Classical Modern Art Paintings You Should Know

It’s hard to not recognize Van Gogh’s iconic Starry Night or Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (especially after you’ve seen so many memes with them). Knowing classical modern art pieces is like knowing iconic movie quotes (“Luke, I am your father”.) Everybody understands the references and can relate.

Not only is familiarity with classical modern art pieces good for understanding memes, but it’s also important in connecting with people across cultures and time periods. Just as with classical movies, referencing an art piece can be an immediate ice breaker. Here is a list of 10 classical modern art pieces you should know.


Pablo Picasso – Guernica (1937)

Everyone knows Picasso for his cubism style and Guernica is one masterful example of that. It is a haunting painting because it depicts the violence of the Spanish Civil War and the darkness of the human psyche. He uses the female body – motherhood, fertility, and hope – to depict pain and suffering in the war. It gives you chills just thinking about it.


Vincent Van Gogh – The Starry Night (1889)

The swirling night sky and flaming stars are unmistakable parts of this painting. Van Gogh painted The Starry Night during his stay at the asylum Saint-Paul-de-Mausole near the village of Saint-Rémy. He drew the village from his imagination and painted the church from memory of architecture in his homeland. Currently at Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.


Frida Kahlo – The Two Fridas (1939)

The Two Fridas is an amazing work depicting two contradictory personalities within Frida Kahlo as both the traditional wife as well as a modern-dressed independent woman. This painting can console you if you’re currently going through heartbreak because even though The Two Fridas have their hearts exposed and their artery mutilated, there is a sense of solidarity between them. Currently at Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, Mexico.


Salvador Dali – The Persistence of Memory (1931)

Salvador Dali, with his ecstatic personality and unforgettable mustache, is a favorite of many. The Persistence of Memory is an iconic surrealist piece. Looking at The Persistence of Memory actually feels like being in a dream.


Claude Monet – Water Lillies Series (1896-1926)

Monet’s painted over 250 oil paintings in this Water Lillies series and critics didn’t appreciate him for it. They considered the series unsophisticated. But, the later abstract impressionist movement saw the importance of Monet’s paintings and brought it back in fashion. That would explain why there are so many Water Lillies tapestries hanging in girls’ dorm rooms. Can be seen in numerous museums around the world.


Andy Warhol – Marilyn Diptych (1962)

If you’re not familiar with Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, you should definitely know this piece. Marilyn Monroe’s death from a drug overdose in 1962 made Warhol obsessed with the brutality of fame. He created more than twenty silk prints of a well-known Marilyn portrait in bright and popping colors. The repetition of the silk prints mirrors the constant presence of the media and the change in color reminds us how fleeting time is. Owned by The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourn, Australia.


Wassily Kandinsky – On White II (1923)

Kandinsky’s On White II is a fun collage of colorful geometric shapes on a white canvas. It depicts life, in all of its surprises and opportunities. The black shapes spreading out from the center of the painting, on the other hand, portray the anticipation of death. Who knew geometric shapes could say so much? Currently at Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France.


Henri Matisse – Woman With A Hat (1905)

Woman With A Hat is a sketch-like painting of Matisse’s wife. She is shown in intensely hued colors, wearing an extravagant costume and an indulgent large hat. This painting was Matisse’s way of being rebellious. Instead of regular brush strokes and boring colors that people at the time used in all their painting, Matisse paints an unconventionally colored woman. Currently at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, USA.


Jackson Pollock – Number 5 (1948)

You might say that this painting is just a splatter of paint. And in a way, that’s exactly what it is. This is a historic piece for the abstractionist movement because Pollock completely abandoned brush stroked, and instead moved around the painting guided by emotion applying drips from brushes, sticks, and syringes.


Georgia O-Keeffe – Music Pink and Blue (1918)

O’Keeffe’s art is intriguing because she puts nature under a microscope. Music Pink and Blue has close-ups of petals and it the magnification totally changes the flower into something deep and abstract. The colors sway throughout and make the painting look beautifully musical.

cover image by @derickray

Have any of these famous pieces been significant and meaningful in your life? What role does art play in your life? Are there any additional art pieces you think should be added to our list? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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