16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art

Trista - October 22, 2018

While almost anyone would recognize the face serenely beaming out of the Mona Lisa, few know just how many fascinating facts lie behind the world’s most famous works of art. From the sinister use of underage nude models for preparatory sketches to interesting editorial changes that would have dramatically changed the pictures we know and love, art history is full of fascinating tidbits.

Even the great masters like Michelangelo and Vermeer left behind, thankfully, detailed enough records and contemporary accounts that we can delve into the worlds that shaped their creations. As is always likely with creative genius, some of the facts even include tongue-in-cheek commentary and possible jokes.

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso. Wikimedia.

16. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, meaning “the young ladies of Avignon” in French, was originally titled The Brothel of Avignon. It was painted in the summer of 1907 and depicts five nude women from a brothel on Avignon Street in Barcelona, Spain. The painting is noted for its cubism, primitivism, and the inclusion of African tribal mask-like imagery.

When the painting premiered, it was dubbed immoral and widely panned by the art community. Fellow painter Henri Matisse, in particular, was outraged by the picture and felt it made a mockery of the entire modern art movement. Matisse and Picasso had always been competitive rivals, but Les Demoiselles fueled a strong enmity and desire for artistic revenge in Matisse.

Picasso engaged in laborious preparations for Les Demoiselles. He drew hundreds of preparatory sketches for the piece. In some early iterations, the far left figure in the painting was actually a man. Perhaps the most interesting, and somewhat sad, fact about the art is that early sketches focused on a nude underage model. The pre-pubescent model was a young girl Picasso and his romantic partner at the time, Fernande Olivier, brought home from a nearby orphanage. She served as a nude sketch model in 1907. During that year she was “adopted” but was returned to the orphanage later that same year after the sketches were complete.

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
American Gothic by Grant Wood. Wikimedia.

15. American Gothic

Iowa native Grant Wood painted American Gothic in 1930. Though trained in Europe, Wood became famous for his paintings of Midwestern life, mainly focusing on the rural Midwest. While looking for inspiration, Wood had a fellow young painter drive him around the town of Eldon, a small village in rural southwest Iowa. It was there that he found the Dibble House, a small Carpenter Gothic style house that is now known as the American Gothic house due to its appearance in the painting.

The absurdity of gothic architecture struck Wood in a particular way. He found a small, flimsily built farmhouse in rural Iowa and he asked permission of the family to sketch and paint their home. He decided he wanted to include foreground figures of people who looked like they should live in such an absurd house.

For models, Wood stuck with the familiar and wished to paint his mother for the female figure. However, he knew standing for such a long time would be too much for her, so he asked his sister, Nan Wood, to model in their mother’s clothing and jewelry. For the male figure, he asked his own dentist to stand in as the model.

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) by Jackson Pollock. Wikimedia.

14. Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) is one of the most notable works, painted in 1950, by the Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock. It is emblematic of his poured painting phase, which lasted from 1947 to 1952. In this phase, Pollock quite literally dripped and poured paint onto his canvasses to create the chaotic, patternless style.

For Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), Pollock placed the canvas on the ground of his backyard studio in New York. Instead of brushes or pouring paint directly from the container, Pollock used non-traditional items including sticks, masonry trowels, and knives to drip the paint onto the canvas. It was reportedly fascinating to watch Pollock paint as he would tune out everything around him and furiously attack the canvas until he was satisfied with what he saw.

The CIA formally backed Pollock’s art through their Congress for Cultural Freedom initiative. The initiative was started to fund and promote artwork that embodied the values of the United States and played a role in the cultural front of the Cold War. Therefore, some scholars have argued that Pollock was a weapon of the cold war and his art was used to devalue and distract from works of Socialist Realism.

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Wikimemdia.

13. Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa, painted in the early 16th century by Leonardo da Vinci, is perhaps the most famous painting in the world. Art critics and insurers value it at almost 800 million dollars. The picture has been continuously on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France since 1797. It is painted in oil on a panel of poplar wood.

For many years, the prevailing theory, at least in popular culture, was that the Mona Lisa was actually a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci as a woman. However, modern research has determined that the painting is likely a portrait of Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini, whose married name was Lisa del Giocondo. She was a moderately wealthy middle-class member of a minor noble family of Florence and Tuscany.

The painting, due to its infamous nature and incredible value, has been a target of both theft and vandalism over the years. In 1911, the portrait was stolen from the Louvre Museum and missing for over a week before being returned unharmed. In 1974 while on loan in Tokyo, a woman sprayed the painting with red paint to protest the museum’s lack of access for disabled patrons. Bulletproof glass saved the art from the protest and had protected it from numerous other attempts at vandalism in subsequent years.

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. Wikimedia.

12. The Starry Night

Thanks to its thick, heavy paint and post-impressionist style, The Starry Night is instantly recognizable as the work of the Dutch post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh. The Starry Night is oil on canvas. Pigment analysis has found the painting is mostly comprised of ultramarine and cobalt blue, with the rare pigment Indian yellow being combined with zinc yellow to create the celestial bodies.

The Starry Night was painted in 1889 while van Gogh was in a mental asylum following the breakdown with culminated in the infamous mutilation of his left ear. Following the decline, he admitted himself willingly to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole lunatic asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. Since the shelter catered only to the wealthy, it was rarely full and Van Gogh had an entire studio space to himself during his convalescence.

Despite being born to a moderately wealthy family, van Gogh embodied the starving artist during his lifetime. He survived on money sent to him by his brother, Theo, and spent the vast majority of it on art supplies rather than food. The notorious artist ate so poorly that his teeth became loose and painful due to malnutrition. He also drank heavily which no doubt contributed to his eventual mental breakdown and hospitalization. Tragically, van Gogh died at only 37 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. Wikimedia.

11. The Creation of Adam

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, whose rarely used his full name Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, is perhaps the best-known component of the famous Sistine Chapel fresco painting. Fresco art is a technique that uses the application of dry pigment to wet lime plaster to infuse color directly into the plaster. As the plaster sets, the painting becomes a permanent and integral part of the plaster.

For the fresco painting of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo and his assistants had to stand the entire time they painted. Michelangelo rigged up different scaffolds to allow himself and his associates to reach the ceiling. However, the fresco technique required them to paint exclusively overhead.

Anyone who has painted a ceiling in their own home can only imagine how arduous it must have been to create such compelling and delicate paintings while painting overhead! Michelangelo was indeed a Renaissance man in every sense of the word. He was a crucial player in the High Renaissance period and was a poet, sculptor, and architect in addition to being a painter. Born in Florence, Italy in 1475, Michelangelo has had an incredible amount of influence over the development of western art. Alongside his rival, Leonardo da Vinci, he is one of the fathers of Renaissance Europe.

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
The Thinker by Auguste Rodin. Wikimedia.

10. The Thinker

It may be surprising to learn that the original cast of The Thinker was a mere 70 cm. In the imperial measurement system, this is roughly 27 ½ inches or slightly over two feet. French sculptor Auguste Rodin created the small original in 1880 with the intention of it being in a larger piece to be called “The Gates of Hell.” This small version also had a different name – “the poet,” and has been interpreted as intended to represent the author of The Inferno, Dante Alighieri, himself. However, there are some arguments against this view as Dante never appeared naked in the poem and the physical form of the sculpture does not represent Alighieri’s far slighter body.

The sculpture was renamed The Thinker for its first public exhibition in 1888. The enlarged version that we all recognize today was first debuted in 1904. There are now dozens of casts of the expanded version of the original around the world, many of which were created under Rodin’s supervision but not all including numerous posthumous casts in other materials including plaster.

The original 70 cm version of The Thinker was created from plaster. The first bronze casting became the property of the city of Paris, France and is currently on display in front of what is now the Rodin museum. The first cast sculpture, which is also the only one created using the lost-wax casting method, resides at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky.

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. Wikimedia.

9. Nighthawks

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, painted in 1942 as oil on canvas, is one of the most recognizable pieces of American artwork. Depicting a few diners in a brightly lit restaurant set amidst a dark, desolate city, it spoke to the sense of loneliness in a rapidly urbanizing American on the brink of joining a World War. The painting was an immediate hit, with the Art Institute of Chicago paying almost $50,000 in today’s money ($3,000 at the time) for its purchase only months after its completion.

Nighthawks was allegedly based on a diner in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. Specifically, a diner at the intersection of 11th street and 7th avenue on an intersection known as Mulry Square. However, Hopper later clarified that he based the painting on an all-night coffee stand and expanded the scene into a full diner. He said, “I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger. Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”

It was Hopper’s wife, Josephine “Jo” Hopper who fought for the name of the painting. In a journal entry during the piece’s creation, she referred to one of the figures in the painting as a nighthawk. Later, in a letter to Edward’s sister she wrote, “Ed has just finished a very fine picture–a lunch counter at night with three figures. Night Hawks would be a fine name for it.”

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí. Wikimedia.

8. The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dalí is perhaps the most famous surrealist and dadaist artist, due to both his eye-catching stylized paintings and his outlandish personality and appearance. Born Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech in 1904 in Catalonia to middle-class parents, Dali went on to achieve immense fame for his artwork, even receiving the title 1st Marquis of Dalí de Púbol from the King of Spain.

One of Dalí’s most famous works is The Persistence of Memory, which features melting clocks dispersed through an eerie, surreal landscape. Persistence was painted in 1931 and is oil on canvas. The painting has been displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City since 1934. The picture was gifted to the museum by an anonymous donor.

Dalí was notorious for never wanting to discuss the meaning or symbolism of his own paintings. However, of Persistence, he said that he took his inspiration for the melted clocks from seeing chunks of camembert cheese melting in the sun. Given Dalí’s reputation for being a rather dramatic and entertaining man, it is quite likely he was playing a joke on a journalist who wasn’t aware of his aversion to discussing the nature of his artistic work.

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian. Wikimedia.

7. Broadway Boogie Woogie

Piet Mondrian, born Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan, was a Dutch painter most famous for his Abstract paintings in geometric shapes featuring the colors blue, yellow and red. While in the Netherlands, Mondrian (still Mondriaan at the time) experimented with numerous styles including naturalism, impressionism, pointillism, and Fauvism. It wasn’t until he moved to France, dropped the second “a” in his name, and began embracing Abstract styles that he found success.

In 1940, Mondrian moved to New York City. It was there that he found inspiration for his iconic Broadway Boogie Woogie. The abstract shapes and colors are inspired by the grid layout of the city’s streets. In person, the painting is said to draw the viewer in with the small pops of colors leaping off the campus as though they were neon lights. The art became highly influential in the field of abstract geometric painting.

A second painting in the Boogie Woogie series was the last of Mondrian’s career. Titled Victory Boogie Woogie the painting removed the black lines of Broadway Boogie Woogie and instead featured blocks of colors flush up against each other. Sadly the picture was never finished due to Mondrian’s death of pneumonia in 1944 at the age of 71.

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
A collection of Campbell’s soup can paintings by Andy Warhol. Rebecca O’Connell.

6. Campbell’s Soup Cans

Andy Warhol, born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was a leading figure in the Pop Art movement of the 20th century. A controversial figure and master of self-promotion, Warhol is widely acknowledged as the originator of the concept of “15 minutes of fame.” He was a fixture of the Studio 54 nightclub scene and amassed a following of intellectuals, celebrities, gay icons, and more whom he dubbed the “Warhol Superstars.”

One of Warhol’s most famous works is the Pop Art silkscreen of Campbell’s soup cans. While many think he only made a screen of one can, he actually created 32, representing the entire line of soup Campbell’s produced the year he created the piece in 1962. He never gave any instruction on how to display the 32 pieces, so the Museum of Modern Art made the editorial choice to arrange them in the order the flavors were introduced by Campbell’s.

Pop Art was a movement that focused on the intersection of art, culture, and advertising that was meant to challenge the conventions of traditional fine art. Popular in Great Britain and the United States in the mid-20th century, Pop Art drew inspiration from comic books, advertisements, and everyday consumerist life.

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
Girl With a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. Wikimedia.

5. Girl With a Pearl Earring

Girl With a Pearl Earring is an oil on canvas painting by Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer. It was painted in 1665. It has been on display in The Hague since 1902. The art is unusual in that depicts a white woman in an exotic dress, an Eastern turban, and features an unnaturally large pearl. The pearl earring is, in fact, so large that a Dutch physicist questioned if it were really a pearl at all and not depicting a piece of polished tin.

Much like the Mona Lisa, the model for the Girl With a Pearl Earring has been the source of much historical debate. However, in this case, the most likely candidate is also the closest to the painter himself: one of his daughters. A historical fiction novel called Girl With a Pearl Earring offers a fictionalized account of the creation of the painting in which a humble maid becomes the romantic interest of Vermeer. The novel was adapted into a player and later a film starring Scarlet Johannsen as the maid and Colin Firth as Vermeer.

Some modern theorists believe that the hyperrealism of Vermeer’s work had to have been mechanically aided in some way. Prevailing theories are that he used camera obscura, a technique in which a pinhole camera is used to project an image or curved mirrors to cast pictures onto his canvas for copying.

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
The Scream by Edvard Munch. Wikimedia.

4. The Scream

One of the world’s most haunting and iconic paintings is Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The first iteration of The Scream was painted in 1893 by the Norwegian Expressionist. The art features a humanoid being on a pier, with the face drawn into an anguished scream, which is against the backdrop of a vivid orange sky. Munch ultimately created four versions of The Scream, with the oil, tempera, and pastel on cardboard being the most widely recognized version. The others were created with pastels and tempera. A lithograph stone version was made, with some of the prints being hand-colored by Munch himself.

While Munch is an expressionist, and thus an orange sky isn’t particularly strange, theorists have still sought out a natural source of the orange sky. One popular theory was that the sky was meant to depict the atmosphere over Europe after the eruption of Krakatoa. The volcano ejected so much as that the skies over Europe had vivid, fiery sunsets for months.

Due to being such iconic and valuable paintings, two of the painted versions have been stolen. One was taken during the 1994 Olympics and not recovered for several months. Another was seized in 2004 by gunmen. This version was not recovered for two years.

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
David by Michelangelo. Wikimedia.

3. Michelangelo’s David

In addition to being the immensely talented painter behind the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was also an incredibly gifted sculptor. The statue of David was sculpted out of marble between 1501 and 1504. It is a 17-foot tall representation of the Biblical character David. The figure depicts David nude and holding a slingshot over his shoulder that contains a rock. It is unique among statues of the time in that David looks tense and alert, and not posed in a neutral state.

The block of marble used to sculpt David originally was intended to be used for two other statues for Michelangelo took possession of it. The marble was cut initially for the Italian sculptor Agostino di Duccio who intended to create a statue of the Roman hero Hercules. The sculpture had been requested for a Florentine cathedral, but di Duccio abandoned the project.

The massive block of marble sat unused for ten years before another Italian sculptor, this time Antonio Rossellino, decided to create something with it. It is not clear what Rosselino intended to craft out of the block, but he reportedly found marble to difficult to sculpt. It sat unused again for many years until Michelangelo found it and began creating one of the world’s most recognizable statues.

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. Wikimedia.

2. The Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci’s great work was not limited to the Mona Lisa. He also painted one of the world’s other most recognizable paintings: The Last Supper. Il Cenacolo or L’Ultima Cena in Michelangelo’s native Italian, the picture was begun in 1495 or 1496. The Last Supper is a large mural painting, measuring roughly 180 inches by 350 inches, or 15 by 25 feet. The art was done with tempera and gesso, both of which have sadly decayed over time to the point that little of the original painting remains.

One element of damage to the piece actually dates back all the way to 1625. The original painting included the depiction of Jesus Christ’s feet. Copies of the painting made before 1625, like Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli’s 1520 copy, show the authentic representation of the feet. However, in 1625 workers installing a doorway in the refectory where the mural hangs accidentally cut into the painting and removed Jesus’ feet.

A significant additional source of damage is humidity from the painting’s original location on a thin exterior wall. The painting’s organic pigments began to deteriorate almost immediately after hanging due to exposure. In 1796, French troops used the painting’s home as an armory and reportedly threw rocks at the photo and intentionally scratched portions away.

16 Secrets You Never Could Have Guessed About Your Favorite Works Of Art
The Son of Man by René Magritte. Wikimedia.

1. The Son of Man

One of the world’s most immediately recognizable paintings is surprisingly young, concerning art. Belgian surrealist René Magritte’s painting The Son of Man was only completed in 1964. Despite its somewhat recent provenance, the oil on canvas painting of a man in a bowler hat with his face obscured by a green apple is immediately recognizable. The art is one of the landmarks of the surrealist style.

Of the painting’s cryptic subject matter Magritte said, “At least it hides the face partly well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”

The famous American illustrator Norman Rockwell paid homage to Magritte’s famous painting in his own Mr. Apple which featured a man whose head had been entirely replaced by an apple. Even though Rockwell was considered a prolific and recognizable artist of the 20th century, he was never well-received by the art world due to the everyday and commonplace nature of his typical subject matter.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“15 Facts About Famous Art” Sean Hutchison, Mental Floss. September 2014.

“Michelangelo” BBC Staff. n.d.

“Leonardo’s Last Supper” Khan Academy. 2014.

Carrier, David (2006). Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public

“10 Things You Might Not Know About The Son of Man” Kristy Puchko, Mental Floss. April 2015.

Deborah Lyons, Edward Hopper. A Journal of His Work. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1997.

“How Jackson Pollock and the CIA Teamed Up to Win The Cold War” Michael R. McBride, Medium. October 2017.

“Why Most People Don’t Get Grant Wood” Dennis Kardon, Hyperallergic. April 2018.

“Pablo Picasso’s Sex Life Revealed a Lot About His Attitude Toward Women” Lassie Smith, Ranker. n.d.

“Vincent van Gogh 1853 – 1890” Staff author, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Met. 2010

“Piet Mondrian” Staff author, The Art Story. n.d.

“The Life of Edvard Munch” Staff author, The Munch Museet. n.d.