Five life-changing paintings everyone should see before dying

Beatriz Freitas
Art Direct
Published in
7 min readJul 23, 2020

Not your average list of remarkable canvases by incredible artists

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, traveling became an unsafe and a complicated scenario that most people have been avoiding, rightfully so. One of the things that I love doing when traveling to a country that I’ve never been to before it’s visiting museums and art galleries. If you too love art, this article is for you. In this brief publishing, I will share five paintings that either have changed the way I see art or incited a feeling that I had never experienced before. For those of you that are not a fan of pictures, maybe this is the chance to change your perspective and develop an appreciation for this type of timeless expression.

Disclaimer: Art is a potent and subjective form of non-verbal communication that opens doors for different thoughts and perspectives. A couple of the things written here are based on studies I read before, and some are personal impressions I had when analyzing the work of these artists. Not everything written here might resonate with you. That is why it is essential that before reading the texts, you take a few minutes to analyze and develop your impressions about the images shown here. Remember that when it comes to art, there is no right or wrong. So just enjoy it!

Guernica (1937) — Pablo Picasso, The Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid

Cubist art in black, white, and gray tones; we can see Picasso's pietà crying and holding her child's body at the left corner
Guernica by Picasso — Oil paints on canvas

Maybe one of the most memorable and symbolic pieces Picasso has ever created, Guernica, is a masterpiece, both in size and in content. The cubist style of the 3,5 by 7,7m canvas brings a different dimension to the meaning and consequences of war, portraited as a brutal, inhuman, chaotic, and painful event that affects militaries and civilians.

This painting is heavily inspired after the bombing of the city of Guernica by Nazi forces in 1937. The magnitude of this tragedy incited Pablo to denounce what had happened to the Spanish people during and after the attack. Through the simultaneous composition of different elements, Picasso was capable of capturing, in a complex layout, the falling out of one of the most agonizing genocides in Spanish history.

At the upper left corner and the middle of the canvas, we can see respectively a bull and a horse, which are both elements of national significance to the Spanish culture. The drawing of these animals with deformed bodies and distorted expressions reverberates with the feeling Picasso had that the military caste was sinking Spain in an ocean of pain and death.

However, Guernica managed to extrapolate the barrier of one country and became in the following years an international declaration of war against war and a manifesto against violence. The soldier lay dead on the floor, reinforces this message by holding a broken sword in one hand and a white poppy in the other. Universally flowers are known for representing a peace offering, translating the painter’s desire of the end of war and brutality.

Fun fact: Dora Maar, Pablo’s girlfriend at the time, photographed the progress of the painting, which allow us today to have an insight into the thought process behind one of the most elaborate artistic protest of the century. In case you are interested, the site of the Museo Reina Sofía has a timeline of the entire painting and its repercussion around the world, along with the photos mentioned before.

The Scream (1893) — Edvard Munch, The National Gallery in Oslo

Man with an opened mouth on a bridge above a lake surrounded by red clouds and an orange sunset.
The Scream by Munch — Oil paints, tempera, pastel, and crayon on cardboard.

The Scream was inspired by an evening Munch, and a couple of friends were crossing a fjord in Oslo, and Munch felt an excruciating scream passing through nature.

According to his journal entry, he might not have heard a scream but experienced something that made him associate the feelings he was sensing with the power of a shout.

His first reaction was to immediately froze and trembled with anxiety. Only later, he was able to canalize that sensation into a painting that could capture the magnitude of what he experienced.

To do that as genuinely as possible, he decided to accentuate the color of the cloud, painting them blood red and drawing a figure capable of producing such a scream with a disturbing and terrifying face disfigured by pain. The lines of the fjord and the trajectory of the smooth and undulated clouds emphasize the flow of the yell, which brings more synesthesia to the paint.

Fun fact: Originally, four versions of The Scream were painted, two of them in pastels and two in paints. In 1994, one of the paintings done in tempera and cardboard was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo. Later in 2004, another version of the same art was taken, being recovered only in 2006.

Ballet Dancers (1888) — Edgar Degas, The National Gallery in London

4 Ballerinas with orange and blue tule skirts, resting backstage.
Ballet Dancers by Degas — Pastel on paper

Throughout his career, Degas painted many ballet dancers, mostly in the tones of blue. This painting might be one of the most peculiar because of the choice of color, ranging from bright oranges to his famous baby blue.

Even though the drawing portraits ballerinas gathered backstage, apparently tired and barely standing on their feet, the atmosphere created by Degas is uplifting and refreshing. This apparent contradiction incites both tiredness and happiness, which could make me cry and smile at the same time.

Also, one of the most impressive things about Degas is the precision with which he paints the ballet skirts, giving each section of the tule its unique texture, almost like you could feel it just by look at it.

Fun fact: Degas had a progressive retinal disease that made him sensitive to bright light, making it difficult for him to paint outdoors. Due to his condition, he preferred painting inside ambients such as theatres and operas, which explain why most of the subjects he painted were ballerinas.

Prisoners’ Round (1890) — Vincent van Gogh, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow

Black/White lithography of a prison, with high brick walls and prisoners circling the yard, while guards watch them.
Prisoners’ Round by Doré — lithography

One of the most appreciated artists of the 19th century, Vincent van Gogh died without ever knowing the success his painting would have worldwide. His desire for a meaningful life was fulfilled by his decision to become an artist and create only for people, not prestige or profit.

Van Gogh’s painting was inspired by an engraving of the exercise yard at Newgate Prison done by Gustave Doré in 1872.

Even though initially the drawing was done by Doré and latter replicated by Vincent, the exciting thing about the painting is all the layers that van Gogh got to add to the real and metaphorical prison portrait.

Same prison, but painted in tones of green (inmates clothes), light brown (higher bricks), and blue (lower bricks/ground).
Prisoners’ Round by van Gogh — Oil paintings on canvas

The structure of the yard, surrounded by high walls, builds a feeling of entrapment that, combined with the group of inmates bundled up in the circle, makes everything seems claustrophobic. The palette of cold colors such as blue, gray, and green also adds up to the unfriendly atmosphere that our subconscious associates with prison and confinement.

Personally, one of the most incredible trademarks seen in this canvas is the paintbrush strokes that are visually single out, but never in a way that compromises the painting as a whole. This same characteristic is also seen in “Starry Night”, “A Wheatfield, with Cypresses”, “Two Crabs”, “Vase with 12 Sunflowers”, “Two Peasant Women Digging in Field with Snow”, and so many others.

Fun fact: In one of the letters Vincent wrote to Theo, his brother, he points out that the true meaning of being an artist is based on patience more than any possessed gift. To him, being able to create art was a process that required a passing that is also seen concretely in the painting above.

Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare (1877) — Claude Monet, Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago

Gray and white clouds of steam coming off the trains that arrive. Celling with square-shaped glasses and iron.
Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare by Monet —
Oil paints on canvas

Even though this is probably not one of the most recognizable canvases he painted, it is part of an exceptional collection of art.

Monet did an extensive study about the properties of luminosity at this train station, painting 12 canvases that we know. By observing the light inside and outside the station throughout the day, he was capable of capturing a multitude of moods and atmospheres.

He also focused on elements that somehow incorporated that light or reflected it, such as the glass-and-iron roof of the station and the rising steam of locomotives. Even though the palette of colors chosen is mostly cold, the feeling I get from looking at the painting is a warm and comfortable one due to the steam coming out of the train.

Fun facts: This collection is the last one Monet painted in an urban environment. He later moved to Giverny and dedicated his time to paint rural landscapes, especially his famous paint collection of almost 250 water lilies.



Beatriz Freitas
Art Direct

Brazilian. Fourth-year medical student. Love arts and social science.