What are ‘The World’s Greatest Paintings’?
And what makes them so special?

The World's Greatest Painitings with Andrew Marr

Broadcaster and journalist Andrew Marr examines the stories behind some of the most famous works of art ever devised. Why were these pieces created and what makes them, in particular, so eternally fascinating? How much did the lives of the artists, and the society and environment they worked in, influence the paintings? Get ready to see truly iconic images in a whole new light.

Watch The World’s Greatest Paintings, as well as many other art documentaries on BBC Select.  Start your free trial on the Apple TV app or Amazon Prime Video Channels. Restrictions apply*.

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

Andrew Marr looking at The Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci

The Mona Lisa, like its famed creator, has sparked intrigue which has captivated viewers for centuries. Known universally as the “Mona Lisa smile”, the painting is said to follow viewers around the room, an effect Da Vinci created after extensive analysis of the human body, merging science and art to capture the Mona Lisa’s mystifying look.

Correspondences to and from Da Vinci point to Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant, as the original model of the Mona Lisa, but there remains speculation that the subject of the painting was a mistress of da Vinci, or even a self-portrait of the artist reimagined as a woman. 

In what turned out to be a stroke of serendipity for the Mona Lisa, its theft in 1911 resulted in a global search for the portrait – prior to this the painting received little recognition. Recovered in Italy in 1913, she is now housed in the Louvre, surrounded by bulletproof glass. The Mona Lisa remains one of the most famous and referenced artworks in the world, inspiring songs, films, and generations of artists that would follow Da Vinci.

To learn more about Leonardo Da Vinci and The Mona Lisa start your free 7-day trial and watch The World’s Greatest Paintings on the Apple TV app or Amazon Prime Video Channels. Restrictions apply*.

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

Andrew Marr looking at Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh craved belonging and connection throughout his life, but his peculiar and often difficult persona made this a challenge. Ultimately, it was this longing for companionship that inspired his series of Sunflower paintings. Upon learning that his friend, fellow renowned post-impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin, agreed to live with him in Arles, Van Gogh was inspired to paint his Sunflowers.

While Van Gogh would paint delicate roses and irises, it is the earthy, humble, and resilient sunflower which most entranced him. Van Gogh painted a series of Sunflowers, capturing the highs and lows of life that he so often experienced. His use of varying shades of a singular color went against formal teachings and practice, which led to Van Gogh separating himself from the mainstream art world.

Eventually, his friendship with Gauguin would lead to tragedy for Van Gogh, and while he would never achieve success in his lifetime, today he is known as one of the worlds most influential artists and Sunflowers is on display in the National Gallery in London.

To learn more about Vincent Van Gogh and Sunflowers start your free 7-day trial and watch The World’s Greatest Paintings on the Apple TV app or Amazon Prime Video Channels. Restrictions apply*.

Turner’s Fighting Temeraire

Andrew Marr looking at The Fighting Tremeraire by JMW Turner

A Londoner born to a working-class family, JMW Turner endured personal tragedy from a young age after his sister died at the age of five and his mother ended up in a mental asylum. Growing up near the River Thames, he found comfort in these waters, painting them often, and becoming well known for his seascapes even in his youth.

Turner became the artistic superstar of British painting in the early 19th century. Despite his success, Turner pined for a royal commission but experienced the bitterness of failure after his commission of King George IV was poorly received. This would only serve to fuel Turner’s ambitions, resulting in The Fighting Temeraire.

This painting depicts an immensely symbolic moment in British history, honoring a battleship that defended the British during the Battle of Trafalgar. With this artwork, Turner tapped into the spirit of the country at the perfect moment, capturing its evolution and a farewell, not only to the Temeraire but to the previous age. The Fighting Temeraire can be viewed at the National Gallery in London, remaining a favorite of the British public.

To learn more about JMW Turner and The Fighting Tremeraire start your free 7-day trial and watch The World’s Greatest Paintings on the Apple TV app or Amazon Prime Video Channels. Restrictions apply*.

Picasso’s Weeping Woman

Andrew Marr looking at The Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso

Cubism, which Picasso and George Braques invented together prior to the First World War, made it possible for artists to see the world from many different perspectives, all portrayed within one single picture. This invention, combined with the inspiration Picasso obtained from his ever-changing cast of lovers, led to one of his most iconic paintings: The Weeping Woman.

Dora Maar, the model for the portrait, was one of Picasso’s greatest muses and an artist in her own right. More than the model for The Weeping Woman, its origins lie with her, as she brought Picasso a newspaper showing that a village in Spain had been attacked by German planes. The painter’s response to wartime atrocity first came in the form of his massive anti-war piece, Guernica. But it is Weeping Woman, inspired by his mother’s fear and suffering, and modeled after his lover, which provides a personal look into the impact of war.

Like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Weeping Woman was stolen in 1969 but was fortunately recovered after almost being destroyed. Weeping Woman now resides in the Tate Modern and remains ever-relevant as a symbol of universal pain and grief propagated by war.

To learn more about Pablo Picasso and The Weeping Woman start your free 7-day trial and watch The World’s Greatest Paintings on the Apple TV app or Amazon Prime Video Channels. Restrictions apply*.

Monet’s Water Lilies

Andrew Marr looking at Water Lilies by Claude Monet

Like many artists featured in The World’s Greatest Paintings, Monet would be one of the painters whose work did not initially resonate. Given the name “impressionist,” by a critic who detested his loose strokes and abstract style, Monet cast off these initial critiques to become one of the most revered and sought-after painters of his time.

Similar to Picasso’s Weeping Woman, Monet’s Water Lilies was the artist’s response to a nearby battleground of the First World War. Monet’s gardens and ponds offered him solace throughout his lifetime, and he extended that to his countrymen with Water Lilies. The painting spans 360 degrees, so the viewer is completely immersed in Monet’s work and invited to experience standing on the edge of his pond at his home in Giverny.

Alas, Monet’s Water Lilies were dismissed by his countrymen until years later when American abstract artists began to look to Monet as they forged their own styles, and eventually Water Lilies found a permanent home in America at the Museum of Modern Art.

To learn more about Claude Monet and Water Lilies start your free 7-day trial and watch The World’s Greatest Paintings on the Apple TV app or Amazon Prime Video Channels. Restrictions apply*.

Constable’s Hay Wain

Andrew Marr looking at The Hay Wain by John Constable

Before the impressionist painters, there was John Constable and his emblematic painting of English rural life. A native of Suffolk, Constable was most inspired by the landscapes that surrounded him, similar to the likes of Monet, and his contemporary, Turner. But, unlike them, he would not experience success until decades into his career and years of struggling as an artist.

While a few of his paintings would make it into the prominent Royal Academy, large historical paintings were the most favored at the time, leaving his small canvases depicting quiet English landscapes in the dust. To compete with these massive canvases, Constable began painting his “six-footers” – from this adoption came the painting that would finally establish his place in history: The Hay Wain.

While this painting still demands attention today in The Royal Academy in London, at the time the white dashes of paint across the canvas, which Constable utilized to depict the sparkle of nature, made little sense to his countrymen. It wasn’t until its exhibition in The Parisian Salon in the Louvre, that The Hay Wain would garner appreciation, with those splotches of white paint that the English shunned laying the foundation for impressionist painters.

To learn more about John Constable and The Hay Wain start your free 7-day trial and watch The World’s Greatest Paintings on the Apple TV app or Amazon Prime Video Channels. Restrictions apply*.

Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus

Andrew Marr looking at Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez

A prodigal talent, Diego Velazquez was rooted in realism, but always aspired to paint the extraordinary. The extraordinary would soon come when a portrait was commissioned for King Philip IV. Awestruck by the artist’s realistic portrayal, the King appointed the 24-year-old Velazquez as the exclusive painter of the Royal Family. Despite his immense success, Velazquez’s artistic vision was extremely restricted by the imposition of the Spanish Inquisition, and to expand his art, Velazquez left Spain for Rome. There, he gained the inspiration and freedom to paint the wildly controversial Rokeby Venus.

While the Rokeby Venus borrows its pose from the likes of the Sleeping Hermaphroditus and the Sleeping Venus, Velazquez adds a fresh take by turning the subject’s back to the viewer, her gaze only captured through the mirror she holds. Hidden behind closed doors for centuries due to the inquisition, the Rokeby Venus would save another historic painter, Francisco Goya, from these forces centuries later. Ever the contentious image, the painting would later be slashed with a meat cleaver by a Suffragette. The Rokeby Venus resides in The Nation Gallery, now safe and open to the public.

To learn more about Diego Velazquez and The Rokeby Venus start your free 7-day trial and watch The World’s Greatest Paintings on the Apple TV app or Amazon Prime Video Channels. Restrictions apply*.

Rembrandt’s Night Watch

Andrew Marr looking at The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a painter during the Dutch Golden Age and remained in the Dutch Republic throughout his lifetime. Like many of the artists featured in The World’s Greatest Paintings, Rembrandt suffered immense personal tragedy as his wife Saskia and three of his four children died before he was 37. After this time, during the decade that Rembrandt painted The Night Watch he was embroiled in dramatic domestic relationships with two of his housekeepers.

The Night Watch became famous for its use of intense contrast of light and shade, which when unveiled received laughter due to the intense darkness and shadows of the piece. This artistic device has been said to provide an ethereal quality amongst the movement and noise of the scene and some critics question whether the mascot in this painting was his late wife Saskia.

Throughout the 20th century the painting has been attacked with knives and acid from multiple vandals and consequently in 2019 a complex restoration began within a specially-made glass enclosure within the Rijksmuseum, where it resides today.

To learn more about Rembrandt and The Night Watch start your free 7-day trial and watch The World’s Greatest Paintings on the Apple TV app or Amazon Prime Video Channels. Restrictions apply*.

Millais’s Ophelia

Andrew Marr looking at Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Millais looked to the popular play to differentiate his work from other painters and create Ophelia. Millais painted the vivid scenery of Ophelia en plein air to capture the wonder of nature in fine detail, which was common for pre-Raphaelite artists like himself, but otherwise uncommon for the time.

The dramatic image of Ophelia floating downstream to her death, however, was captured indoors at Millais’s studio in London. Elizabeth Siddall, an artist, writer, and the model for Ophelia, would spend hours in a bath full of water, in a dress Millais purchased from a nearby secondhand shop. Even contracting pneumonia from the experience, it is said that Siddall’s sickliness added to the realism of Ophelia’s expression in Millais’s work.

Purchased by Henry Tate in 1892, Millais’s Ophelia would be among the first artworks inducted into the Tate Modern where it still resides, becoming an immediate hit among viewers and an essential piece of art history.

To learn more about John Everett Millais and Ophelia start your free 7-day trial and watch The World’s Greatest Paintings on the Apple TV app or Amazon Prime Video Channels. Restrictions apply*.

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli was one of the most respected Renaissance artists in Italy, at the height of his success during the 15th century. However his work quickly became outdated in the shadows of the likes of Michelangelo, and Botticelli only rose to international acclaim during the 19th century, where he was renowned for his mythological and religious compositions.

The Birth of Venus demonstrates an image of the natural world. The painting shows the goddess of love and beauty arriving on the land of Cyprus, moved there by forces of nature: sea spray and wind. The model is presumed to be Simonetta Vespucci, who featured as Botticelli’s muse across his portfolio. Botticelli is buried at the feet of Vespucci in Ognissanti Church in Florence.

To learn more about Sandro Botticelli and The Birth of Venus start your free 7-day trial and watch The World’s Greatest Paintings on the Apple TV app or Amazon Prime Video Channels. Restrictions apply*.

Start your free trial now

BBC Select is available on Amazon Prime Video Channels and the Apple TV app for only $4.99 a month. Start your free 7-day trial today to enjoy BBC Select on Smart TVs, laptops, tablets and mobile devices. Restrictions apply*.

Get it on Apple TV
Prime Video - Channels