19 Behind-The-Scenes Facts About Famous Paintings


Technically, there’s no earring in Girl with a Pearl Earring.


Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

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Vermeer didn’t actually paint the empty background in Girl with a Pearl Earring. He painted a green curtain that has faded with time. He worked from the background to the foreground and also began by using shades of brown and black, before adding any colors.

When it comes to the earring, “the pearl is an illusion – translucent and opaque touches of white paint – and the hook to hang the ‘pearl’ from her ear is missing,” said the Mauritshuis museum, which houses the painting. The name “Girl with a Pearl Earring” didn’t become a thing until long after it was painted.

Location: Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands.


Guernica by Pablo Picasso

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Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which holds Guernica, writes, “An accurate depiction of a cruel, dramatic situation, Guernica was created to be part of the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exposition in Paris in 1937. Pablo Picasso’s motivation for painting the scene in this great work was the news of the German aerial bombing of the Basque town whose name the piece bears, which the artist had seen in the dramatic photographs published in various periodicals, including the French newspaper L’Humanité. Despite that, neither the studies nor the finished picture contain a single allusion to a specific event, constituting instead a generic plea against the barbarity and terror of war. The huge picture is conceived as a giant poster, testimony to the horror that the Spanish Civil War was causing and a forewarning of what was to come in the Second World War.”

Location: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain.


Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

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After painting the portrait likely between 1503 and 1506, da Vinci seems to have brought it to France instead of giving it to the patron or the subject, the latter of whom is widely believed to be Lisa del Giocondo (née Gherardin), the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a Florentine merchant.

Also, very interestingly, da Vinci did not mention Mona Lisa in any of his personal sketches or notice books.

Location: Louvre, Paris, France.


The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo


The only way the two Kahlos are different is in their clothing. Prior to Kahlo’s then-just-ended marriage, she would dress in a modern European style. During her marriage, she began dressing in clothing rooted in Mexican customs.

Location: Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, Mexico.


Portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent

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The painting’s subject is Madame Pierre Gautreau, born Virginie Amélie Avegno. Sargent thought painting her would enhance his reputation, which may be why he worked without commission.

Originally, Sargent painted the right strap of the gown falling from Gautreau’s shoulder, but when it was ridiculed because it was so scandalous, Sargent repainted the strap.

Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, United States.


The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino

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Raphael was only in his mid-20s when he began The School of Athens, which isn’t humbling at all. He seems to have realized that instead of attempting to paint the different physical identities of each real-life figure, he should roll with the inevitable mystery. As a certain fantastic BBC article says, “[Raphael] should instead embrace the inevitable confusion, overtly invite a sense of irresolvable flux, and thereby make the indeterminacy of identity itself the very philosophy of his portrait of philosophy. In Raphael’s hands, he becomes a kind of lava lamp of identity in which the philosopher, the painter, and the epitome of doubting-all-you-see mingle and merge into one.”

Location: Raphael Rooms, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.


The Fighting Temeraire by J. M. W. Turner

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The Fighting Temeraire depicts a once-great gunship being brought up the Thames to a shipyard. When Turner showed his painting in 1839, he included the following lines in the display:

“The flag which braved the battle and the breeze,

No Longer owns her.”

As The National Gallery in London points out, “Indeed, the Temeraire doesn’t fly the union flag any more. Instead, a white flag flutters from the mast of the tug. This shows that a ship was in commercial hands. However, it also makes the Temeraire look as if she’s being brought in under a flag of surrender, a further insult to her memory.”

Location: The National Gallery, London, United Kingdom.


Show Me the Monet by Banksy

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A gallery worker poses with an artwork entitled Show me the Monet by British street artist Banksy during a photo call for Major Contemporary Art Auction at Sotheby’s Galleries in central London on October 16, 2020.

In 2005, Banksy said, “The vandalised paintings reflect life as it is now. We don’t live in a world like Constable’s Haywain anymore and, if you do, there is probably a travellers’ camp on the other side of the hill. The real damage done to our environment is not done by graffiti writers and drunken teenagers, but by big business… exactly the people who put gold-framed pictures of landscapes on their walls and try to tell the rest of us how to behave.”

Location: Private collection.


American Gothic by Grant Wood

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According to the Art Institute of Chicago, where American Gothic hangs, “This familiar image was exhibited publicly for the first time at the Art Institute of Chicago, winning a three-hundred-dollar prize and instant fame for Grant Wood. The impetus for the painting came while Wood was visiting the small town of Eldon in his native Iowa. There he spotted a little wood farmhouse, with a single oversized window, made in a style called Carpenter Gothic. ‘I imagined American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house,’ he said. He used his sister and his dentist as models for a farmer and his daughter, dressing them as if they were ‘tintypes from my old family album.’ The highly detailed, polished style and the rigid frontality of the two figures were inspired by Flemish Renaissance art, which Wood studied during his travels to Europe between 1920 and 1928. After returning to settle in Iowa, he became increasingly appreciative of midwestern traditions and culture, which he celebrated in works such as this. American Gothic, often understood as a satirical comment on the midwestern character, quickly became one of America’s most famous paintings and is now firmly entrenched in the nation’s popular culture. Yet Wood intended it to be a positive statement about rural American values, an image of reassurance at a time of great dislocation and disillusionment. The man and woman, in their solid and well-crafted world, with all their strengths and weaknesses, represent survivors.”

Location: Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, United States.


Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son by Claude Monet

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Woman with a Parasol was likely painted in one hours-long session outdoors, which blows my mind. Monet wanted to convey a relaxed family outing.

Location: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., United States.


Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

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The establishment in the painting was inspired by “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet,” Hopper said. Another real-life connection to the painting is the red-headed woman, who was modeled by Josephine Hopper, Edward’s wife.

On reflection, Hopper stated, “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”


Irises by Vincent van Gogh

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Van Gogh began working on Irises during his first week at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, France. There are no known sketches he did for the painting.

In September 1889, Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, submitted the piece to Salon des Indépendants and later wrote to his brother of the exhibition, ‘[It] strikes the eye from afar. It is a beautiful study full of air and life.'”

Location: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, United States.


The Elevation of the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens

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Rubens painted The Elevation of the Cross in Antwerp’s now-destroyed Church of St. Walburga, where the finished piece originally lived. He worked on-site because of the triptych’s size, which, at its largest, comes in at 15 ft. high, 21 ft. wide.

The figure of Christ appears to be based on the Laocoön, a famous ancient sculpture.

Location: Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium.


Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue by Georgia O’Keeffe

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After O’Keeffe’s first long trip to the Southwest in 1929, two years before completing this painting, her work moved into the world of New Mexico’s nature, away from all the New York City human-made-ness. She felt bones portrayed the American spirit’s strength.

Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, United States.


The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

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The painting was likely commissioned by a member of that infamous Medici family. Orange trees, like the ones on the right of The Birth of Venus, are an emblem of the family due to the similarity between “Medici” and the name for orange tree, “mala medica.”

However, there is no known text about this 1485-work until 1550, when it is descibed as owned by a branch of the Medici family since the mid-1400s. So who knows what really happened.

Location: The Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.


The Ballet Class by Edgar Degas

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The Ballet Class, a painting I freaking love, depicts an imaginary scene in a rehearsal room in the old Paris Opéra. The building had recently burned down.

Location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.


The Night Watch by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

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The Night Watch was painted for one of the headquarters of Amsterdam’s civic guard, which was a group of civilian soldiers who defended the city from attacks and all that stuff.

The painting’s name, The Night Watch, did not come into fruition until much later, when the work of art was believed to take place at night.

Location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.


Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix

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The piece shows the July Revolution of 1830, when France’s abdicated King Charles X was replaced by “Citizen King” Louis Philippe I. Delacroix finished his painting in 1830, the same year as the event.

Location: The Louvre, Paris, France.


Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni

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Before Michelangelo’s infamous art, the ceiling was blue and freckled with stars. Pope Julius II requested that Michelangelo paint a geometric ornament on the ceiling and depict the twelve apostles in surrounding spandrels. Michelangelo proposed Old Testament scenes instead.

In 1510, two years later, Michelangelo took a yearlong break from working on the Sistine Chapel. The art he completed after this break is noticeably different, showing the bare bones of Old Testament stories on a huge scale.

Location: Sistine Chapel, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.

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