World's Greatest Paintings

Course No. 7126
Professor William Kloss, M.A.
Independent Art Historian
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Course No. 7126
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Course Overview

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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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Greatness in Painting
    What makes a masterpiece? Look at criteria for defining greatness in painting, including a work's uniqueness and the quality of its impact, both immediate and cumulative. x
  • 2
    The Majesty of Duccio and Giotto
    Your exploration begins with two composite masterworks of Italian painting. In the Maestá altarpiece by Duccio, grasp the elements of the painting's visual impact and spatial carrying power, its dramatic composition and imagery. In the Arena Chapel frescoes by Giotto, study the powerful depictions of devotion and grief in two narrative scenes. x
  • 3
    Acts of Faith—Masaccio, Van Eyck, Van der Weyden
    This lecture traces landmark religious imagery in 15th-century painting. Define Masaccio's narrative ability in two biblical fresco scenes from the Brancacci Chapel. Then discover Jan van Eyck's brilliant melding of realistic portraiture and sacred images in Madonna of the Canon van der Paele, and the emotional intensity and compositional richness of Rogier van der Weyden's Deposition of Christ. x
  • 4
    The Diversity of Piero, Mantegna, Botticelli
    You now encounter three major painters of the Italian Renaissance. In Piero della Francesca's Resurrection, reflect on the fresco's commanding image of the risen Christ and its mathematical composition. Later, contemplate Andrea Mantegna's extraordinary innovations in "illusionistic" painting and the luminous mysteries of Botticelli's Primavera. x
  • 5
    The Devotion of Bellini, Geertgen, Dürer
    You continue with three extraordinary evocations of religious devotion. In Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert, witness the portrayal of the saint's passion for nature by means of divine light. Study the multilayered pictorial details enriching Geertgen's Madonna with Musical Angels and the spiritual import in Dürer's monumental Self-Portrait. x
  • 6
    Masterworks by Leonardo, Raphael, Correggio
    Track the dramatic interaction of the human figures in Leonardo's iconic Last Supper and the composition's rich theological symbolism. Then define Raphael's embodiment of High Renaissance ideals in Baldassare Castiglione, and the poetic eroticism of Correggio's illusionistic Jupiter and Io. x
  • 7
    Great Ensembles—Michelangelo and Grünewald
    In scenes from Michelangelo's stunning Sistine Chapel ceiling, study the compositional power of The Creation of Adam and the weighty emotion of the ominous Prophet Jeremiah. Continuing with a highly contrasting masterwork of German art, penetrate the mystical evocation of suffering and ecstasy in Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece. x
  • 8
    Ideal and Real—Giorgione, Titian, Holbein
    You encounter the Concert Champêtre (1510–1511), worked on by both Giorgione and Titian, uncovering the enigmatic imagery of its Arcadian scene. Then study Titian's radiant portrayal of the Virgin Mary in the Assumption and the richly detailed execution of Holbein's portrait, Charles de Solier. x
  • 9
    Living and Dying—Bruegel, El Greco, Caravaggio
    Explore three contrasting 16th-century masterworks. In Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow, investigate the artist's layering of descriptive scenes within a vast space. Conclude with the haunting details and symbolic compositions of El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz and Caravaggio's The Entombment. x
  • 10
    Life Stories by Ter Brugghen, Rubens, Steen
    Probe Hendrick Ter Brugghen's tender, understated evocation of the healing of St. Sebastian. Then learn about Rubens's ingenuity as a court painter in his operatic Landing of Marie de Medici in Marseilles, and the masterful organization and roguish imagery of Jan Steen's The way you hear it, is the way you sing it. x
  • 11
    Inside Vermeer, Velázquez, Rembrandt
    Explore three introspective works of genius. In View of Delft, reflect on Vermeer's purpose in this becalmed, idealized rendering of his city. Also decode the ambiguous, philosophical composition of Velazquez's Maids of Honor, and Rembrandt's richly costumed, stoic portrayal of himself in his Self-Portrait of 1658. x
  • 12
    Spirit and Thought—Hals, Rembrandt, La Tour
    Study Hals's penetrating treatment of elderly women in a Haarlem group portrait. Then explore Rembrandt's expression of a couple's deep emotion through an intimate configuration of hands and fabric, and La Tour's evocation of mystical contemplation through a flame. x
  • 13
    The Serenity of Poussin, Claude, Watteau
    Define the measured grace and brilliant use of color, shape, and gesture in Poussin's Eliezer and Rebecca. Study the elements of Lorrain's consummate mastery of the landscape, and the dreamlike qualities of Watteau's wistful fantasy, the Embarkation for Cythera. x
  • 14
    In Contrast—Chardin, Tiepolo, Gainsborough
    Three diverse works reveal 18th-century achievements in painting. In a small still life, ponder Chardin's delicate, intimate portrayal of game animals in death. Then discover Tiepolo's apotheosis of fresco painting in Apollo and the Four Continents, and Gainsborough's ingenious melding of sitter and landscape in his portrait Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan. x
  • 15
    Dark Images of David, Goya, Friedrich
    Portrayals of brutality open this lecture. Observe David's merging of idealized presentation and realism in the stark Death of Marat, and Goya's bitter vision of military retaliation in Third of May, 1808. Finally, study the Romantic evocation of nature in Friedrich's Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon. x
  • 16
    The Worlds of Constable, Turner, Delacroix
    Compare the styles and originality of British landscape masters Constable and Turner, highlighting Constable's compositional technique and signature cloud-filled skies, plus Turner's bravura use of color and light. In Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, examine the artist's allegorical fusing of symbol and reality in the heat of France's 1830 revolution. x
  • 17
    Dark to Bright—Courbet, Church, Monet
    French and American canvases reveal bold innovations in 19th-century painting. Contemplate the elements of Realism in Gustave Courbet's sprawling, slow-motion composition of a rural funeral, followed by Frederic Church's dynamically original depiction of Niagara Falls. Then study Monet's blaze of sunlight and color on a snowscape in The Magpie. x
  • 18
    Alone and Together—Whistler, Degas, Renoir
    In the ever-familiar image of Whistler's mother seated in profile, observe the superlative blending of abstract, formal composition with the intimate portrayal of a living woman. Follow with the pictorial riches and psychological ambiguities of Degas' In a Café, and the virtuoso staging and color of Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. x
  • 19
    Unlike Any Other—Sargent, Manet, Seurat
    In John Singer Sargent's elusive portrait of the daughters of a friend, ponder the unusual placement and psychological separation of the subjects. Then, explore the deliberate unreality of Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergère, and Seurat's suspended, Pointillist rendering of Parisians in A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. x
  • 20
    Close Observation—Cézanne, Van Gogh, Homer
    Uncover the structural geometry and unity of focus in Cézanne's The Card Players, as they create the weighty, timeless concentration of the figures. Also witness the structure and balance of Van Gogh's sun-baked vista in The Harvest, and Winslow Homer's dramatic merging of self with subject in Fox Hunt. x
  • 21
    The Human Condition—Munch, Matisse, Schiele
    Analyze Munch's pictorial composition of The Scream, as its pulsating visual field embodies the figure's cry of psychic terror. In stunning contrast, study Matisse's lyrical, floating colors and figures in The Joy of Life, then conclude with Egon Schiele's The Family and its bold evocation of his own hopes and fears. x
  • 22
    Art in Time of War—Monet and Picasso
    Two milestones of 20th-century art: Learn about the creation and the architectural display of Monet's transcendent series of water-lilies, parsing his superlative brushwork reflecting sky, clouds, and sunlight on water. Then take apart the writhing, nightmarish images in Picasso's Guernica, evincing his pained response to the atrocities of war. x
  • 23
    Time and Memory—Magritte, Hopper, Gorky
    In Magritte's Time Transfixed, observe how the artist calmly dislocates our sense of temporal and physical reality. In the famous Nighthawks, study Hopper's careful, deliberate design evoking the silent separateness of the figures. Finally, trace Gorky's inspired craft in bringing to life the joyful explosion of color in The Plough and the Song. x
  • 24
    Expressive Abstractions—Pollock and Hofmann
    Track Jackson Pollock's whole-body approach to putting paint on canvas, and tease out the layered color fields in his elemental force of nature, Lavender Mist. Then contrast Hans Hofmann's mastery of geometry and color with his brutal, agonized creation, to JFK. Conclude with reflections on the power of great art. x

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 112-page printed course guidebook
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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 112-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

William Kloss

About Your Professor

William Kloss, M.A.
Independent Art Historian
Professor William Kloss is an independent art historian and scholar who lectures and writes about a wide range of European and American art. He was educated at Oberlin College, where he earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Art History. He continued his postgraduate work on a teaching fellowship at the University of Michigan and was then awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for two years of study in Rome. As Assistant Professor...
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Reviews

World's Greatest Paintings is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 113.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Introduction to World Art While the selection of paintings is subjective (the presenter made the selections), you really can't quibble with his choices. It's a nice collection from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century. Some examples are famous and known to all, but most are not. His critque is short and to the point.
Date published: 2019-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful This course was fantastic, and the teacher’s knowledge was endless. A picture that struck me at first as ho-hum, after his description and analysis was beautiful. He pointed out things I would never have noticed otherwise. I bought prints of 5 of the pictures discussed in the course, and a small collection of plates by an artist I’d never heard of - Scheile - the book came today and I love most of the paintings. The course completely satisfied my interest in art. I’m sorry he mentioned Sondheim at all (the musical derived from Seurat’s painting); this course was supposed to be about sincere men with skill and talent. Why did he include Pollack (the teacher said his titles reveal the subjects of his paintings – the paintings sure don’t!) and not discuss Dali (even if you don’t like what he painted – and I don’t – at least he had the skill to paint it)? Surrealism (though painted with photographic skill) was always as though there were a glass wall between the picture and me; I can’t feel it, “experience” it. He is far more sensitive and intelligent that I am – his affectionate discussions of Pollock, Hofmann and Gorky did not make me like them at all – though he liked them all at first sight. And why – out of all the varied and beautiful paintings by Picasso – did he only discuss Guernica – though he did an incredible job of that? But he said at the start, these were his choices, his choices might have been different at some other time, and probably a student might disagree with what he chose. I loved the course, am very glad I watched it, and would recommend it to anyone, whether interested in painting or not.
Date published: 2019-06-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great instructor Very engaging instructor. Keeps your interest throughout the course. Can see he truly loves the subject he is teaching
Date published: 2019-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent and stimulating course I am learning so much about some of the great works of art - what makes them great and why they are so compelling. Professor William Kloss is superb. That he knows his subject goes without saying. However, his humor, presentation style and and insightful comments keep me entertained and interested to learn more.
Date published: 2019-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from world's greatest paintings Exposed me to artist's I was unfamiliar with. Gave me background on artists and who their patrons were
Date published: 2019-05-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Entertaining and thought provoking A nice introduction to some of the world's greatest paintings. While I may not agree with all of the selections, I found each lecture to be interesting and thought provoking. Professor Kloss did a great job of making the material accessible, interesting and entertaining - he is one of the better lecturers that I have encountered in The Great Courses..
Date published: 2019-05-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Art for all Thought provoking, enlightening and enjoyable. Excellent journey across centuries of art with an able tour guide.
Date published: 2019-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Title Could Be Misleading - Here's What It Is By "The World's Greatest Paintings", what Dr. Kloss actually seems to mean is more like, "Examples of Fine Paintings in Western Culture from the Medieval to the Modern Era". Even restricting the subject like that, of course it's impossible to pick only 60 paintings and confidently assert they are the best from the past 700+ years, nor is that what Dr. Kloss does. Instead he shows you a wide variety of important artists, chronologically arranged from earlier to later, and generally just one representative work from each (there are only two artists from whom he shows more than one work and in those cases he shows just two pieces each, because they represent different styles). There's a little less discussion of the technical aspects of the paintings than in another similar course (How to Appreciate Fine Art) and more discussion about the cultural and artistic background at the time of each painting, what makes the subject of this painting interesting, the emotional impact of the work on the lecturer, and why it has that impact. I really preferred this course over the other, though both are good. Dr. Kloss is an interesting lecturer: apparently not a university professor, instead he identifies himself as an independent art historian, and he clearly knows his subject. Some reviewers found him "pompous"; I appreciated his genuine passion for these paintings, which I found inspired me too.
Date published: 2019-01-21
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