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Ten Famous Artists

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo was born in the Tuscan village of Vinci (1452). He worked in Florence (from 1471), before moving to Milan (1482), where he painted The Last Supper (1495).

Leonardo returned to Florence (1500–06), where he worked on Mona Lisa (1503–06). Because of her enigmatic smile, the painting is also called La Gioconda, meaning the joking one.

Leonardo was also a musician, scientist and inventor, who dreamt of creating flying machines. He later left Italy forever to work for King Francis I of France (1516–19).


Michelangelo was born into a wealthy family in the Tuscan village of Caprese (1475). He trained in Florence (from 1488), where he created his sculpture of David (1501–04).

Michelangelo went to Rome to work for Pope Julius II (1505). He painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, including The Creation of Adam (1508–12).

Michelangelo worked as an architect in Rome, designing St Peter’s Cathedral (1546–64).


Peter Paul Rubens grew up in Westphalia (1577–87) and trained in Italy (1600–08), but mainly lived and worked in Flanders (1608–40). He was appointed court painter (1609) and created religious images for Antwerp Cathedral (1610–14).

To cope with the demand for his work, Rubens found a workshop where assistants painted pictures from his sketches. One of his most famous pupils was Anthony van Dyck.

Rubens is most famous for his voluptuous images of goddess and nymphs. He worked for the royal families of France, England and Spain and was sent on diplomatic missions to Spain (1628–29) and England (1629–30).


Diego Velázquez was born in Seville (1599), where he became a master painter (1617). After moving to Madrid and painting a portrait of King Philip IV of Spain, he was appointed court painter (1623).

Velázquez visited Italy (1629–31) and continued to work at the Spanish court (1630s–40s). He painted The Surrender of Breda (1634–35) for the new royal palace in Madrid.

Velázquez returned to Italy (1648–51) and painted a portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650). In his final years in Madrid (1651–60), he painted Las Meninas (1656), showing various members of the royal family and their attendants in his studio.


Jan Vermeer spent all his life in the Dutch town of Delft (1632–75). He did not paint many pictures, because he had to support his wife and eleven children by working as an inn-keeper and art dealer.

Vermeer painted peaceful images of domestic life, usually showing one or two figures in a room. The Art of Painting (1665) shows the back of a painter, possibly a self-portrait.

One of Vermeer’s most famous works is Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is sometimes called the “Dutch Mona Lisa.” No one knows when this study was painted or who it depicts.


Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn was born in Leiden (1606). As a young artist, he moved to Amsterdam (1631), where he became the city’s leading portraitist.

Rembrandt became rich and famous after painting such group portraits as Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp (1632) and The Night Watch (1642). After these successes, however, he suffered financial problems and the deaths of his wife and children.

Rembrandt was declared insolvent (1656), but continued to paint and teach. He finished The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669) shortly before his death in a poor part of Amsterdam (1669).


Francisco de Goya was born in Aragon (1746), trained in Saragossa (1760–64) and settled in Madrid (1775). He worked for the royal tapestry factory (1775–92) and was appointed a court painter to King Charles IV (1789).

After a strange illness, which left Goya deaf (1792), he published a series of engravings called Los Caprichos (1793–99). He painted portraits of the royal family (1800) and a scandalous pair called the Clothed Maja and Naked Maja (1798–1805).

After the French occupation of Spain (1808–14), Goya painted images of the horrors of war (1814). He retired from public life (1815) and created a series of nightmarish scenes known as the Black Paintings (1819–23).


Claude Monet was born in Paris (1840) and grew up in Le Havre (1845–57). During the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), he fled to England, where he painted the River Thames and Houses of Parliament.

Monet returned to France and painted Impression: Sunrise (1872). The Impressionists were a group of painters who tried to convey an impression, rather than depict a realistic object.

Monet painted subjects at different times of the day, such as haystacks (1890–91) and Rouen Cathedral (1892–95). He spent the rest of his life at Giverny (1883–1926), where he mostly painted water-lilies (1899–1924).

Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh was born in Holland (1853). After unsuccessfully attempting to become a missionary among the poor (1878), he decided to take up art (1880), painting pictures of peasants and workers (1881–85).

After living in Paris (1886–88), Van Gogh founded a community of artists at Arles in the south of France (1888). During a quarrel with another artist, Paul Gauguin, he cut off a piece of his left ear.

Van Gogh entered an asylum (1889), where he continued to paint, though he only sold one painting in his lifetime (1890). As his mental illness continued, he shot himself (1890).


Pablo Ruiz Picasso was born in Spain (1881), but spent most of his life in Paris (1904–46). He lived in the bohemian district of Montparnasse, where he passed through a Blue Period (1901–04), Pink Period (1904–06) and Negro Period (1906–09).

After painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Picasso developed the revolutionary new style of Cubism (1907–14). Cubist paintings broke objects down into geometric shapes or cubes and showed faces from more than one side.

After experimenting with Neoclassicism and Surrealism (1920s), Picasso produced such tortured images as Guernica (1937). After the Second World War, he lived in the south of France, where he concentrated on graphic work, pottery and sculpture (1946–73).

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