Have you ever wondered what made the Mona Lisa so special? The most visited, talked about and widely recognized piece of art in the world continues to captivate its audience for over half a millennium. Some say it’s the subtlety of her facial expression, others feel da Vinci, a Renaissance man who had developed contraptions for flight long before its time and mastered the human anatomy, had distinguished himself in perfecting the human form on a canvas. Still, others see the imaginative use of mythical backdrop landscapes as a novel form of portraiture for its time. No matter the approach, it’s hard to no concede that the Mona Lisa has a “je ne sais quoi” quality that is difficult to ignore. So too do many of these iconic paintings.
The Persistence of Memory: Salvador Dali (1931)
Out of any major artist of the 20th century, Salvador Dali arguably pushed the limits of art to more than anyone else. Upon closer inspection, his technique was machine-like giving life to illusory images far surpassing the reaches of anyone’s imagination. The color schemes are so perfectly blended, and the shapes so spectacularly drawn, that even the most advanced computer-generated imagery would be worth its weight in gold for producing such feats.
The painting depicts clocks melting atop a seemingly arid and barren landscape. One clock in particular is glazed over a shape resembling a human face. Many critics attempted to discern the meaning behind Dali’s most recognizable piece. One historian hypothesized that the melting clocks are reminiscent of the relativity and flexibility of time. Asked whether there were elements of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in his piece, Dali simply replied that the painting was a surrealist interpretation of Camembert, a soft cheese, melting in the summer sun.
The Starry Night: Vincent van Gogh (1889)
Van Gogh’s famous work depicts trees, a town and, of course, a night sky. Something we’ve all seen in one form or another. So what’s special about it? The thickly applied swirls of paint or the story of the tortured artist behind it?
When Vincent van Gogh painted the picture in June of 1889, rapid industrial development was underway in much of Europe and the world. Railroads made travel easier than ever, the first commercially available cars were released, the first skyscrapers were being rolled out along with the Eiffel Tower. In the wider world of art, impressionism was out. The more methodical neo-impressionism was in.
These artists were more interested in expressing their emotional and psychological impressions through style, symbolism and bold use of color. Van Gogh bounced around Europe until returning home in 1880 committed to becoming a great painter influenced by this movement. His surroundings became his subject matter, using a mostly dark pallet to document rural and urban Dutch life.
Upon his move to Paris in 1886, he metabolized the work of the impressionists and his art evolved to be lighter and more flexible. However, he found the city cold and frantic, deciding instead to reside in the countryside, where he embraced what he saw as more pure subject matter.
Van Gogh also struggled with mental illness throughout the duration of his adult life. He frequently corresponded with his younger brother, Theo, who supported him emotionally and financially. In one of his correspondence, Van Gogh wrote of his work “I must also have a starry night with cypresses, or perhaps above all a field of ripe corn. There are some wonderful nights here”. That same summer, he painted several more night scenes which he found to be much more enriched than day. Nevertheless, van Gogh continued to decline mentally.
In 1889, he voluntarily entered into a French asylum in Saint-Remy. It’s here where he painted the picture in question. To his younger brother he wrote: “This morning, I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.”
There were a lot of inaccuracies in that description, key among them was the fact that van Gogh did not have a clear view of the town from his asylum window. Moreover, the “morning star” in his letter most closely resembles Venus in its closest celestial position to Earth, though the crescent moon would have been unlikely in such a scenario.
A more reasonable explanation is that van Gogh’s painting may have been an amalgamation of his past experiences, his observations and his mental state. The prominent swirls that embalm the night sky are also a topic of mystery. Some academics have claimed the swirls represent clouds or aerial turbulence, while others report it to be the strong northwesterly winds that the artist often wrote about.
Nighthawks: Edward Hopper (1942)
Hopper’s Nighthawks is a classic American painting that is usually seen as an expression of wartime alienation and the notion of separation. 1942 was a difficult year for the American homefront. Less than a year after the attacks at Pearl Harbor, the country found itself struggling in the Pacific theatre and increasingly pushed to intervene in Europe. The economy was slowly mobilizing for total war and the future of the nation that had come out of the First World War as a superpower remained uncertain.
Many critics have theorized on the symbolism behind the painting on the backdrop of the time period and its trends, claiming that the it offers more than meets the eye. However, Hopper dispelled these assumptions when he quipped “the whole answer is there on the canvas”.
The painting depicts a 24-hour diner on a dimly lit street. The warm light inside stands in stark contrast to the gloomy, cold exterior. The clientelle includes a couple. The man, thin and gaunt faced in a blue suit and fedora, is listening to the waiter behind the counter. The woman next to him is preoccupied with a sandwich. The only other customer is a faceless man who is reading a menu, a newspaper resting under his elbow. They are loners, looking for respite from the seemingly cold world outside.
In many of Hopper’s paintings, the viewer becomes the vouyer, looking in uninvited into the private life of its subjects – and even a public place can be as lonely as a quiet room. This is especially true with Nighthawks from the standpoint as the viewer standing outside at a distance, we’re confronted with a question: would it be better to be join the melancholy of the inside or remain outside surrounded by the darkness and anonimity of the city.
Hopper is considered part of the American realist movement, but his paintings are more noir as his work seems to anticipate the popular noir films of the 1940s and 50s. The artist himself rejected the comparison with other painters or movements stating: “I think the American scene painters caricatured America. I always wanted to do it myself”.
The Kiss: Gustav Klimt (1907)
The greatest love kiss in art emerged from 20th century Austria. Two figures subsumed in golden decoration and in each other. The painting currently lives inside the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, Austria.
His style had evolved since his early years, painting commissions during the architectural boom in late 19th century Vienna. Klimpt co-founded the Vienna Secession with his friends, its motto “To each age, it’s art. To art, it’s freedom” announced a break from tradition and embrace of a broad spectrum of experimental art, design, music, and literature. In 1894, Klimpt shocked the establishment with a series of controversial paintings commissioned by the University of Vienna, presenting a darker side of his assigned subjects – philosophy, medicine and jurisprudence – in a manner many found obscene.
Despite the objections of Klimpt’s open acceptance of sexuality, he was still enormously successful, accepting commissions from Viennese high society. As such, women and love were the primary focus of his paintings. He had been inspired by the Byzantine guilt glass mosaics he visited in Italy in 1903, four years before painting the Kiss. He had put gold to use in previous works, but the visit influenced Klimpt to combine gold leaf with oils and bronze paint to great effect, capturing his subject, be they models or Viennese socialites, as if they were religious icons.
Some theorize the model for the Kiss was Emilie Floge, a fashion designer and life partner of Klimpt’s. Others feel it was the red-haired Hilda Roth, one of his favorite models. The woman is kneeling, her body in profile, held firmly in the man who hovers above her. They both wear elaborately patterned clothing and are surrounded by flowers poised on the edge of a hill, her feet curved. All else around them is gold that places them in a lucid fantasy scape.
Liberty Leading the People: Eugene Delacroix (1830)
Liberty Leading the People is the iconic image of the French Revolution of 1830, which led to the overthrow of King Charles X and the ascent of his cousin Louis Philip. In this painting, Liberty is represented by Marianne. She wields a musket and a tricolor flag as she leads a group of men over the baricade.
A master of the French romantic movement, Delacroix witnessed the revolution himself. This painting was a testament to his patriotism. He remarked: “If I haven’t fought for my country, at least I’ll paint for her”. He sketched out the work before he began painting. Ink drawings of the bodies in the lower part of the painting are actually featured in the collection at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Marianne wears a Phrygian cap, which was an emblem of liberty since the Romans gave them to newly freed slaves. Some viewers were shocked by the earthiness of the semi-naked woman, who is pictured topless, muddied and showing underarm hair. This was a progressive ideal of womanhood to which Delacroix stated “I have painted a modern subject”.
The tricolor, its three colors representing liberty, egality and fraternity can be seen in the distance flying from the tower of Notre Dame, became France’s national flag following the revolution and the gun-totting boy at Marianne’s side represents youthful insurgents.
Delacroix’s masterpiece entered the collection at the Louvre in 1874. It has become an iconic image of the fight for freedom and human rights. There are even echoes of the work in posters designed by the Free French during the Second World War, but most famously it was the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty, which was given to America by the French in 1886.
Guernica: Pablo Picasso (1937)
Pablo Picasso is one of the most recognizable names in art history. This is due to, in part, because of his 20th century influences on the surrealist art movement in conjunction with the advent of cubism, a style of art that favored rough-angled shapes and non-conforming elements. While he spent the majority of his career in France, Picasso’s most famous work dates back to the Civil War in his native Spain. At the time, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, were experimenting with weaponry in preparation for what would eventually become the Second World War. Their alliance with the insurgent Spanish Nationalists, led by Francisco Franco, against the Spanish Republican Army provided them with the scaffold to do just that.
Franco requested that Hitler and Mussolini run bombing campaigns on cities that were loyalist strongholds. Guernica, a city in the heart of Spain’s northern Basque country, was targeted on April 26th, 1937. What made the aerial campaign particularly gruesome was that Monday the 26th was a scheduled “Market Day” for the residents of Guernic: when vendors, artisans, and farmers from the surrounding region would converge in the central square to sell their merchandise. The bombing was indiscriminate, with much of the casualty count attributed to civilians who vanished in the firestorm or were buried under the rubble.
In an effort to encourage an artistic response, Picasso was visited by multiple notable contemporaries, but nothing had moved him like the eyewitness accounts published in the New York Times. His final product was exhibited at the Paris International Exposition and across the world to raise money for war relief efforts.
The painting, which depicts a chaotic scene in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, shows civilians, soldiers and animals writhing in terror and agony. The modernist style also gives way to several hidden undertones, such as fallen soldiers left hand containing the stigmata of Christ, a symbol of martyrdom, or the crudely drawn lightbulb above a horses head, symbolic of the evil eye.