There are countless captivating artworks worldwide and once they become famous, everybody wants to see them. But only seeing them, doesn’t necessarily make you understand them. Of course, art is subjective, and you can see whatever you want in it, but knowing about the history of famous artworks puts it into a whole different perspective.
It is truly gripping how paintings and art from decades, or even centuries ago, can still hold their meaning and never lose their importance.
Leonardo da Vinci – Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa might be the world’s most famous artwork. Not everybody has seen it, but (nearly) everybody has at least heard of it. But why is it so intriguing? It has no drama, no immediate wow factor, it is more contemplated and quieter. In 1517, French king François I offered Da Vinci a job as a royal court artist, which he accepted, and all he took with him was the Mona Lisa.
It took him years to finish this painting, with tiny brush strokes and glaze applied over time. It was common that women wore extravagant dresses, expensive jewelry and were painted full body. The Mona Lisa wears simple clothing, no jewelry and you can only see the upper third of her body. She is portrayed in a content and self-assured way which was more likely for aristocratic men. Due to this and the pyramid-shaped composition, nothing distracts our glance from her face.
You may have heard of the big question about whether she is smiling or not. The answer is: yes and no. The smile comes and goes because of the way the human visual system works. Once you focus on her eyes, the shadows around them are the same as when somebody is smiling. You see the rest of her face out of focus and automatically interpret her smiling. But once you focus on her mouth, you only vaguely see the shadows around her eyes and suddenly she isn’t smiling anymore. It was obviously da Vinci’s intent, since he studied the human anatomy of a smile by examining and dissecting dead bodies.
Vincent Van Gogh – The Starry Night
It is fascinating to look at Van Gogh’s famous artworks and think about how he was self-taught and did not pick up a paintbrush until the age of 30. He painted for only seven years, until he died.
It is no secret that he struggled with severe mental health issues – anxiety, bipolar depression with manic episodes. He was admitted to St. Remy asylum, where he found his passion; art. It was what kept him “sane” and alive. Being in isolation was very beneficial for him. Channeling all his energy into his work was what drove and energized him.
Van Gogh tried poisoning himself a few weeks before by swallowing paint and turpentine, from the same tubes he used to paint this extraordinary artwork. The Cyprus tree in The Starry Night is a symbol of death in Mediterranean culture. It rises from the earth into the sky, linking heaven and earth. Keeping his mental state in mind, the connection is striking.
The striking thing is, he considered this painting, one of the most famous artworks in history, a failure. He claimed he was “led astray by reaching stars that are too big. Another failure and I have had my fill of that”. Once he was released from the asylum, he moved to a town north of Paris and shot himself two months after that. He ended his life right when he finally made a name for himself, and his career started taking off, and maybe right when his life was about to change.
Hokusai – The Great Wave
It was from 1639 onwards for over 200 years that Japan closed itself off completely from the outside world. Entering or leaving could be punished by death, since they were concerned about foreign invasions. By cutting all ties with the outside world, they also cut off all connections to new technologies and industrialization.
It belongs to a 36-piece work by Hokusai, in which he painted Mount Fuji from 36 different views during the Edo-period. This period stretched from 1615 to 1868 and describes the time during which feudal overload took over Japan. The population was separated into Samurai, farming peasants, artisans, and merchants, and interactions were forbidden by law. With time, merchants boomed and started being able to afford more luxury goods like education.
In search of sensual pleasures, they came across Japanese print art. Like today, what sold was sex and celebrities. Sales increased as travel within Japan did, and themes changed to landscapes. The Dutch were allowed two trading ships per year, and Hokusai got under the influence of European art.
Opening all borders, Japan was facing an uncertain future, just like the men on the boats in The Great Wave are. The waves crash into claw-like figures, which gives this painting a sense of dread and instability. This fittingly describes the Japanese during this time.
Edvard Munch – The Scream
This painting by Edvard Munch was one to represent his soul in a moment of existential crisis. He was walking down a street with his friends but stopped while looking at the sky in front of him. Today we know that what he described was having a panic attack afterwards. He became claustrophobic, anxious, and all the problems he was facing hit him at once.
He, as well as Van Gogh, was struggling with severe mental health issues and trauma. As a child, he lost his mother and one of his sisters. At the age of 25, his father died and, seven years later, his brother. His father was verbally abusive. No end in sight after his mother died and he was not supported in his career in painting.
In the eyes of the public, this artwork was dripping with alienation and his mental state was under attack. In 1895, after an exhibition of his in Oslo, the University of Oslo held a debate on his works. One medical student, named Johan Scharffenberg, called Munch a “madman”. A tiny inscription of eight words was most likely written on it afterwards. “Could only have been painted by a madman.”
This work of his was not simply a product of stress, or a one-time moment of panic. It symbolizes his dark past and how Munch experienced mental illness and trauma. This was his attempt to explain how he felt in the best way he knew; art.
Michelangelo – The Creation of Adam
Sadly, not much is known about this work of art by Michelangelo. He was chosen to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Central are nine frescoes portraying stories of the Old Testament, three always belonging together – Creation, Adam and Eve and Noah.
The most famous one is the biblical creation narrative of God giving life to Adam. God is painted as an elderly white man with a beard wearing a white cloak and he is supported by angels without wings. Adam is naked and mirroring him. This represents God creating humankind in his image and likeness. God’s finger touches Adam, breathing life into him, and ultimately into all mankind.
Some people argue that God is painted onto a human brain or female uterus and Adam onto a female torso, but there is no strong evidence for these theories.
Frida Kahlo – The Two Fridas
Frida Kahlo is the most famous female artist in history. She differs from traditional female beauty in art and portrays raw and real experiences. When she was only 18 years old, she was in a nearly fatal bus accident, which crippled and left her in chronic pain for her whole life. She had to go through 30 major operations, even leading to an amputation of her right leg in 1953.
In 1939, her career started taking off, but at the same time, her personal life started falling apart. Kahlo went on a few solo shows in NYC and Paris and became the toast of avant-garde artwork. During this time, her husband Diego Rivera, who she was in a chaotic marriage with, had an affair with her sister Kristina.
They got a divorce, she cut her hair off, and started painting The Two Fridas. The left one represents her “new”, more European version, which Diego despises, and the right one is the traditionally Mexican Frida, who Diego loved so dearly. While the heart of the right Frida connects to a portrait of Diego, the left Frida cuts this connection off, revealing the duality of her identity. The blood coming from the cut-off connection may also represent her physical and mental pain from not being able to bear children.
Although she remarried Diego not even a year after their divorce, she once claimed that she “had two accidents in [her] life, one was the streetcar, and one was Diego”. Frida Kahlo was a Mexican, female, disabled artist in a male-dominated environment in post-revolutionary Mexico. She is an icon for feminism and broke all social conventions to produce some of the most haunting art.
Monet – Water Lillies
Claude Monet did not have the easiest career. People often criticised him for being “too easy”, some even called him a “chocolate box artist”. With his latest works, eight enormous water lily canvasses, he may have proven everybody wrong. Some interpret them as an aesthetic interpretation of a garden, but they are much more than that. They were created as a war memorial to commemorate the millions of lives tragically lost in the First World War. They are his most radical artworks.
As Monet became older, his legendary eyesight started failing and he couldn’t perceive colors as he used to (diagnosis: cataracts). He decided to put down his painting brushes for good and simply had enough, 13 years before he painted his most famous artwork. Georges Clemenceau was the one to support him and push him to pursue his passion for creating. Monet was deeply affected by the horrors of war and hence, he decided to donate panels to the l’Orangerie in Paris.
A missing horizon and the dull color pallet resemble the landscape of the Western Front. There was no beginning, nor an end. Time and space are forgotten. The eight curved panels are displayed in two egg-shaped rooms, and the atmosphere changes with the position of sunlight. Due to this fact, some call it the first art installation ever.
Vermeer – Girl With a Pearl Earring
How come a painting without a (publicly known) story behind it is so famous? The Girl With a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer is also called the “Mona Lisa of the North”, since it is displayed at the Mauritshuis in Den Haag.
There is nearly no information about Vermeer himself, and even less about this famous artwork. Who was she? What connection did she have to Vermeer? What is she thinking? Is she real? These are only some of the questions we will probably never get the answers to. It remains a mystery.
Pablo Picasso – Guernica
Guernica is the best-known anti-war painting in history, and Picasso’s most famous artwork. 1937 marks the year that Hitler sent the German air force (or Luftwaffe) to help General Franco’s fascist forces in the fight against the left-wing government. During a period of 2.5 hours, 100,000 pounds of explosives fell down, killing more than 1/3 of Guernica’s population. This military coup started the Spanish civil war.
After the bombing of Guernica, Picasso finished this work in only three weeks. It was sent around the world afterwards to raise money for Spain. The complete absence of color reflects how he perceived all things and events as black and white after this traumatic incident. Guernica is an allegorical painting and shows just how destructive, violent, and chaotic not only the war itself, but also its influence on daily life was. A dove, commonly a symbol of peace, with a broken body, indicated how peace is all but destroyed.
One day, a German officer visited him and saw a photograph of Guernica on his wall. He asked Picasso whether he did this painting, and he simply replied with “No, you did”. This famous artwork is not “just” contemporary art – it is history.
Gustav Klimt – The Kiss
The Kiss by Gustav Klimt is a representation of love and intimacy, which are both reoccurring themes in his works. It shows an embracing couple, dressed in gold robes, kneeling in wildflowers.
He incorporated real gold leaf into his works and this practice is a visual representation of the strong influence that gold-detailed religious art and the Byzantine Empire had on him. All his famous artworks reflect the mood of the period “fin de siècle”, the end of the century. These include cynical and very pessimistic worldviews. However, on the other hand, they were also a hope for new beginnings.
Love is one of the most captivating, gaze-holding, food for thought giving, and beyond superficial matters there is, which is why it is hard not to feel something while looking at this work.
Art through history
The striking thing about art is that it is so subjective. It is open for all interpretation, which makes discussing it with other people even more interesting. However, it is really fascinating to know about the backgrounds of the work you’re looking at. Art can teach you about history, the present, and the future. No matter the intention of the artist himself, sometimes, it can reveal your own true feelings through whatever you interpret into what you see.
As Picasso once said, “Art can be a lie, but it enables us to realize the truth”.