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10 Intriguing Facts About Famous Paintings

Rachel M. Johnson is a lover of all things pop culture. She's been writing about music and entertainment online for years.

The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa

1. The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Arguably one of the most well-known paintings in the world, the Mona Lisa is considered a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance. Widely believed to be that of Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini, the painting is thought to have been created between 1503 and 1506 and possibly as late as 1517. It is one of the most valuable paintings in the world, with an insurance valuation totaling more than $870 million.

Did you know that the painting is one of the first portraits to depict the sitter in front of an imaginary landscape? Leonardo was also one of the first painters to ever use aerial perspective.

There is a blurriness to the Mona Lisa that has caused mystery and mystique, and it was intentionally done by da Vinci. It is a technique called sfumato which literally translates to smokey. It uses layering in order to blur the contours of the painting and gives Mona Lisa an ethereal and soft feel against the harsh background landscape.

American Gothic

American Gothic

2. American Gothic by Grant Wood

American Gothic is a popular American painting created in 1930 by Grant Wood and depicts a farmer standing beside his daughter (often mistaken to be his wife). The name of the painting comes from the background house's architectural style.

American Gothic is one of the most familiar images of 20th-century American art and is an actual house that you can visit. The Dibble House is located in Eldon, Iowa, and was built in the Carpenter Gothic architectural style.

Grant Wood recruited his sister Nan Wood Graham to be the model for the daughter, dressing her in a colonial print apron that reflected 20th-century rural Americana. The model for the father was the Wood family dentist, Dr. Bryon McKeeby.

Many believed the pair depicted were husband and wife, but according to Wood, "The prim lady with him is his grown-up daughter." American Gothic is a frequently parodied image, being lampooned in Broadway shows like The Music Man, movies including The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and TV shows such as Green Acres and even Spongebob Squarepants.

Girl With a Pearl Earring

Girl With a Pearl Earring

3. Girl With a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

This famous painting by Johannes Vermeer is an iconic oil painting dating back to 1665. It depicts a European girl wearing an exotic dress, oriental turban, and what is believed to be a large pearl earring.

The lovely girl in the painting is speculated to have been his eldest child Maria, who was also said to have been his muse. She appears in in other paintings by Johannes and her resemblance to the painting is uncanny, though this theory has never been fully proven.

Prior to 1995, Girl with a Pearl Earring went by many names, including Girl in a Turban, The Young Girl With Turban, and Head of a Young Girl. As priceless and beloved as this painting has become, it took more than 200 years for it to sell.

It sold at an auction in 1881, where a Dutch Army officer and art collector named Arnoldus Andries des Tombe purchased the piece. The price? Just 2 guilder with a 30-cent premium; a guilder is worth 100 cents. Upon his death in 1902, the painting was willed to The Hague's art museum, the Mauritshuis, where it can still be seen today.

The Birth of Venus

The Birth of Venus

4. The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

The Birth of Venus is undoubtedly one of the world's most famous and adored works of art. Painted by Sandro Botticelli between 1482 to 1485, it depicts the mythological figure Venus, the goddess of love, arriving on the island of Cyprus.

In the Middle Ages, Christian inspiration was very dominant in art, but the emergence of humanism shifted the artistic approach. There was a renewed interest in the myths of ancient Rome, and therefore, nude art was reborn.

Botticelli was inspired to use Venus' pose from another piece of ancient art; the goddess' gesture to cover her private parts was also used in the Capitoline Venus. This was a category of statue specifically depicting Venus dating back to the second or third century B.C.E. Botticelli was the first artist in Tuscany to paint on canvas instead of using plank paintings and frescoes. The painting also set a new standard with the size of the artwork; it was an impressive six by nine feet.

The Last Supper

The Last Supper

5. The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

Another masterpiece crafted by Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper is a late 15th-century mural painting depicting the last supper of Jesus with his apostles. He painted the artwork between 1495–1496 and wanted to depict the exact moment after Jesus reveals one of his friends will betray him.

Specifically, the anger and shock on the faces of the apostles. Though it is one of the biggest and most famous paintings in the world, you won't be able to see it in a museum. It's permanent home is in a convent in Milan, Italy.

Did you know that da Vinci used a brand new technique he created himself in order to perfect all the details? He used tempera paints on stone and primed the wall with a primer he hoped would protect the wall from moisture. Sadly, this wasn't the case. His tempera-on-stone approach proved to be a failure, and by the early 16th century the paint had started to flake and decay.

Within just 50 years, the painting was in complete disarray. During World War II, vibrations from Allied bombings caused more damage to the artwork. Thankfully, in 1980, a 19-year restoration project began and was ultimately completed, but it lost most of its original paint along the way.

The Starry Night

The Starry Night

6. The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

Painted in June 1889, The Starry Night depicts the view from the east-facing window of Van Gogh's asylum room at Saint-Remy-de-Provence right before sunrise. It is widely regarded as one of the most recognizable paintings in Western art and is considered Van Gogh's greatest piece.

After a breakdown that resulted in the self-mutilation of his left ear, Van Gogh willingly admitted himself to an asylum in May 1889. He stayed a year at the asylum and produced some of his most famous and renowned works of his career, also including Irises and the blue self-portrait.

The painting is said to represent morality. It is theorized that the Cyprus trees (the trees in the painting) are a representation of death and cemeteries, and the stars are said to be a depiction of death and the afterlife.

Eerily, plagued by his depression, Van Gogh is believed to have shot himself in the chest with a revolver, ultimately dying on July 29, 1890, at the age of 37. Despite becoming one of his most adored pieces of art, Van Gogh never sold The Starry Night because he considered it a failure. Ironic, considering the painting is one of the most expensive artworks in the world.

The Two Fridas

The Two Fridas

7. The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo

The Two Fridas is an oil painting and double self-portrait of two versions of Kahlo seated together. One is wearing a white European-style Victorian dress, and the other dons a traditional Tehuana dress.

Painted in 1939, Kahlo created the artwork after divorcing her husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera (whom she would later remarry). Many art historians suggest that the two figures in the painting represent Frida's dual heritage: her father was German, and her mother was Mexican.

According to Frida's own recollection, the art is of a memory of a childhood imaginary friend. It is also said that the painting was inspired by art Kahlo saw at the Louvre: Théodore Chassériau's The Two Sisters.

In the painting, the Fridas both have visible hearts, and the heart of the traditional Frida is cut and torn open. Many believe this represents her broken heart from her divorce. In 1947, the artwork was acquired by the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Institute of Fine Arts) in Mexico City.

The purchase price was 4,000 pesos (about $1,000), and an extra 36 pesos for the frame, which was the highest price that Frida was ever paid for a painting during her lifetime.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

8. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso

Widely regarded as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso created many renowned and beloved art pieces. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was painted in 1907 and depicts five nude female prostitutes in a brothel on Carrer d'Avinyó, a street in Barcelona.

Picasso drew over 100 preliminary sketches and studies before taking his idea to canvas, and he fully acknowledged the importance of Spanish art and Iberian sculpture as influences. The abstract painting was ultimately deemed immoral at the time of its first exhibition in 1916.

Picasso initially kept the painting in his Montmartre, Paris studio for years after its completion due to negative reactions from his inner circle of friends. When it was finally viewed by the public in 1916, it was not well-received and fellow artist and competitor Henri Matisse reacted angrily. He believed Picasso's painting was a criticism of the modern art movement and felt it stole the attention from his own works, Blue Nude and Le Bonheur de Vivre.

The painting would eventually became recognized as a revolutionary achievement in the early 1920s, when André Breton published the work. It has since become one of Picasso's most notable works.

Woman With a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son

Woman With a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son

9. Woman With a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son by Claude Monet

Also known as The Stroll, Woman With a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son is an oil-on-canvas painting created by Claude Monet in 1875. The Impressionist piece depicts Monet's wife Camille Monet and their son Jean Monet, capturing a moment on a stroll on a windy summer's day.

The painting is arguably one of Monet's most notable and highly revered artworks, and it received praise when it appeared in the second impressionist exhibition in 1876. Monet wanted to convey the feeling of a casual family outing and not a formal portrait.

The artwork is speculated to have been painted outdoors and very quickly, most likely in the single period of a few hours. Camille appeared many times in Monet's work, including The Woman in the Green Dress and Camille on the Beach. The painting was one of 18 works that Monet exhibited in 1876, and it measured 39 x 32 inches, becoming Monet's largest work in the 1870s.



10. Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

One of the most recognizable paintings in American art, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper is an oil on canvas painting that portrays four people in a downtown diner as viewed through a large glass window.

Completed in 1942, Hopper said of the painting "unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city." It is also suggested that Hopper was inspired by a short story by Ernest Hemmingway "The Killers."

Both Edward and Josephine Hopper are believed to have been models for the painting. In a letter to her sister Marion, Josephine wrote, "Ed has just finished a very fine picture—a lunch counter at night with 3 figures. Night Hawks would be a fine name for it. E. posed for the two men in a mirror and I for the girl. He was about a month and half working on it."

The painting became an instant classic, and Daniel Catton Rich, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, purchased Nighthawks for $3,000 ($50,414 adjusting for inflation in 2021). The piece is still on display in the Institute's galleries.


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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rachel M Johnson