1. "Starry Night" by Vincent van Gogh (1889)
Starry Night might just be one of the most loved paintings in art history. The bold brush strokes of swirling sky and bright colors fill me with so much energy and excitement. The dead, dusky tree in the foreground offers an ominous contrast. And, because it looks like a castle, it gives the scene a real fairytale feeling. I could stare at Van Gogh’s masterwork for ages!
2. "Starry Night Over the Rhone" by Vincent van Gogh (1888)
The similar but lesser known Starry Night Over the Rhone by the same artist is also a painting that demands a prolonged stare. The stars and the reflection of the street lights give off a wonderful firework-display-like image. Perhaps because I’m from a coastal town, this painting really makes me long for home.
3. "Allegory of April--Triumph of Venus" by Francesco Del Cossa (1476-84)
Del Cossa painted one of these for each month of the calendar year, but April’s image of Venus being carried by two beautiful swans is my favorite of the seven remaining frescoes. You just have to stand back and admire the attention to detail that renders a mythological scene so pregnant with life and imagination.
4. "Lady with An Ermine" by Leonardo da Vinci (1490)
Have you ever seen this beautiful Leonardo Da Vinci portrait before? In my opinion, it deserves to be better known. See how the graceful and slender profile of the ermine is mirrored by the curious close-fitting hairstyle wrapped under the chin of the lovely young lady. Her long neck is accentuated in such a way that only a true genius could conceive of.
5. "View of Toledo" by El Greco (1597-99)
Most landscapes are a little on the dull side, but not this painting by El Greco. The onrushing storm presents an ominous warning to the beautiful medieval city, yet the light peering through the clouds manage to fill the scene with enough light so that everything is marvelously illuminated. Arguably no painting captures the drama of weather better than this.
6. "The Burial of Count Orgaz" by El Greco (1586-88)
The arched form of this El Greco masterpiece brilliantly presents and illustrates the contrast between this world and the Kingdom of Heaven above. The different emotions of the parallel scenes are accurately expressed with the alternating uses of color. This scene always touches me with thoughts of life, death, and the afterlife.
7. "Cardinal Fernando Nino de Guevara" by El Greco (1600)
As you can tell, El Greco is one my most favorite artists. Take this seemingly simple portrait as an example and illustration of his astonishing subtlety. I could go on for hours about the little details of the floor, chair, jewelry, wall, and dress of the sitting cardinal. It’s not just the brilliance of the technical skill required to paint such elaborate patterns and clothing folds, but the humanity of the subject that gets me every time.
8. "The Commemoration of Guidoriccio Da Fogliano at the Siege of Montemassi" by Simone Martini (1328-30)
Not many people have seen this painting from the 14th century, but I can’t get enough of it. The trotting horse and rider wearing matching harlequin costumes, the castle, and houses, make me feel as though I’m right there back in the middle ages, like some Arthurian knight rescuing a damsel in distress.
9. "Las Meninas" by Diego Velazquez (1656)
There’s so much going on in this domestic scene that I never tire of gazing into it and wondering about the feelings and emotions of the various subjects. We see a painter standing back and looking at his work, while his apparent subject, a little girl, is being coaxed by two young ladies to remain still. Perhaps Valezquez wants us to know what kind of busy scene he used to have to put up with while he painted.
10. "The Dance Foyer at the Opera on the Rue Le Peletier" by Edgar Degas (1872)
Degas’s pictures of ballet dancers are always a pleasure to look at, particularly the rehearsal scenes. Just like the previous painting demonstrates and offers a window into the process of creation, the same can be seen here, as the young dancers limber up.
11. "A Bar at the Folies Bergere" by Edouard Manet (1882)
What is the man saying to the barmaid to make her so sad? This is the question that vexes and entertains me time and again as I gaze at this painting. The mirror behind her shows the many dozens of guests in the beautiful restaurant. It’s wonderful how, amongst all these people, Manet managed to isolate the young lady so poignantly.
12. "Adoration of the Magi" by Gentile da Fabriano (1423)
Only a very special painting can take one’s eyes away from such an ornate and gorgeous frame, and luckily, the Adoration is just such a painting. Like many of the above images, this scene dazzles partly because of its fervor and variety. The Adoration of the Magi is an important story in Western cultural history, yet the Bible offers only a base outline. In contrast, this painting fills the story with life and color.
13. "The Birth of Venus" by Sandro Botticelli (1485)
The beautiful naked goddess Venus emerges from the sea in a scene immortalized by renaissance artist Botticelli. If there’s one picture in all of art history that illustrates beauty more perfectly than this legendary masterwork, then I’d love to see it.
14. "Primavera" by Sandro Botticelli (1482)
Just look at the contrast between the dark fruit tree background and the lily-white human figures here! The way Botticelli has illuminated this scene makes me think that photography will never be able to match his achievement in rendering such a mystical and romantic effect.
15. "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch (1500)
Of all the paintings presented here, Bosch’s famous triptych is my favorite. The multiple scenes depicted here never cease to amaze and excite me. I can only wonder at the size of his imagination. The astonishing thing is that he painted more than one such picture. How long can you gaze at this incredible work of genius without seeing something new? It takes me about three seconds!