Great paintings challenge us to understand them, to penetrate their mysteries, and to appreciate their riches. But within the vast history of art, there exist only a small number of paintings that transcend the traditional role of art to become cultural signifiers—works that allow us to comprehend more deeply the world and our place within it.
So what distinguishes one of these select masterworks? Dazzling in their visual impact and their grip on the imagination, the world’s greatest paintings
- challenge the conventions of the art of their times, extending or transforming the painter’s visual language and broadening the impact of art in Western societies;
- serve as visual anchors of faith, politics, philosophy, mythology, literature, and every phase and aspect of social history; and
- depict human life in visions of enduring power, reflecting and affecting the times and cultures in which they were created.
Now, in 24 illuminating lectures, The World’s Greatest Paintings leads you in a compelling discovery of some of the most significant paintings in Western art. Taking you from the 14th century to the 20th, distinguished art historian and veteran Great Courses Professor William Kloss reveals a group of works that, in his expert judgment, rank among the greatest paintings ever made.
The World’s Greatest Paintings explores one of the supreme legacies of human life, opening rich perspectives on Western civilization through your encounter with these daring and sublime works of art.
Enter the Richness of the Painter’s World
From the opening lecture, Professor Kloss demonstrates that his aim is “to make you feel welcome and comfortable in the company of paintings.” With this focus, he guides you in a direct and engaging encounter with the images themselves, challenging you to consider how and why these paintings affect us, and inviting you to join him in looking deeply into the painter’s multidimensional visual realm.
Focusing on 65 masterpieces of Western painting, including key works by Giotto, Titian, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Picasso, The World’s Greatest Paintings offers you a vivid, visceral encounter with genius, shining light on the unique technical, stylistic, and expressive achievements of each painting.
As a foundation for the inquiry, you consider ways of defining greatness in painting:
- Uniqueness: The qualities that set a painting apart from all others in a way that influences or changes the course of art
- Impact: A painting’s effect on viewers, both initial and cumulative
- Emotional and intellectual resonance: The deepening, comprehensive experience of a painting, justifying its initial impression
Throughout the series, you witness the depth of painting’s interface with Western social institutions, culture, and thought.
Beginning with the 14th-century religious masters, you see how painting affirmed the foundations of Christian theology in the glorious images of Duccio, Masaccio, and Grünewald. You see how painters responded dramatically to political events in David’s stark portrayal of the assassinated Jean-Paul Marat and in Delacroix’s allegorical Liberty Leading the People. And you see Western social culture eloquently revealed in scenes of life by Bruegel, Steen, Hals, and Manet.
Rather than tracing particular schools or “isms,” the lectures are arranged chronologically, showing what painters of contrasting traditions and cultures were doing in the same time periods, thus following the progressive unfolding of each painter’s art. And with most lectures limited to only two to three paintings, you enjoy the rare chance to hear an expert talk at length about each carefully selected work.
Landmarks of a History-Shaping Art Form
As a core feature of the course, your study of these canvases builds the skill of viewing a painting with real discernment through an enthralling examination of the elements of composition, technique, and expression.
Among many iconic works, Professor Kloss offers a fresh look at these legendary paintings:
- Leonardo’s The Last Supper: One of the most influential paintings in the history of Western art, Leonardo’s magnum opus achieves an extraordinary blending of vivid psychological detail and rich theological symbolism.
- Velazquez’s Maids of Honor: The artist’s tour de force composition portraying courtiers, retainers, and an implied royal presence, its technical mastery and intriguing ambiguities have been discussed for centuries.
- Monet’s Water Lilies: Monet’s lush, shimmering color and light in this grand series of paintings place it at the pinnacle of 20th-century art.
Your investigation also highlights some fascinating, less familiar masterworks:
- Geertgen’s Madonna with Musical Angels: A radiant work of genius, this small-format work pulsates with layer upon layer of minute, symbolic details.
- Gorky’s The Plough and the Song, 1947: A triumph of abstract art, this glowing canvas evokes nature-based forms in a joyous, sunlit field of color.
Professor Kloss draws your attention to numerous points of entry for appreciating a painting, showing you how to evaluate composition (the artist’s arrangement of pictorial elements within the frame), style, interpretation, and technical elements such as light, color, and brushwork.
Above all, the qualities of these paintings come alive through Professor Kloss’s vivid demonstration of what it is to look deeply, through his richly incisive reflections on the paintings. He shows you how Rembrandt expresses deep emotion in The Jewish Bride through a liquid modeling of hands and jeweled fabric, in paint that “lives and moves.” You share his experience as a viewer “breathing the air” of Claude Lorrain’s magnificent landscapes. And, with remarkable candor, he conveys his own wrenching response to Hans Hofmann’s to JFK: thousand roots did die with thee.
Teaching of a Rare and Penetrating Dimension
Speaking with a passionate conviction of the value of these works, Professor Kloss deepens your enjoyment by delving into the stories behind their creation and by highlighting fascinating details of the paintings.
In Van Eyck’s Madonna of the Canon van der Paele, 1436, you learn of the highly unusual placement of a pair of eyeglasses in the composition and its relation to the biblical Magnificat in “magnifying” the Lord. You learn that the masterful pictorial composition of Whistler’s mother seated in profile came about because she was too frail to stand, as originally planned. And you learn the details of Edvard Munch’s dark vision while walking on a bridge at night, which found expression in his famous The Scream.
Taking his cue from the deeper motives that inspired these great works, Professor Kloss uses pictorial analysis to bring you directly into the presence of the extraordinary, elemental power of these paintings—their power to astonish, to uplift, to unsettle, to ultimately shake our sense of reality, leading us to richer domains of experience and of the appreciation of life.
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