The Most Iconic and Influential Works of Art

Each generation is defined by an image. Perhaps for the '90s it was the grunge movement. For the '80s, the iconic figure of Madonna. For the '70s, a techno and disco print. For the '60s, a snapshot of Woodstock and on and on. You get the idea. For every 100 years, there is an event that defines a generation and for every event, there is an image that captures that moment. While you may not agree with the imagery listed here, you cannot deny amazing the endurance of their existence in pop culture.

  • The Persistence of Memory
    Photo: Salvadore Dali / Wikipedia / Fair Use

    Salvador Dali employed extensive symbolism in his work.

    The "soft watches" which appear in The Persistence of Memory evoke Einstein's theory of relativity. The slipperiness of the watches suggests that time is not fixed. As legend has it, Dali was inspired to depict clocks in this way after staring at a runny piece of Camembert cheese.

    • Artist: Salvador Dalí
    • Art Form: Painting
    • Period / Movement: Surrealism
  • American Gothic
    Photo: Grant Wood / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    This piece, painted by Grant Wood in 1930, is considered by some to be the epitome of Midwestern values and culture. It was actually inspired by the Gothic Revival style of the upper window featured in the center of the piece.

    When examining the work, it's easy to see why the farmer and his daughter could be considered crusaders of conservatism. The man is dressed in a clean pair of overalls and his best suit jacket. The woman is wearing what is most likely a homemade dress, conservative in design.

    The man holds his pitchfork, which would be symbolic as a scepter for his place in life and in the world. Does the woman look to her father for confirmation? Guidance? Or is she looking at him reproachfully for looking so stern himself?

    The farmhouse and glimpse of a barn behind the couple solidifies their existence as farmers.

    • Artist: Grant Wood
    • Subject: Midwestern United States, Farmer
    • Art Form: Painting
    • Period / Movement: Modernism
  • Sailor Kissing Nurse

    Sailor Kissing Nurse
    Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt / Wikipedia / Fair Use

    Taken on August 14th, 1945, arguably one of the most enduring and endearing images from the WWII era, it’s been used as a backdrop for weddings, postcards, greeting cards, and more. 

    People still debate the identity of the man who kissed nurse Greta Zimmer that day, the day that Imperial Japan had surrendered in World War II. Alfred Eisenstaedt's photograph remains an iconic representation of mid-century optimism. 

    • Uncle Sam

      Uncle Sam
      Photo: James Montgomery Flagg / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

      Uncle Sam's fictional persona, inspired by a New York meatpacker named Samuel Wilson, was most famously memorialized by artist James Montgomery Flagg, who created a version of the above portrait in the early twentieth century.