50 famous paintings and the stories behind them
A picture is worth a thousand words, and like texts, art is often meant to be “read” through critical deconstruction. Paintings can be far more complicated than they appear at first glance and difficult to decipher if the viewer doesn’t speak the same tongue. Iconography—the symbolic language of a given work of art—can be sophisticated and complex, reflecting the collective consciousness or drawn from the artist’s personal experience. Why would someone eschew the written word in favor of paint and canvas? 20th-century American artist Edward Hopper appears to have had the answer. “If I could say it in words,” he said, “there would be no reason to paint.”
The stories told by works of art—and about them—are, quite literally, the stuff of novels. Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” inspired the novel of the same name by author Tracy Chevalier. The book was subsequently turned into a film starring Scarlett Johansson. Almost 40 years after Irving Stone wrote his biographical account of the life of Michelangelo, Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” turned the life and work of the Renaissance master into a romp through the preceding millennia.
Sept. 13, 2019, heralds the wide cinematic release of the latest exponent of the genre: “The Goldfinch,” based on Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The book centers around the fictionalized theft of Dutch artist Carel Fabritius’ eponymous painting after an explosion rocks New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ironically, Fabritius died in a devastating gunpowder explosion in 1654, shortly after completing his most memorable work. The success enjoyed by Tartt’s book elevated “The Goldfinch” to rockstar status, mobbed by crowds determined to catch a glimpse of the tiny bird tethered by a delicate chain. [Note: Fabritius' painting is not featured in Stacker's gallery.]
Stacker curated this list of some of the world’s most famous images and the fascinating stories behind them. Scroll through the list and find out which paintings scandalized Paris, were looted by the Nazis, and inspired a hit Broadway musical.
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- Artist: Andrew Wyeth
- Year: 1948
“Christina’s World” continues to fascinate more than 70 years after it was first painted. The faceless woman lying on the ground was Anna Christina Olson, the neighbor and muse of Pennsylvania artist Andrew Wyeth. While the painting has all the hallmarks of a pastoral, Olson’s pose is not one of romantic languor; she suffered from a muscle-wasting disorder, possibly Charcot-Marie Tooth disease, and was known to drag herself across the family homestead.
- Artist: Jan van Eyck
- Year: 1434
Painted by Dutch master Jan van Eyck, this early Netherlandish panel painting is shrouded in symbolism. The elegantly dressed couple are thought to be Giovanni di Nicolao di Arnolfini, and his wife, Costanza Trenta, wealthy Italians living in Bruges. The unusual composition begs several questions. Does the painting celebrate the couple’s wedding, or commemorate some other event, such as a shrewdly negotiated marriage contract? Was the bride pregnant, or simply dressed in the latest fashion? And what are the mysterious figures depicted in the convex mirror? The unorthodox placement of van Eyck’s signature directly above it suggests one of the men may be the artist himself.
- Artist: Grant Wood
- Year: 1930
Grant Wood spent years searching for inspiration in Europe. The work that would make him famous, however, was painted after his return to the heartland. A national icon and leading exponent of regionalism, “American Gothic” depicts what appears to be a Depression-era farmer and his weathered wife. Grant intended the couple to represent father and daughter; in reality, they were neither. The man holding the pitchfork was Wood’s dentist, Byron McKeeby, flanked by the artist’s sister, Nan Wood Graham.
- Artist: Odilon Redon
- Year: 1914
For those not familiar with the finer points of Greek mythology, the dream-like subject of Odilon Redon’s “Cyclops” may not be easily identifiable. Polyphemus, the giant that is sporting the solitary eyeball, peers over a rocky outcropping at the object of his desire—the nymph Galatea. Derived from Homer’s “Odyssey,” the tale was a popular trope among French symbolists, including Redon’s contemporary, poet and painter Gustave Moreau.
Death of Marat
- Artist: Jacques-Louis David
- Year: 1793
The pallid figure bleeding out in Jaques-Louis David’s 1793 neoclassical masterpiece is none other than Jean-Paul Marat, the French revolutionary famously stabbed to death in the bath by political adversary Charlotte Corday. David gravitated toward radical politics, aligning himself with the Jacobin ideologies of Marat and Maximilien Robespierre. In post-revolutionary France, he rose to the position of court painter under Napoleon Bonaparte.
Frescoes, Villa of the Mysteries
- Artist: Unknown
- Year: c. first century B.C.
In 1909, archeologists working in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii unearthed a villa buried under 30 feet of volcanic ash. Preserved inside was a room, measuring approximately 225 square feet, containing a series of beautiful—yet baffling—frescoes. The images depict more than two dozen, life-size figures. At the center of the activity is a nude woman, shown flogged in one scene while dancing and playing the cymbals in another. Most scholars concur that the cycle represents a Dionysian initiation cult.
Girl With A Pearl Earring
- Artist: Johannes Vermeer
- Year: 1665
A masterpiece of the Dutch Golden Age, Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” has transfixed viewers with her wistful gaze ever since the painting resurfaced in the late 19th century. Little, however, is known about the young woman who modeled for the portrait. It has been suggested that the girl was Vermeer’s daughter or mistress. While this may be the case, the image wasn’t intended to represent an actual person. The turban worn by the sitter indicates that the piece was intended as a “tronie”—an idealized image cloaked in exotic clothing.
Déjeuner sur L’herbe
- Artist: Edouard Manet
- Year: 1863
Edouard Manet’s sensational “Déjeuner sur L’herbe” ("Luncheon on the Grass") scandalized 19th-century Paris, not for its stark nudity, but because it broke with a long-standing tradition of depicting nudes in classical settings. The Paris Salon rejected the painting, declaring it obscene. Victorine-Louise Meurent, the naked woman staring unapologetically at the viewer, was assumed by many to be a local prostitute; she was actually a sought-after Parisian artist’s model and an accomplished painter in her own right.
- Artist: Sir John Everett Millais
- Year: 1851-52
Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais, in true Pre-Raphaelite fashion, painted directly from life whenever possible. Much of the exuberant foliage found in “Ophelia” can be found in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and was painted en plein air. Millais, however, didn’t subject his 19-year-old model, Elizabeth Siddall, to the elements; she reportedly posed for the artist in a bathtub full of water in his London studio.
The Gross Clinic
- Artist: Thomas Eakins
- Year: 1875
Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins spent a year working on “The Gross Clinic,” which he painted specifically for his hometown’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition. The closely observed work depicts Dr. Samuel Gross and associates operating on a patient’s leg. A stricken woman hiding her face from the open gash has been traditionally identified as the faceless patient’s mother. Sitting behind Gross, to the right of the painting is a self-portrait of the artist. Jurists, shocked by the gory realism, rejected the work, which was eventually housed in a reconstruction of a U.S. Army Post Hospital.2018 All rights reserved.