I enjoyed my art history classes in college, and then life got in the way. Flash forward, and I fell in love with the stories behind the art through travel experiences where our ‘go to’ activity was to head to the best museums and see the exhibitions. The fact is that art history is fascinating, and there’s always a great story.
Art history has many memorable stories that make works of art even more compelling. From political intrigue to scandalous affairs, these stories are often as intriguing as the art itself. So, here are five works of art with quick stories—even for those who don’t consider themselves ‘art people.’
Everyone knows the Mona Lisa, the subject of speculation for centuries. Yes, this is perhaps the most famous painting in the world. But one of the most fascinating stories behind the artwork is its theft. A former employee of the Louvre Museum stole the painting and kept it in his apartment for two years. Of course, the theft made the artwork even more famous. And that cemented its place as an icon of art history.
As people know, the painting is a masterpiece of color and composition. But it’s also a reflection of Van Gogh’s psyche. Starry Night was created during his time at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum. Van Gogh’s use of bold colors and swirling brushstrokes is thought to be a representation of his mental turmoil. In a letter to his brother, Theo, Van Gogh described the painting as a ‘failure’. Yet, that masterpiece is enduring in popularity and critical acclaim.
This surreal masterpiece is known for its melting clocks and dreamlike imagery. But did you know it’s seen as a reflection of Dali’s obsession with time and mortality? The Persistence of Memory was unique and groundbreaking because Dali painted familiar objects in unfamiliar ways. It’s easy to think of its impact. Just think of two melting clocks; you know how compelling the painting is in art history.
It is only now that Yayoi Kasuma is getting her due. However, a large part of her story as an artist goes back to New York City in the days when Andy Warhol dominated. She created the installation, Infinity Mirror Rooms, which reflects Kusama’s lifelong struggle with mental illness. But Kusama, not Warhol, created some of the ideas he and other artists, such as Claes Oldenburg, ‘ripped off.’
Le Brun was a favorite portraitist of the French royal family. Her painting, Marie Antoinette with a Rose, caused a scandal at the time. It depicted the queen wearing a simple muslin dress (shocking!). But in all seriousness, royal portraiture was expected to show elaborate court dress at the time. The portrait only fed into the narrative of a too-informal and frivolous queen.
Just as creating your own book may seem intimidating at first, so too could happen with art history. Believe me, I know. But once you start delving into the stories behind famous works of art, you discover fascinating characters, scandals, and hidden meanings. The next time you’re at a museum or gallery, take some time to look beyond the surface of the artwork and discover the stories that make them truly unforgettable. Whether you’re a lifelong art enthusiast or just getting started, learning about the stories behind the art is a great way to deepen your appreciation for it and its history.
As I’ve learned, art history isn’t about memorizing dates and names. It’s about understanding the complex and fascinating stories behind some of the world’s most iconic works of art. As a result, by learning about these works’ historical and cultural contexts, we can gain a deeper appreciation for their enduring significance. So, whether you’re an art lover or just someone who appreciates a good story, take some time to explore the rich and fascinating world of art history.
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