Knowing art is a little like knowing wine. You might know what suits your taste, but sometimes it can be difficult to know why or how to describe it to others. It’s subjective, but if enough people love it, then it’s considered great. Take a moment to think about what famous art pieces you know. Most of us in the western world have heard of the Mona Lisa and can describe it to some degree. You may even know Leonardo Da Vinci painted it. I asked a couple thousand friends to name art they thought everyone might know. Chances are that you’ve heard of most of the items on this list, but may not know who created them, why they’re famous, and where you can see them up close and personal. How many of this list do you recognize?
Mona Lisa– Da Vinci’s masterpiece is believed to be a portrait of Lisa Gheradinim, the wife of Leonardo del Giacondo and was painted between 1503-1506. It was admired by many and even imitated by the likes of such artists as Rafael. After Da Vinci’s death, the painting hung in Fontainebleau. Later it was taken to Versailles by Louis XIV. Louis XV hated it and returned it. Napoleon loved it and had the painting hung in his bedroom. In 1911 it was stolen by an Italian handyman and made international headlines.It remained missing for two years while he waited for the heat to die down. Once he tried to sell it, he was immediately captured. Pablo Picasso, ironically enough, was a prime suspect for the theft. Picasso? Who knew? It now hangs in the Louvre in Paris. The lady gets around.
Venus de Milo– While you’re in the Louvre, the Mona Lisa’s famous neighbor can be spotted. Venus or Aphrodite, as she was known by the Greeks, is a female sculpture thought to be carved by Alexandros of Antioch around 100 BC. The statue was discovered in 1820 by a peasant in the ancient city of Milos. It is widely believed that the original sculpture was holding an apple and standing next to a plinth. The whereabouts of the missing arms are a mystery.
Starry Starry Night– This swirly impressionist style painting is arguably Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous work. Van Gogh had checked himself into an asylum in southern France and it is believed that the painting was a view from his room with a picturesque village added in the background. Some speculate that his style was the result of his drinking absinthe or mental issues. Unfortunately, Vincent killed himself before his art was “discovered”. One might expect to find this in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, but it’s been in the Museum of Modern Art in New York since 1941.
The Thinker-The Thinker is Auguste Rodin’s most famous sculpture and was originally intended to compliment a doorway surround called the “Gates of Hell”. The museum it was commissioned for was never built. The original was finished in 1902 and There are at least 28 castings of this sculpture located around the world so it’s possible to see it in multiple places. Some of these castings were created after Rodin’s death and it’s not entirely clear how many of them were replicated. The original can be seen in the garden at the Rodin museum with many other sculptures created by this famous artist. Rodin’s is considered by many to be the father of modern sculpture.
American Gothic– One of America’s most recognized works was painted by Grant Wood featuring a man and a woman standing in front of a house with a pitchfork. The painting was inspired by a house in Iowa that Grant had only seen once and sketched.He used his sister and dentist as inspiration for the faces of the people in the painting. The couple became the poster-children of American virtue and hard work during the Great Depression. This classic can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The Girl with the Pearl Earring– Vermeer’s most famous work was painted around 1665 and features a woman wearing a turban and an impossibly large pearl earring. The identity of the woman is unknown and the mystery surrounding her has created much speculation.A book and film starring Scarlet Johanneson proposes one possibility. The painting was purchased in 1881 for less than $30 and donated to the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague in 1902. The painting can be seen only in this museum since it permanently resides there. The girl with the pearl earring has several names including “Girl With a Turban” and “Mona Lisa of the North”.
David– This 17 foot statue is one of Michelangelo’s most famous works, as it portrays a bigger-than-life version of the Biblical hero David. It was sculpted between 150-1504 and was Michelangelo was actually the third sculptor to work on it. It had been originally commissioned by Agostino Di Duccio, then passed on to Antonio Rossellini ten years after the project was abandoned. Rossellini left the project as well and the giant block of marble was left exposed to the elements for 25 more years. Michelangelo was only 26 years old at the time, but was able to convince the authorities to let him have the contract. He finished the iconic 6 ton statue 2 years later. It can be viewed at the Accademia Gallery in Florence.
The Creation of Adam– Michelangelo’s Opus is part of a large collection of frescoes painted between 1511 and 1512.In this painting God is reaching his hand toward’s Adams to give him the spark of life. Michaelangelo didn’t really consider himself a painter, but a sculptor, and he was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to accomplish the task that he’d been commissioned to do. He created one of the most famous paintings in the western world and Christianity in spite of his doubts. One can see this in the midst of the other panels painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.
The Last Supper-There are many artistic representations of Christ’s last gathering with his apostles, but none as famous as Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting created at the end of the 15th century. The painting can be seen at Santa Marie Delle Grazie in Milan, Italy on the back back wall of the convent’s dining wall, appropriately enough.
Dogs Playing Poker– These paintings has been parodied enough to make them as laughable as a velvet Elvis, and it is for this very reason that C.M. Coolidge’s anthropomorphic canines are so famous. Coolidge was commissioned to paint them to sell cigars in 1903 for Brown and Bigelow. He painted sixteen in all, of which nine contain dogs playing poker at a table. None of them are actually called Dogs Playing Poker, but have names like “Waterloo” and “His Station and 4 Aces” and “A Bachelor’s Dog”. Most are owned by private collectors. Try a search and you’re more likely to find April Fool’s jokes concerning their whereabouts than an actual gallery with a collection.
Birth of Venus– Boticelli’s painting of the Goddess Venus is believed to have been painted around 1480 and is one of the earliest renaissance works. Nudity was unheard of in art at the time and hence the lack of clothing on canvas was groundbreaking. Because of it’s controversial nature, Boticelli’s masterpiece was hidden for 50 years and didn’t really find it’s audience until 400 years after it’s creation. Now this painting can be found at the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
The Scream– This series included two pastels and two paintings created by Edvard Munch between 1893 and 1910. Some scholars believe that Munch was influenced by a mummy display he had seen in Paris. Munch describes his inspiration as seeing “a scream pass through nature” as he was walking home one day between the city and a fjord. The National Gallery in Oslo has one, the Munch Museum two, and a private collector owns the fourth. He purchased the painting for nearly $120 million in 2012. The Scream has the distinction of being stolen twice in it’s history: once in 2004 and then 2012.
The Son of Man– The Son of Man was featured in the film “The Thomas Crowne Affair” and is easily recognizable as a man with a bowler hat, suit and tie with an apple covering his face. This painting was a self-portrait by Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte. Unfortunately the painting is privately owned and there are few chances to see the original.
So here’s your art bucket list. Italy and France are good places to start since the majority of these works are located in their countries’ borders. And if you can’t make a trip anytime soon,order a Dogs Playing Poker print on Ebay. You can always put it next to your Margaret Keane. Your velvet Elvis will be proud.