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16 of the Most Famous Oil Paintings You Should Know

Monet Impression Sunrise (1)

Last updated: 01.27.21

The technique of oil painting, defined by the process of painting with pigments with drying oil as the binder, dates back to the 7th century AD and thus spans a wide range of known art movements. Buddhist artists in Afghanistan painted the earliest known examples of oil paintings, and in Europe, the technique was used by artists from as early as the 12th century. Many of the most famous oil paintings known to the Western world today were created by European artists, including Old Masters, in the centuries to follow their Buddhist predecessors.

The History of Oil Painting in Europe

It was the Dutch who first adopted the process of oil painting in Europe, with examples seen in Early Netherlandish painting. Oil painting involved quite a process, and traditional oils (including linseed, poppy seed, walnut, and safflower oil) took about 1-3 weeks to dry. Oils were sometimes also boiled with a resin resulting in a glossy varnish. As widely used as the technique of oil painting became, by the height of the Renaissance, many famous artists across Europe replaced this technique with tempera painting. 

However, valuable oil paintings continue to be sought after at auction today, and some of the most famous examples of oil paintings on canvas are still gawked at by museum-goers. So if you happen to fancy a virtual or an eventual in-person visit, we’ve rounded up 16 of the most popular oil paintings, many of which are hanging in top museums around the world.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Year: c. 1503-06 | Medium: Oil on poplar panel | Location: Louvre Museum, Paris

Mona Lisa

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

A top hit at the Louvre Museum in Paris (of the 6,000 paintings there, 90% of visitors head straight to the Mona Lisa), Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance is perhaps the most famous oil painting portrait. After all, it’s been described as, “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world.” 

Painted in oil on a white Lombardy poplar panel, the Mona Lisa is renowned for the perplexing expression of the subject (said to be Lisa Gherardini, an Italian noblewoman), the atmospheric illusionism, and its extraordinarily unique composition, among other characteristics. Scholars believe the portrait was painted between 1503 and 1506, but some believe da Vinci was still working on the masterpiece in 1517. 

As the painting was acquired by King Francis I of France, it’s now the property of France and has hung in the Louvre since 1797. Perhaps the most valuable oil painting in the world, it holds a record for the highest known insurance valuation in history: $100 million in 1962, which equates to $660 million in 2019. 

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

Year: 1889 | Medium: Oil on canvas | Location: Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York City

Vincent van Gogh - Starry Night

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Considered one of the most recognized paintings in Western art, Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night is a dazzling oil on canvas work that currently hangs in the MoMA. Painted in 1889, it is a portrayal of the Post-Impressionist painter’s view from his asylum room (with a fictional village below) in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. While Van Gogh created several paintings of this particular view, The Starry Night is the only nocturnal one. It’s considered the artist’s magnum opus – his masterpiece. 

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

Year: 1907-1908 | Medium: Oil and leaf on canvas | Location: Belvedere, Vienna 

The_Kiss_-_Gustav_Klimt

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Gustav Klimt, an Austrian Symbolist painter, created The Kiss between 1907 and 1908. Scholars believed this was the height of Klimt’s “Golden Period.” This glimmering piece was done with oil on canvas, but Klimt added gold leaf, silver, and platinum to make it shine. The work depicts two lovers embracing (hence its original name Liebespaar, or the lovers), adorned in robes of an Art Nouveau style. 

Today, this renowned oil painting hangs in the Baroque building complex, the Belvedere, in Vienna, Austria. It’s considered a masterpiece of the Vienna Succession (a Viennese version of Art Nouveau) and is Klimt’s most famous piece.

Girl with the Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer 

Year: c. 1665 | Medium: Oil on canvas | Location: Mauritshuis, The Hague

Girl with the Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer painted Girl with a Pearl Earring, an oil on canvas portrait, around 1665. While it’s had many names over the past few centuries, it took on its present name in the 20th century after the earring worn by the girl in the painting (who also wears an exotic dress and oriental turban). Today, the work hangs in the Mauritshuis, an art museum in The Hague, the Netherlands, and has been a subject in literature throughout time (including Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, a fictional story of the work’s creation). 

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (Reina Sofia)

Year: 1937 | Medium: Oil on canvas | Location: Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid 

Picasso-Guernica

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Famed Spanish artist Pablo Picasso painted one of his best-known works, Guernica, in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. This black and white oil on canvas work depicts suffering humans and animals in the midst of chaotic violence. Picasso painted it at his home in Paris following Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy’s bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country town in Spain. The bombing was requested by Spanish Nationalists of the time. 

Guernica’s shocking portrayal of the atrocities of war made it become what art critics call one of the most influential anti-war paintings in history, which has brought necessary attention to the Spanish Civil War. Standing 11’5” tall (3.49 meters) and 25’6” wide (7.76 meters), the huge painting prominently shows a gored horse, a screaming woman, flames, a bull, and dismemberment. Today, the painting hangs in the 20th-century art museum, the Museo Reina Sofía, in Madrid, Spain.

The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn 

Year: 1642 | Medium: Oil on canvas | Location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Night Watch

(Image via Wikimedia Commons

Also called Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Rembrandt van Rijn’s 1642 painting The Night Watch is one of the best-known works in the Rijksmuseum’s collection in Amsterdam. Yet another famous oil painting on canvas, the work is an important one of the Dutch Golden Age. The Night Watch is popular for its giant size, the artist’s use of tenebrism명암 대비 화법 (the dramatic use of light and shadow), and its depiction of movement. 

It’s by mastering sunlight and shade, however, that Rembrandt directs viewers to his most important subjects: the two men in the center, and the woman with a chicken behind them, at the center-left.

Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet

Year: 1872 | Medium: Oil on canvas | Location: Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

Monet Impression Sunrise (1)

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

French Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise of 1872 was first shown at the Exhibition of the Impressionists in Paris in April of 1874. This oil on canvas is said to have been the namesake of the Impressionist movement. With a beautiful combination of tones of gray, orange, and pink, Monet portrays the port of Le Havre, his hometown in Northwest France. Today, Impression, Sunrise hangs at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, France.

American Gothic by Grant Wood

Year: 1930 | Medium: Oil on beaverboard | Location: Art Institute of Chicago 

Grant_Wood_-_American_Gothic

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

An iconic work of the American Regionalist movement, Grant Wood’s American Gothic was painted in 1930 during the Great Depression in America. Currently part of the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, the painting shows a farmer standing next to his daughter (though she’s often mistakenly assumed to be his wife). Called American Gothic after the house in the background’s architectural style, it’s one of the most recognized paintings in 20th-century American art. It’s become known around the world, however, often parodied in American popular culture. It was first shown outside of the United States in 2016 and 2017 at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, respectively. 

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat 

Year: 1884-86 | Medium: Oil on canvas | Location: Art Institute of Chicago 

Georges_Seurat_ Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is French painter Georges Seurat’s most famous work. Depicting Parisians resting and chatting at a park along the River Seine, it has become famous for the pointillist technique점묘법 used, a technique which Seurat helped develop. Pointillism involves the use of small dots of color applied in patterns to form an image. 

La Grande Jatte was exhibited in the spring of 1886 alongside works of the Impressionists, and Seurat became known as the leader of a new type of Impressionism: Neo-Impressionism. Today, this famous oil painting is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago

Whistler’s Mother by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Year: 1871 | Medium: Oil on canvas | Location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Whistler’s Mother by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The colloquial name Whistler’s Mother was given to this oil on canvas work, originally titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 by James Abbott McNeil Whistler. Indeed, the subject is Anna McNeil Whistler, Whistler’s mother, who posed for this masterpiece while living in London with her son in 1871. While it is an iconic American piece of art (also called a Victorian Mona Lisa), Whistler’s Mother hangs today in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, first purchased by the French in 1891. It remains one of the most famous paintings by an American artist outside of the US.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí

Year: 1931 | Medium: Oil on canvas | Location: Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York City

The_Persistence_of_Memory

(Image via Wikimedia Commons

Spanish painter Salvador Dalí created The Persistence of Memory in 1931, and it quickly became one of the most important pieces of the Surrealist movement. Since its creation, it’s been reference numerous times in pop culture, particularly due to its most recognizable characteristics – the “melting” pocket watches. These soft, melting pieces support the artist’s theory of “softness” and “hardness,” which he explored greatly and was central to his works at the time. While some believed The Persistence of Memory to depict Dalí’s view of Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity, according to the artist, it was “the surrealist perception of a Camembert melting in the sun.” 

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt van Rijn 

Year: 1633 | Medium: Oil on canvas | Location: Unknown

Rembrandt_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Lake_of_Galilee (1)

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Yet another work by famous oil painting artist and Dutch Golden Age master Rembrandt, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was created in 1633. This work shows Christ’s disciples on a fishing boat out at sea, struggling in a storm and having lost control of their vessel. One disciple is vomiting overboard, and one, who stares directly at the viewer while holding on to his cap, is a self-portrait of Rembrandt himself. Only Christ is shown as having kept his sense of calmness. 

The scene is taken from a biblical story of Christ calming the storm, from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Known as Rembrandt’s sole seascape, The Storm at the Sea of Galilee last hung at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston but was one of 13 works stolen from the museum in 1990. Its whereabouts today remain unknown. 

The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso 

Year: 1903-04 | Medium: Oil on panel | Location: Art Institute of Chicago

Old_guitarist_picasso

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

One of Pablo Picasso’s earlier and most famous works is The Old Guitarist, an oil on panel painting created from 1903 to 1904. The work shows an old, blind, haggard초췌한 musician hunched over his guitar on the streets of Barcelona. Picasso was influenced by the movements of Modernism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Symbolism at this time. He was also living poorly, during which his dear friend also committed suicide, which marked Picasso’s Blue Period. 

One interesting fact about this famous painting is that, as X-rays have shown, 3 different figures are hidden behind the old guitarist. Today, viewers can marvel at this masterpiece at the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Irises by Vincent van Gogh 

Year: 1889 | Medium: Oil on canvas | Location: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 

Irises-Vincent_van_Gogh

(Image Wikimedia Commons)

Yet another renowned oil on canvas painting by Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh is Irises, painted in May of 1889. This is one of several works in a series also created at the Saint Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The beautiful piece was done just one year before van Gogh’s death in 1890. The irises he painted were in the hospital garden, and the style of this series was believed to have been influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, as seen in many of van Gogh’s pieces. The painting is beloved for its softness and lightness, and is “full of air and life,” as van Gogh’s brother Theo described. Today, Irises is on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California.

Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez

Year: 1656 | Medium: Oil on canvas | Location: Museo del Prado, Madrid

Las_Meninas_by_Diego_Velázquez (1)

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Spanish painter and leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age, Diego Velázquez, painted his iconic work, Las Meninas, in 1656. It’s most famous for its complexities, as this oil on canvas brings to question reality versus illusion, as well as the relationship between the viewer and the subjects shown. Thus, Las Meninas is one of the most analyzed pieces in Western painting. 

Though its meaning is widely disputed, according to Spanish art historian F.J. Sánchez Cantón, Las Meninas shows the main chamber of the Royal Alcazar of Madrid during Spanish King Philip IV’s reign. The figures shown are members of the Spanish court – Infanta Margaret Theresa, as well as her maids of honor, chaperone샤프롱, bodyguard, two dwarfs, and a dog. At the center, looking directly at the viewer is Velázquez himself painting on a large canvas. In the background is said to be the figures of the king and queen. 

Today, Las Meninas remains one of the most important paintings in Western art and has been described as a representation of the theology of painting, first by Baroque painter Luca Giordano and by many to follow. The work currently hangs in all its glory in its own room in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch 

Year: 1490-1510 | Medium: Oil on oak panels | Location: Museo del Prado, Madrid

The_Garden_of_earthly_delights_Hieronymus Bosch

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Of all the works mentioned above, this one perhaps takes the cake as the one with the most things going on at once. Hieronymous Bosch, an Early Netherlandish master painter, created The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych세 폭 그림 oil painting between 1490 and 1510. Also hanging in the Museo del Prado, it’s an oil painting on three oak panels meant to be read from left to right, and that show scenes in Eden, the garden of earthly delights (perhaps warning its viewers of human temptations), and Hell. Outside, when the panels are closed, is a depiction of what is said to be the creation of the world. 

For years, The Garden of Earthly Delights has been studied by scholars and interpreted differently, based on symbolic systems including the alchemical, heretical이단의, astrological, subconscious, and folkloric. The piece inspired many later artists to quote or incorporate elements of it, including Pieter Bruegel the Elder, David Teniers the Younger, early surrealists like Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí, and later René Magritte and Max Ernst