Modern art is a term used to describe the artworks produced in the period roughly extending from the 1860s to the 1970s. This period saw unparalleled development in the art world and some of the best known paintings were produced by artists of this age. Modern artists broke away from the traditions of the past and one of the main characteristic of the artworks they produced was to keep challenging the existing notion of art. Édouard Manet created a nude which was unmistakably depicting a prostitute; Claude Monet painted Impression, Sunrise, which was called worse than “wallpaper in its embryonic state” but gave name to the influential Impressionist movement; Pablo Picasso produced Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which became controversial for its radical style; and Andy Warhol put Campbell’s Soup Cans on canvases leading to a controversy which made Pop Art a dominant movement. Here are the 10 most famous paintings created by modern artists including The Starry Night, Marilyn Diptych, Guernica, The Persistence of Memory and The Scream.
#10 Las dos Fridas
English Title: The Two Fridas
Artist: Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist who is famous for her self-portraits which often incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds. She had a tumultuous relationship with another famous Mexican painter Diego Rivera during which they married, divorced and re-married. The Two Fridas was created around the time of Kahlo’s divorce to Diego Rivera and it is believed it portrays her loss. It is a double self-portrait. Frida on the left is wearing a white European style dress with her heart torn and bleeding while Frida on the right is wearing a traditional Mexican dress with her heart still whole. Kahlo remarried Rivera a year later and although their second marriage was as troubled as the first, it lasted till her death. This painting is the largest work of Kahlo and also her most famous.
Artist: Édouard Manet
French artist Edouard Manet is regarded as a pioneer of modern art and his works contributed significantly in modernizing painting. The most famous among these works is Olympia. The painting depicts a reclining nude woman attended by a maid. When it was first exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon, it caused a huge controversy; not because of Olympia’s nudity but because there are a number of details in the painting which identify her as a prostitute. These include the orchid in her hair, her bracelet, pearl earrings and the oriental shawl on which she lies. Also, the painting has a black cat, which traditionally symbolized prostitution. Olympia was inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino and several other paintings; but unlike these works, it did not depict a goddess or a court lady but a high-class prostitute. The most famous aspect of the painting is the confrontational gaze of Olympia; which is often referenced as the pinnacle of defiance toward patriarchy. Manet’s Olympia is regarded as a key work in modern art and it is perhaps the most famous nude of the 19-century.
#8 Marilyn Diptych
Artist: Andy Warhol
Legendary American actress Marilyn Monroe died in August 1962. In the following weeks, Andy Warhol, acclaimed as the Pope of Pop Art, made this masterpiece which contains fifty images of the actress. All the images are based on the same publicity photograph from the 1953 film Niagara. The 25 images on the left side of the work are vividly colored while the 25 on the right are in black and white with an effect of fading. Critics suggest that the contrast is suggestive of the star’s mortality. Marilyn Diptych is an iconic work of Pop Art, a movement marked by use of recognizable imagery from popular culture like advertisements, celebrities and comic book characters. It is also the best known masterpiece of Andy Warhol; and the most famous painting by an American artist. In 2004, it was named the third most influential piece of modern art in a survey of 500 artists, curators, critics and dealers, which was commissioned by the sponsor of the Turner prize.
#7 The Treachery of Images
Artist: Rene Magritte
Year: 1928 – 1929
Rene Magritte was one of the most influential figures of the Surrealism movement. However, in contrast to other surrealists who created distorted and dream-like representations, Magritte evoked strangeness and ambiguity in realistic depictions. This painting shows a pipe below which Magritte has painted the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”, French for “This is not a pipe.” The statement means that the painting itself is not a pipe; it is merely an image of a pipe. When asked about the famous painting Magritte said, “it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!” The Treachery of Images belongs to a series of word-image paintings by Magritte from the late 1920s. It was painted when he was 30 years old and is considered a work meant to counter oppressive rationalism. The Treachery of Images is the most famous painting by Rene Magritte and it is considered one of the most influential masterpieces of modern art.
#6 Water Lilies
French Title: Nympheas
Artist: Claude Monet
Year: 1896 – 1926
Impressionism was one of the most influential movements in modern art. Its artists focused on capturing the momentary effect of a scene rather than accurately depicting it. The “Nympheas” or Water Lilies series of Claude Monet has been described as “The Sistine Chapel of Impressionism”. It consists of approximately 250 oil paintings which were created by Monet during the last 30 years of his life. They are now on display in museums all around the world. The dazzling complexity of color and light in the panels opens the viewer’s eyes to the incredible diversity of nature and to the depth and mystery of the life it sustains. An amazing thing about these works is that Monet’s eyesight was badly deteriorating due to cataract while he painted most of these masterpieces. Claude Monet’s water-lily paintings are among the most recognized and celebrated works of 20th Century art and they hugely influenced following generations of artists.
#5 Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
English Title: The Young Ladies of Avignon
Artist: Pablo Picasso
Originally titled Le Bordel d’Avignon (The Brothel of Avignon), this revolutionary masterpiece is considered one of the most influential paintings of 20th century as it played a key role in the development of both Cubism and Modern art. It was a radical departure from traditional European painting. Picasso used different styles to depict each figure in the painting with the head of the women pulling the curtain in upper right being the most strictly Cubist element. The painting was controversial not only for its radical style but also for its subject. It was first exhibited to the public in 1916 and its title was changed to lessen its scandalous impact. The Avignon of the work’s title is a reference to a street in Barcelona famed for its brothel. The artwork depicts five nude female prostitutes in a disconcerting confrontational manner. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is considered by many as the most important work of Pablo Picasso.
#4 The Persistence of Memory
Artist: Salvador Dali
This iconic and much-reproduced painting depicts a scene with watches melting slowly on rocks and the branch of a tree; with the ocean as a back drop. Dali uses the concept of hard and soft in this painting. This concept may be illustrated in a number of ways like the human mind moving from the softness of sleep to the hardness of reality. In his masterpiece, Dali uses melting watches and rocks to represent the soft and hard aspects of the world respectively. The Persistence of Memory has been much analyzed over the years as Dali never explained his work. The melting watches have been thought to be an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time; as a symbol of mortality with the ants surrounding the watches representing decay; and as irrationality of dreams. The Persistence of Memory is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of 20th century art. It is not only the most famous painting of Salvador Dali but also the most renowned artwork of the entire Surrealism movement.
#3 The Scream
Artist: Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch was a Norwegian artist who was involved in the influential German modern art movement Expressionism. The Expressionists aimed to express the meaning of emotional experience rather than physical reality. The Scream is the most famous work of not only Munch but the entire movement. It shows a figure with an agonized expression against a landscape with a tumultuous orange sky. Munch created four versions of the work between 1893 and 1910. Their original title is Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature). Since the late 20th century, The Scream has been widely imitated and parodied in popular culture making it one of the best known paintings. It has appeared in advertising, films, television, etc. It was also a target of several high-profile art thefts. Two of its versions were stolen at some point but were later recovered. The Scream has been described as “an icon of modern art, a Mona Lisa for our time.”
#2 The Starry Night
Artist: Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh, who had a struggle with mental illness, admitted himself to the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in France on 8th May 1889. Although painted during the day, this masterpiece depicts the night view outside the window of Van Gogh’s room at the asylum. The Starry Night shows the artist’s interest in astronomy and a study made by the Griffith Park Observatory demonstrated that Vincent represented the Moon, Venus, and several stars in the exact position they occupied that clear night. The painting has been much analyzed with various art historian finding different symbolic elements in it. The Starry Night is one of the most recognized paintings in the history of western art. It has been widely referenced in popular culture including in a well known song by Don McLean titled “Vincent”. It is definitely the most famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh and it is regarded as one of the greatest works in modern art.
Artist: Pablo Picasso
Guernica is a town in northern Spain. On 26th April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Guernica was bombed by Nazi German and Fascist Italian warplanes on request of Spanish Nationalists. Picasso created this masterpiece in response to the bombing of Guernica. It brought worldwide attention to the Spanish Civil War and is considered one of the most powerful anti-war paintings in history. There have been numerous interpretations of Guernica since its creation. On the left of the canvas, a wide-eyed bull stands above a woman grieving over a dead child in her arms. The center is dominated by a horse falling in agony as if struck by a weapon. Under the horse is a dismembered soldier while towards its right is a frightened female figure which appears to have floated into the room through a window. From the right, an awe-struck woman staggers towards the center. The two dominant elements in the painting, the bull and the horse, are important characters in Spanish culture. Guernica is the most famous painting of modern art by arguably the greatest painter of all time.