Since the dawn of time, mankind has expressed itself through various forms of creative expression. Be it music, architecture, literature or art, the human species has always found an outlet for its stream of thought. Art and Paintings have been a loyal companion to not just the expression, but also the recording of thought processes throughout the ages. Cave paintings were made as a record of the kind of life the ancient man lived: the kind of animals they hunted, the family unit that they lived with, and the kind of geological processes taking place all around as observed by them. The Renaissance Era brought with it the light yet incredibly detailed handiwork of expert artists, the involvement of various religious and biblical figures and settings as well as highlighting the social structures as existing at the time through portraits of the rich and influential. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism introduced the idea of objectivity through one’s paintings, a concept quite stark in contrast to the intimacy and privacy of the Renaissance artworks.
* Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
The most parodied, replicated, visited, documented and recognized work of art in the world, Mona Lisa by Italian painter Leonardo da Vinci naturally falls into this list. Leonardo da Vinci was not just an artist, but a Renaissance man–a person who dabbled and excelled considerably in mathematics, sculpting, music, architecture, science, engineering, astronomy, geology, and many, many more. Phew. Painted between the year 1503 and 1506, the Mona Lisa has stupefied and astounded art lovers and the general public around the world for decades. Why, you ask? All thanks to that mysterious, enigmatic smile, of course. Art historians and enthusiasts, time and again, have described the painting as one to which no photograph could do justice, as compared to seeing it in actuality. But who is this Mona Lisa as a person? The most accurate accounts of this personality are said to be a certain Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo of whom da Vinci was a mutual friend. Mona, in Italian, is a polite way of addressing a lady in Italian, much like Madam or Ma’am in English. The painting is known as La Joconde in French, meaning ‘jocund’ (the lively, playful one), which is literally a play on the family name Gioconde, which carries the same meaning in Italian. Today, the painting rests in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
* Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Starry Night by Dutch post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh is among his finest works ever made. An expert in the technique of impasto painting, van Gogh used bright and vivid colours to accentuate and add a three-dimensional effect to an otherwise two-dimensional painting. Van Gogh painted this piece in the year 1889, when he was self-admitted in an asylum in Provence, France. He is regarded as one of the most influential painters in the world of Western Art, inspiring an art movement and technique quite rarely seen even today. His vision of colours, of using technique to breathe movement into a still-life painting stands unparalleled. However, van Gogh’s personal life was riddled with severe mental illness and poverty. His infamous row with fellow painter and friend Paul Gauguin led to him slicing off a part of his left ear and subsequently admitting himself to the said asylum, an incident as famous as his work. He produced more than 2000 works of art in just a decade, and dabbled with multiple mediums such as sketches, oil as well as charcoal. This amazing painter left the world when he committed suicide in the year 1890, when he was merely 37 years of age. Today, this masterpiece resides in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
* The Scream by Edvard Munch (1863-1944)
The Scream (or The Cry) by Norwegian Expressionist painter Edvard Munch is seen as an iconic depiction of deep-seated psychological themes inspired by late 19th century Symbolism. Painted between 1893 and 1910, Munch’s use of evocative and vivid colours signifying mental turmoil has long been hailed as “the Mona Lisa of our time” (Arthur Lubow, journalist). Multiple theories have been suggested as to the symbolic meaning behind this painting: one of the most popular being the presence of a nearby slaughterhouse and lunatic asylum contributing to the “shriek” or “scream” that the painting embodies. It is said to have been painted on the Ekeberg hill overlooking Oslo, Norway; incidentally, Munch’s sister, Laura Catherine, was believed to be housed at the lunatic asylum located at the foot of the hill. Another suggestion regarding the sexless character shown “screaming” is Munch having drawn inspiration from Peruvian mummies which he would have seen at the Exposition Universelle (1889) in Paris, by Munch scholar Robert Rosenblum. This painting can be found today in the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway.
* Girl With A Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)
A lesser-known (at the time) contemporary of Rembrandt, Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer painted Girl With A Pearl Earring circa 1665, depicting a European girl wearing what seems to be an Oriental headdress and an unusually large, supposedly pearl earring. Not much is known about the painting–or its artist, for that matter–since he doled out relatively fewer pieces as compared to other artists at the time. Vermeer was entirely overlooked during his active years, only to be rediscovered by German museum director Gustav Waagen in 1860, almost 200 years after his death. Waagen stumbled upon one of Vermeer’s pieces, named The Art of Painting in the Czernin gallery in Vienna, Austria. It was wrongly attributed to another artist, Pieter de Hooch, at the time. Further exploration into the artist’s life and his painting techniques revealed over 70 works produced by him, although many of them regarded as uncertain of origin. Today, 34 paintings have been universally accepted as certified Vermeers by scholars and art historians worldwide. Girl With A Pearl Earring is on display at Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands snce 1902 till today.
* Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
One of the most powerful paintings by an equally powerful and influential artist, Guernica (1937) by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso stands as a testament today to the horrors of war and violence. The story behind this painting goes: Guernica is a town in the Biscay province of Basque Country in Spain. It was seen as the northern citadel of the Republican resistance movement during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, opposed the Republicans and believed in bringing back the “golden” days of a Spain that was built on orthodox Catholic values and law & order of the same. Around 4:30pm on 26th April, 1937, warplanes of the Nazi Nationalist Party led by Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, bombed the town of Guernica for two hours. This bombing was funded by Hitler in order to test out new weapons and ammunition. Therefore, the bombing of Guernica which led to the loss of countless innocent lives was essentially a casual bombing practice for the Nazis. Picasso painted Guernica as a response to this tragic event, using significant cultural Spanish symbols such as the bull and the horse. Guernica was exhibited worldwide on a short tour, marking its significance as a powerful anti-war symbol, relevant even today. The painting is housed in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain.