Artworks You Should Definitely Learn to Recognise

Artworks You Should Definitely Learn to Recognise

When (on the admittedly rare occasion) I'm asked about my favourite piece of art, I'm often left a bit tongue tied. In a world where we see hundreds of pictures a day on our phones and in our streets, it's easy to forget about true works of art.

Dipping your toe into the deep and complex world of art isn't necessarily a five minute job - but by learning about some of the most famous and recognisable pieces, you'll at least have a starting point from which to start exploring.

So let's look at ten artworks which you really should recognise. I'm sure you've seen a few of them before. Oh - I haven't included the Mona Lisa. You probably know that one already!


Edward Hopper - 1942 

Night Hawks Edward Hopper

A late-night depiction of a downtown diner, Edward Hopper's Nighthawks features three customers under fluorescent lighting behind a large glass window of a cheap restaurant. It's become an emblem of disconnection, loneliness and emptiness in the modern urban world.

Of the piece, Hopper stated that he didn't conceive it as a particularly lonely painting at the time, but that “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city." The characters seem disengaged - lost in thought, perhaps.

It's probably set in New York City, but if the painting was inspired by a real place location Hopper has done an excellent job of hiding it. The lack of landmarks or identifiable features could certainly be intentional - a way to set a universal scene, onto which viewers might project their own experiences or emotions.

The Scream

Edvard Munch - 1893

The Scream Edvard Munch

The agonised, terrorised face of the subject in The Scream by Edvard is probably one of the most recognised in the art world. As the Mona Lisa came to represent the renaissance ideals of self-control and serenity, so too does The Scream define how we might see our own time - as one wrought by uncertainty and alienation.

Munch himself wrote about the inspiration behind the painting - feeling an overwhelming sense of despair and loneliness as he watched the sun set and the sky turn red on a bridge in Oslo, when suddenly a scream pierced through the air.

The painting has transcended it's time, providing the inspiration for both the 'screaming face' emoji on your phone and the Macauley Culkin pose for the Home Alone DVD. It was consistent with the thematic features that define Munch's artwork - an artist whose struggles with mental health were ongoing and intertwined with his creative process.

American Gothic

Grant Wood - 1930

American Gothic Grant Wood

One of the most famous American paintings of the 20th Century, American Gothic is (unlike Night Hawks,) inspired by a real location in Iowa. Painter Grant Wood noticed a modestly sized white house with a large gothic style window, which he thought looked out of place.

He decided to paint it, alongside the kind of people he thought might live in such a house. To model, he chose his sister Nan and his family dentist, Byron, whom he depicted as father and daughter in front of the house.

When first entered into a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago, the painting won third place, with a cash prize of $300. It was initially received as almost satirical - a depiction of Iowans as pinched-face bible bashers - but over time became interpreted as a portrayal of steadfast American spirit.

The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dalí - 1931

The Persistence of Memory Salvador Dalí

Undoubtedly among his most famous works, The Persistence of Memory was surrealist artist Salvador Dalí at his very best. Like it's author, it's eccentric, mind-bending and throws the conventional rules out of the window.

It's commonly held that the melting clocks were inspired by Dalí's observations of Camembert cheese melting in the sun - but in my mind, equally likely that they were inspired by Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which Dalí would doubtlessly have been interested in.

The painting is desolate and dreamlike, and despite it's relatively small size (just 24 x 33cm) it is full of recurring motifs and themes typical of Dalí's artwork - such as the distorted face in the centre and the crawling ants.


Pablo Picasso - 1937

Guernica Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso was living in Paris when the Spanish Republican commissioned him to produce a mural for their pavilion. At this time, Spain had been plagued for six months by a civil war - leading Picasso (who rarely mixed art and politics) to produce something quite special.

Guernica is a depiction of a three hour blitzkrieg over the heavy bombing of the city of the same name, in 1937. It features chaotic composition, with Cubist figures typical of Picasso's style sprawling across the canvas. A panicked horse tramples it's rider; a bull bellows whilst ghost-like characters scream. The painting is packed with suffering.

The painting is a powerful anti-war statement. For Picasso it was a symbol of outrage through art, but for others it has become a symbol of peace and resistance against oppression. It is certainly a reminder of the horrors of conflict.

The Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci - c. 1495–1498

The Last Supper Michelangelo

The painting of Jesus announcing that one of his disciples will betray him (Gospel of John 13:21) has become arguably as famous as the moment itself - I'm one of many people who recognise the image, despite never having read the bible.

Da Vinci was not only a scientist, an inventor, a mathematician and an engineer - he was a brilliant artist. The attention to detail in The Last Supper is meticulous, with each disciple reacting differently to Jesus' announcement in an array of complex emotions.

The hand placement and gestures of the disciples are a source of much speculation and mystery. Judas, in case you are wondering, is the the only person to have their elbow on the table, and vertically the lowest of any of the subjects in the painting.

Water Lilies

Claude Monet - c. 1899 - 1926

Water Lillies Monet

Water Lilies is in fact a series of paintings by French impressionist artist Claude Monet. He was inspired by his own garden, where he had cultivated a pond with water lilies, Japanese footbridges and willow trees.

Monet has a distinctly impressionist style, which emphasizes and tries to capture the effects of light, colour and atmosphere; fleeting moments in time rather than staged representations of historical or mythological statements. The series is beautiful, tranquil, expressive and natural. Many of the paintings are large, as Monet intended to immerse viewers into the scene.

As Monet aged and his eyesight began to decline, his "Water Lilies" paintings became more abstract, with an emphasis on colour and gesture rather than detail. His later works are considered precursors to abstract art.

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