How 6 Iconic Paintings Became Famous

Image via Unsplash.

What does it take for a painting to capture the attention of worldwide audiences? Sometimes it is the content of the painting itself that leaves audiences stunned long after they leave a gallery. Often, a fantastical story attached to the painting results in the work being shrouded in mystery: some works are stolen by art thieves, while others remain as a testament after tragedy befalls the artist.

Below, explore the enigmatic stories behind six of the world’s most famous works of art.

Carel Fabritius, “The Goldfinch”

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.

Leonardo da Vinci, “Mona Lisa”

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.

Leonardo da Vinci‘s “Mona Lisa” is considered by many to be the most well-known painting in the world. While you would be hard-pressed to find someone who couldn’t immediately recognize that crooked smile today, this wasn’t always the case.

Painted in 1507 in Florence, Italy, the “Mona Lisa” did not begin to garner critical praise until the latter half of the 19th century. While it was lauded within small circles of art critics and historians, the general population’s interest in the painting was still minimal at that time. This drastically changed in the summer of 1911, when 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 employee of the Louvre, 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 “Mona Lisa” belonged in an Italian museum, though many speculate that he had other motives. After 28 months of speculation and media coverage, “Mona Lisa” finally returned to the Louvre, where it remains the most visited painting in the museum.

Gustav Klimt, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I”

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 of her aunt that hung in her childhood 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 paintings in her new home in the United States.

The case made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States before the Austrian government finally returned the Klimt paintings 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.”

Johannes Vermeer, “Girl with a Pearl Earring”

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

Johannes Vermeer‘s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” inspired a novel, a movie, and a stage production. Why has this simple portrait garnered so much attention? To this day, little is known about the subject of Girl with a Pearl Earring. Many viewers wonder who the sitter is 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 did not leave many biographical traces and only about three dozen paintings by the artist 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), there are others who choose to believe the more salacious notion that it was Vermeer’s mistress. Regardless, it wasn’t until almost three centuries after Vermeer’s death that “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” was chosen for an exhibition poster at the National Gallery of Art’s in 1995 and quickly rose to celebrity status.

Rembrandt van Rijn, “A Lady and Gentleman in Black”

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 hang 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 who were disguised as police officers. Once inside, the men tied up the guards and proceeded to steal 13 works with an collective value of $500 million. Despite a $5 million reward 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 attention surrounding the theft brought unparalleled attention to the stolen works. Unfortunately, audiences today can only study reproductions.

Diego Velazquez, “Las Meninas”

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 is easily one of the most widely analyzed and important works of art in the history of Western painting.

To understand the complexity of the painting, the composition must be explained. In the foreground is Princess Margarita, the five year-old daughter of Spain’s King Philip IV. She is being waited on by several people. To the left is Velazquez himself, paintbrush in hand and standing in front of an easel. In the background is a shadowy figure standing at a doorway. This is the queen’s chamberlain, and 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 in which the reflection of two figures can be seen. These reflections have been identified as the King and Queen of Spain.

There is so much going on in “Las Meninas” that it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the subject of the painting. 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.

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