Scientist, musician, mathematician, inventor and painter -- Leonardo da Vinci, the artist of the most famous painting of all time -- was born in Vinci, near Florence, in 1452. After commissions by the duke of Milan, Lodovico Sforza, to paint an altarpiece, the Dominican friars heard of da Vinci's talent and commissioned him to paint "The Last Supper." Originally, da Vinci refused to finish the faces of Judas and Jesus, believing himself incapable of the task of recreating divinity in physical form and portraying the saintliness and betrayal in Judas. He did, however, complete the painting years later.
As da Vinci's fame grew, Francesco del Giocando hired him to paint a portrait of his wife Lisa ("Mona" was a polite form of address in Italian). Da Vinci worked on the portrait for four years and left it incomplete. To emphasize her beauty, he would hire musicians and jesters to play for her while he painted; the result is the acclaimed "Mona Lisa smile," mysterious, elusive, omniscient and considered practically divine. Da Vinci died at the age of 67. According to Giorgio Vasari, he died in the arms of the king, and the city of Florence mourned the passing of its visionary.
Born in 1606 in Leiden, The Netherlands, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn is one the most famous portraitists of all time. Though he began painting general portraits as well as paintings like "The Night Watch" that captured a group scene and for a time dabbled in still life, after the death of his wife and infant children, he shifted to biblical characters for inspiration. His works capture a deep sense of compassion and warmth.
Vincent van Gogh, who lived a life of reckless despair and mental instability after numerous disappointments, transposed his energies into his paintings. The Dutch-born, post-Impressionist artist was supported by his brother, Theo, to allow him to spend his time painting. Van Gogh was briefly hospitalized after attempting murder and cutting off his own ear. However, during periods of lucidity between bouts of madness, Van Gogh produced his most masterful works. He committed suicide in 1890 at the age of 37, leaving behind some of the greatest works of art of all time: "Starry Night," "Sunflowers" and "Irises." His paintings are characterized by their unique swirls and vivid colors, with flowers and skies as primary subjects.
The precocious child of a painter, Pablo Picasso's breadth and variety of work has earned him the title of most influential painter of the 20th century. From 1900 to 1904, Picasso lived alternately in Paris and Barcelona. This period of his life is called the blue period since he used many tones of blue in his paintings and chose the poor and the outcasts for his subjects. This was followed by his rose period, where he painted dancers and acrobats in serene hues of red and grey. In direct contrast to this, with his experiences with war, Picasso began to create works fraught with misery and terror. In this phase, he painted "The Three Dancers" and "Guernica," both among his most famous works. Picasso also co-founded cubism as a style of painting.
A master of surrealism in the eyes of some, but rejected by other surrealists, the Catalonian-born Salvador Dali created paintings with an eerie dreamlike quality. Those elements were influenced by Dali's fascination with Freud's theories of dreams. Though his greatest works "Illumined Pleasure" and "The Persistence of Memory" were initially scorned by the artistic community in Europe, his works were greatly admired by Americans. Dali died in 1989 in the United States.
Jackson Pollock was a revolutionary figure in the 1940s and 1950s. He is most famous for his drip-and-splash style that defied all past ideas about composition and paved the way for the abstract expressionists who followed in his footsteps, away from the traditional model of art that emphasized image as a crucial component of any painting.
Whether the inspiration for their work stemmed from religious conviction, misery, insanity or historical events, painters created items of beauty to provide a fresh angle and express universal sentiments.