Museums and textbooks are full of names of artists who’ve left their mark in history. Certain names, however, still stand out from the rest. Whether it is through their distinctive style, their participance in a pivotal art movement, or their eccentric life, these artists have achieved astounding fame. And while these creatives are well-known in popular culture now, many of them were not recognized for their talents until decades after their death.
So, who are the most famous artists? While you can probably guess the names of a few, some of the others may be new to you. Renaissance masters Michelangelo and Leonardo, for instance, are two creative titans whose names are synonymous with art and genius. Likewise, Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo are some of the most significant female artists of the 20th century.
Please note that this is not an exhaustive list that in any way indicates the most talented or most worthy of recognition. Art has had an unfortunate history of excluding women and people of color, but we look forward to that changing within our generation. This list is a reflection of the names and faces that have achieved fame, thus far.
SANDRO BOTTICELLI (1445–1510)
Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli was one of the most prolific painters of the 15th century. While the artist’s oeuvre features secular portraits and Biblical depictions, he is most well-known for his larger-than-life, mythological scenes. In fact, he was one of the first artists of this time period to revive Classical subject matter and adopt its iconography.
LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452–1519)
Leonardo da Vinci was the quintessential Renaissance man. Not only did he leave behind a collection of notebooks filled with scientific observations and illustrations, but he also left an important legacy of artwork spanning different mediums. His mastery of oil painting techniques such as sfumato and chiaroscuro can be seen in his portraits, Mona Lisa and Lady with an Ermine. The former remains as one of the most visited works of art in the world.
A master of painting, sculpture, and architecture, Michelangelo Buonarroti is one of the most exemplary figures of the Italian Renaissance. His nickname Il Divino (‘The Divine One”) is evidence of how beloved he was. Additionally, his incredible success is significant in a time when most artists did not enjoy wealth or fame while they were alive. In fact, Michelangelo is the first Western artist to have a biography published during his lifetime.
Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi—better known as Caravaggio—led a passionate and turbulent life. His artistic legacy is just as evocative in style and technique. Never before had an artist used “normal” people as the models for paintings of biblical characters. Furthermore, his masterful use of extreme light and dark, or tenebrism, added an unparalleled psychological drama to his paintings.
Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is regarded as one the most important and influential figures in the history of art. A master painter, printmaker, and draughtsman, his extensive body of work continues to fascinate art-lovers around the world. It is why he is also known as an “Old Master”—a label reserved for Europe’s most prolific pre-19th century painters.
Famous works of art: Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632), The Night Watch (1642)
JAN VERMEER (1632–1675)
Johannes Vermeer was devoted to exploring the everyday moments of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age, often painting scenes of domestic life. He was dubbed the “Master of Light” due to the way he perfectly painted how natural light danced on the skin, fabrics, and other objects. Although he was a relatively successful painter during his lifetime, there are only 34 paintings attributed to him today. Still, this precious portfolio reveals the artist’s exceptional understanding of color, composition, and realism.
Famous works of art: Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665)
EUGÈNE DELACROIX (1798–1863)
A master of color, movement, and drama, Eugène Delacroix was a leader of the Romanticism art movement and an influential figure in the work of the Impressionists. Delacroix’s oeuvre spanned contemporary events, mythological scenes, Orientalism, and portraiture.
Famous works of art: The Death of Sardanapolus (1827), Liberty Leading the People (1830)
CLAUDE MONET (1840–1926)
With a one-of-a-kind style and a pioneering approach to painting, Claude Monet is renowned as an influential Impressionist figure. Using distinctively dappled brushstrokes, a characteristically colorful range of tones, and a focus on light, the French artist created compositions that captured the essence of the movement.
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853–1890)
While Vincent van Gogh has found a significant amount of fame posthumously, his life was not as untroubled as his characteristically colorful canvases would suggest. From financial struggles to his failing mental health, Van Gogh faced many personal challenges during his career. In spite of this, he left behind a dazzling body of work—including landscapes, portraiture, and urban scenes—in an iconic style that is uniquely his own.
GUSTAV KLIMT (1862–1918)
A leader of the Vienna Secessionist artistic movement (which was associated with Art Nouveau), Austrian artist Gustav Klimt left behind thousands of drawings and a vast portfolio of painted works. He is most well-known for the collection of glistening, gilded works he produced during his Golden Phase.
Famous works of art: The Kiss (1907–8)
HENRI MATISSE (1869–1964)
Considered the greatest colorist of the 20th century and a revolutionary artist who helped define modern art, French artist Henri Matisse first emerged as a Post-Impressionist. Then, in 1904, he led the Fauvism movement, which is French for “wild beasts.” The Les Fauves were a group of modern artists who favored pure, bright colors and expressive brushstrokes over realism.
PABLO PICASSO (1881–1973)
With a career that spanned 79 years and included success in painting, sculpting, ceramics, poetry, stage design, and writing, Pablo Picasso is one of the most important artists of the 20th century. While most artists are known for one iconic style, Picasso’s changed several times during his lifetime. Some of his most distinct periods include the Blue Period, Cubism, and Surrealism.
Famous works of art: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Guernica (1937)
GEORGIA O’KEEFFE (1887–1986)
American artist Georgia O’Keeffe helped to usher in the American Modernism movement with a style that favors the interpretation of subjects rather than representing them through strict realism. Likewise, she is best known for her abstract depictions of colorful blooms and landscapes of the Southwestern United States.
Famous works of art: Jimson Weed (1936), Sky Above Clouds IV (1965)
RENÉ MAGRITTE (1898–1967)
As a pioneer of the Surrealist art movement, René Magritte created work that celebrated the subconscious mind and the world of dreams. Throughout his long career, he produced paintings that blurred the line between reality and fantasy and invited the viewer to question what they thought they knew.
SALVADOR DALÍ (1904–1989)
Few artists are as visually iconic as Salvador Dalí. Although he explored a variety of mediums during his lifetime, including sculpture, printmaking, fashion, writing, and even filmmaking, Dalí’s paintings stand out as particularly epochal. In particular, the artist developed his own visual language for depicting his own inner world, dreams, and hallucinations.
FRIDA KAHLO (1907–1954)
As one of the most famous female painters of all time, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo‘s legacy continues to make an impact today. Her passionate yet tumultuous life greatly impacted the subject matter of her paintings. She is particularly known for her compelling self-portraits, which deal with themes of identity, suffering, and the human body.
JACKSON POLLOCK (1912–1956)
American artist Jackson Pollock is considered one of the greatest painters of the Abstract Expressionist movement. His signature drip paintings—which he began producing in the late 1940s—captivated the art world. Pollock redefined line, color, and pictorial space by finding an entirely new way to fill a canvas.
Famous works of art: No. 5 (1948), Autumn Rythm: Number 30 (1950)
ANDY WARHOL (1928–1987)
American artist Andy Warhol was a pivotal figure in the 1950s Pop Art movement. While Warhol worked in a myriad of mediums, he is most famous for his polychromatic silkscreen prints and paintings. His works defined many of the movement’s most distinctive characteristics: bold, contemporary imagery; a bright color palette; and a repetitive aesthetic inspired by mass production.
Famous works of art: Cambell’s Soup Cans (1962), Marilyn Diptych (1962)
JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT (1960–1988)
In the late 20th century, Jean-Michel Basquiat turned the contemporary art world on its head. Living and working in New York City in the 1970s and 80s, the young artist helped pioneer and popularize street art by bringing graffiti into the gallery—a monumental move that made the glitz and glamor of the art world accessible to people from all walks of life.
Famous works of art: Untitled (1982), Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump (1982)
YAYOI KUSAMA (1929–PRESENT)
Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is considered to be the most famous living female artist. Throughout her illustrious career, she has developed a signature approach to her craft. Characterized by polka dots, bold color palettes, and organic forms, her aesthetic is perhaps best typified by her pumpkin art, a collection of works celebrating the subject’s “generous unpretentiousness.”
Courtesy: Modern Met