The images that shaped Europe

Art blockbusters from the past

Art that crossed borders

Top 25 images

Art reproductions are some of the images that have crossed the borders the most since 1890, being published not only within the European continent (from Poland to Spain, via Denmark) but also across the Atlantic.

Top 100

Among the 100 works of art in our corpus that have achieved the most international fame, Old Masters and contemporary artists (living, or dead for less than 50 years at the time of publication) compete for the spotlight. Some even appear several times – for example, Botticelli, da Vinci, Monet or Liebermann.

Top 100 images

Top 10

Let's take a look at the top ten: there are almost only Old Masters here with Edouard Manet’s* Music in the Tuileries Gardens* (1862) being the most recent picture. Nonetheless, Manet was long gone by the time his work saw fame in print from 1908 to 1985. The most represented artist in this top 10 is Albrecht Dürer, with no less than five artworks (three engravings and two paintings): Melencolia I, Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle, Virgin and Child with the Monkey, Portrait of a Young Girl and Saint Jerome in His Study.

Top 10 images

Number 1

Melencolia I I by Albrecht Dürer is one of the works that has been reproduced the most (13 times in our corpus, when Rembrandt's Faust in his Study is counted only six times), and for almost 90 years (1903-1992).Dürer appears no less than nine times in the 100 most travelled works. Significantly, the German artist’s works are predominantly reproduced in German-speaking cities (Munich, Berlin, Stuttgart, Vienna, Düsseldorf, Leipzig) or in north-eastern Europe (Warsaw, Kraków, Utrecht, Copenhagen), but they appear in Paris, Turin, London and New York, too. With the exception of two paintings (Portrait of the artist holding a Thistle, 1493 and Portrait of a young woman with a red beret, 1507), the artworks printed in periodicals are engravings, a technique well-known for its use as a means of reproducing and disseminating works of art.

Mona Lisa, ancient to modern

The Mona Lisa has been part of European visual culture since the beginning of the modern periodicals and is reproduced in art journals from France to Austria. Her popularity took off in 1851, when she was exhibited in the Salon Carré of the Louvre, a space reserved for the jewels of the collections. Engraved reproductions sold well, her mysterious smile intriguing painters and writers. A masterpiece, certainly, but one amongst the others in the Louvre until 1911.

Suddenly, Mona Lisa leaves the pages of the specialized press to be propelled on the front page of Le Monde Illustré: the Mona Lisa has been stolen! Paradoxically, it is the void left on the wall that will increase the image's popularity. Emotion was rife in 1913, when the correspondent of L'Illustré parisien recounted that he had been woken up at five o'clock in the morning to be told that the Mona Lisa had been found – printed in the journal in bold letters and, of course, with a picture to back it up.

The Mona Lisa then quietly carried on with her life as a masterpiece in the Louvre, until 1934 when a postcard of her portrait was customised with a moustache by Duchamp (L.H.O.O.Q, 1919) and published in an article telling the story of ‘Dada à Paris’ in Cahiers d'art.

Monet in European journals

Painted by Claude Monet in 1868 (at the beginning of his career), Le Déjeuner was reproduced during the last 20 years of the painter's life, from 1904 to 1928. The picture is almost forgotten today, but its printed history was important. The image was reproduced across the European continent and reached America too. In doing so, it crossed the boundaries of five different countries, visited six cities and was written about in four languages.

The visual blockbusters we’ve seen in this chapter circulated mainly in the specialised press and mostly within Europe. For some, this wide circulation consolidated their status as masterpieces but others, for whom their past iconographic fortune was significant, have since been relegated to the background.

Who knows which of today’s ubiquitous and famous artworks will truly be remembered as a masterpiece in 150 years ?