Artists are immortalized through their awe- inspiring works, especially paintings. Inspiration comes in many forms- be it any emotion, nature, human or insanity- but it has resulted in masterpieces. Some works that have been subjected to endless studies and portrayed in books, movies and literature, keeping the artists alive through centuries.
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer
Painted by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer during the Golden Age (17th century), c. 1665, Girl with a Pearl Earring underwent a series of name changes ever since it was painted. It was by the end of the twentieth century that its current name was given to it. While it is one of the most famous paintings today, an auction in 1881 only fetched 1 Euro for the painting!
The painting shows a young woman looking back over her shoulder. A blue and gold turban is wrapped around her head and the namesake of the painting, a shiny pearl earring, adorns her ear. Unlike Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the painting does not depict a woman sitting down for a portrait. In fact, the painting wasn’t meant to be a portrait- it was more of a tronie (painting depicting someone in costume or with an exaggerated facial expression). While many other works of Vermeer depicted subjects engaged in doing some task and maybe unaware of being pained, Girl with a Pearl Earring is the opposite. The girl looks over her shoulder, back at the viewer. Her partially open mouth suggests that she might be on the verge of speaking. In short, the painting could be what we call today a ‘candid.’ Although the painting may have rocketed to fame and is subject to countless studies, the identity of the woman remains a mystery. But while she remains a mystery, speculation does not. Vermeer’s maid, Vermeer’s mistress or Vermeer’s daughter- choose your pick!
The painting has been in the Mauritshuis (The Hague, Netherlands) since 1902. You can either walk, take a tram or a bus to the gallery from the Hague Central Station.
Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais
Sir John Everett Millais painted Ophelia between 1851 and 1852. There’s no identity crisis regarding the painting- it was inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the model was Elizabeth Siddall.
The painting was done at two different locations- the landscape outside and the woman inside. The landscape was pained at the Hogsmill River at Ewell in Surrey. Ophelia was later added at Millais’s studio in Gower Street in London. During the Pre- Raphaelite movement, it was more common for artists to paint a smaller reference sketch outside and then use it for creating the actual inside. However, Millais and his friends pained the landscape outside, thus standing out from their contemporaries. Another difference was that Millais believed the landscape should be of the same importance as the modal in the painting. Therefore, he painted the landscape first dedicating more time to it than he did for Ophelia. The flowers in the painting are either mentioned in the play or were at the riverside.
Ophelia in the painting was nineteen year old Elizabeth Siddall, who was discovered working in a hat shop by Millais’s friend, Walter Deverell. She would later become the wife of another famous artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in 1860. To pose for the painting, Elizabeth sat in tub full of water to depict the sorrowful Ophelia singing before drowning. Oil lamps were lit underneath to keep the water warm. However, Elizabeth nearly died of pneumonia when the lamps went out and Millais failed to notice it!
The painting now resides at the Tate Britian. The nearest tube station is Pimlico Tube Station, five minutes away fro the museum.
Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent van Gogh
What a world would it be without van Gogh’s paintings! Ironically, van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. Now he is so famous that his paintings have been our wallpapers at one point or the other.
Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear was created in 1889 as a result of a violent quarrel. The Dutch artist Van Gogh had moved to Arles from Paris hoping to create an artistic community. In 1888, van Gogh invited Paul Gauguin, another artist he had met in Paris to join him. However, the two were quarrelsome to the last degree, and these quarrels often bordered on violence. During the evening of December 23rd, one such quarrel broke out. Van Gogh ended up having a seizure and threatened Gauguin with a razor, only to injure himself- cutting off part of his left ear. In his state of anxiety or excitement, he took the dismembered part to the Maison de Tolérance bordello and presented the ear to a prostitute named Rachel.
Gauguin, who had left during the quarrel, returned the next morning to find every room soaked with blood. On Gauguin’s suggestion, the police took van Gogh (who had cut through an artery in the neck and was in danger of having lost a lot of blood) to a hospital where he claimed to have no memory of the entire incident. The portrait was painted after his return from the hospital, looking into a mirror. Van Gogh was plagued by similar seizures, accompanied by loss of memory and paranoia. While Gauguin and van Gogh never saw each other again after that incident, they did write to each other till van Gogh’s death.
The portrait now belongs to the collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art and is displayed at the Gallery at Somerset House in London. The nearest tube station is Temple (five minutes’ walk away) and the nearest railway station is Charing Cross (10 minutes’ away).
The Scream by Edvard Munch
In 1893, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch painted what would become one of the most iconic images in the future- The Scream. Munch originally named the work in German as Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature), while the Norwegian title is Skrik (Shriek). The horror- struck face in the painting is believed to symbolize anxiety induced by the human condition.
There have been endless theories as to what could have inspired the ghastly expression of the painting. Munch’s diary entry and later explanations revealed that he had been out walking with two friends on the evening of January 22, 1892. While his two friends walked on, he felt ill and exhausted and hung back on the fence. The sun was setting, causing the sky and clouds to turn red. Munch sensed a ‘scream’ passing through nature and his attempt at trying to capture that scream into an image resulted in the painting. He created four versions of it- two paintings and two in pastels.
Despite Munch’s own explanation for the work, scholars came up with their own. They attribute the orange sky to a volcanic eruption, and the horrified figure as Munch’s psychological reaction to his sister being institutionalized at a nearby insane asylum. A nearby slaughter house could also be another reason for the agonized expression.
The National Museum in Oslo is where The Scream is now, along with several others of Munch’s works. The paintings are closed to the public till 2022 when the new National Museum is scheduled to open.
Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci
One of the most studied portraits in history is the enigmatic Mona Lisa. Da Vinci painted the portrait during the Italian Renaissance, during 1503 and 1506. However, it is believed that Da Vinci worked on it till 1517. The model in the painting was Lisa del Giocondo, a noble woman of the Gherardini family in Florence and Tuscany. She was married to Francesco del Giocondo, a silk merchant in Florence. To commemorate the birth of their second son, Andrea, Da Vinci was asked to paint her portrait. It could also have been commissioned for their new home.
The title of the work comes from the art historian Giorgio Vasari’s description: “Leonardo undertook to paint, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife.” The term Mona is an Italian form of address similar to Madam or my lady. In Italian, the title is commonly spelled as Monna, as Mona was a vulgar term in certain Italian dialects. The Italian name of the painting is La Gioconda, which means jocund or happy or the jocund one, a pun referring to Lisa’s married name, Giocondo. Before it was revealed that Lisa was the model, many thought that it was dedicated to the Virgin Mary due to the resemblance and the posture. During Renaissance, Mary was seen as the ideal woman.
Another point that hooked scholars under several years of research was Mona Lisa’s smile. While determining whether she’s actually smiling or not, many tests revealed that a broader smile lay hidden under many layers of varnish.
The painting belongs to the French Republic and resides at the Louvre, Paris since 1797. The best way to reach the museum is by taxis from the city. It’ll take around ten minutes.
The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo painted her double portrait in 1939, the same year she divorced her husband, Diego Rivera. Although they remarried a year later, the painting depicts the pain that she underwent during the separation.
The painting is a double portrait- two Fridas in different costumes, or, as interpreted later, personalities. One of the Fridas is wearing a white European dress with her heart cut open, with a pair of forceps held in one of her hand. Blood spills onto her white dress. The other Frida sits wearing a Tehuana dress and holds a tiny portrait of Rivera. Both women hold each other’s hands while their hearts are connected either through a cord or a vein.
As with any other painting, there is no one single interpretation of this masterpiece. In a diary entry, Kahlo herself first claimed that the painting depicted an imaginary childhood friend and herself. It was only later that she admitted her pain of separation from Rivera inspired her to create the work. This seems a plausible explanation of the cut-out heart or a broken heart- to depict Rivera missing from her life and soul, while the other Frida holds on to his portrait.
According to historians, the two Fridas dressed in different clothes represent the two sides of her heritage. Her mother, Matilde Calderon, was Mexican while her father, Guillermo Kahlo, was German- hence the stark differences of attire. The Tehuana dressed Frida, according to some scholars, was the one that Rivera loved, while he disliked the modern, European Frida, who sits with a broken heart due to his rejection. The stormy sky reflects her emotions.
Another theory is that Frida’s physical pain is what inspired the portrait. The accident that confined her to bed and the health problems that haunted her her entire life is represented in the mutilated, weak Frida, while her counterpart sits strong next to her. Despite the differences, both Fridas are connected and exist within one body- hence a double self-portrait. It could also allude to the Aztec tradition of human sacrifice. As said, many interpretations!
The painting is located at Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City.
Some of the museums may be closed due to Covid- 19. Be sure to check before setting off to view these masterpeices!