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Last updated: 13 November, 2023

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
interiors and architectural details of Brancacci chapel
Experience

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

Florence, Tuscany, Italy

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. @Brancacci Chapel, Florence.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Close up of a replica of Tutankhamun's funeral mask
Experience

Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun (c.1323 BC)

Cairo, Egypt

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. @Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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

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

The Hague, South Holland, Netherlands

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. @Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Guernica (1937), by Pablo Picasso
Experience

Guernica (1937), by Pablo Picasso

Madrid, Community of Madrid, Spain

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. @Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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La Pieta (1499), by Michelangelo
Experience

La Pieta (1499), by Michelangelo

Vatican, Lazio, Vatican City (Holy See)

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. @St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Las Meninas (1656), by Diego Velazquez
Experience

Las Meninas (1656), by Diego Velazquez

Madrid, Spain

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. @Prado Museum, Madrid.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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

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

Paris, Ile-de-France, France

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. @Orsay Museum, Paris.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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

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

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

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. @MoMA, New York City.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Panel of pre-historic rock art
Experience

Linton Panel

Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

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. @Iziko South African Museum, Cape Town.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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

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

Paris, Ile-de-France, France

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. @Louvre Museum, Paris.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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

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

London, United Kingdom (UK)

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. @Courtauld Gallery, London.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Nympheas (1914-1926), by Claude Monet
Experience

Nympheas (1914-1926), by Claude Monet

Paris, Ile-de-France, France

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. @Orangerie Museum, Paris.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Rothko Chapel (1971), by Mark Rothko
Experience

Rothko Chapel (1971), by Mark Rothko

Houston, Texas, United States of America (USA)

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. @Rothko Chapel, Houston.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Scrovegni Chapel (1303-1305), by Giotto
Experience

Scrovegni Chapel (1303-1305), by Giotto

Padua, Veneto, Italy

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. @Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Self-Portrait (1500), by Albrecht Durer
Experience

Self-Portrait (1500), by Albrecht Durer

Munich, Bavaria, Germany

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. @Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Sistine Chapel (1508-1512), by Michelangelo
Experience

Sistine Chapel (1508-1512), by Michelangelo

Vatican City, Lazio, Italy

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. @Vatican Museums, The Vatican.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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: People watching a painting at a museum
Experience

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

Chicago, Illinois, United States of America (USA)

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. @Art Institute, Chicago.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Terracotta Warriors (210-209BC)

Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, China

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Bucket List Experience

This army of perfectly crafted, life-size terracotta soldiers – made as a memorial to Emperor Qin Shi Huang of China, who is also buried here – are China’s most compelling monument. At once moving, majestic and curiously vulnerable.

Best for ages: 8+ | £17

The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), by Jan Van Eyck
Experience

The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), by Jan Van Eyck

London, United Kingdom (UK)

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. @National Gallery, London.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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

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

Rome, Lazio, Italy

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. @Contarelli Chapel, Rome.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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The Dance (1909-1910), by Henri Matisse
Experience

The Dance (1909-1910), by Henri Matisse

St. Petersburg, Northwestern Region, Russia

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. @The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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The Hay Wain (1821), by John Constable
Experience

The Hay Wain (1821), by John Constable

London, United Kingdom (UK)

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. @National Gallery, London.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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

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

Colmar, Grand Est, France

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. @Unterlinden Museum, Colmar.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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

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

Krakow, Lesser Poland, Poland

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. @Czartoryski Museum, Krakow.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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The Night Watch (1642), by Rembrandt
Experience

The Night Watch (1642), by Rembrandt

Amsterdam, North Holland, Netherlands

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. @Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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The Resurrection (1463-1465), by Piero
Experience

The Resurrection (1463-1465), by Piero

Sansepolcro, Tuscany, Italy

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. @Sansepolcro Civic Museum, Tuscany.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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The Starry Night (1889), by Vincent Van Gogh
Experience

The Starry Night (1889), by Vincent Van Gogh

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

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. @MoMA, New York City.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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The Tempest (1506-1508), by Giorgione
Experience

The Tempest (1506-1508), by Giorgione

Venice, Veneto, Italy

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. @Accademia Gallery, Venice.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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The Virgin Annunciate (c1476), by Antonello da Messina
Experience

The Virgin Annunciate (c1476), by Antonello da Messina

Palermo, Sicily, Italy

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. @Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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

Venus de Milo (120-100 BC)

Paris, Ile-de-France, France

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. @Louvre Museum, Paris.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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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.