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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Li

What Makes a Painting Famous and How Should We Approach Them?

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

Figure 1: Close-up shot of The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci


We all know famous paintings, or at least we know what they look like. Familiar and iconic works like the Mona Lisa or the Starry Night define our first preconceived notion of art. We generally accept that these paintings represent humanity's greatest artistic vision and skill and therefore deserve their rightful pedestal as the most famous works of art. However, should "famous" and "great" be used synonymously? Art critic Edwin Mullins in his BBC television broadcast series titled 100 Great Paintings, compiled a list of masterpieces in mostly the Western world that were exemplary to the art experience, in which he purposely avoided household names. So if there exists an evident dissimilarity between professional and popular opinion, then by what criteria are paintings deemed great? What or who made them so famous? What sets them apart? Is the attention that they receive justified? And how should we regard them?

Figure 2: The Last Supper, 1495-98, Leonardo Da Vinci

Case Study on The Last Supper

I want to begin this discussion with my recent rediscovery of The Last Supper (figure 2) in my AP Art History class. Leonardo Da Vinci painted this mural over the course of three years during the High Renaissance on the refectory wall in Santa Maria delle Grazie under a commission by the Duke of Milan. A true Renaissance man and an artist-scientist, Da Vinci balances Renaissance tradition with personal innovation. The subject of Christ's last meal before his crucifixion with his disciples painted in a monastery's dining hall was prevalent; Da Vinci even reused the composition of a wide shot angle with Christ in the center. However, Da Vinci brings a new level of humanism and compositional subtleties to his work. When Christ informed his followers that one of them would betray him, the disciples reacted in varying degrees of shock, denial, and outrage. This chaos skillfully contrasts with Christ's calamity, emphasizing his divinity over the mortal world.

Figure 3: The Last Supper, 1445-50, Andrea del Castagno

Furthermore, Da Vinci places Christ before a bright window, creating an almost backlit effect that evokes a halo (Castagno's work in figure 3, for example, uses halos to indicate divinity) without explicitly painting circular disks over his head. Geometry and perspective are also designed constructively. Christ's body forms an equilateral triangle, representing his strength and purpose amidst the frantic motions of the disciples. The focus on his figure is further emphasized by placing the vanishing point of the picture plane at his temple. These underlying geometries subconsciously appeal to our sense of beauty, resulting in what we agree to be a masterpiece.

The Last Supper is undoubtedly ingenious. It is exemplary of its time, yet its charm stretches beyond the bounds of its time. However, the main root of The Last Supper's fame is entirely unrelated to Da Vinci's crafted artistry but rather its miraculous survival. Inherently fragile from Da Vinci's failed medium experiment using an amalgam of tempera and oil paint (fresco would have been the preferred medium), the mural survived humidity, attempted removal, anticlerical attacks, and, most dramatically, a bombing during WWII. In fact, many artworks were first popularized by their news-worthy stories: Mona Lisa was just another painting in the Louvre until one of the museum staff, Vincenzo Peruggia, stole it in 1911 while implicating high-profile artists like Pablo Picasso; The Starry Night was an obscure piece from a private collection until it was sold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1941 when Van Gogh's turbulent mental health began to reach the public. Media coverage is often why art historians study these works more carefully, which exposes people to their brilliance.

Figure 4: A study for The Last Supper, 1494, Leonardo Da Vinci

As for artfulness, it is a quality based on but transcending technical skill. The work reflects not only the characteristics of its time but also the vision of the artist, resulting in a contemporary sense of timelessness. During the fifteenth to sixteenth century, The Last Supper served its function of entertaining monks who lacked the pleasure of conversation. While adhering to biblical subject matters, Da Vinci employs his studies of anatomy and mathematics to produce realistic human motions and emotions coupled with simplistic unity. Even from a modern viewpoint, one without the cultural and religious context of the Renaissance, the mystical effect of the Christ figure endures.

Figure 5: The Last Supper, 1592-1594, Tintoretto

Relative uniqueness is also an essential trait for famous works, for there may be others that match its greatness but none that do so in quite the same way. The Last Supper by Tintoretto (figure 5) depicts the same subject during the same overarching period as Da Vinci's last supper. The former's use of a unique angle, strong contrast, and energy-charged brushstrokes create a supernatural quality entirely different but equally powerful as the latter's rationalism. Like how there exist multiple masterful last suppers, famous works are not irreplaceable. Rather, they are a group of representative works that together form a string that ties art history together in a concise overview.

Figure 6: From left to right, Scene from The Simpsons (1);"Kendrick Lamar - HUMBLE." (Kendrick Lamar, 00:01:20) (2); The Wounded Table, 1939-40, Frida Kahlo (3); Lesbian Last Supper, 2012, Bronwyn Lundberg (4); Scene from Sopranos (5)


Like various topics or persons in this modern technological age of mass media, the reputations of these famous works of art can snowball rapidly. While this has allowed them to reach international audiences, it also has monotonized people's understanding of art. As these works flood into popular culture, making their way into media through appropriations like parodies (figure 6), their original meaning and purpose slowly fade away.

However, it is not at all superficial to pursue famous paintings. As previously mentioned, most, if not all, of these works are highly regarded primarily for their artistic achievement. We should first respect them, for they encapsulate individual creativity in a time that has passed. Then, we should set their over-inflated fame and any prior expectations associated with their fame aside and approach them with a critical look. Take an interest in their background, but most importantly, examine with your own eyes and intuition. This is the rewarding process that I have experienced with Da Vinci's The Last Supper, from assuming that it is great to recognizing why it is great.

Works cited

"10 Secrets of The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci." Leonardo Da Vinci: Paintings, Drawings, Quotes, Facts, & Bio, Accessed 10 June 2022.

"100 Great Paintings." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 1 June 2022, Accessed 10 June 2022.

"A Brief History of Van Gogh's "Starry Night"." Art & Object, Accessed 10 June 2022.

Cain, Áine. "Da Vinci's Iconic Depiction of Easter's Beginnings Has a Violent History It Barely Survived." Business Insider, 26 Mar. 2018, Accessed 10 June 2022.

"Last Supper (del Castagno)." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 30 May 2022, Accessed 10 June 2022.

"The Last Supper." YouTube, 10 Apr. 2013, Accessed 10 June 2022.

"Mona Lisa." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 7 June 2022, Accessed 10 June 2022.

Witte, Rachel. "What Makes an Artwork Famous?" DailyArt Magazine, 21 Jan. 2022, Accessed 10 June 2022.

Zucker, Steve, and Beth Harris. "The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci (article)." Khan Academy, Smarthistory, Accessed 10 June 2022.


More parodies of different famous works of art can be found here.

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