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50 famous paintings and the stories behind them

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

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.

You may also like: The 51 women who have won the Nobel Prize

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Martin Beek // Flickr

Christina’s World

- 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.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Arnolfini Portrait

- 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.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

American Gothic

- 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.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Cyclops

- 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.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

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.

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MatthiasKabel // WikimediaCommons

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.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Ophelia

- 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.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee

- Artist: Rembrandt van Rijn
- Year: 1633

Purchased by art enthusiast Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1898, Rembrandt’s only painted seascape occupied a place of prominence in the Boston museum Gardner erected in her name until March 18, 1990, when it was stolen, along with over a dozen important works valued at approximately half a billion dollars. Although the finger has frequently been pointed at now-deceased Boston career criminal Whitey Bulger, the thieves have never been caught, and the whereabouts of the missing artwork remains unknown.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom

- Artist: Walter Sickert
- Year: 1908

Walter Sickert, noted for his moody portraits and dimly lit domestic interiors, may have harbored a secret darker than his paintings. It has been argued that disconcerting works such as “Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom” and “The Camden Town Murder” may reflect some connection between the artist and the grisly Whitechapel butcher—either as an accomplice or the murderer himself.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear

- Artist: Vincent van Gogh
- Year: 1889

Vincent van Gogh is famous for having severed his own ear; the strained relationship with fellow Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin that precipitated the artist’s self-mutilation is not nearly as well known. Van Gogh spent 1888 working in the South of France and was joined in October of that year by Gauguin. Their friendship deteriorated, and van Gogh didn’t react well to the news of Gauguin’s impending departure. The troubled artist cut off his ear, wrapped in newspaper, and reportedly gave it to a local prostitute for safekeeping. “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear” depicts van Gogh in his studio, with the right side of his head wrapped in cloth. In fact, it was a portion of van Gogh’s left ear that was removed, with the inconsistency in the painting arising from the inverted reflection perceived by the artist while gazing in the mirror.

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Laura Estefania Lopez // Wikimedia Commons

Guernica

- Artist: Pablo Picasso
- Year: 1937

An enormous, shifting mass of distorted, agonized figures, Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” was the artist's personal response to the horrific bombing inflicted by the Germans on the tiny Basque town in 1937. Exhibited at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in the same year, the painting was a plea for peace in an age of brutal conflict—both the Spanish Civil War and the dawn of World War II. Picasso expressly forbid the exhibition of his masterwork in Spain until the country became a republic. While his homeland never met that demand, the painting was seen—behind bullet-proof glass—at the Prada in Madrid in 1981, six years after the death of dictator Francisco Franco.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

The Scream

- Artist: Edvard Munch
- Year: 1893

Popularly known as “The Scream,” Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s expressionist masterpiece is frequently interpreted as a primal response to the excessive pressures of modern life. Originally titled “The Shriek of Nature,” the image was created with an entirely different intent, as related by Munch himself, “One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked.” The iconic painting was stolen from the Oslo National Gallery in 1994; the culprit was apprehended and the painting recovered several months later. Ironically, a 1910 version of “The Scream” was taken in broad daylight from the Munch Museum in 2004. It, too, was eventually recovered despite fears it had been destroyed.

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Postdif // Wikimedia Commons

Two Tahitian Women

- Artist: Paul Gauguin
- Year: 1899

A leading Post-Impressionist and frenemy of Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin abandoned his wife and children for a hedonistic life in the South Seas. Admired for over a century for his seemingly innocent portraits of Tahitian women, Gaughin was also a syphilitic pedophile who molested countless young girls in his Polynesian pleasure palace dubbed “The House of Orgasm.”

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

- Artist: Gustav Klimt
- Year: 1907

One of a handful of paintings seized by the Nazis from the family home of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, this glittering portrait by fin-de-siecle artist Gustav Klimt depicts the Viennese sugar magnate’s wife—art enthusiast and society hostess Adele Bloch-Bauer. After the war, the portrait turned up in the state-run Galerie Belvedere. Maria Altmann, Adele’s niece, spent years fighting for the painting’s return, finally triumphing in 2006. The incredible story was made into a film, “Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren as Altmann. Both patron and muse, Bloch-Bauer is the only sitter Klimt painted twice.

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Prof saxx // Wikimedia Commons

Lascaux Cave Paintings

- Artist: Unknown
- Year: c. 15,000–17,000 B.C.

In 1940, 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat opened a window to the distant past when he fell into a hole while out walking with his dog in the Dordogne region of France. The hole led to a cave covered with approximately 6,000 Paleolithic images depicting animals, enigmatic symbols, and a lone human form. The purpose of the paintings, created with mineral pigments and charcoal, is obscure but may be linked to some sort of ceremonial rite.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Primavera

- Artist: Sandro Botticelli
- Year: 1477–1482

Christened “Primavera” by pioneering art historian Giorgio Vasari in 1550, Boticelli’s mysterious masterwork originally lacked a title. Although its precise meaning remains enigmatic, “Primavera” is an allegorical work inspired by classical mythology, depicting the transformation of the nymph Chloris into Flora, the goddess of spring. Commissioned by a member of the powerful Medici clan, it has been suggested that figures in the composition were modeled on members of the family.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Madame X

- Artist: John Singer Sargent
- Year: 1883–84

John Singer Sargent’s moody portrait of Virginie Avegno Gautreau, the American wife of a French banker, outraged critics when it was first exhibited at the Paris Salon 1884. Sargent had hoped the portrait would make his career. The painting, however, set off a scandal of such magnitude that Sargent exiled himself to England. What was it that had so offended Parisian high society? While the image’s overt sexuality was expected for a mythological heroine and tolerable for a prostitute moonlighting as an artist’s model, it was downright threatening when applied to a woman of their own cast.

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Don Emmert // Getty Images

Untitled

- Artist: Jean-Michel Basquiat
- Year: 1982

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s meteoric rise from Brooklyn graffiti artist to critically acclaimed painter is the stuff of legend. The youthful Neo-expressionist lived hard and died at the tender age of 27 from a heroin overdose. In December 2018, one of Basquiat's untitled works set a record at Sotheby’s, selling for a $110.5 million. The staggering selling price spurred the owner of another Basquiat painting to have the work authenticated. An ultraviolet light examination revealed that the painting included elements drawn by Basquiat in invisible ink.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Flaming June

- Artist: Sir Frederic Leighton
- Year: 1895

"Flaming June," of the languid beauty in the transparent orange dress, was painted by esteemed British artist Frederic Leighton at the close of the 19th century. The painting disappeared soon after, only to reemerge in the early 1960s when it was supposedly discovered in a chimney by a laborer working at a construction site. Considered highly unfashionable at the time, the painting failed to make reserve when it came to auction. It was acquired soon after by Puerto Rico’s Museo de Arte de Ponce, where it remains to this day.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

At the Moulin Rouge

- Artist: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
- Year: 1892–95

Born to wealth and privilege, Toulouse-Lautrec abandoned his aristocratic roots in favor of the working-class Montmartre district and its colorful nightlife. The artist appears to have been afflicted with a genetic disorder affecting growth and bone development; he walked with a cane and reached an adult height of just 4-foot-8. Taunted for his physical appearance, he self-medicated with alcohol, notably absinthe. “At the Moulin Rouge” depicts the world in which Toulouse-Lautrec felt most at ease. In addition to entertainers such as red-headed chanteuse Jane Avril and dancer May Milton (with the verdigris-tinted complexion), the piece also includes a self-portrait of the artist in the company of his cousin, Gabriel Tapié de Céleyran.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

The Ambassadors

- Artist: Hans Holbein the Younger
- Year: 1533

The most in-demand portrait painter of his era, Hans Holbein spent a considerable amount of time at the court of Henry VIII. “The Ambassadors” depicts Jean de Dinteville, the French ambassador to England, and his friend, George de Selve, both in their late 20s; de Selve, the bishop of Lavaur, served as ambassador to both the Holy Roman emperor and the pope.

The painting is scattered with allegorical components, including a lute with broken strings—perhaps symbolic of Henry VIII’s break with Rome so that he could divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. The blurry, black-and-white object that bisects the bottom of the composition is, in fact, a human skull, representing mortality. Striking use of anamorphosis, it can only be viewed from an acute angle, forcing observers to view the painting from a variety of perspectives.

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Ben Stansall // Getty Images

Girl With Balloon

- Artist: Banksy
- Year: 2006

In 2002, the stenciled image of a girl reaching toward a red, heart-shaped balloon appeared on a staircase leading to London’s Waterloo Bridge. Attributed to the elusive artist Banksy, several other examples popped up around London in subsequent years. In 2018, a 2006 version of the painting was auctioned at Sotheby’s for the princely sum $1.4 million, automatically shredding itself by means of a device hidden by the artist within the frame the moment the gavel hit the block. Moments after the incident, Banksy posted an Instagram video depicting telephone staff staring in shock at the mutilated work.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Judith Slaying Holofernes

- Artist: Artemisia Gentileschi
- Year: 1610

Historically, it hasn’t been easy for women artists to break into the big time, but Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi did just that, exercising her demons in the process. Raped at the 18, Gentileschi angrily confronted her rapist in a public trial which ultimately set him free. She channeled her ensuing rage into her work, notably “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” which depicts determined Old Testament heroine Judith severing the head of the drunken Babylonian general.

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Paul Vicente // Getty Images

Myra

- Artist: Marcus Harvey
- Year: 1995

When Marcus Harvey’s massive painting of Britain’s most despised woman—'60s child killer Myra Hindley—debuted at the 1997 Sensation exhibition at London’s Royal Academy, to say it met with controversy would be an understatement. Four members of the Academy resigned in protest and the painting was vandalized repeatedly.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket

- Artist: James Abbott McNeill Whistler
- Year: 1875

What could be so objectionable about a painting of fireworks over a picturesque London park? Quite a lot, evidently. Whistler, a proponent of the Aesthetic movement, failed to impress revered Victorian art critic John Ruskin with his series of paintings referred to his “nocturnes.” Ruskin savaged Whistler’s work—as well as the painting’s hefty asking price of 200 guineas (a guinea was a coin equal to about one-quarter ounce of gold, minted between 1663–1814 in Great Britain). Whistler retaliated by taking Ruskin to court, suing him for libel. Whistler emerged triumphant, but the ordeal broke both men, bankrupting Whistler and causing Ruskin to resign his Oxford professorship.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Salvator Mundi

- Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
- Year: 1500

Believed for years to be the product of his atelier, or even a copy of a lost work by the Renaissance master, “Salvator Mundi” sold at auction in November 2017 for a cool $450.3 million after scholars reached a consensus that the painting was the work of da Vinci. Thought to be bound for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the small panel disappeared from public view immediately after auction at Christie’s. It is believed to be in the possession of a Saudi prince (possibly Mohammad bin Salman), either locked away in a Swiss bank vault or displayed on a luxury yacht somewhere on the high seas.

 

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cea + // Flickr

The Two Fridas

- Artist: Frida Kahlo
- Year: 1939

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has developed an almost cult-like following in recent years, but took a back seat to husband and fellow-artist Diego Rivera during her lifetime. Kahlo’s work is infused with a deeply personal iconography and references a life of physical and emotional anguish. “The Two Fridas,” portrays the artist before and after her painful separation from Rivera; on the left as a bride with an eviscerated heart, and on the right dressed in the traditional Mexican costume she favored during happier times with Rivera.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

The Ghent Altarpiece

- Artist: Hubert and Jan van Eyck
- Year: c. 1432

Set aflame by Calvinists, hacked apart by avaricious dealers, and repeatedly stolen, “The Ghent Altarpiece” is, arguably, the most resilient painting in the history of art. Brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Early Netherlandish polyptych, composed of 12 panels, was created for St. Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. In 1934, one of the smaller panels was stolen and never recovered. Several years later, Hitler developed an interest in the painting and had it transported to Germany, where it was rescued from a salt mine by the military unit composed of art historians known as The Monuments Men.

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Sailko // Wikimedia Commons

Juan de Pareja

- Artist: Velázquez (Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez)
- Year: 1650

A masterpiece of the Spanish Baroque, Velázquez’s introspective portrait of his atelier assistant, Juan de Pareja, met with applause from contemporaries. An artist in his own right, Pareja wasn’t Velázquez’s assistant by choice—he was the artist’s slave. Shortly after the painting was finished, Pareja was freed and went on to work as a painter in Madrid.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga

- Artist: Goya (Francisco de Goya y Lucientes)
- Year: 1787–88

Vicente Joaquín Osorio de Moscoso y Guzmán, count of Altamira, commissioned this tender portrait of his young son, Manuel, from court painter Francisco Goya. Dressed in a red silk romper with white cuffs and collar, the elaborately dressed child poses with a menagerie of family pets, including a magpie. The image immortalized the little boy who passed away just a few years after it was painted.

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NichoDesign // Flickr

Demoiselles d’Avignon

- Artist: Pablo Picasso
- Year: 1907

An icon of Cubism, Pablo Picasso’s daring group portrait depicting an unabashed group of Spanish prostitutes met with a tepid response from colleagues and critics alike. A riot of flat, geometric planes, Picasso drew inspiration both from African art and that of ancient Iberia.

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Mike Steele // Flickr

The Persistence of Memory

- Artist: Salvador Dali
- Year: 1931

Surrealist Salvador Dali subverts reality with this mesmerizing image of deflated timepieces scattered over a desert landscape. The composition defies logic, evoking a dream-like state. Dali employed the “paranoiac-critical method” in his artistic process, self-inducing a delusional state.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Sick Bacchus

- Artist: Caravaggio
- Year: 1593

The God of Wine in Caravaggio’s 1639 canvas has a distinctly greenish tinge, suggesting that he’s imbibed a bit too much of the fermented grape. A possible self-portrait, the unusual representation of the Roman deity may have been sparked by Carravagio’s hospitalization for an unknown illness.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Dancer Making Points

- Artist: Edgar Degas
- Year: 1878–80

Degas’ “Dancer Making Points”—valued at $10 million—disappeared from reclusive copper heiress Huguette Clark’s Fifth Avenue home, inexplicably surfacing in New York’s David Findlay Gallery shortly afterward. The notoriously private Clark realized the painting was missing, but declined to report it to authorities. When it was revealed that Herbert Bloch of H&R Block fame had purchased it, a compromise was reached with Clark whereby the painting was donated to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of the Boy Eutyches

- Artist: Unknown
- Year: c. 100–150 A.D.

“Portrait of the Boy Eutyches” is just one of hundreds of remarkably life-like paintings produced in the ancient Egyptian Fayum region. Noted for their large, expressive eyes, these panels were painted with encaustics (hot wax tinted with pigments). Roman Egypt was a cultural melting pot, and the Fayum portraits reflect the cultural crossroads in which they were created. The encaustic process used by the Romans was developed by the ancient Greeks, and the resulting portraits were placed over the faces of the mummified dead—a distinctively Egyptian tradition.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

- Artist: Georges Seurat
- Year: 1884

It took Seurat two years to finish his best-known work, pieced together from dozens of sketches the artist made of working-class Parisians. Critics panned the 7-by-10-foot painting when it was first exhibited in 1886, dubious of the complicated theory of light and color underpinning Seurat’s pioneering pointillism. Over the course of the next century, popular opinion buoyed the painting to cult status, inspiring Stephen Sondheim to pen the hit Broadway musical “Sunday in the Park with George.”

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Lou Stejskal // Flickr

The Son of Man

- Artist: René Magritte
- Year: 1946

The works of the Belgian painter René Magritte are frequently head-scratchers, and “The Son of Man”—a self-portrait of the artist with his face obscured by a giant apple—is no exception. The apple was one of the artist’s favorite motifs, but its meaning is uncertain. The title chosen by Magritte is perhaps more illuminating, referencing Jesus Christ. Some critics have called the piece a surrealist interpretation of the transfiguration of Jesus.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

The Nude Maja

- Artist: Francisco Goya
- Year: 1797–1800

Goya painted two versions of The Maja—one naked, the other fully clothed. The painting is believed to have been commissioned by Spanish Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy and was intended to supplement his existing collection of nudes. In 1815, the Inquisition confiscated the painting. Today, it hangs next to its companion in Madrid’s Museo del Prado.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Tennis at Newport

- Artist: George Bellows
- Year: 1919

A departure from his gritty paintings of pugilists, George Bellows “Tennis at Newport” depicts a tony tournament in Newport, R.I. Bathed in an otherworldly light, the painting focuses on the spectral images of the spectators, as opposed to the players. A member of the early 20th-century Ashcan School, American artist Bellows was instrumental in the organization of the profoundly influential 1913 Armory show in New York.

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Hannah Grover // Flickr

Bride of the Wind

- Artist: Oskar Kokoschka
- Year: 1914

A love-letter to his mistress, Oskar Kokoschka’s most famous work depicts the artist entwined with his muse, Alma Schindler Mahler—the widow of composer Gustav Mahler. The celebrated Expressionist was so dejected when Mahler ended their passionate affair, he commissioned a life-size doll in her image.

 

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Liberty Leading the People

- Artist: Eugene Delacroix
- Year: 1830

While Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” may be familiar to modern viewers from the cover of Coldplay's 2008 release,“Viva la Vida,” the exuberant canvas was originally intended to celebrate the July Revolution of 1830. Dominating the composition is the central figure of a woman holding the tricolor—considered to be the earliest known depiction of Marianne, the female personification of the Republic of France.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

The Sleepers

- Artist: Gustave Courbet
- Year: 1866

Painted for the Turkish diplomat Khalil-Bey, Courbet’s frankly erotic canvas sidestepped the Paris Salon, where it most certainly would have been met with condemnation. Khalil-Bey was an avid collector of Western paintings—notably those showcasing the female form—purchasing works by realists Delacroix and Ingres in addition to Courbet.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Washington Crossing the Delaware

- Artist: Emanuel Leutze
- Year: 1851

Not only was the iconic “Washington Crossing the Delaware” painted almost 75 years after the Revolutionary War, but it was also painted by a German artist—Emanuel Leutze—in Düsseldorf. Leutze had spent time in the U.S. and painted the scene with the hope that it would inspire European revolutionaries.

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Allie_Cauflield // Flickr

I and the Village

- Artist: Marc Chagall
- Year: 1911

An ethereal, dream-like romanticism infuses Russian expat Marc Chagall’s vision of life on the shtetl in “I and the Village.” Heavy on symbolism, the painting demonstrates a Cubist influence, to which the young Chagall was exposed while living in Paris.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

The Blue Boy

- Artist: Thomas Gainsborough
- Year: 1770

Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” was an immediate hit when it first debuted at London’s Royal Academy and continues to be reproduced for popular consumption. Believed to be a portrait of Jonathan Buttall, whose father was a friend of Gainsborough, Buttall owned the painting until bankruptcy forced him to sell it.

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Navin75 // Flickr

32 Campbell Soup Cans

- Artist: Andy Warhol
- Year: 1962

The panels composing Andy Warhol’s “32 Cambell Soup Cans” were almost separated for all eternity when they were first exhibited at L.A.’s Ferus Gallery. The paintings were an immediate hit, and owner Irving Blum sold five of them before coming to the shrewd realization that the canvases would be of even greater value as a complete set. Blum tracked down the paintings that had sold (including one belonging to actor Dennis Hopper), and reunited them.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Mona Lisa

- Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
- Year: 1503

Leonardo’s woman of mystery has intrigued viewers for centuries. Traditionally identified as Italian noblewoman Lisa Del Giocondo, countless hypotheses have been put forth as to the sitter’s identity as well as explanations for her seemingly enigmatic smile. Extensive multi-spectral imaging conducted by Lumiere Technology in 2006, which uncover years of varnish, didn’t shed any light as to the reasons behind the Mona Lisa’s facial expression, but it did reveal that her smile was originally broader than it appears today.

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