Art for Beginners – Top 5 Most Famous Artworks in the World

Throwback time! It’s been two years since I started writing for Hindustan Times Brunch. Taking a look at my first article for them in May, 2013 titled “Shortcut to Smart: A lesson in Art, Chapter 1”. Enjoy!


A Lesson in Art!

You’ve seen photos of them, you’ve seen them spoofed on the Web. Maybe you’ve even seen them in real life. But what do you know about them, really? What makes these five, some of the most important paintings of all time? A sketchy introduction.

Take notes Mona Lisa – Leonardo da Vinci

The Mona Lisa is a diva. Every year, nearly six million people drop in to visit the 15th century beauty, painted on a plain poplar panel. The Mona Lisa has been a faithful roomie to Napoleon, survived incorrect restoration procedures and over-cleaning (which is probably what left her without eyebrows) and was stolen in 1911 by an employee of the Louvre, Paris (he walked out with the painting tucked under his coat). Picasso was questioned in the proceedings. The painting was returned after almost two years. More recently a visitor threw a cup at the priceless painting. Is it because she’s not very pretty but we love her anyway? Is she really a man? Suit your fancy. It’s the Mona Lisa.

WLA_metmuseum_Water_Lilies_by_Claude_MonetLes Nymphéas or Water Lilies series – Claude Monet
Monet is the rightful king of Impressionism. His 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise led to the rise of the Impressionist art movement, then a derogatory term, a rebellion taking shape. His Water Lilies, a series of nearly 250 paintings made over the last 30 years of his life, were executed at his home in Giverny, France. He worked in a controlled landscape – his own garden with a pond, water lilies and a bridge – for a near-perfect view but lost that very control on the canvas. Of all the Nymphéas, the crowning works are displayed at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. They are housed in oval rooms and are done on concave canvas panels, 6.5 feet in height and vary from 19.5 to 55 feet in length.

600px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe Starry Night – Vincent van Gogh
Absinthe, the green fairy, was a friend of van Gogh, steering him through exaggerated visions. The bi-polar artist was nicknamed fou roux or mad redhead; in a bout of frenzy, he cut his ear and presented it to a girl named Rachel at a brothel. A few months later (a year before his death), in 1889, he painted The Starry Night while at an asylum in Saint-Remy, France. In the foreground, a cemetery and cypress trees symbolise his obsession with death. Fervent strokes represent the movement of wind and light. He sold but one painting in his lifetime. Today, they sell for obscene amounts. This one is on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Les_Demoiselles_d'AvignonLes Demoiselles d’Avignon – Pablo Picasso
Picasso was 26 when he shocked his peers with private viewings of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. It portrays five nude female figures from a brothel in Barcelona. The faces are contorted and bold with primitive elements of African and Iberian masks, their bodies made of crass lines and squares. The almost life-size figures confront the viewer, shocking them and then making them a part of the painting. This was one of the first steps towards Cubism. It has been a fixture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, since 1939. The painting claimed its worth by driving Picasso’s friend and rival Henri Matisse barking mad, dethroning him as the obvious next big shot in shocking Modern Art.


No.5, 1948 – Jackson Pollock

The other famous No. 5, it sold for a whopping $140 million at a private auction in 2006 to a billionaire art collector willing to pay anything for it, making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold. Pollock was going about his day, smoking a cigarette and painting some figures, when he accidentally spilled some paint on the canvas. The abstract expressionist upgraded to Batman status inventing the drip technique. Time magazine, in 1956, called him Jack the Dripper. Laying the canvas on the ground, moving on all four side and splashing paint on the canvas, he monitored his actions with precision, creating figures out of dripping of paint, layer after layer. Spike the passion and rebellious need to create, a little bit of alcoholism with a sensational personal life. This is the stuff that art is made of!



Take 5 : Random Art Facts

1. Leonardo da Vinci’s earliest known work is a drawing of the Arno valley in pen and ink, dated August 5th, 1473.


Arno landscape; Leonardo da Vinci; 1473

2. Pablo Picasso’s full name has 23 words in it: Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso. In keeping with tradition, named after saints and relatives.

3. Salvador Dali once delivered a lecture wearing a complete diving suit that almost suffocated him by the end of it all. Imagine attending that lecture!

Salvador Dali (in diving suit) with friends.

Salvador Dali (in diving suit) with friends.

4. Before turning to art, Vincent van Gogh aspired to become a pastor. He felt his true calling was in the religious discourses, making him extremely passionate about preaching. He temporarily took up a job as a missionary in the coal-mining district of Borinage, Belgium.

5. There was a movement known as the “fig-leaf campaign” in the Counter Reformation period (after the Renaissance) during which statues were draped with cloth or carved fig leaves over the visible male genitalia. It is also said that a box with fig leaves was kept behind the copy of the David by Michelangelo in the Victoria and Albert museum, for the occasion when women were present. Talk about planned coverage!

Cristo della Minerva; Michelangelo

Cristo della Minerva; Michelangelo