You Gotta Know These 20th-Century Paintings

Below is a list of ten paintings which are frequent quiz bowl topics. This list focuses on individual paintings rather than bodies of work; thus, an artist like Georgia O’Keeffe is not included because no specific one of her familiar cowskull-and-flower paintings is sufficiently prominent. The list is notably skewed toward the first half of the 20th century, as only one work was painted after 1950. Perhaps the earlier paintings have simply had more time to be influential and make their way into the artistic canon. Also, many prominent post-1950 painters, like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, do not have a specific work with a catchy title that has gained particular attention above all others; like O’Keeffe, they are known for their style and collective body of work rather than for any one painting.

  1. Guernica, by Pablo Picasso. Guernica was a Basque town bombed by the Germans during the Spanish Civil War in April 1937. Picasso had already been commissioned to paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the World’s Fair, and he completed his massive, black, white, and grey anti-war mural by early June 1937. Picasso’s Cubist approach to portraying the figures adds to the sense of destruction and chaos. Guernica was in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York until 1981, when it was returned to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Spain.

  2. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, by Marcel Duchamp. First painted in 1912, Nude Descending a Staircase created a sensation when shown at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, where one critic referred to it as “an explosion in a shingle factory.” Painted in various shades of brown, Nude Descending a Staircase portrays a nude woman in a series of broken planes, capturing motion down several steps in a single image. The painting reflects a Cubist sense of division of space, and its portrait of motion echoes the work of the Futurists.

  3. The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dalí. First shown in 1931, The Persistence of Memory is probably the most famous of surrealist paintings. The landscape of the scene echoes Port Lligat, Dalí’s home. The ants, flies, clocks, and the Port Lligat landscape are motifs in many other Dalí paintings, and the trompe l’oeil depiction of figures is typical of his works. It currently belongs to MOMA; its 1951 companion piece, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, hangs at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

  4. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, by Pablo Picasso. This painting depicts five women in a brothel. However, the images of the women are partly broken into disjointed, angular facets. The degree of broken-ness is rather mild compared to later Cubist works, but it was revolutionary in 1907. The rather phallic fruit arrangement in the foreground reflects the influence of Cezanne’s “flattening of the canvas.” The two central figures face the viewer, while the other three have primitive masks as faces, reflecting another of Picasso’s influences. It is currently housed at the MOMA.

  5. Broadway Boogie Woogie, by Piet Mondrian. While Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and other Cubist paintings represent an extension of Paul Cezanne’s division-of-space approach to the canvas, Mondrian’s De Stijl works are a still further abstraction, such that the canvas is often divided up into rectangular “tile patterns,” as in Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue. The painting simultaneously echoes the bright lights of a marquee, resembles a pattern of streets as seen from above, and creates a feeling of vitality and vibrancy, not unlike the music itself. This work can also be found at the MOMA.

  6. Campbell’s Soup Can, by Andy Warhol. Pop Art parodies (or perhaps reflects) a world in which celebrities, brand names, and media images have replaced the sacred; Warhol’s series of Campbell’s Soup paintings may be the best illustration of this. Like the object itself, the paintings were often done by the mass-produceable form of serigraphy (silk screening). Also like the subject, the Warhol soup can painting existed in many varieties, with different types of Campbell’s Soup or numbers of cans; painting 32 or 100 or 200 identical cans further emphasized the aspect of mass production aspect in the work. The same approach underlies Warhol’s familiar series of prints of Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and other pop culture figures.

  7. Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper. As is often the case with his works, Hopper uses a realistic approach (including such details as the fluorescent light of the diner, the coffee pots, and the Phillies cigar sign atop the diner) to convey a sense of a loneliness and isolation, even going so far as to depict the corner store without a door connecting to the larger world. Hopper’s wife Jo served as the model for the woman at the bar. Nighthawks is housed at the Art Institute of Chicago.

  8. I and the Village, by Marc Chagall. Painted in 1911, I and the Village is among Chagall’s earliest surviving paintings. It is a dreamlike scene that includes many motifs common to Chagall, notably the lamb and peasant life. In addition to the two giant faces—a green face on the right and a lamb’s head on the left—other images include a milkmaid, a reaper, an upside-down peasant woman, a church, and a series of houses, some of them upside-down. I and the Village is currently housed at MOMA.

  9. Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth. The Christina of the title is Christina Olson, who lived near the Wyeths’ summer home in Cushing, Maine. In the 1948 painting, Christina lays in the cornfield wearing a pink dress, facing away from the viewer, her body partly twisted and hair blowing slightly in the wind. In the far distance is a three-story farmhouse with dual chimneys and two dormers, along with two sheds to its right. A distant barn is near the top middle of the painting. One notable aspect is the subtle pattern of sunlight, which strikes the farmhouse obliquely from the right, shines in the wheel tracks in the upper right, and casts very realistic-looking shadows on Christina’s dress. The Olson house was the subject of many Andrew Wyeth paintings for 30 years, and it was named to the National Register of Historic Places for its place in Christina’s World.

  10. American Gothic, by Grant Wood. Wood painted his most famous work after a visit to Eldon, Iowa, when he saw a Carpenter Gothic style house with a distinctive Gothic window in its gable. Upon returning to his studio, he used his sister Nan and his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby, as the models for the two figures. The pitchfork and the clothing were more typical of 19th-century farmers than contemporary ones. American Gothic is among the most familiar regionalist paintings, and it is said to be the most parodied of all paintings. It hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it was submitted for a competition by Wood upon its completion in 1930 (Wood won a bronze medal and a $300 prize).

  11. Among the many other notable individual paintings are The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even by Marcel Duchamp, Red Room by Henri Matisse, Mystery and Melancholy of a Street by Giorgio de Chirico, The Twittering Machine by Paul Klee, the incomplete Man at the Crossroads by Diego Rivera, The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, and Time Transfixed by René Magritte. Two notable painting series are the Woman series of Willem de Kooning and the White on White series by Kasimir Malevich.

Back to the You Gotta Know homepage.