Famous Artwork: How 6 Iconic Paintings Became Famous

Image via Unsplash.

Throughout history, millions of paintings have been created by some of the world’s most talented artists, yet only a fraction of them maintain long-lasting fame. This phenomenon sparks one of the art world’s most pressing questions: what does it take for a painting to capture the attention of worldwide audiences? 

Below, explore what makes famous artwork famous and the enigmatic stories behind six of the world’s most iconic pieces.

How Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa Became Famous

Leonardo da Vinci, “Portrait of Lisa Gherardini (known as the Mona Lisa),” oil on wood panel, circa 1503-06. In the collection of the Musee du Louvre.

In the summer of 1911, the unthinkable happened: The Mona Lisa vanished from the walls of the Louvre. What followed was a media explosion—”wanted” posters were plastered around Paris, crowds formed at police headquarters, and it wasn’t long before short films and songs were made about the vanished painting. Seemingly overnight, a somewhat obscure work of art became the world’s most famous painting.

More than two years passed before Vincenzo Peruggia, a former Louvre employee, was arrested after attempting to sell the painting to a director of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. Peruggia claimed that as an Italian patriot, he believed The Mona Lisa belonged in an Italian museum, though many speculate he had other motives. 

After 28 months of speculation and media coverage, The Mona Lisa finally returned to the Louvre, where it remains the most visited painting in the museum and rests safely in a case made of bulletproof glass. 

How Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch Became Famous

Carel Fabritius, “The Goldfinch,” oil on panel, 1654. In the collection of Mauritshuis.

17th century Dutch paintings often highlighted the overlooked, everyday moments of life. The Goldfinch is no different, depicting a chained bird on its perch in front of a mundane background. The melancholic image of an animal tethered to this drab setting strikes a chord with many viewers. When it was brought to the Frick Collection in New York in 2014, 200,000 people lined up to catch a glimpse of the famed bird.

One part of the public’s fascination with this work may well be the artist’s own tragic ending. At the age of 32, Carel Fabritius died in a careless explosion of gunpowder that destroyed a quarter of the city of Delft. Many of his paintings were destroyed in the explosion. “The Goldfinch” was painted in Fabritius’ final year and is one of about a dozen surviving Fabritius pictures.

Another reason for the work’s rise to fame is the 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel named for the painting. In the novel, a teenage boy takes the painting with him after surviving a bombing at an art museum in which his mother dies. As the boy’s life unravels, The Goldfinch is his single source of hope. This captivating story, coupled with the fact that The Goldfinch is among the few remaining paintings by one of Rembrandt’s most promising students, is why this work continues to captivate viewers. In 2019, Donna Tartt’s novel was adapted into a feature film directed by John Crowley, and featuring Nicole Kidman and Sarah Paulson in supporting roles, bringing Fabritius’ masterpiece to life on the silver screen. 

How Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I Became Famous

Gustav Klimt, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” oil, silver, and gold on canvas, 1907. In the collection of the Neue Galerie.

With haunting eyes and a shimmering palette, The Lady in Gold is understandably one of Austria’s most prized works of art. Often referred to as “Austria’s Mona Lisa,” Gustav Klimt‘s painting was somewhat shrouded in mystery before one woman spoke out about her family’s history with the work.  

Painted in 1907, this portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was one of six Klimt works confiscated by the Nazis from an Austrian home during World War II. After the war, the works became part of the Galerie Belvedere’s collection. The Austrian government claimed the paintings had been willed to the museum and displayed Bloch-Bauer’s portrait under the title The Lady in Gold. 

In 1998, Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece Maria Altmann began an eight-year legal battle to secure the painting she remembered from childhood visits to her aunt’s home. What many saw as a portrait by one of Austria’s most famous artists was actually an important part of Altmann’s past. After the violence and oppression that Altmann’s family experienced in Austria, she wanted the painting in her new home in the United States.

The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court before the Austrian government finally returned the five remaining Klimt paintings, including The Lady in Gold, to Altmann. It became the most famous legal battle in art history, eventually inspiring a movie starring Helen Mirren in 2015. The court case helped catapult The Lady in Gold to international fame. Today, the piece can be seen in New York’s Neue Galerie under the title Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.

How Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring Became Famous

Johannes Vermeer, “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” oil on canvas, 1665. In the collection of Mauritshuis.

Painted in 1665, Johannes Vermeer‘s Girl With a Pearl Earring didn’t gain celebrity status until 1995, when it was chosen for an exhibition poster at the National Gallery of Art. This sudden rise to fame inspired a novel publication of the same name in 1999, leading to a subsequent movie and stage production. But why did this simple portrait garner so much attention three centuries after Vermeer’s death? 

In 2003, the popularity of Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring reached new heights with the release of the film adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson as Griet, a fictionalized servant girl who becomes the subject of Vermeer’s painting. Directed by Peter Webber, the film offers a speculative narrative exploring the relationship between Griet and Vermeer, delving into themes of art, desire, and social hierarchy in 17th-century Delft. Johansson’s portrayal brought renewed attention to the enigmatic allure of the painting, sparking further fascination with its origins and the identity of its subject. While the film takes artistic liberties with historical accuracy, it contributes to the enduring mystique surrounding one of Vermeer’s most captivating works.

To this day, little is known about the subject of Girl With a Pearl Earring and why Vermeer chose to paint her. Adding to the mystery of this work is what little is known of the artist himself. Celebrated for his masterful use of light and shadow, Vermeer didn’t leave many biographical traces behind, and only about three dozen of his paintings survive today.

Theories still abound as to who exactly the sitter is. While some scholars maintain that it must be the artist’s daughter Maria (who also may have helped create several paintings currently attributed to Vermeer), others believe the more salacious notion that it was Vermeer’s mistress. Overall, the subject appears to be a tronie or an imaginary character Vermeer idealized from his model to fit a particular image. The famous artwork can be viewed today in a collection at the Netherlands’ Mauritshuis.

How Rembrandt van Rijn’s A Lady and Gentleman in Black Became Famous

Rembrandt van Rijn, “A Lady and a Gentleman in Black,” oil on canvas, 1633. Image courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

If you walk through the galleries of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, something peculiar might catch your eye: 13 empty frames hanging on the walls. These frames serve as reminders of works of art that were stolen in 1990.

During the early hours of March 18, 1990, museum security guards admitted two men disguised as police officers. Once inside, the men tied up the guards and proceeded to steal 13 works, with a collective value of $500 million. Despite there being a $5 million reward offered for information leading to the recovery of these paintings, the theft remains unsolved.

Included in the heist were three paintings by Rembrandt, a Vermeer, a Manet, and several sketches by Degas. Two of Rembrandt’s paintings, including A Lady and Gentleman in Black and Rembrandt’s only known seascape, were cut from their frames. To this day, experts are puzzled by the choice of works, as even more valuable pieces were left untouched. The media reporting surrounding the theft brought unparalleled attention to the stolen works. Unfortunately, audiences today can only study reproductions.

How Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas Became Famous

Diego Velazquez, “Las Meninas,” oil on canvas, 1656. In the collection of Museo Del Prado.

At first glance, Las Meninas may look like another stuffy royal painting. In actuality, it’s easily one of the most widely analyzed and important works of art in the history of Western painting.

To understand the painting’s complexity, the composition must be explained. Princess Margarita, the five-year-old daughter of Spain’s King Philip IV, stands in the foreground while being waited on by several people. To the left is Velazquez himself, posing in front of an easel with a paintbrush in hand. The shadowy figure lurking in a doorway in the background is the queen’s chamberlain. His position in front of the open doorway lures the viewer’s eyes into the depth of the room that Velazquez so expertly rendered. To the left, just above the princess, is a mirror showcasing the reflection of two figures, which have been identified as the King and Queen of Spain.

With so much going on in Las Meninas, it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint the painting’s subject. Is Velazquez painting the young princess or the King and Queen? Is the artist himself the subject of the painting? Perhaps the King and Queen aren’t even in the room, and the reflection in the mirror is actually a reflection of Velazquez’s painting. Why did he choose to have the viewer’s eyes drawn to the chamberlain in the background? 

For over three centuries, Las Meninas has sparked countless debates among viewers and art historians and will no doubt continue to do so for years to come. Today, the painting belongs to the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Where to See More of the World’s Most Famous Artwork

These six paintings captivated the world with their mysterious backstories, historical significance and alluring imagery, but they aren’t the only pieces of art known by the masses. To uncover more of the world’s most famous artwork, check out these museums:

  • The Modern Museum of Art: Located in New York, MoMA houses several famous paintings, including Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night
  • Uffizi Gallery: A hub for some of the most famous works from the Italian Renaissance, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, contains several paintings from Sandro Boticelli, including The Birth of Venus and La Primavera
  • Van Gogh Museum: Paying homage to one of the most influential Dutch artists, the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands hosts the largest collection of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings and drawings. Works include Sunflowers, Self-Portrait and The Potato Eaters.
  • Musee d’Orsay: Located in Paris, France, the Musee d’Orsay features an impressive collection of works by famous artists, including Claude Monet, Edouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Recapping What Makes Famous Artwork Iconic

The world is full of beautiful, inspiring art, but only a select few pieces rise to worldwide fame. Whether it’s due to a tragic event, mysterious backstory or mesmeric artistic touch, famous artwork ultimately becomes famous when it appeals to that innate sense of human curiosity, causing people to analyze, interpret and tell stories about it until the end of time. 

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Written by Alexis Culotta View all posts by this author →

Alexis holds a PhD in art history and has enjoyed professional roles across gallery, museum, and academic settings. Thanks to these myriad experiences, Alexis holds a wealth of knowledge across the fields of fine and decorative arts and enjoys every opportunity to share these insights along with the stories of these makers and objects with Invaluable collectors.