Modern art began in the middle 1800s, when the advent of photography seemed to make painting obsolete. If you could simply photograph something, why draw or paint it? So, artists had to reinvent art, making it more personal, impressionistic, expressionistic, abstract, deconstructed or minimalistic. In fact, art became whatever the artist said it was. Or, put another way, the artwork was merely a reflection of the artist himself or herself.
Now let’s begin the countdown for the 30 Greatest Paintings of Modern Art!
Painted during Picasso’s African art and primitivism period (1907 to 1909), this large painting depicts five young nude women who work as prostitutes at a brothel in Barcelona, Spain. The three women on the left exhibit the Iberian style of Spanish art, while the two on the right show faces resembling African masks, with which Picasso had shown great fascination. This painting, considered immoral by some, caused quite a stir in the art world and was not shown publicly until 1916; even some of Picasso’s friends thought it was terrible or just a joke. At any rate, this painting was a precursor to Analytic Cubism, a new art revolution championed by Picasso and Georges Braque and considered the most influential art movement of the twentieth century.
Generally considered the pioneer of abstract art, Wassily Kandinsky grew up in Moscow, where he created his Composition series, which comprised 10 paintings, the number seven of which Kandinsky called the “most complex piece he ever created.” Then in 1922 he moved to Germany, where he taught at the Bauhaus school of art and architecture, until 1933 when the Nazis closed the school and confiscated the first three of Kandinsky’s compositions, labeling them as “degenerative art” – and then destroyed them. The imagery found in Composition VII includes Christian eschatology, resurrection, New Age spirituality and the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse as found in the Revelation of John of Patmos.
Stewart Davis’ career as a painter arose in early twentieth century in New York City, where the Ashcan school, an artistic movement featuring artworks depicting everyday life in NYC, seemed to exemplify a period of political rebellion in America. A key painting from this period is Self-Portrait (1919). Then, in the 1920s and ‘30s, Davis developed a much more colorful and abstract style of painting that could be considered proto-Pop Art. Many of these artworks show Davis’ love of commercialism, man-made objects, Cubism and jazz. Paintings such as The Mellow Pad and A Little Matisse, A Lot of Jazz show why Davis may have been the greatest modernist painter in America – until the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and ‘50s, perhaps, but who’s to say?
Dutch painter Piet Mondrian began his career in the 1890s. A proponent of post-Impressionism and Cubism, Mondrian’s early pieces were very pleasing to the eye, even beautiful, particularly Spring Sun: Castle Ruin: Brederode (1909 – 1910). But around 1913 Mondrian gave up representational art and founded De Stijl (The Style), which exemplifies his theory of neoplasticism and for which he used only primary colors and geometric shapes, such as in Tableau I (1921). But Victory Boogie Woogie is a livelier, more optimistic piece than his earlier, austere paintings, signifying a revolutionary change in his abstraction. To sum up Mondrian’s ethos, he said, “Art is higher than reality and has no direct relation to reality. To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual.”
Sometimes called the Mother of American Modernism, Georgia O’Keeffe is famous for painting flowers, buildings in New York City, cloudscapes, and landforms in New Mexico. Many of O’Keeffe’s flowers resemble female genitalia, particularly Series 1, No. 8, which brings to mind a woman’s vulva; however, O’Keeffe denied this intension. Early in O’Keeffe’s career she painted in a realistic way but by 1914 her painting became much more abstract, though still seemed to depict recognizable objects. And, as with many abstractionists, O’Keeffe painted few if any people, an animal or two, maybe, but that’s all. Notably, she lived to be 98 and her painting, Jimson Weed (1932), sold for $44.4 million in 2014, the highest price ever paid for a painting by a woman.
An abstract painter in the ilk of the famous Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s ‘50s and beyond, Helen Frankenthaler was heavily influenced by the work of Jackson Pollock. After she saw at an exhibition of Pollock’s drip paintings in 1950, she said, “It was all there. I wanted to live in this land. I had to live there, and master the language.” She was also influenced by the water color paintings of Paul Cézanne and John Marin. Emphasizing spontaneity in her paintings, she said, “A really good picture looks as if it happened at once.” Utilizing a technique she called “soak stain,” which allowed colors to soak into the canvas, Frankenthaler’s painting Mountains and Sea is one of her first exhibited paintings and is perhaps the most popular painting of her decades-long career.
Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, a man beset by psychological problems (severe mental illness ran in his family), created one of the most famous paintings of modern times. The Scream symbolizes to many the anxiety of modern humankind, though Munch himself said he painted it as a reaction to seeing a blood-red sunset, which seemed to him a “scream of nature.” Over the decades when his paintings became exemplars of German Expressionism, Munch strove to create paintings that showed his current psychological state, even though this state may have included suicidal thoughts, pessimism, alcoholism or violent behavior. One critic wrote: “With ruthless contempt for form, clarity, elegance, wholeness, and realism, he paints with intuitive strength of talent the most subtle visions of the soul.”
Christina’s World is one of the most recognizable American paintings of the twentieth century. It depicts a woman crawling across a treeless field as she gazes at a house and other smaller buildings in the distance. The woman is Anna Christina Olson, who suffered from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, an incurable illness causing the progressive loss of muscle tissue. Regarding the painting’s inclusion is pop culture, it has appeared movies such as: 2001: A Space Odyssey (the painting hangs on the wall of a hotel room through which walks astronaut David Bowman after he passes through the star gate) and War on Everyone, in which a character looks at a print of the painting and says, “It’s kinda creepy. It’s like something bad’s gonna happen but there’s nothing she can do about it.”
Considered a Post-Impressionist painter, Paul Cézanne – whose work seems to bridge the gap between nineteenth century Impressionism and early twentieth century avant-garde movements such as Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Fauvism and Art Deco – influenced such giants of modern art as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, both of whom remarked, “Cézanne is the father of us all.” Cézanne painted The Card Players during his final period in the 1890s to early 1900s, when he had many physical and mental problems; nevertheless, he produced five paintings in this series, one version of which was sold to the Royal Family of Qatar for $250 to $300 million in 2011. This was the highest price paid for a painting until November 2017.
A Belgian painter working in styles such as Surrealism and Expressionism, James Ensor belonged to Les XX, a group of 20 Belgian artists, designers and sculptors who had an annual exhibition of their of art, to which many other prominent artists were invited. Unfortunately, when Ensor exhibited Christ’s Entry into Brussels, it was rejected by Les XX and not shown in public until 1929. Considered a scandalous work, it shows Christ riding a donkey into a carnival-like assemblage of people wearing grotesque masks; historical figures are also depicted among the crowd. Regarding Ensor’s controversial artwork, one critic wrote, “Ensor is a dangerous person who has great changes and is consequently marked for blows. It is at him that all the harquebuses are aimed.”
Claude Monet, one of the founders of French Impressionistic painting, entered Impression, Sunrise in the first showing of Impressionistic paintings at a Paris salon in 1874. Actually, the word Impressionism originated with the title to this artwork, as Monet used it to describe how the sunrise made an “impression” on him, particularly the play of light on its various aspects, in the port of Le Harve one particular morning. So, should Monet be credited as being France’s first Impressionistic painter – or, for that matter, the first such painter in the world? That’s a subject of debate. The work of painter Joseph M.W. Turner (1775 to 1851), whose work was decidedly Impressionistic toward the end of his career, could get a vote or two as the first Impressionistic painter in the world. Nevertheless, Monet is often called the Father of Impressionism.
One of the forerunners of Pop Art, which arose in British and American art galleries in the 1950s, Andy Warhol was the first artist to produce paintings of soup cans and other mundane American household products. 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans is a collection of 32 canvases (20 by 15 inches each) using synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Warhol first showed the painting at the Ferus Gallery of Los Angeles, launching the West Coast debut of Pop Art in 1962. This work of blatant commercialism riled proponents of Abstract Impressionism, which had ruled American art since the 1940s. Because of the popularity of the Warhol’s soup cans and other commercial images, he became the most famous artist of Pop Art, as his artworks were the highest-priced of any living American artist. Tragically, before Warhol had gallbladder surgery in 1987, he had the premonition that he wasn’t going to leave the hospital alive – and he was right!
Willem de Kooning was a Dutch-born painter who moved to the US in the 1920s and began painting in 1928, doing mostly figurative works. But in the 1940s his painting became less representational, particularly his black and white abstract works. After World War II, de Kooning and many other American painters such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko founded the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. In the early 1950s, de Kooning started his “Woman Series, “ which comprised six paintings of women, each of which showing the influence of Picasso – and Woman III may be the best of the series. In 2006, Woman III sold for $137.5 million, at the time the fourth most expensive painting ever sold!
Perhaps the greatest Jewish artist of the twentieth century, Marc Chagall’s painterly style was a mixture of Cubism, Symbolism, Fauvism and Surrealism. Moreover, he worked in many different artistic formats: painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramics, tapestries and fine art prints. I and the Village, like many of Chagall’s paintings, is hard to describe. As one scholar put it, the painting is a “Cubist fairy tale.” Based on Eastern European folklore and Russian and Yiddish culture, the painting juxtaposes many imaginative elements, all of which defy the laws of gravity, proportion, size and natural color. Based on Chagall’s childhood recollections, one may wonder if Chagall is the green-faced man in the painting. Incidentally, in the 1950s, Pablo Picasso declared that “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.” Chagall lived to be 97.
While serving in the US Army, Jasper Johns began having dreams about the American flag, so after he left the service he began creating artworks associated with this iconic image. In 1955, Johns created a multi-media painting entitled Flag, comprised of encaustic, oil paint and collage on canvas, then mounted on fabric and finally plywood. All 48 states (Hawaii and Alaska hadn’t been added to the union as yet) were not identical and the stripes in the flag were made with strips of newsprint and then covered with red or white paint, much of the newsprint showing through. Interestingly, Johns’ work is often associated with neo-Dada and Pop Art. And in 2014, Flag was auctioned at Sotheby’s for $36 million.
Georges Seurat was a proponent of post-Impressionism, a French art movement that developed from the late 1880s to the early 1900s and included neo-Impressionism, which more closely encompassed Seurat’s painting style, and both were included in pointillism; this is, his painted images were comprised of tiny colored dots, looking something similar to dot matrix printing. Astonishingly, The Models shows three young female models in a state of undress, and included in the upper left background of the piece is part of Seurat’s famous painting – A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. So, The Models includes two masterpieces in one. Who did that? Georges Seurat did!
Paul Gauguin was a businessman until the French economy crashed in 1882. Then he turned to painting, using the post-Impression style of the 1880s. Along the way, he moved away from Impressionism and helped explore styles such as Synthetism, Symbolism and Cloisonnism, all of which differed from Impressionism, because they emphasized two-dimensional patterns with no gradations of color, which gave paintings little or no depth or classical perspective. In the 1890s, Gauguin visited Tahiti and later the Marquesas Islands, where he lived for years with the natives and married a 13-year-old girl. Gauguin created many paintings of these Polynesians and the best of this group was Where Do We Come From?, which he considered his masterpiece and final artistic testament. And then, after finishing it, he attempted suicide, though he didn’t succeed and kept living until 1903.
A Belgian Surrealist, René Magritte liked painting artworks that challenged people’s sense of reality. Often depicting ordinary objects and/or people in unusual, improbable or fantastic settings, Magritte’s paintings take you on a dreamy trip to your own subconscious– or perhaps the collective subconscious of humankind, if such a thing exists. Golconda shows a residential scene of red-roofed buildings, over which numerous middle-aged men dressed in overcoats and bowler hats (as Magritte often depicted himself in paintings) are seen falling from the sky – or suspended in air in a kind of grid pattern. Are these men individuals or multiples of the same man? Curiously, Magritte’s mother committed suicide when he was 14, and it’s been theorized that his puzzling artworks shift from a state of her being alive – or dead.
One of the greats of Impressionism, Renior liked painting pretty women in beautiful settings and often showing degrees of feminine sensuality, a tradition that goes back to the art of Rubens and Watteau. Inspired by the work of Camille Pissarro and Édouard Manet, Renior was one of the artists to enter his paintings in the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1874. Luncheon of the Boating Party shows life as it was in those halcyon days in France; in fact, the woman playing with the dog on the left is Renior’s future wife, and the others are his many friends, including painter Gustave Caillebotte (lower right). Renior continued painting well into old age, even while suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosis of his right shoulder. Interestingly, his three sons became artists and filmmakers, notably actor Jean Renior (1894 to 1979).
Certainly one of the most eccentric, narcissistic artists of all time, Salvador Dalí once said, “I am not strange. I’m just not normal.” His grandiose demeanor aside, Dalí’s genius as a great painter is without peer, particularly as it relates to the masters of Surrealism. Astonishing and bizarre, Dalí’s images cannot be forgotten. It’s hard to believe they could have sprung from the mind of a human being! In The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, Dalí, using his interpretation of quantum mechanics, deconstructs perhaps his most famous work, The Persistence of Memory (1931). Whether one painting is better than the other, who can say? Interestingly, in 2017, Dalí’s corpse was disinterred for DNA evidence to settle a paternity suit. It turned out the kid wasn’t his! Also, shortly before his death in 1989, he said, “When you are a genius, you do not have the right to die, because we are necessary for the progress of humanity.”
Despite having polio and being seriously injured in a traffic accident at 18, for which she suffered medical problems the rest of her life, Frida Kahlo had an impressive career as a Mexican Surrealist painter (or Magical Realist, painters using realism with fantasy elements added). While living, Kahlo wasn’t well known as an artist, simply muralist Diego Rivera’s wife, until the 1970s, that is, when her legacy attacked the attention of Chicanos, feminists, the LGBTQ movement and Native Americans. Now people wrote books about her! Kahlo’s painting, The Love Embrace of the Universe, shows Kahlo with Diego Rivera, as they’re embraced by Mexico, the Earth and the Universe. Often mythologized, for better or worse, Kahlo has become one of the most recognized artists of the twentieth century. Interestingly, in 2018, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors changed the name of Phelan Avenue to Frida Kahlo Way.
Joseph Stella was an Italian-American who specialized in Futurist painting in the early 1900s. Then he transitioned to painting in the Precisionist style in the 1920s and ‘30s. Influenced by Cubism and Futurism, Precisionism emphasized America’s emergence as a modern industrialized society by highlighting its impressive bridges, skyscrapers and factories. Battle of Lights, Coney Island was one of the first successful paintings of American Futurism. Thereafter, Stella became a renowned painter in the New York art scene, though his work attracted much criticism from conservative art critics who found works of modernism threatening and impossible to define. Be that as it may, during the late 1930s and into the ‘40s, Stella’s painting style became more realistic and baroque, which didn’t fit the modernist – much less avant-garde – mold, so the art world forgot about him.
Édouard Manet’s paintings are considered integral aspects of the beginning of modern art in the Western tradition. Manet, whose work bridged the gap between realism and Impressionism in the 1860s, began his artistic career by copying the work of Old Masters in the Louvre in Paris. Luncheon on the Grass, a pastoral scene using the juxtaposition of two fully dressed men and one nude woman (the woman appearing relaxed and painted in a sketchy fashion) was controversial at the time, which perhaps explains why the painting was rejected by the Paris Salon when it was first entered. Another exceedingly influential painting Manet created the same year was Olympia, which shows a reclining nude prostitute, whose defiant gaze rivets the viewer and adds greatly to the sexual tension in the piece. Curiously, this painting was accepted by the Paris Salon!
Perhaps the greatest painter of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock created his best paintings by using what’s called action painting, a technique began in the early twentieth century by artists such as Frances Picabia and Max Ernst, though Pollock applied paint horizontally by dripping, pouring, splashing or spraying upon what was usually a very large canvas. Perhaps Pollock’s greatest period producing drip paintings was from 1947 to 1950. Many of these paintings eventually sold for tens of millions of dollars. An alcoholic, who often insulted people when drunk, Pollock tried using art to help him get sober, but he never succeeded for long, dying in an alcohol-induced car crash in 1956, age 44. Notably, a catalog introducing his dramatic style read as follows: “Volcanic. It has fire. It is unpredictable. It is undisciplined. It spills out of itself in a mineral prodigality, not yet crystallized.”
Along with Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse was one of the giants of modern art in the twentieth century; both helped advance the use of visual arts in the early 1900s, particularly regarding painting and sculpture. Around 1900 Matisse became a leader of the Fauves (French for wild beasts), that is, painters who emphasized painterly values and the bold use of color, sometimes in a dissonant way, and relied less on representation or realism. Fauvism only lasted a few years, yet Matisse had found his artistic niche, though his seemingly undisciplined painting drew much criticism. Nevertheless, from 1906 to 1917 Matisse may have created his best paintings, and Joy of Life is certainly an example of his apex output. Interestingly, when Matisse became elderly and suffered from health problems, he could no longer paint, so he used paper cut-outs instead, a technique known as decoupage.
Pablo Picasso, known mainly as a Cubist and Surrealist, may not have been the greatest artist of the twentieth century, but he was almost certainly the most prolific. By estimates Picasso may have produced as many as 50,000 artworks, including 1,885 paintings, 1,228 sculptures, 2,880 ceramics, approximately 12,000 drawings, many thousands of prints and numerous tapestries and rugs. Anyway, maybe not his greatest painting, though almost certainly his most famous, Guernica depicts Picasso’s reaction to the bombing of the town of Guernica during German and Italian aerial bombing in the Spanish Civil War. Incidentally, Picasso, living in France most of his life, stayed in Paris during World War II. Picasso was often harassed by the Gestapo, which liked to search his apartment. One time an officer found a photo of Guernica and asked Picasso, “Did you paint that?” And Picasso replied, “No, you did.”
An Austrian painter, Gustav Klimt painted in the Symbolist style, which emphasized spirituality and imagination, as opposed to realism and naturalism. Klimt was primarily a figurative artist specializing in female nudes often depicted in an overtly erotic fashion. In the early 1900s, Klimt’s “Golden Phase” was the most popular, critically acclaimed and monetarily successful of his career. Interestingly, most of these paintings included gold leaf. Over-the-top sexually, for the time, some of these masterpieces were considered pornographic. Danaë features the young woman of Greek mythology who, while locked in a tower by her father, was visited by Zeus and later gave birth to Perseus. Also painted by such as artists as Titian and Rembrandt, Danaë was a symbol of divine love and transcendence. By the way, Klimt fathered at least 14 children and died during the flu epidemic of 1918; and his painting Adele Bloch-Bauer I sold for $135 million in 2006.
A quintessential tortured genius, Vincent van Gogh, was a Dutch post-Impressionist painter who suffered from mental illness his entire life and died young at the age of 37. Though young when he died, he had produced a phenomenal amount of artworks – 2,100 of them, 860 of which were oil paintings. Also an impoverished man, van Gogh suffered from psychosis, delusions and what could be considered clinical depression. When he could no longer live with his mental issues, he shot himself in the chest with a revolver and perished two days later. The Starry Night is certainly one of his best paintings, though it would be impossible to pick the best, wouldn’t it? Van Gogh’s usage of swirls in this nocturne is perhaps its most appealing aspect. Small wonder it has become one of the most recognized paintings in the history of artistic expression. By the way, the bright object just to the right of the cypress tree is the planet Venus.
A painter of American realism, Edward Hopper became known for his oil painting, though he also painted with water colors and became a printmaker in metal etching. Painting in both rural and urban settings, it was many years before Hopper developed his own popular style; in 1931 he sold 30 paintings. Certainly Hopper’s most well-known and influential painting is Nighthawks. By the way, the scene used for Nighthawks was a diner in Greenwich Village, demolished years ago. Shown for a month at the gallery, the painting finally sold for $3,000, good money in those days. And, notably, in popular culture and the arts, the diner scene is often used as a setting where dead rock stars or movie stars gather for coffee (the waiter portrayed as Elvis, perhaps). The panting has also influenced writers and producers of plays, movies, operas, novels, albums and music videos. If there’s a more iconic rendering of modern American life, what would it be?
In the early 1900s, Marcel Duchamp rejected what was known as retinal art and instead hoped to produce art that challenged the mind. A proponent of Cubism, Conceptual Art and Dada, Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 depicts a nude woman descending a flight of stairs. Using superimposed elements that evoke motion pictures and chronophotographic imagery, Nude was shown for the first time in Barcelona, Spain in 1917. Exhibited with works of Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism, Nude scandalized show-going folks, though it eventually became an iconic work of modern art. Interestingly, Duchamp indentified with so-called anti-artists by entering “Readymades” or found objects in art shows; in fact, at a 1917 exhibition, he submitted a men’s urinal. Displayed upside down and labeled Fountain, it was signed with the pseudonym R. Mutt. Fountain was rejected at this art show; nevertheless, it eventually became one of the most famous and influential artworks in the world, though not necessarily one of Duchamp’s best!
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