Article: Secrets Behind 25 of the World’s Most Famous Paintings: Howstuffworks
Secrets Behind 25 of the World’s Most Famous Paintings
Image: WikiCommons by Jan van Eyck [Public domain]
About This Article
Unlike the paintings you might find down at the local craft fair, some of the world's most famous paintings hold hidden secrets. From the painted over portraits of Van Gogh and Seurat to the tiny words and symbols found only with a magnifying glass, some of the paintings you love the most are more than surface deep. After you read through the things we've discovered, you'll never look at these works of art in the same way again!
Whether you are an avid art connoisseur or you just like looking at pretty pictures, you are going to expand your knowledge of both the arts and history when these secrets are revealed to you. Throughout history, artists have been known to break the rules and to hold strong opinions about the society around them. Some of the mysterious things found in these paintings will intrigue you and give you a deeper insight into the thoughts of some of the world's biggest talents.
Each of the masterpieces you'll see portrays something different, but their secrets have been revealed. With new technologies emerging, we're certain that there will be more discoveries. For now, we hope you'll enjoy cracking the code of some of the world's most beloved works.
There's a whale of a tale in this painting.
When British art restorers took a close look at "View of Scheveningen Sands" in 2014, they discovered quite the surprise. As the restoration process began, technicians were curious about a strange figure hiding beneath layers of varnish and paint. It turns out that when Hendrick van Anthonissen painted the scene in 1641, he had included a beached whale on the shore. Although we will never know why the whale was painted over at some later date, it's now a prominent feature of the painting.
This painting represents the artist's distaste for marriage.
Edvard Munch is the Expressionist responsible for painting the iconic "The Scream." Famous for portraying his internal struggles, Munch expressed his view of love and marriage in "The Dance of Life," shown here. Utilizing the primary female figures, Munch expertly represents the stages of a relationship. While the woman in white represents purity and the woman in black represents death, the woman in red is a temptress.
Who is the "Mona Lisa of the North"?
Johannes Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring" was painted c. 1655, but little is known about the girl in the painting. Many suggest that the subject is one of Vermeer's daughters, named Maria. Regardless of her identity, her eyes meet ours across the centuries. A secret to the depth and realism in the painting is one of Vermeer's signature techniques. While the background might look solid black, a deep greenish-yellow color — the same color as her dress — was painted beneath it to add a sense of warmth.
Van Gogh buried something in this garden.
During his entire lifetime, Vincent van Gogh only sold one painting. As an impoverished artist, he had to make use of every canvas — sometimes more than once! "Patch of Grass" might not be one of his most famous works, but it hides a secret. When art experts x-rayed the painting, they revealed a portrait of a Dutch woman. It is believed to be part of a series of faces he painted in the 1880s while living in a village named Nuenen.
Picasso refused to explain himself.
Completed in 1937 at Picasso's French home, "Guernica" was commissioned for display at the 1937 World's Fair. Picasso stated that the piece was inspired by a newspaper article he had read in "The Times," but he declined to comment on the meaning behind the symbols. Clearly depicting the Battle of Guernica, it is one of several Picasso paintings that feature a monochromatic color scheme.
Her eyes are more mysterious than her smile.
Despite the popularity of Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," the identity of his subject is still uncertain. To further the mystery, art historians have discovered letters and numbers hidden in the painting. In her left eye, the letter S appears, and the letter L appears in her right eye. Researchers speculate that the L might stand for Leonardo, but little points in the direction of defining the S. Some believe it refers to a ruling family, Sforza, in Milan.
Please compose yourself, "Madame X."
Now considered a masterpiece, John Singer Sargent's "Portrait of Madame X" was a difficult painting from the start. Not only did Sargent have to deal with an unruly model in Madame Virginie Gautreau, who demanded breaks and champagne, but he also ran into trouble when the art world found the portrait a little shocking. At the height of 1884, her bare shoulders and plunging neckline were considered quite controversial. In more modern times, we view her as a delicate beauty.
"The Last Supper" was a musical number.
Undisputedly the most intriguing painting to make our list, "The Last Supper" is full of so much mystery historians will never stop studying it. Begun in 1495, da Vinci's enigma is said to hold symbols supposedly predicting the end of the world — and a musical score. In the 2000s, musician Giovanni Maria Pala used the placement of the bread on the table to create a melody that lasts nearly a minute. Though there's no way to validate the idea, it's certainly not the weirdest theory about the painting.
This farmer was better with cavities than cows.
Grant Wood's "American Gothic" won the bronze prize at the Art Institute of Chicago's annual show in 1930, but it hides a secret. While the house portrayed in the painting is a real home that can be found in Eldon, Iowa, little else is as it seems in the iconic Americana scene. The farmer is actually Wood's dentist, and the farmer's wife is Wood's sister, sporting their mother's apron. To add another layer of mystery, you'll have to look very closely to see the artist's signature hidden in the denim portion of the farmer's clothes.
Proverbially speaking, this painting has a lot going on.
"Netherlandish Proverbs," painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1559, is more than a lot of figures on wood. At first, the painting might seem a little chaotic — because it is! If you look closer at the figures and animals in the scene, you will see that they dramatize over 100 different proverbs. Amongst the chaos of this village, you will find familiar sayings, such as "banging your head against the wall" and "the blind leading the blind," taking place in colorful hues and hilarious detail.
He wanted to make a garden, so he did!
Hieronymus Bosch has not left much behind in the biography department, but he did come from a long line of painters. Painted in or near the year 1500, "The Garden of Earthly Delights" represents Adam and Eve, temptations of Earth, and a vision of Hell. However, the reverse side of the three-paneled painting reveals another aspect of the world's beginning. Closing the outer two panels reveals the third day of creation, along with the words, "For he spoke, and it came to be...."
There's There's double double meaning meaning here here.
Created in 1434, "The Arnolfini Portrait" captures the likenesses of two other people in the mirror between the two primary figures. As artist Jan van Eyck painted the wealthy merchant and his wife, he incorporated a plethora of social commentary. From the opulent colors meant to capture the extravagance to the era-appropriate gender roles of man and wife, his portrayal of the couple has long intrigued historians. Incidentally, one of the figures reflected in the mirror is possibly the artist.
The skull is not the only secret in this painting.
"The Ambassadors" is a huge painting full of small secrets. As the painter to King Henry VIII, Hans Holbein the Younger was a direct witness to the political turmoil of the time and reflected it in his work. Because King Henry was fighting with the Church to marry Anne Boleyn, Holbein hid a crucifix in the upper left corner to reflect the religious conflict. In addition to the famous stretched skull at the bottom that suggests mortality, he's also included a broken string on the lute to represent the lack of harmony in society.
"Starry Night" is not one of a kind.
Without a stay in an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Van Gogh would not have gifted the world with such a masterpiece. Although his interpretation takes a lot of creative liberties, he was keen to eliminate the bars on the window of his room and focus on the valley below. In preparation for painting this famous colorful work, van Gogh made a pen and ink drawing of the scene, complete with a black and white swirling sky. The drawing is owned by the Museum of Architecture in Moscow.
Klimt sold "The Kiss" before it was finished.
As Klimt painted "The Kiss" in 1907, he was in the middle of a slump. Both sales and demand for his work had declined, and Klimt's self-esteem was at a low. Proving that darkness comes before the dawn, "The Kiss" was sold to the Belvedere Museum before Klimt had the opportunity to finish it. $240,000 might have been a lot of money for an unfinished painting back then, but it was actually a bargain. "The Kiss" was recently appraised for over $135 million!
She's not alone at the powdering table.
in the late 1880s, Georges Seurat decided to make a last minute change to "Young Woman Powdering Herself." The hanging mirror behind the portrait of model Madeleine Knobloch did not originally show a reflection of the flowers. Historians have scanned the painting and revealed that Seurat's own image was looking back at them. Seurat is known for his work with pointillism, but little is known about the reason he originally appeared in the painting. The woman was Seurat's mistress.
You'll have to seek to find this painting's hidden secret.
When the Sienese and Florentine armies went to war in 1551, the Florentine soldiers stole more than 100 green flags that had been given to the Sienese by the French government as a show of solidarity. After the battle, painter Giorgio Vasari was commissioned to create a mural, "Battle of Marciano," memorializing the victory. If you zoom in on the green flags pictured in the mural, you will find the words "cerca trova" written on one of them. It means, "Seek and ye shall find." Can you find it?
If you mention this painting, you're mentioning all of them.
It's impossible to think of Claude Monet without thinking of "Water Lilies." Considering he spent the last 30 years of his life creating over 250 oil paintings of them, it's easy to see why his name brings them to mind. The secret behind "Water Lilies" is that the title does not refer to one single painting — it refers to the entire series. The paintings were not given individual names. As popular as his watery scenes are in the art world now, Monet faced a lot of criticism for his work during the era.
Look very closely at the brain on this throat.
Gracing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo's "Separation of Light From Darkness" is based on the Bible verse that depicts God creating day and night. During his work in the chapel, Michelangelo was involved in a conflict with the Catholic Church. He believed, much to the Church's chagrin, that he could directly communicate with God and that the involvement of the church was unnecessary. Perhaps as an act of rebellion, Michelangelo incorporated a human brain stem in God's throat, below his beard.
It's like an ancient ivy league yearbook.
A testament to the artwork of the Italian Renaissance, "The School of Athens" is considered one of Raphael's most accomplished works. What seems like a typical gathering on campus is more profound when you take a closer look. Raphael has created a who's who of the time. With figures including Plato, Aristotle and Socrates hanging out with students, the fresco is famous for portraying important thinkers.
She's learning about more than musical composition.
Johannes Vermeer, famous for his "Girl With a Pearl Earring," is commenting more about society in "The Music Lesson" than he is about the art of music. Close inspection reveals the artist and his easel in the mirror, as well as several nods to nobility, including his use of color. During the time, only affluent women were permitted to take music lessons, and the large bass on the floor serves to symbolize the male domination of the era.
You can't escape your fate ... maybe.
"Et In Arcadia Ego" is the phrase engraved on the tomb in Guercino's "The Arcadian Shepherds." The meaning of the work, painted during the early 1600s, has been highly debated by scholars. While some think the phrase means "In Arcadia I go," others think it means "In Arcadia death is inevitable." No matter which interpretation you choose, the unusual picture of shepherds and a shepherdess is powerful.
It could be the second "The Last Supper."
Making our list again, Vincent van Gogh seems to be full of secrets. In 1888's "Cafe Terrace at Night," what looks like a simple street scene is riddled with hidden meaning. If you count the figures at the tables, there are 12, plus a central figure. If you look even closer, the gathering seems to resemble da Vinci's "The Last Supper." Having recently expressed interest in religion, van Gogh may have intentionally painted the figures as a tribute.
You can't take Pope Grandpa anywhere.
When Titian painted "Pope Paul III and His Grandsons" during 1545 and 1546, he couldn't have nailed the political climate of the time more perfectly. Though it might seem to be a sweet family portrait, there's a lot more going on. Seen with his grandsons, Pope Paul III appears to be caught between the wishes of two very different people. The Pope saw his position as more of a family obligation than a duty to God.
Paintings speak louder than words.
Known as Finland's favorite work of art, "The Wounded Angel" was painted by artist Hugo Simberg in 1903. Although the painting was well loved during its first stint in galleries, it didn't have a title. Perhaps Simberg wanted the piece to speak for itself, or maybe he didn't know what to call it. Either way, the masterpiece hung on the walls with simply a dash in the place where a title would usually be found.
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