.

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There are some pieces that for reasons of composition, skill or context have had a profound effect on the popular imagination for centuries. Perhaps they mark a decisive moment in art history or a turning point in a culture, perhaps they emerged out of nowhere or are the finest examples of a particular movement or style. But somehow there are paintings, from the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa to the swirling sky in Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, that consistently inspire generations of art lovers. 

Before we take a look at some of the greatest artworks of all time, let’s think about what makes a masterpiece, and what makes impactful art. With this knowledge at hand, we can understand why certain works are considered to be “great” artworks.

So let’s consider what it is that leads us to designate a particular work of art as “great”.

What makes a great artwork?

Some works are more “iconic” than others. They are distinctive, recognisable, valuable— even famous. So to reach a conclusion about what is the best artwork of all time, it is important to consider the manifold factors that contribute to both our appreciation of specific artworks, from an innate beauty to a financial value. 

The current record price for an artwork ever sold goes to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, originally painted in 1510; the artwork was sold for $450.3 million at auction in 2017. While the bidder, Prince Badr bin Abdullah Al Saud, deemed the painting worthy of such a sum, can we rely on financial and market values to teach us about the “greatness” of a particular work? 

The dubious origins of the work add to the debate. The painting of Christ—for which there are innumerable variations from followers in the school of Leonardo Da Vinci— went on show at London’s National Gallery in 2011 and experts have since debated whether the work is an original painting by Da Vinci or a later copy. Many scholars consider it to be an original, while others have questioned elements of the work, which poses questions around authorship, authenticity and value. Can we consider work by a lesser-known painter to indeed be a “masterpiece”, or do we impose greatness on a painting by association? 

It’s interesting to note on this point that the word “masterpiece” originally derives from the term assigned to a piece of art produced by an apprentice or follower of a craftsman. For a young craftsman (and they were invariably men) to enter the guild of skilled artisans, he would be judged on the presentation of his “masterpiece”. Today, of course, we use the term masterpiece to refer to an artwork that we consider the greatest ever produced by a particular artist. So what characteristics does a masterpiece possess?

What makes an art masterpiece?

The word masterpiece is assigned to a variety of artworks, from ancient Rome to contemporary art.  A masterpiece is considered the best artwork by a particular artist. We can consider a masterpiece then as something highly subjective. So what is the masterpiece of art

It can be a work of art that reflects the peak of an artist’s oeuvre, whether that be the finest example of their skill or the most emblematic of their style. An Andy Warhol masterpiece is noticeably different from a Da Vinci masterpiece, but the subjective pleasure derived from both is what makes grasping ideas of “greatness” so nebulous. 

The greatest art piece of all time: who decides?

From Pliny the Elder to Giorgio Vasari and from John Ruskin to Linda Nochlin, art historians have helped shape our understanding of what makes great art. In their own ways, these specialists provide context for how artworks were perceived and how they continue to be perceived, solidifying their status in the popular understanding of art history. 

For example, in Vasari’s 1550 series of Renaissance artist biographies The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, the “godfather of art history” helped give shape to our understanding of the “genius” artist, looking at the lives of Da Vinci, Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists. 

John Ruskin worked similarly to define the works of J. M. W Turner and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as examples of “modern” masterpieces. And in the 1980s, Linda Nochlin considered “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” called into question our very own definitions of what “artistic genius” actually is, and she threw our assumptions about “masterpieces” into doubt. 

Perhaps one way to consider the greatness of art is to look at the impact (rather than the “genius”) of a particular art piece had during and after its creation.

What is the most impactful art?

Art works that make an impact can be a good way to understand a work’s “greatness”. While works of the renaissance would have had a profound impact on their contemporaries and continue to inspire the awe of viewers to this day, some other works derive their “greatness” from the visual impact that speaks profoundly of the context in which they were produced. 

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

Take, for example, the cubist artwork by Picasso’s Guernica, considered one of the greatest paintings of the 20th century.

The painting, inspired by the mythology and poetry of the Surrealists in Paris, his work depicted the bombing of the Basque city of Guernica by Hitler’s air forces on behalf of the Franco regime. 

Both its large scale and haunting depiction of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War give the work a monumental impact. 

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950

Jackson Pollock was known for creating the most impactful art of the mid-twentieth century. When Pollock first displayed his large-scale abstract expressionist paintings in the 1940s and 50s, the impact of his “drip” technique and the dynamism of the action painting method had a profound visual impact—and an immeasurable mpact on the trajectory of modern art—cannot be under estimated.

So what is considered the greatest art piece of all time?

The 7 greatest artworks of all time

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, Louvre, Paris

If visitor numbers alone were the sole statistics against which to judge the greatest art piece of all time, Da Vinci’s painting of Lisa Gherardini better known as Mona Lisa would most likely take the top spot. 

The portrait, with it’s monumental composition and the sitter’s enigmatic expression, is viewed by around 30,000 visitors each day. And that’s not the mention the ubiquitous reproduction of the artworks in posters, postcards, even t-shirts and teatowels. And according to the Guinness World Record, it also has the highest-known painting insurance valuation in history (equivalent to $870 million). 

Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa, Courtesy of Federico Scarionati, Unsplash.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-98

Considered a genius of the Renaissance, it’s no wonder that his fresco at the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan is considered one of the greatest art pieces of all time. Many art historians suggest the work marks the beginning of the High Renaissance, citing da Vinci’s use of perspective, composition and feeling. As one of the world’s most recognisable works, it’s certainly in contention to be considered one of the greatest. 

Salvador Dalì, The Persistence of Memory, 1931, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Possibly the most recognisble surrealist painting by Dalì, The Persistence of Memory is also perhaps his most complex. The dreamlike landscape lays host to “melting clocks” and an eerie self-portrait of the artist sleeping in the foreground. The painting is an allegory of space, time and the subconscious.

Sandro Bottlicelli, The Birth of Venus, 1486, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The Renaissance masterpiece, on show at the Uffizi gallery in Florence depicts Venus,the goddess of beauty, blown from the sea by the winds of Zephyr. On the right-hand side Hora (the goddess of spring) holds a floral clock for Venus to wear when she arrives on land. The large-scale of the work, the use of colour and composition have drawn visitors to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence for decades.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, Courtesy of Dim 7, Unsplash.

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1908, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

The Austrian symbolist painter, known for his paintings, murals and sketches of the female form was a key member of the Vienna Secession movement. The gold-leaf, silver and platinum oil painting The Kiss is probably his best-known work. The painting depicts a man and woman in elaborately decorated robes embracing against a gold backdrop. The sumptuous colour, tender subject matter have made this painting one of the world’s well known artworks. 

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, National Gallery and Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway

The 1893 painting by Edvard Munch is The Scream is an iconic image of human anxiety. The painter recalled in his diary his inspiration for the work as he walked one evening along a fjord in Norway: “I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked. This became The Scream''. In the agonised face of the figure walking along the bridge set against the blood red sky, viewers have come to view this work as an iconic masterpiece of art.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 

The landscape at night view was painted from the window of the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, in which the troubled Van Gogh had been admitted previously. The swirling sky, the twilight, the colours and the context in which the artist created the work have all contributed to the iconicity of the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter and the widespread consideration of this work as his magnum opus.

Cover: Courtesy of Simi Iluyomade, Unsplash

Written by Kooness

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