Sleuthing the Secrets in Six Famous Paintings

Extract from Agnolo Bronzino's Allegory of Venus, Cupid, Folly & Time. Extract from Agnolo Bronzino's Allegory of Venus, Cupid, Folly & Time.

Some of history’s most iconic paintings are beloved because of their breathtaking beauty; others tell stories that recall famous figures or historical moments. But for some other pivotal works, fame comes from stories hidden beneath the surface. Whether its symbolism woven into a traditional composition or subtle changes reflecting fascinating facets of an artist’s career, these famous paintings with hidden elements become all the more captivating when such secrets are revealed. 

From Symbols to Second Takes

The hidden messages of some paintings appear as symbols, or specific elements that either help us to interpret who we are seeing or allude to another concept beyond the picture plane. Such symbols have helped to develop visual systems of iconography so that we can navigate the characters showcased in a narrative. Some secret stories in painting, however, relate to modifications made to the composition. These changes are equally fascinating as they offer a window into the artist’s creative mindset. 

Six Famous Paintings with Secrets to Spy

Let’s dive into the following works that reveal some of these hidden symbols and second takes while also contributing to the larger conversations of art at their time.

Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Double Portrait (1434)

Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Double Portrait.

Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Double Portrait. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck is celebrated for his pioneering embrace of oil paints and the medium’s luminous glazing ability. Such brilliant color can be seen in van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Double Portrait, a work made mysterious thanks to its rich array of symbolic references. The painting depicts patron Giovanni Arnolfini, an Italian merchant in the Flemish city of Bruges, and his wife as they stand in their bedroom. Their embrace of hands has been interpreted as indicating this was intended to be a wedding portrait, and the wife’s gathering of her skirt in her other hand has been said to allude to a hopeful pregnancy. There is no proof, however,  that either is being celebrated in this scene. 

What is certain, though, is that van Eyck wove into this bedroom vignette several intriguing symbols. For example, the dog who stands at their feet has been interpreted as a symbol of fidelity, while the ripe oranges that rest on the window sill at left have been suggested as an allusion to the couple’s abundance (either fertile or financial). At the back of the room is perhaps one of van Eyck’s most striking inclusions: a convex mirror framed with an intricately carved wooden frame. A close look at the frame reveals van Eyck has meticulously rendered scenes from the Passion of the Christ, but perhaps even more striking is the realization that this mirror reflects the artist himself standing at the same point as the viewer. 

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Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (1533)

Hans Holbein the Younger's The Ambassadors.

Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Among the impressive works credited to Northern Renaissance master Hans Holbein the Younger’s name, The Ambassadors is undoubtedly one of the most discussed given its incredible panoply of symbolism. Here Holbein painted at right Georges de Selve, a French bishop and ambassador to Venice, and at left Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to London. Their fashions reveal Holbein’s talents for meticulous rendering of costume, but it is the array of objects spread on the table between the two gentlemen that really hooks the viewer.  

The lower shelf features a terrestrial globe along with a psalm book and lute, while the upper shelf is packed with navigational tools and a celestial globe. In sum, these objects have been variously interpreted by scholars – some suggest a symbolic division between earthly and heavenly realms; others note a contrast between the arts and sciences. The clearest symbol included here, though, is the unusual skull that sits at the center foreground of the composition. Rendered in anamorphic perspective, meaning it comes into alignment only when viewed from a certain angle, this skull serves as a memento mori, or reminder of the inevitability of death. 

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Agnolo Bronzino’s An Allegory of Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time (1545)

Agnolo Bronzino's Allegory of Venus, Cupid, Folly & Time.

Agnolo Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus, Cupid, Folly & Time. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Though allegorical paintings were all the rage at the time, Italian Mannerist Agnolo Bronzino’s An Allegory of Venus and Cupid still stumps scholars today because of its challenging symbolic references. Also known as Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time, Bronzino’s painting centers around the figures of Venus and Cupid who awkwardly embrace upon a silken, blue backdrop. A giddy cherub (often interpreted as Folly) approaches with handfuls of rose petals, seemingly prepared to shower them, but a closer look reveals that chaos is closing in. 

Wrapped around the cherub’s foot is the rattlesnake-like tail of a creature equal parts serpent, feline, and female that contortedly turns to the viewer holding a segment of honeycomb in one hand and what appears to be a scorpion’s barb in the other. Above, a frightened figure interpreted as Time (thanks to his wings and hourglass) fights to hold up that silken cloth as if to protect the scene from a frightening figure at upper left whose vacant eyes and partial head convey an ominous air. Adding to that intensity is the figure at center left, whose incredibly pained expression and ashen tone seems to counter the joyous eroticism initially seen as the subject of this painting. 

If this varied array of symbols has you stumped too, not to worry: it is not clear what sort of message Bronzino aimed to relay in this work. What it does seem to showcase, though, was that Bronzino was not afraid to push the idea of the allegorical image and stretch symbolism to its breaking point. 

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John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X (1884)

John Singer Sargeant's Portrait of Madame X.

John Singer Sargeant’s Portrait of Madame X. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

American painter John Singer Sargent attracted a clientele of some of the wealthiest socialites of his generation thanks to his ability to capture portraits that balanced the perfection of his sitters with a sense of naturalism. Such is the case with Portrait of Madame X, which reveals Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who was the American wife of a wealthy French banker. Known for her beauty, Virginie was sought by several artists – including Sargent – to sit for such portraits. Virginie also had a reputation, however, for a rather scandalous social life, which set the stage for controversy when Sargent asked to paint her. Seemingly caught in a moment of quiet reflection, Virginie stands facing the viewer, with her head in profile to accentuate her delicate features. The deep black satin of her dress offers a contrast to her pale flesh, and the subtle sparkle of the gown’s gem-studded straps conveys an overall air of elegance about her. 

It was the placement of these straps, though, that resulted in controversy. In the original version of the painting, Sargent composed the left strap of Virginie’s dress as slipping off her shoulder. Today this might not merit a second glance, but at the time, such slippage would have been considered indecorous for a married woman as it would have alluded to her promiscuity. So, when the painting debuted at the 1884 Parisian Salon, the reaction was heated and, despite Sargent’s efforts to obscure Virginie’s identity, her family objected to such a representation. Sargent later overpainted the work to correct this sagging strap so that they both appeared secured upon her shoulders, but the damage to his career was a major disappointment. 

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Pablo Picasso’s The Old Guitarist (1903-1904) 

At the dawn of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso was just gaining his grounding as an artist and exploring his career’s trajectory. This experimentation is evident in his work from the first decade of the 1900s, where Picasso went through several phases as he transitioned from an Academic to an avant-garde artist. This shift is visible in The Old Guitarist, where Picasso, in essence, created two works in one. 

In a cool palette – characteristic of his well-known “Blue Period” – Picasso shows us an aged man as he embraces his guitar with surprising tenderness. The figure, rendered with the precise draftsmanship in which Picasso excelled in art school, reveals nevertheless that Picasso is beginning to experiment: the figure is elongated and set in an alarmingly shallow compositional space, suggesting Picasso is perhaps playing with form and dimension (elements that would pave the way for Cubism). Investigating the surface of this painting, though, reveals Picasso carried this experimentation to a new level with the revelation that there is another painting beneath this old guitarist. The contours of this first work – which centered on a seated female nude – can still be seen at points in Picasso’s Old Guitarist, reminding viewers of the passion Picasso held for experimentation (and the limitations of a fledgling artist that might encourage the reuse of materials). 

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Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930)

Grant Wood's American Gothic.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The 1930s was one of the most challenging decades in global history, between the toll taken on humanity in the aftermath of World War II, the ongoing political upheavals on the horizon, and the Great Depression that had arrived in 1929. Thus, it created a space for artists to use the space of their art to reflect on these struggles, and American artist Grant Wood accepted this challenge with a painting like American Gothic. Seemingly showcasing a traditional farming family as they stand in front of their homestead, American Gothic on the one hand recalls Grant Wood’s fascination with the small-town nature of his upbringing in Iowa. It seems to celebrate the rural, pastoral lifestyle and might have reminded viewers of the ability of Americans to pull themselves out of hard times with hard work “the old-fashioned way.” 

At the same time, though, Wood challenges us by offering not reality but its façade. Using his dentist and his sister as his sitters for his portrait, Wood carefully costumed both in a combination of elements that clash from a socioeconomic perspective. The farmer’s crisp suit coat, for instance, is out of character for a man working the fields – alluded to via his dusty overall beneath and the pitchfork in his hand. Meanwhile, his daughter’s neat black dress and striking cameo brooch stand counter to the apron she wears suggesting a day of domestic work ahead. With these secret elements in mind, Wood’s painting becomes a commentary on contemporary culture and perhaps even a reaction against contemporary painting (as Wood was known to eschew some of the trends toward abstraction that were gaining popularity in Europe at the time). 

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Clueing Into a Compositions’ Hidden Secrets  

These examples reveal some of the variety of hidden messages and stories that can rest beneath a painting’s surface and will hopefully energize your next visit to an art museum or gallery as you search for more such instances. Also remember: most often, painters made artistic choices for a reason, so if a symbol, slip up, or second take catches your eye there might be a new hidden narrative for you to research.