From the biggest pieces ever to some unknown mysteries, we’re here to dish out the trivia. If you’re a fan of art, you might know some of these, but do you know them all? We doubt it – learn about Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso, Francisco Goya, and many others, and have something to tell your friends.
The Most Famous of Them All
It’s almost certain that you can recognize this picture. It’s “The Last Supper” by Leonardo Da Vinci, perhaps the most famous piece of art in the world. No, there’s no conspiracy hidden in it as the characters of Dan Brown’s books might think, but there are still some fun tidbits to uncover.
First off, there’s the music in it. There are some notes hidden in the picture, using bread rolls and other items to create a simple staff and melody. The spilled salt on the table near Judas might hint at the bad luck that is to follow him, and the fact they could be eating herring could be a sly nod to Peter having denied Christ during the trial to follow.
Under a Dark Blue Sky
Vincent van Gogh might not have found acclaim for his artwork until after his death, but he’s now regarded as one of the best at what he did. Artistic representations of everyday scenes such as this painting, “Cafe Terrace at Night.” It’s a lovely scene, but let’s learn more.
The night has no black in it, despite it being night, using only dark blue and van Gogh’s unique style of a star. In fact, it’s said that van Gogh painted the stars with such accuracy that scholars are able to date the creation of the painting down to the DAY. Or, almost. The two possibilities are the sixteenth or the seventeenth of September 1888.
You Know That Smile
It’s much smaller than you think it is, it’s mysterious, and it’s one of the most famous paintings in the world. It’s “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci. This beguiling beauty has captured hearts, been stolen, and gotten art historians in a tizzy over what it is exactly.
First off, it might be unfinished: Lisa’s lack of eyebrows makes people wonder if Da Vinci had forgotten to finish it or if his right hand had become partially paralyzed before it could be done. Her enigmatic smile is due to the low spatial frequency of the artwork, meaning it disappears while looking straight at it.
Let There Be Light
This painting, “Separation of Light from Darkness” by Michelangelo, is one of nine paintings in the center of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which depict the birth of the world, the creation of man, and man’s fall from grace. It shows a muscular God who rips in half the universe, dividing the night from the day.
His up-angled face denotes a remoteness, and while the strokes that make up the figure are smooth and polished, the space around him is raw and chaotic, just like an unbuilt firmament might have been. God’s billowing red robe offers him majesty and power, despite nudity being the norm for most famous paintings of the era.
The Secret in the Mirror
Despite looking like it could have been produced hundreds of years later, “The Arnolfini Portrait” was painted by Dutch painter Jan van Eyck all the way back in 1434. It seems to be entirely straightforward until you start to look a little closer. Some of the details are strange.
It was a wedding photo, but the woman already appeared pregnant. There are touches like the small dog, the chandelier, and the trappings of the room, which could either be an allusion to wealth or to aspects of religion. Jan van Eyck’s signature is on the wall, and there are unknown figures reflected in the mirror.
Plenty of Symbolism
Celebrating the achievements and friendship of two men, “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein the Younger is chock full of strange details. The most prominent of them is the odd shape on the ground between the men. When the painting is tilted and viewed from a specific angle, the shape becomes a human skull.
There is also a silver crucifix hiding behind the green curtain in the upper right, so well obscured that few spot it on their own. The pair of globes could mean anything from the exploration going on at the time to the tumult of the Lutheran Reformation. However, the celestial globe is proud and tall, perhaps speaking about the constancy of the stars above Earth.
A Minor Prophet, a Major Question
This one is one that most of us recognize, but what do you know about it? The inclusion of the prophet Zechariah in Michelangelo's immense creation of the Sistine Chapel is an odd one. While the minor prophet did foresee a king riding on a donkey, surely there were more major figures to include?
In addition, why does he have a pair of genies looking over his shoulder as he reads? Experts haven’t fully nailed down an answer just yet. Zechariah reads from his own book, which advocates the reconstruction of the temple, perhaps leading one to assume the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica are the new Temple.
Play Us an Old Song
Pablo Picasso is a name even the non-art historian will recognize with no issue, and “The Old Guitarist” is one of his more well-known paintings. This piece of Picasso’s “blue period” has some interesting details. The odd pose of the subject, skeletal appearance, and bowed head all seem very death-like, and it’s known that Picasso painted this shortly after a friend’s death.
However, there’s plenty more under the surface of this painting. Literally, since there are a full two more compositions underneath the painting, revealed through x-ray photos. Little of the images are visible, but most likely, they were pictures Picasso started before trying something else.
The Mysterious Madam
Brazen. That’s how the public responded to this painting, “Madame X,” which showed a woman flaunting her body in a way that was simply unheard of in the eighteen-eighties. John Singer Sargent painted this outrage, and it became a low point for both him and the subject, Virginie Gautreau, a woman who was known for her beauty and her many affairs.
Her haughtiness, her beauty, and her outfit did little to downplay this, but such a thing sent both painter and subject heading for hidey holes. In addition, this picture did a lot to create the allure of the little black dress, something that continues to this day.
Gazing Down the Beach
Even an unassuming piece of artwork such as this, Hendrick van Anthonissen’s “View of Scheveningen Sands,” can hold some mystery to unravel. While it seems to be little more than villagers on the beach harvesting food from a whale, it has a hidden secret. We can now see the secret – the whale – but before that, the whale was hidden by a layer of repaint.
When that was discovered, the painting went from people simply looking out at the ocean on a cold day to people gathering for some kind of spectacle. Did the artist dislike it? Did one of the owners decide to get rid of the dead animal? We just don’t know.
Springtime for Botticelli
Nine figures from classic mythology frolic in a flowery field under luscious trees. But who are all these figures? The goddess of love and beauty, Venus, takes up the middle while a blind cupid fires arrows above her. To her right and our left, a trio of Graces, minor goddesses, dance in a circle, and Mercury is on their other side.
To our right, the nymph Chloris painted twice, when her depiction to the right wonders why Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, is giving her a feel. One of Sandro Botticelli’s masterpieces, “La Primavera” has a complex composition that is still a mystery, though the skill he gave it is no mystery whatsoever.
The Proverbial Painting
There is a ton of detail to take in while looking at Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s “The Blue Cloak,” also known as “The Topsy Turvy World.” The central figure is a woman putting on a cloak of the same color, but why? Well, a Dutch proverb gives us the phrase “Pulling the wool over your eyes,” or hiding the truth from yourself.
The original version of this painting had a woman pulling a cloak over her husband in order to hide her adultery, and this updated version has a similar scene. There are also dozens of other proverbs rendered in visual form, from admonishments to good advice. Check out the full list – there are over a hundred!
Ready to Party
This guy seems like he’s glad it’s Friday. Why yes, it’s “Bacchus” by Caravaggio, and we see before us one of the most common interpretations of the Greek god of wine, inebriation, fertility, and theater. Sure, it’s a great painting, but what is there to wonder about? Well, there is some discussion among historians about who exactly was the model for the great godly guzzler.
The most likely option is that the model was Caravaggio’s pupil, Mario Minniti, who had modeled for the painter in a number of other works. However, some believe that Caravaggio set up a mirror and used himself as the model since Bacchus is offering a glass of wine with his left hand instead of his right.
Using Devices to Help
This quiet scene isn’t so quiet, actually – it’s “Music Lesson” by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, and there’s something about it. Not the subject itself – the teacher and student using music as a stand-in for their relationship (evidenced by the teacher singing along to the music) was a common theme at the time.
No, a theory from Tim Jenison says that Vermeer used optical devices (like a lens) to paint this scene, and his 2013 documentary went about trying to prove it. The results were somewhat inconclusive, as well as being quite controversial. There are plenty of points both for and against it.
A Calm Killing
One of the most famous stories from the Old Testament is that of the young shepherd David facing off against the giant warrior Goliath with nothing but a sling and a stone. Michelangelo did his best to memorialize this scene in a fresco on the Sistine Chapel, but one strange detail of this picture has always gotten people wondering.
Why does David look so calm? It’s stoic, assured, and clear... as if this is nothing more than getting dressed or brushing your teeth in the morning. Is he strong in his faith? Did David know he was about to return with the giant's head, and everyone would cheer him to victory?
A Visitor From Another World
Most of “The Madonna with Saint Giovannino” by Domenico Ghirlandaio, from the fifteenth century, is a standard piece of art. A peaceful Mary, a muscular baby Jesus, and a haloed angel. But what’s that thing in the upper right corner? To a great number of people, it looks a lot like something we would call a UFO.
It’s unclear what it’s supposed to be, but a zoomed-out version would also reveal a man and his dog looking up at the item. Some people even seem to think there are a number of bright beams emanating from the shape. Finally, some seem to think that Mary is shielding her child from the thing in the sky.
A Supper With a Code
This shadowy painting is from Caravaggio, and it shows Jesus – after his resurrection – returning to have some supper with a couple of his disciples. The energy and poses, the colors and shadows, it’s all wonderful, but there’s something else special here. Details of the painting tell us that this is after the bread has been broken, and thus likely just as Jesus was revealing who he was.
He was about to disappear from the Earth and return to the Holy Spirit, and it’s possible this is the exact moment before Jesus disappeared. It would explain why the man on the right, Luke, and the man in the green coat, Cleopas, seem so astounded.
Made up of Dots
As the father of pointillism, Georges Seurat was a master of making small colored dots blend together into one beautiful image. In this painting, “Young Woman Powdering Herself,” for greater contrast, he placed competing colors like orange and blue next to each other, creating a scene full of energy, even if we can’t pick up on why.
The woman was Seurat’s mistress, giving the scene a personal connection. The size of the frame and vase of flowers leads some historians to believe it was used to paint over something Seurat wanted to remove, and it’s true. Underneath the frame and vase is a self-portrait discovered using recent technology. It’s the painter’s only known self-portrait.
Terrified of Goliath
No doubt you’ve at least seen an image of Michelangelo’s “David,” but have you ever really looked at the face? We get it, there are lots of other things to look at. Still, the face tells us a few specific things. This astounding, fourteen-foot marble statue depicts David glancing up, brows furrowed, stepping back as if he faces a terrifying threat.
Now, what famous Biblical story has David going up against a terrifying enemy? Yes, it’s all too possible that this statue depicts David just before fighting Goliath. He seems to be a bit worried, and who can blame him?
Who Are the Twelve?
“The Creation of Adam” is perhaps the most well-known part of the fresco that Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but even after all these years, this famous piece of artwork still has some mystery around it. Who are the people hovering with God?
The female figure under God’s arm is usually accepted to be Eve, but it’s possible the intention could have been Mary, the mother of Jesus, or Sophia, the personification of Wisdom. The rest of the figures are most likely supposed to simply be the souls of Adam and Eve’s unborn progeny (i.e., the entire human race).
Hiding a Peasant Woman
Vincent van Gogh’s 1887 painting, “Patch of Grass,” doesn’t look like it has too much to offer in the way of mysteries, but you’d be surprised. It might not have unsolvable questions, but it does contain a surprising hidden secret. Underneath the painting of grass was a painting of a simple peasant woman, as revealed by an x-ray technique (fluorescence spectroscopy).
Nothing is known about the woman in question, of course, but it’s thought that the portrait was one of a series of similar paintings from van Gogh that he did during 1884 and ‘85 while staying in the Dutch village Nuenen.
Too Many Facts to Put Here
“The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch is a complex, intricate, and detailed triptych depicting paradise with Adam and Eve, the garden itself, and Hell. There is a lot to talk about here, but we’ll focus on the strange piece of music that... seems to be tattooed on a person’s bottom.
The huge instruments surrounding this sight from Hell represent the flawed human justice system that could never equal divine justice. Music from the hellish judge, thinking he is God, is being transcribed on flesh as a form of punishment. Amazingly, someone was able to recreate the music: “The Music Written on This Dude’s Butt.”
The Beginning of Beauty
Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” is a famous classical painting that shows off his incredible eye for detail and technique. It shows the goddess of love and beauty arriving on the island of Cyprus. There are a few fun details to take note of in this immense painting (172.5 x 278.5 centimeters).
The orange trees on the right side could be an indication that the painting was made for the powerful Medici family – orange trees are considered an emblem of the family. The two figures on the left are the winds Zephyr and Aura, who blew Venus to the island, while the figure on the right is either one of the Graces or the Hora of spring – an embodiment of the season.
The Melting Clock Painting
Painted in the midst of a hallucination, “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali tells you exactly what kind of person Dali was. While we can’t be sure if he was telling the truth or not, Dali has related that the inspiration for this famous surreal painting was a wheel of Camembert cheese that had melted in the sun.
The landscape was inspired by Dali’s childhood and Mount Pani, and it’s possible that the squidgy shape in the center of the painting is some kind of strange self-portrait. Some scholars believe that the melted clocks were a reference to Einstein’s theory of relativity.
An Unforgettable Night
One of Vincent van Gogh’s most famous paintings is undoubtedly “A Starry Night,” a beautiful image of the glowing, dark blue sky over a small village. But did you know the view depicted is from a mental asylum? Van Gogh had checked himself in during a tough time, and this was most likely the view that he saw from his window during the night.
The date of the painting is around the beginning of June 1889, and it’s been discovered that one of the stars is actually the planet Venus. However, the town was painted from memory, which impresses us even more.
Dreaming a Young Dream
Could such a simple painting contain so many questions about life and death? That’s what Paul Gauguin liked to put in his artwork, and this painting, “The Little One Is Dreaming, Etude,” is no exception. While his daughter Aline sleeps, Gauguin has added symbols such as a bird hovering over her and the doll at the side of the bed.
The bird, flitting to and from the nest, could be the dream or the artist’s thoughts, while the doll is an eerie and macabre addition, perhaps as a counterpoint to the light, cheerful dream of the child, so innocent and so pure.
Is It Really Pearl?
“Girl With a Pearl Earring” is Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s most famous work, one of the most famous pieces in history, and for good reason. The intimate gaze, the turban wrapped around her head, and the details of light and shadow make it a memorable piece of work.
The painting is a “tronie,” the Dutch word for head, and not meant to be a traditional portrait. One interesting fact of note is that it’s thought the earring isn’t actually pearl – Dutch astrophysicist Vincent Icke thought that it was actually polished tin due to the reflection on it, as well as the shape and large size.
While certainly not portraying anything close to the reality of the Annunciation, this painting by Italian artist Carlo Crivelli is still a detailed and beautiful look at an important religious moment. “The Annunciation, With Saint Emidius” is about the moment the angel Gabriel spoke to the Virgin Mary about her impending child.
Many have noticed the odd shape in the sky, but it’s merely a representation of the Holy Spirit or a vortex of angels that represent it. Additional details are the full flask of water representing Mary’s virginity, the peacock, which represents immortality, and the cucumber (bottom frame of the zoomed0out version), which represents resurrection and redemption for some reason.
Even in Arcadia
“Et in Arcadia ego,” a French baroque painting from a master of the style, Nicolas Poussin, shows shepherds and what is likely a shepherdess gathered around a tomb that bears an inscription of the title of the painting. The translation from Latin means “Even in Arcadia, there I am.”
Seeing as how the saying is inscribed on a tomb, it’s only too easy for this to tell us that death will be with us for our entire lives, even when times seem good. However, it’s possible that the inscription is supposed to urge contemplation of the past or a sense of nostalgia.
Hey, John, What’s Around Your Feet?
The Victorians had a certain fascination with death. Much of the imagery, including skulls, can be found in the enduring artwork from the time between 1837 and 1907. However, the famous painting of court philosopher, mathematician, and alchemist John Dee performing an experiment for Queen Elizabeth I, by Victorian painter Henry Gillard, has none of it.
Or at least that’s what it seems like at first. X-ray analysis of the painting shows that there used to be a halo of skulls around Dee’s head, but they were painted over for some reason. Too macabre for the otherwise normal painting? It’s hard to say.
Hey Francisco, Are You Doing Okay?
Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes was, as you might be able to tell from these paintings, a bit of a strange one. Many of his paintings contain images of despair, violence, and loathing, most famously the bottom left picture, “Saturn Devouring his Son.” Saturn’s eyes blare at the viewing as he consumes his son.
Goya was disillusioned with society and struggling to maintain his own sanity, and his pessimism showed in almost everything he painted. His series of “Black paintings” show a repeated interest from Goya for dark and horrific themes. These fourteen paintings were all painted onto the walls of his farmhouse home.
Ready to Fire
With a colossal size (almost twelve by fourteen feet), its dynamic use of light and shadow, and the perception of military motion, “The Night Watch” is one of the most famous pieces of art in the Western world. Rembrandt skillfully draws our eye to the three most important subjects of the painting.
We have Franz B. Cocq, wearing black with a red sash, Willem van Ruytenburch, wearing yellow with a white sash, and... the woman carrying a chicken. Why this woman? Well, she is a kind of mascot for the shooting company – the details that surround her, including the chicken, are symbols of the military subject we see.
After Slinging the Stone
The subject matter of this painting, “David With the Head of Goliath,” is pretty easy to figure out. It was painted by Caravaggio as early as 1605, but there’s more than just a heavy blanket of shadow to marvel at in this painting. The sword that David is holding in his right hand has a small inscription: H-AS OS.
The best that people can come up with for meaning is the Latin phrase Humilitas Occidit Superbiam, or “humanity kills pride.” It’s a simple shout-out to the story of David and Goliath, which had Goliath boasting about his prowess in combat, only to be bested by a small, relatively weak shepherd boy in battle.
One of His Early Works
Leonardo Da Vinci made tons of amazing pieces of art, but he didn’t finish everything he started. One of his early pieces, “Adoration of the Magi,” seems like it was made by someone else, but it still has touches of what would turn out to be genius. Let’s dive in.
The ruins in the back are said to be the Basilica of Maxentius, which the Romans claimed would stand until a virgin gave birth, and collapsed on the night Jesus was born. The palm tree in the center is associated with the Virgin Mary, but it can also simply represent triumph.
Are We in Control?
There sure is a lot to see in this painting by Diego Rivera, titled “Man Controller of the Universe.” It depicts a world understanding the turbulent times it is in, as well as what we as a species might find in both deep space and in the microscopic world.
Figures such as Communist leaders as well as famous capitalist John D. Rockefeller Jr. are present in the fresco. There is a hopeful feeling in the fresco despite the things depicted, where all the world is able to work together and find out how to best expand ourselves and our species.
The Missing Picture
Looking at this painting, we sit in awe of the technique and skill of Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer. This piece is called “Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window.” The painting seems to be a little more than exactly the title, but it turns out there’s something missing from the first picture.
A major restoration occurred in 2021, revealing a heretofore unseen element: a huge picture of Cupid on the wall behind the girl, as seen in the second picture, in addition to much brighter colors. Scholars see the presence of Cupid as evidence that the woman is reading a love letter.
A Bearded Man Is Watching You
One of the earliest pieces of work from Pablo Picasso’s blue period, “The Blue Room,” this painting seems to show us a young woman bathing in her tub, but there’s a little more to it than that. It turns out this picture also contains a peeper! Oh no! Thankfully, he can’t see anything past the layer of paint that is on top of him.
An x-ray study of the painting in 1997 revealed a painting underneath “The Blue Room,” and an infrared scan in 2008 revealed a bearded man wearing a bow tie, seated, with his right hand touching his cheek. Picasso, unable to sell his paintings, painted over them until they did.
It’s Time to Debate
Raphael’s “The School of Athens” takes us back to a time when bearded men in togas gathered in the square to be smart together. The composition naturally draws the eye to the men in the center – Plato and his student Aristotle, two of the most well-known philosophers and thinkers of all time.
Who else can we see? You can see Pythagoras (he has a famous theorem) in the lower left as he studies a large tome. Ptolemy and Raphael himself, looking directly at the viewer, can be seen on the right side, talking to Zoroaster, who is handling a globe.
A Feast for the Eyes
There are not many pieces of famous art on this list from a lady, but here’s a fine example. Clara Peeters painted this still life, titled “Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels,” around 1615. She painted her signature on the handle of the silver knife at the bottom.
A still life is mostly just about painting something as accurately as you can, using subjects such as these, but there’s still a fun tidbit in this piece. The jug of drink that is in the center of the painting has a black lid, and if one looks quite closely, one can see a small reflection of the painter herself.
A Devilish Face
“Death and Ascension of St. Francis” is a complicated piece, showing us the time of St. Francis’s passing and rising to heaven, but if one looks closely, one can see a lot more than just a crowd of monks there to honor his passing.
In the section of clouds above the heads of the monks, there is a cluster of clouds – one of the clouds, on the right side, appears to be a face. Giotto di Bondone, the painter, might have been the very first person to have done such a thing, but for what reason, it’s hard to say. A rival painter, perhaps?
Who Shot King Harold?
This isn’t the normal kind of painting that we’re used to on this list, but it still shows us an important historical event and, more importantly, has a mystery for us to wonder about. What we’re seeing is a fragment of the Bayeux Tapestry, a seventy-meter-long piece of work that was created at some point after 1066, which is when the events it depicts occurred.
An enduring fact about King Harold is that he was shot in the eye by an arrow, but this recent account of the event shows no such death – indeed, accounts immediately following the battle of Hastings make no mention of an arrow.
A Blur of Motion
If you don’t know the title of this painting, you might have no idea what you’re looking at. It’s titled “Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway” by painter J. M. W. Turner, first exhibited in 1844. By combining the power of nature and technology and adding an attribute of speed, Turner created a dizzying piece of art.
Coming at a time when the locomotive was just becoming the preferred method of travel for many, this painting is a snapshot of moving into a more technological age. But what about the barely visible hare running ahead of the train? Is it the power of nature? A fear of technology? Or simply speed itself?
Where Are They Bathing?
This painting, by pointillism master and creator Georges Seurat, is called “Bathers at Asnières,” and it depicts a group of people enjoying a still river on a warm day. At the time it was created, in 1884, it confused many of Seurat’s contemporaries for the timeless feeling it gives the viewer.
But did you know they’ve figured out exactly where the spot being portrayed is? It’s four miles from the center of Paris – not in Asnières, but in Courbevoie, which borders it to the west. Seurat was hardly the only person to set up an easel and paint this idyllic riverside. In fact, many of Seurat’s other better-known paintings also originate from this region.
The Magi Just Love to Adore
The Magi visiting the newborn Jesus has been represented numerous times in artwork by the classic masters, but Sandro Botticelli’s attempt, painted in 1475, has a few interesting details to go over. The first and most obvious is that the scene takes place not in a stable but in the ruins of a classical temple.
This comes from the belief that Christianity rose from the ruins and defeated paganism and could even suggest continuity. This version of the scene also stresses the religious aspect of the event, with hands and bodies posed to reveal devotion, reverence, and contemplation. A true work of art.
What Are You So Scared About?
The agonized face of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” has become one of the most famous pieces of art from the last two hundred years. It reflects the modern condition of the human race entering the 19th century. There is a lot to say about this arresting painting, but apparently, one comment was written directly onto the canvas!
In the upper left corner, if one looks very closely, is writing saying, “Kan Kun være Malet Af en gal Mand!” This translates to “Could only have been painted by a madman.” Presumably, this is a comment by a critic of the painting.
Give Us a Smooch
Take a look at Gustav Klimt’s body of work, and you’ll see a recurring number of themes having to do with love and intimacy. His 1907-08 work “The Kiss” is a classic example of this. Who modeled for this touching scene? Well, the main suspects are Klimt himself and his companion Emilie Flöge, a woman who featured in a number of his other paintings.
Some other art scholars believe that the woman depicted was the same model Klimt used for “Woman with Feather Boa,” “Goldfish,” and “Danaë,” known only as “Red Hilda.” Whoever it was, “The Kiss” got Klimt back into the public’s good graces.
Colors and Right Angles
Abstract work might not portray a single event or character, but it still has plenty of artistic merits and can get people thinking. This painting, “Broadway Boogie Woogie” by Piet Mondrian, was done after the artist moved to New York in 1940. But what does it all mean?
Well, Mondrian has gone on record saying that he loved the neat, square buildings of the city, as well as the jazz. He wanted to make something that had a destruction of natural rhythm and soul and continuous opposition to a standard while still bound within constraints – just like jazz or architecture.
A Lonely Night
The painting “Nighthawks” portrays four people sitting in a cafe late at night, doing little but drinking and talking. Artist Edward Hopper used a similar diner in his home in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, which has since been demolished. He simplified the scene a great deal and later admitted there’s no one restaurant that the painting portrays after people started wandering around looking for it.
The location of the inspirational restaurant has yet to be determined, though numerous options given by many people exist. Edward himself posed in a mirror to get the two men right, while his wife Josephine posed as the woman.
Destined for Great Things
One of the most famous facts about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was his incredible skill at music, even from a young age. When he was three, he started playing on the clavier alongside his father, and by the age of seven, he was already on tour.
This painting was done by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni while Mozart was six, but it wasn’t just Wolfgang – there are also paintings of his older sister Maria Anna Mozart and their father, Leopold Mozart, a composer, violinist, and theorist, whose musical studies helped both children become prodigies. It just so happens that Wolfgang was MORE of a prodigy, which makes us feel bad for Maria.
A Deadly Orange
While it looks like “Isabella” by John Everett Millais could have been painted in the sixteen-hundreds, it was actually only painted in the middle of the nineteenth century. It shows a scene from Giovanni Boccaccio’s novel “Lisabetta e il testo di Basilico.”
The man to Isabella’s right, Lorenzo, hands her a cut blood orange, and Isabella’s brothers realize there is something going on between the two. One of the brothers, who is kicking a dog, has a gruesome snarl on his face. But what does the orange mean? Well, it kind of looks like the neck of someone who has been decapitated, and guess what happens in the book?
Intense shadows, a cherubic young boy, and striking detail. Why yes, it’s our old friend Caravaggio painting a boy playing the lute surrounded by music and flowers. Caravaggio has been known to think that this painting was the best one he ever did, and it’s clear that the technique involved could make it so.
While it was thought that a pair of versions of the painting existed (we’re looking at the Hermitage Version here), it turns out that a third version existed but wasn’t discovered until January 2001. This new version was originally covered in a thick yellow varnish, making it hard to discover the details.
One of the First Landscapes
Art is always changing, and there was even a time back in the day when the term “landscape Painting” hadn’t yet become popular. Well, painter Giorgione was about to change all that with his piece of art, “The Tempest.” Few paintings have given rise to the debate that this one has.
No consensus has even been reached to explain the imagery it includes, such as the breastfeeding woman or the flash of lightning in the clouds. There are over a hundred proposed interpretations for the painting, but due to the dearth of knowledge we have about Giorgione, we will likely never know the truth.
The Second Coming
Until the time of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, most pictures of heaven were ordered, harmonious, and serene compared to the busy, noisy, and messy world below. “The Last Judgment,” seen here, changed all that. Michelangelo painted it with agitation, excitement, and even some areas that seem to exhibit tension and disturbance.
The impression of the fresco makes it seem as if the entire collection, all the angels and Saints and everyone we can see, is circling around the figures at the center, Mary and Jesus. An additional detail is that this segment of the fresco is positioned above the altar, something that was the reverse of traditional arrangement.
Not About What You Think It’s About
Italian painter Angolo Bronzino painted his masterpiece, “An Allegory of Venus and Cupid,” and he made it rich and heavy with classical symbolism. The subjects, the poses, the faces, the details. But what is the allegory all about? Well...it was about a new disease that spread through a certain kind of contact.
Venus, the goddess of love, and Cupid, her son, seem perfectly healthy, but the twisted figure behind Cupid, who seems to be missing fingers, isn’t looking so good. He has all the signs of secondary syphilis, and he even shows signs of mercury poisoning – mercury therapy was the accepted practice for treating syphilis during the Renaissance.
A Mysterious Portrait of a Lady
While this portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, from around 1540, is titled “Portrait of a Lady, perhaps Katherine Howard,” there is little solid evidence to suggest that it is actually Katherine Howard portrayed here. There is no authentic contemporary likeness of Katherine, who was the queen of England as King Henry VIII’s fifth wife.
We guess no one will ever know who lies behind this piece. The things that point to this woman being royalty are the large ruby, emerald, and pearl jewels. They seem to be the same jewels that King Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, is wearing in Holbein’s panel portrait depicting her.
The Original Outline
This immense and detailed painting shows us a stylized representation of the coronation of Napoleon, painted by Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon’s official painter. It stands almost ten meters wide and six meters tall – impressive by anyone’s standards.
Looking closely at where Napoleon stands, it’s possible to see the original outline of how the legendary military leader was supposed to be standing: holding the crown above his own head as if placing it on himself. Perhaps this was changed because David didn’t want it to seem like Napoleon was getting too big for his britches. Or something like that, who knows?
No, It’s Not a Drink
When you hear the phrase “virgin of the rocks,” it sounds a whole lot like something you would get at a bar, but it’s actually a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. And while the virgin and Christ child are usually as clear as day, in this picture, they’re wreathed in shadow.
It demonstrates Da Vinci’s revolutionary technique, using darkness to create a model instead of outlines. The dark background makes the bright, shining faces stand out even more, creating a striking image that, while it isn’t one of the pictures Da Vinci might be best known for, is still an amazing piece of art.
A Whole Lot of Symbols
“Woman at Her Toilet” by Jan Steen has an interesting name, but it’s not what you think. A woman is on her bed, partially undressed and putting on a stocking. Numerous symbols litter this composition. The arch in the foreground includes the sunflower, which represents constancy, grapevines, which represents domestic virtue, and a weeping cherub (if you zoom out), which represents chastised profane love.
The room beyond the arch, on the other hand, has all kinds of symbols for vanity and profane love, such as a skull, an extinguished candle, and a lute with a broken string. There is also a ton of sexual innuendo that relies on wordplay from the Dutch language.
Not Husband and Wife
You’re probably aware of this picture. It’s “American Gothic” by Grant Wood, and as we all know, it depicts a husband and wife on the Great Plains. Or does it? While Grant Wood himself went back and forth on the issue, the woman who posed for the picture, Grant’s sister Nan, said that she thought it was a father and daughter.
Perhaps it was because she didn’t like the idea of being married to someone twice her age even in a painting. The man is none other than Wood’s dentist, who agreed to sit for the painting since Wood had to make so many visits to the dentist’s chair.
Like Looking in a Mirror
If you're a famous painter, having a self-portrait is a great way to make sure people know who you are. And you see the image all the time, so you should be able to paint it, right? Right. Well, the problem is you can’t actually see yourself, so you have to do one of a couple of things.
For this self-portrait, Rembrandt inspected himself in a mirror in order to paint the picture, which, when you think of it, is a talent in its own right. This is why some people think he never painted his own hands – they would be on the wrong side.
A Life-Changing Painting
A simple picture that shows a number of people sitting at a bus stop turns out to be much more than that once you learn about the painter. Frida Kahlo is one of the most famous Mexican artists ever, and she had a couple of memorable accidents. One of them, she says, is her lover Diego.
The other was when a streetcar (read: a bus) had an accident as she rode it. She suffered a huge number of injuries and was confined to her bed for three months – during which she began to paint. It’s all thanks to that unfortunate accident we have such amazing paintings.
The Letter Series
These two paintings are titled “Man Writing a Letter” and “Woman Reading a Letter,” both painted by Gabriel Metsu, and the two are a pair, representing the period of Metsu’s artistic climax. One cannot go without the other. They are companion pieces and have always been owned together.
They are an emotional set, with details in the paintings exploring the relationship between the two people. The globe we can see behind the man, and the picture revealed in the woman’s painting, tell us there may be quite some distance between these two – hence the focus both sides are giving to their letter.
The Struggle for Independence
What appears to be a simple portrait of a military man turns out to mean much more once you know the backstory. Dutch master Rembrandt painted this subject in 1630, during which the Netherlands was waging a struggle for independence from Spain.
The rich details show off a contrast of materials, such as the cloth, the feather, and the shiny metal gorget. There’s even more to this painting: underneath the aging military man is a picture of a young man wearing a green cloak, healthy and full of life in stark comparison to the aging warrior Rembrandt painted over him.
A True Love Story
Among the Bible’s many notable tales, Ruth and Boaz stand out. Told in the book of Ruth, it follows the Moabitess Ruth, who eventually marries the older Boaz, a man of upstanding character. French painter Frédéric Bazille drew this stirring scene in 1870. The story is one of true fealty, honor, and love, yet this painting shows us something a little different.
Ruth gazes pensively at the moon despite the sleeping Boaz, who has yet to notice her. Ruth and Boaz were common subjects in the Paris art world at the time, though the painting may only be half-finished since Bazille soon went to war, where he would perish.
Yet Another Unknown Smile
Would you believe us if we said this painting was revolutionary for its time? It’s true, but not in the way you might think. There were no new colors or paints used – it was instead the angle at which Leonardo Da Vinci painted this painting, “Lady with an Ermine.”
Most paintings at the time had the subject looking straight ahead, but Da Vinci had both this woman and her pet looking off to the side as if someone had just entered the room. This gives us room to determine the woman’s thoughts – in addition, she has a small, unknown smile on her face, just like Da Vinci’s much more famous “Mona Lisa.”
A Heavenly Departure
One of Rembrandt’s lesser-known paintings, “The Archangel Raphael Leaving Tobias’s Family,” is still an evocative piece. The family of Tobias has just found out that the traveler they met on the road was one of the archangels of Heaven, Raphael, and are reacting in shock, awe, and wonder.
Tobit, Tobias’s father, stays bowed, head pointed at the ground. His wife Anna averts her gaze from the glow while Tobias himself and his wife Sarah watch the angel depart in uncontained awe. You can see the small signature, as well as the year it was painted, in the lower left corner.
Captain Cook’s Secret
The theatrical scenery of William Hodges, who lived from 1744 to 1797, is second to none. He was the official artist of Captain Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific from 1772 to 1774. The painting pictured here, “View in Pickersgill Harbour, Dusky Bay, New Zealand,” is a bright and stirring scene of exploring a wilderness, but it hides something even more wild.
Underneath the remarkable painting might be an even more remarkable scene – Antarctica. Cook’s journey took them near the great icy continent, and it seems that Hodges had painted a rough scene of mounds of ice before painting over it. It’s like something from an H.P. Lovecraft story.
A Big Earner
Once you know that the name of this painting is “Salvator Mundi,” you can probably figure out who it is depicting. Yes, it’s Jesus Christ himself, painted in an anachronistic blue robe, making the sign of the cross with his right hand and holding a clear crystal sphere, symbolizing the heavenly sphere, in his left.
It’s our old friend Leonardo Da Vinci who created this sight. The important part is the crystal sphere, which should be reflecting something but isn’t. The small specks inside the crystal may be something that was painted over, or they may represent heavenly bodies or something of a kind.
The stories of classical myth are many, and we see here the climax of one of the most famous: Perseus facing off against the monstrous Medusa. She could turn men to stone with nothing but her gaze, but Perseus got the better of her.
Cellini devised this memorable statue, which stands more than ten feet tall, and you can even see Cellini if you look closely. At the back of Perseus’s helmet, that is. In addition, this sculpture is thought to be the first since the classical age to use a segment of the base as part of the work itself: Medusa’s fallen body.
The Victory of Cruelty
One of the most important pieces of art in the Western canon is “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist” by Caravaggio. It shows us the depths of cruelty and violence that humanity is capable of, even against a holy man.
This painting was so large (almost four meters high, more than five meters across) that, despite all the empty space, the human figures were nearly life-sized. The scale of this piece is one of the most memorable parts of this painting, but so too is the woman clearly reacting in horror to the gruesome scene about to play out before her.