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30 World’s greatest artworks

  • Multiple countries

Last updated: 13 April, 2024

Beautiful and historic art can be found the world over – and beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder – but there are some artwork masterpieces that are simply so outstanding they deserve to be admired at least once in a lifetime.

We asked the Financial Times’ art critic Rachel Spence to pick out her 30 must-see masterpieces across the globe, from South African tribal cave paintings to a surreal Starry Sky.

Table of Contents

Brancacci Chapel (1425-1428), by Masolino da Panicale & Masaccio

  • Florence, Tuscany, Italy

interiors and architectural details of Brancacci chapel

Experience

These frescoes by Masolino da Panicale and Masaccio kicked off Renaissance painting, thanks primarily to Masaccio’s command of perspective, colour and the human figure. The image of Adam and Eve cast out of Paradise is a tear-jerker par excellence.

Good for age: 18+

Scrovegni Chapel (1303-1305), by Giotto

  • Padua, Veneto, Italy

Scrovegni Chapel (1303-1305), by Giotto

Experience

Radiant, vivacious and profoundly real, the Biblical frescoes that decorate this chapel are the work of Giotto, who is considered the father of modern art. For the first time, we see a Mary who is truly grief-stricken and an angel really flying.

Good for age: 18+

Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun (c.1323 BC)

  • Cairo, Egypt

Close up of a replica of Tutankhamun's funeral mask

Experience

With its golden skin and obsidian eyes decorated with lapis lazuli, the mask of the 18-year-old Egyptian king possesses a mystic, all-knowing power that mesmerises all who look upon it.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), by Johannes Vermeer

  • The Hague, South Holland, Netherlands

Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), by Johannes Vermeer

Experience

With her strawberries-and-cream complexion balanced by a china-blue turban, this beauty is an enigma. Was she a Dutch dairymaid? Or an exotic temptress? Vermeer’s genius is to reveal that one lurks within the other.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

Guernica (1937), by Pablo Picasso

  • Madrid, Community of Madrid, Spain

Guernica (1937), by Pablo Picasso

Experience

A battle distilled to limbs, screaming faces and that tragic, terrified horse – the horror of war has never been captured more forcefully than in Picasso’s canvas, inspired by the bombing of the eponymous Basque town.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

La Pieta (1499), by Michelangelo

  • Vatican, Lazio, Vatican City (Holy See)

La Pieta (1499), by Michelangelo

Experience

Michelangelo said his mission was to find the statue within the stone – and how he succeeded with this vision of Mary grieving over her dead boy. His limp limbs and her downcast gaze seem less marble than real flesh. As he intended, their beauty suggests the hand of the Divine.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

Las Meninas (1656), by Diego Velazquez

  • Madrid, Spain

Las Meninas (1656), by Diego Velazquez

Experience

Just what is the subject of this magnificent, mystifying painting? The painter at work in his studio? The princess with her little dog? Or the royal couple reflected in the mirror? Few pictures hypnotise quite like Velazquez’s Spanish puzzle.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (1862-1863), by Edouard Manet

  • Paris, Ile-de-France, France

Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (1862-1863), by Edouard Manet

Experience

Manet’s still-shocking depiction of this fleshy nude – shamelessly picnicking with her two suited-and-booted male companions – scandalised 19th-century Paris and paved the way for Impressionism.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), by Pablo Picasso

  • New York City, New York, United States of America (USA)

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), by Pablo Picasso

Experience

Picasso’s revolutionary quintet of prostitutes – nearer to tribal wood carvings than traditional painted nudes – paved the way for Cubism and Abstract art. Deemed scandalous in its day, the haughty, unflinching stares are as provocative as ever.

Good for age: 18+

Mona Lisa (1503-1519), by Leonardo Da Vinci

  • Paris, Ile-de-France, France

Mona Lisa (1503-1519), by Leonardo Da Vinci

Experience

The smoky smile, the distant gaze, that Tolkien-esque landscape – every element of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting adds to its exquisite, enigmatic power.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

Montagne Sainte-Victoire (c. 1887), by Paul Cezanne

  • London, United Kingdom (UK)

Cezanne, Paul; The Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine; The Courtauld Gallery

Experience

This famous lilac-hued mountain presides over the green and gold Provencal plain, where blue-walled houses echo the sky. Cezanne borrowed from the Old Masters and Impressionism to make pictures unlike any seen before. Without him, Picasso would never have existed.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

Nympheas (1914-1926), by Claude Monet

  • Paris, Ile-de-France, France

Nympheas (1914-1926), by Claude Monet

Experience

There are leaves and blossoms, reflections and ripples, but Monet’s orgy of deliquescent colour – lilac, buttercream, dusky pink, ivy, ocean blue – also makes his beloved Giverny gardens a key inspiration for abstract painters.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

Rothko Chapel (1971), by Mark Rothko

  • Houston, Texas, United States of America (USA)

Rothko Chapel (1971), by Mark Rothko

Experience

Aiming to unite art, spirituality and human rights, this sanctuary holds visitors spellbound thanks to its 14 canvases by contemporary painter Mark Rothko – shimmering, fathomless lakes of blackness that soothe the soul and silence the mind.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

Self-Portrait (1500), by Albrecht Durer

  • Munich, Bavaria, Germany

Self-Portrait (1500), by Albrecht Durer

Experience

The raised finger, the direct gaze, the aura of stillness – this self-portrait of Albrecht Durer, one of the earliest set in frontal pose, recalls Christ in the act of blessing. Certainly, Durer’s gift bears comparison with the supreme Creator.

Good for age: 13+

Duration: -

Sistine Chapel (1508-1512), by Michelangelo

  • Vatican City, Lazio, Italy

Sistine Chapel (1508-1512), by Michelangelo

Experience

Potent colours, a great storyline and a line-up of Renaissance calendar boys make Michelangelo’s chronicle of world creation as compelling now as it was when it was painted 500 years ago.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600), by Carvaggio

  • Rome, Lazio, Italy

The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600), by Carvaggio

Experience

Caravaggio’s triumph of light and shade, spatial depth and human emotion leaps into life in this thrilling triptych, which tells the story of St Matthew’s transformation from tax collector to martyr.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-1886), by Georges Seurat

  • Chicago, Illinois, United States of America (USA)

: People watching a painting at a museum

Experience

Seurat’s work is the ultimate celebration of secular, bourgeois leisure. The Pointillist scene – which captures Parisians relaxing on the banks of the Seine – sums up the ‘modern life’ that was the holy grail of French avant-garde painting.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), by Jan Van Eyck

  • London, United Kingdom (UK)

The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), by Jan Van Eyck

Experience

One of the earliest paintings in oil, Van Eyck’s portrait of an Italian merchant and his wife in their home in Bruges is packed with captivating, period detail – her ermine-line robed, those exotic oranges – testifying to their wealth and status.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

The Dance (1909-1910), by Henri Matisse

  • St. Petersburg, Northwestern Region, Russia

The Dance (1909-1910), by Henri Matisse

Experience

No painting expresses the human passion for life, rhythm and energy better than Matisse’s fantasy of taut, muscular figures dancing hand-in-hand as if their world were reduced to a single pulsating circle of colour.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

The Hay Wain (1821), by John Constable

  • London, United Kingdom (UK)

The Hay Wain (1821), by John Constable

Experience

Captured in a silvery, brooding light, Constable’s scene of a hay wagon standing in a river prefigures Impressionism, creating a moment that is fleeting, timeless and more evocative than any photograph.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

The Isenheim Altarpiece (1506-1515), by Matthias Grunewald

  • Colmar, Grand Est, France

The Isenheim Altarpiece (1506-1515), by Matthias Grunewald

Experience

Glowing with fiery colours and centred on an anguished crucifixion scene, Grunewald’s vast altarpiece was painted for a monastery that cared for plague victims and is a homage to holy, redemptive suffering.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

The Lady with an Ermine (1489-1490), by Leonardo Da Vinci

  • Krakow, Lesser Poland, Poland

The Lady with an Ermine (1489-1490), by Leonardo Da Vinci

Experience

A flawless, Renaissance miss with the world’s most elegant rodent in her arms. Check out the way the ermine’s sinuous torso echoes the woman’s long fingers and elegant neck – and marvel at Da Vinci’s brilliance.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

The Night Watch (1642), by Rembrandt

  • Amsterdam, North Holland, Netherlands

The Night Watch (1642), by Rembrandt

Experience

A platoon of musketeers emerge from darkness into light. Or do they? The sharp, strange contrasts of gleam and shadow in Rembrandt’s masterpiece have baffled critics for centuries. But its sheer beauty makes it a pleasure to untangle for yourself.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

The Resurrection (1463-1465), by Piero

  • Sansepolcro, Tuscany, Italy

The Resurrection (1463-1465), by Piero

Experience

The sight of Christ, ivory-pale and oak-solid, rising from his sepulchre against the Tuscan dawn, will inspire the most secular soul. Piero was a mathematician as well as a painter, and his grasp of geometry helped him reach near-Platonic heights of perfection.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

The Starry Night (1889), by Vincent Van Gogh

  • New York City, New York, United States of America (USA)

The Starry Night (1889), by Vincent Van Gogh

Experience

So strange was Van Gogh’s way of seeing the world – butter-yellow moon, swirling cornflower-blue sky, cypresses squishy as plasticine – it’s little wonder he ended up in an asylum, where he painted this surreal night scene.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

The Tempest (1506-1508), by Giorgione

  • Venice, Veneto, Italy

The Tempest (1506-1508), by Giorgione

Experience

A brooding sky, a suckling babe, a mysterious soldier. Who? What? Why? Nobody knows the story behind Giorgione’s perfect storm of a painting whose narrative, neither mythical nor religious, makes it unlike any other picture of the period.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

The Virgin Annunciate (c1476), by Antonello da Messina

  • Palermo, Sicily, Italy

The Virgin Annunciate (c1476), by Antonello da Messina

Experience

Hang on a minute, says the Virgin, raising one finger. That’s it. The most minimalist annunciation in art history. No angel, no dove. Just a woman looking up from her book in disbelief. Technically it’s perfection, and Antonello da Messina’s emotion takes your breath away.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

Venus de Milo (120-100 BC)

  • Paris, Ile-de-France, France

Tourists visit The Venus de Milo statue at the Louvre Museum.

Experience

A rare example of ancient Greek sculpture, rather than a Roman copy, the Venus de Milo may be missing the odd limb but her sumptuous, fluid curves bestow enormous eroticism.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

  • Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, China

Close up of a soldeir's head

Bucket List Experience

Terracotta Warriors (210-209BC)

One of China’s most awe-inspiring archaeological sites and tourism attractions, the incredibly life-like terracotta warriors (and military horses) were commissioned in the 3rd century BC by Emperor Qin Shihuang to guard his monumental underground mausoleum on the advent of his death.

First unearthed by accident near Xi’an in 1974, to date more than 6,000 life-size warriors have been found – each unique – with an estimated 2,000 more yet to be excavated. The thousands of life-sized warriors are set in infantry formation in three vast covered pits.

Adult price: £17

Good for age: 8+

Linton Panel

  • Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

Panel of pre-historic rock art

Experience

Extracted from a shelter in the Drakensberg Mountains, these exquisite images of antelopes and humans in delicate tones of red and white were made by the San, a tribe of bushmen. This is one of the world’s foremost examples of rock art.

Good for age: 18+

Duration: -

Frequently asked questions

Who are the world’s most famous painters?

1. Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337)

An Italian painter, Giotto is considered the father of the Renaissance. Known for breaking away from Byzantine art styles, he introduced realism and depth. His most famous works include the frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, notably ‘The Lamentation’.

2. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

A key Renaissance figure, Leonardo is celebrated for his detailed, lifelike paintings and innovations in art. His style combined realism and chiaroscuro. Notable works include ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper’.

3. Michelangelo (1475-1564)

A Renaissance master, Michelangelo was a skilled painter, sculptor, and architect. He’s famed for his anatomically precise figures, seen in the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and ‘The Last Judgment’.

4. Raphael (1483-1520)

A Renaissance artist, Raphael is known for his clarity of form and ease of composition. His paintings like ‘The School of Athens’ and ‘The Sistine Madonna’ are iconic for their harmonious and balanced compositions.

5. Titian (1488-1576)

A leading figure of the Venetian school of the Italian Renaissance, Titian is known for his versatile painting style and use of color. His famous works include ‘Venus of Urbino’ and ‘Assumption of the Virgin’.

6. Caravaggio (1571-1610)

A Baroque painter, Caravaggio is renowned for his dramatic use of chiaroscuro and realistic observation. His influential works include ‘The Calling of St Matthew’ and ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’.

7. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

A Dutch master, Rembrandt is known for his self-portraits and biblical scenes. His Baroque style is marked by rich colors and dramatic lighting. Key works include ‘The Night Watch’ and ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’.

8. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)

A Dutch Baroque painter, Vermeer specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. Famous for his masterful use of light and color, his works include ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and ‘The Milkmaid’.

9. Francisco Goya (1746-1828)

A Spanish romantic painter, Goya is known for his bold and unorthodox techniques. His works range from court paintings like ‘The Family of Charles IV’ to darker themes, as seen in ‘The Third of May 1808’.

10. J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851)

An English Romantic artist, Turner is celebrated for his expressive colorisation and imaginative landscapes. His works like ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ and ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ exhibit a mastery of light and atmosphere.

11. Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)

A French Romantic artist, Delacroix is famous for his dramatic and colourful paintings. His masterpieces include ‘Liberty Leading the People’ and ‘Death of Sardanapalus’, showcasing emotion and movement.

12. Édouard Manet (1832-1883)

A pivotal figure between Realism and Impressionism, Manet is known for his modernist approach to painting. His notable works include ‘Olympia’ and ‘The Luncheon on the Grass’, challenging conventional art standards.

13. Claude Monet (1840-1926)

A founder of French Impressionism, Monet is renowned for his landscape paintings. His style focuses on light and colour, with masterpieces like ‘Water Lilies’ and ‘Impression, Sunrise’.

14. Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

A Post-Impressionist painter, Van Gogh is famous for his vivid colours and emotional intensity. His iconic works include ‘Starry Night’, ‘Sunflowers’, and ‘The Bedroom in Arles’.

15. Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)

Cézanne, a French Post-Impressionist, is known for laying the groundwork for the transition from 19th-century Impressionism to 20th-century Cubism. His key works include ‘The Basket of Apples’ and ‘Mont Sainte-Victoire’.

16. Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

A leading figure in modern art, Matisse is known for his use of vibrant colours and simple forms. A prominent Fauvist, his works like ‘The Dance’ and ‘Red Room’ are celebrated for their expressive, non-naturalistic colour.

17. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

A Spanish painter, Picasso co-founded Cubism and is known for his varied styles. His revolutionary artworks include ‘Guernica’ and ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, which had a significant impact on the art world.

18. Salvador Dalí (1904-1989)

A key figure in Surrealism, Dalí is famous for his bizarre, dreamlike imagery. His works, such as ‘The Persistence of Memory’ and ‘Swans Reflecting Elephants’, showcase his imaginative and eccentric style.

19. Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)

An American Abstract Expressionist, Pollock is known for his drip painting technique. His works like ‘Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)’ and ‘Autumn Rhythm’ are prime examples of his innovative style.

20. Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

A leading figure in the Pop Art movement, Warhol is known for his bold depictions of popular culture. His works, including ‘Marilyn Diptych’ and ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’, are synonymous with Pop Art.

Where should I go to see the world’s best art?

See our round-up of the world’s greatest art museums.

What are the world’s most important styles of art?

See our summary at the bottom of our round-up of the world’s greatest art museums.

Where are the best destinations to go to for art lovers?

See our round-up of the world’s best destinations for seeing world-class art.