The 18 Greatest Painters of All Time
Throughout history there have been many great painters. These individuals range from technical geniuses to abstract thinkers who have influenced the world of art over the centuries. So who are the greatest painters of all time?
Like all great art, this is subjective, but there are certain artists who have created paintings we can all appreciate as works of art. Pablo Picasso helped launch Cubism. Vincent Van Gough ushered in the Post-Impressionist movement. Leonardo da Vinci is responsible for the Mona Lisa. These are painters who have helped shaped the modern art world and had a profound cultural impact. Their skill and mastery of the art form have helped in the creation of some of the world’s great artworks.
To illustrate these amazing artists, we have put together a list of the 18 greatest painters of all time. Some you will be familiar with, otherwise, you might not know. But what they all have in common is the impact they had on modern day art and culture.
1. Leonardo da Vinci
When it comes to great painters that everyone knows, Leonardo da Vinci is at the top of the pile. Even if you aren’t into art, you would have heard of old mate da Vinci and his famous paintings during your life. The Italian artist was more than just a painter though. Da Vinci was also an accomplished writer, sculptor, inventor, engineer, musician, botanist, and mathematician amongst other things. There wasn’t much he couldn’t do.
His paintings often looked at the human form, with da Vinci using different tones and shades to capture the emotions of people on canvas. His most famous works–the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and the Virgin of the Rocks–demonstrate the polymath’s ability to paint human emotions in a life-like manner that few have been able to replicate. The Mona Lisa remains one of the most viewed artworks at Paris’ The Louvre Museum. While his paintings are legendary, da Vinci wasn’t prolific, with just 17 of his works surviving to this day.
2. Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh is one of the most famous painters in the world, but at the time of his death, he was penniless and living in poverty. The Dutch post-impressionist painter created over 2,000 artworks during his 37 years on the planet. The majority of his paintings were landscapes and portraits, with van Gogh’s paintings known for their expressive brushstrokes and vibrant colors.
Van Gogh himself had a troubled adult life. He struggled with depression and had frequent psychotic episodes, with one leading to him severing part of his own left ear. Sadly his work was never appreciated at the time and van Gogh took his own life. Since then his genius has been recognized and the Dutch painter is widely regarded as one of the greats.
He may have thought of himself as a sculptor, but Michelangelo had just as big of an impact on the painting world. The Italian, who didn’t think much of painting, is responsible for two of the most celebrated works of all time. He is the man who painted the scenes from Genesis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and The Last Judgment on its altar wall.
Il Divino (the divine one) helped pioneer the High Renaissance period of paintings and achieved much success during his lifetime. Along with his painting, Michelangelo was behind the rise of Mannerist architecture and also sculpted two of the best-known works in the world, the Pieta and David. He was also the first Western artist to have his biography written while he was still alive.
4. Gustav Klimt
This Austrian artist was a major player in the symbolist movement of the late 19th century. This style of painting was a reaction against naturalism and realism and centered on creating dreamy and captivating paintings. Most of the work from Gustav Klimt involved the human form, most notably the female body. There was often an erotic edge to his paintings, with Klimt gaining a reputation for his sexually explicit work.
Along with the female form, Klimt also painted landscapes and used gold leaf. This process involved hammered sheets of gold being used as part of the artwork. It was during this period that Klimt had his most success, with many of his paintings fetching millions at auction today.
5. Claude Monet
The founder of impressionist painting, Claude Monet enjoyed a long and successful life as an artist. His first painting, Impression, Sunrise, is credited with kicking off the movement. A depiction of the port of Le Havre, Monet’s hometown, the painting is characterized by thin but noticeable brushstrokes, the depiction of light, and a focus on the environment from different angles.
Much of the Frenchman’s work involved landscape paintings of natural environments, with his Water Lillies series one of his most famous works. Claude Monet had a pond at his home and would continually paint the changes he noticed in and around the water on canvas, resulting in over 250 different works based on the pond.
6. Artemisia Gentileschi
The Italians are really good at painting. What set Artemisia Gentileschi apart from her peers was the fact that she was female. It was rare that women were given the chance to succeed during that period of time. She was so well respected that she was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno (The Academy of the Arts and Drawing). Gentileschi specialized in Baroque painting, a style highlighted by bold colors and a focus on the movement and emotions of the subjects in the paintings. She was especially praised for the way she captured the female form and was one of the first female artists to have a major impact on the art world.
Born Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, but known to most as just Rembrandt, this prolific artist was a Dutch Golden Age painter, printmaker, and draughtsman. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t stick to one genre with his paintings. He took a crack at everything, from portraits and self-portraits to landscapes and historical scenes. He was one of the most dominant artists of this period and a massive success in his homeland. Despite this, Rembrandt had a taste for the finer things in life and found himself in debt during his latter years. He was forced to sell his vast collection of artworks and his lavish home and struggled to make ends meet during his final years.
8. J.M.W. Turner
The first British artist to appear on this list is an English Romantic painter J. M. W. Turner. The Englishman was one of the first painters to indulge in the style of realism, with his artwork often cited with bringing landscape painting to another level. Oil paintings and watercolors were his preferred methods, with Turner obsessed with the ocean. Many of his paintings focused on tumultuous water scenes. His paintings are quite striking, with his use of colors and brushstrokes both visually and emotionally appealing.
A controversial figure throughout his life, Turner, like so many famous artists, died in poverty. Unlike many of his contemporaries though, he managed to live until the ripe old age of 76.
9. Paul Cézanne
Cézanne was the connection between 19th-century Impressionism and early 20th century Cubism. His work was known for the use of geometric brushstrokes and a wild array of colors. He wanted the viewer to approach his creations from a different perspective than other artists, with his paintings coming at you from different depths and angles.
During his lifetime many of his peers and the older art community were not fans, but the young and upcoming painters saw him as a hero. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse are said to have remarked that Cézanne “is the father of us all,” with a long list of artists inspired by the Frenchman.
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10. Frida Kahlo
Mexican art wouldn’t be where it is today without Frida Kahlo. The painter helped propel the post-revolutionary Mexicayotl movement forward with her incredible prints. Her portraits and self-portraits were more than just images though, with Kahlo addressing issues of gender, race, class, and identity through her artwork. She also incorporated elements of surrealism into her work, such as her famous piece The Wounded Deer. Towards the end of her life, she became fascinated with Mexican folk art, with many of her final paintings done in this style.
Kahlo suffered from many debilitating health problems throughout her life and sadly passed away at 47 in 1954. It wasn’t until the 70s when her art was rediscovered that it became widely praised and Kahlo was credited as one of the greatest painters of all time.
11. Salvador Dali
Few painters in the surrealist art scene were as successful as Salvador Dali. The Spanish artist was initially influenced by Impressionism and the Renaissance era of painters, before shifting gears and taking inspiration from the newly found Cubinsim movement. This led him to the surrealist movement where he made a name for himself with his weird and wacky creations. His most famous piece is The Persistence of Memory which featured images of melting watches, something that would mark Dali paintings in the future.
Along with his eye-catching paintings, Dali was known for his sculptures and photography, with the eccentric artist often dealing with themes of science, religion, sex, and the subconscious in his work. Some of his paintings are just downright bizarre, but there is no doubting Dali had a major impact on the modern art world and pop culture in general.
12. Jackson Pollock
An alcoholic with a volatile personality, Jackson Pollock was also a major player in the American art world. He used the ‘drip technique,’ a form of painting where he would drip or splash paint onto a canvas and create abstract paintings. He would often use his entire body as the paintbrush, moving across large canvases and spraying paint all over the place. Due to the way he created his art, he was seen as a controversial figure by critics.
Some praised the creativity and emotion he put into his work, while others dismissed his style and thought his paintings didn’t deserve to be showcased in exhibitions. No matter their thoughts, the public loved him, with his work housed in galleries such as MoMa and The Tate and often fetching ridiculous amounts of money at auction. It is rumored that in 2016 his painting titled Number 17A sold for a whopping US$200 million in a private purchase.
Pollock’s final years were plagued by alcoholism that saw the derotation of his marriage. He passed away in a car accident at the age of 44 in 1956.
13. Mary Cassatt
One of the more modern artists on this list, Mary Cassatt was one of the leading females in the Impressionists style. The American artist was often at odds with her male counterparts, many of whom dismissed her work. This didn’t deter Cassatt, who really found her niche after moving to Paris. She became an expert using pastels, with much of her best work created between the late 1870s and early 1880s. She was a main part of the feminist movement that swept through the art world and general society, with many of her paintings depicting women and young children. Though she wasn’t overtly crusading, she was part of the ‘New Woman’ movement, with her paintings often focusing on the perspective of 19th-century women.
Another prolific artist, Cassatt continued painting despite a raft of health issues, finally being forced to stop in 1914 after she almost went blind due to her health. She lived for another 12 years before passing away at her home in Paris.
14. Johannes Vermeer
Part of the Dutch Golden Age crew, Johannes Vermeer specialized in Baroque-style paintings. He often depicted middle-class life in his art, using a mixture of dark colors, such as browns and greys, and more saturated colors such as reds, yellows, and blues. Many also point to his use of the pigment lapis lazuli–a deep blue color–as a major contribution to the beauty of his creations. There is a warmth to many of his paintings, with his use of colors spectacular.
Vermeer only created around 50 paintings during his short life and wasn’t held in the same high regard as he is today. It wasn’t until two centuries later that his paintings got the praise they deserved.
15. Wassily Kandinsky
This famous painter is known for his work in the field of abstract painting in the West. It wasn’t until he hit 30, when he gave up a promising career teaching law and economics, that the Russian began to express himself through his painting. He moved to Munich and enrolled in the Munich Academy before returning to Russia after World War I where he helped establish the Museum of the Culture of Painting. He then made his way back to Germany to teach at the Bauhaus school of art and architecture, before finally settling in France where he lived out the remainder of his life.
Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings are vibrant, colorful designs that pop off the canvas. While his early work is inspired by the Impressionist era, his best pieces came about in his later years when his paintings got more abstract. These artworks often found him ruminating on religion (he was a devout Christian) and consisted of shapes and patterns in bright and dazzling colors.
16. Tamara de Lempicka
The Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka found fame with her Art Deco creations in the 20th century. At a time when Impressionism was all the rage, de Lempicka bucked the trend and did her own thing. Living between France and America, she produced mainly portraits with dynamic lines and bright colors. She was especially fond of nudes, managing to capture the sensuality of the human body without delving into erotica.
Along with finding fame with her paintings, de Lempicka was a well-known socialite who mixed with the rich and famous. She was often commissioned to paint portraits of the wealthy and would go on to marry art collector Baron Raoul Kuffner. This soon found her crowned with the moniker of ‘The Baroness with a Brush.’ Her work is still celebrated today, with many celebrities (such as Madonna, Jack Nicholson, and Barbra Streisand) known collectors and admirers.
17. Edvard Munch
The name might not be familiar but there is no doubt you have seen Edvard Munch’s most famous painting. The Scream depicts a man holding his face and screaming. The image, along with the reds and blues used in the painting, is meant to symbolize anxiety and a feeling of dread. While The Scream is his most iconic piece of art, Munch is responsible for many more incredible pieces. He trained under the likes of Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and was encouraged to put his soul on the canvas by nihilist Hans Jæger.
Alongside The Scream, his series of paintings known as Frieze of Life—A Poem about Life, Love, and Death, are his most memorable. As the title suggests, these paintings focus on life, love, and death, and would become key themes throughout his career. He spent the last 20 years of his life in near solitude, painting landscapes and female models before passing at the age of 80. He is regarded as one of Norway’s finest artists.
18. Paul Gauguin
At the time of his death, nobody cared much for French painter Paul Gauguin’s contribution to the art world. Fast forward a few years and Gauguin was quickly bestowed the praise he deserved while alive. A significant artist in the Symbolist movement, Gauguin’s work features experimentation with colors. He helped bridge the gap between old art and modern art, using thick brush strokes and eye-popping colors. He was a big influence on Pablo Picasso and the avant-garde art scene. Gauguin spent his final ten years living in French Polynesia, painting the local landscapes and people.
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