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Caravaggio - David with the Head of Goliath 1610 Oil on canvas 125 x 101 cm Baroque Galleria Borghese

Self-portrait as a dead man.

It is somewhat more disturbing to look at a painting of a beheading when you know that the artist had recently murdered a man. In 1606, Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in Naples, possibly over a gambling debt. Caravaggio fled to Malta, where he was welcomed by the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Alof de Wignacourt. But being a famous painter can only get you so far, and after getting in another fight and stabbing a knight, Caravaggio was imprisoned.

Vincent Van Gogh was a late bloomer, just beginning to seriously pursue art at age 29, at the prompting of his brother Theo. In Sorrow, we see the progress that Van Gogh had made after two years of serious study. Always lacking in money, Van Gogh often drew and painted his neighbors or people he hired off the street to model, but Sorrow is a portrait of his mistress — the pregnant, homeless prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik, who went by the name Sien.

John Everett Millais - Ophelia 1851-1852 oil on canvas 76.2x111.8cm Tate Britain

Stop complaining, Millais.

John Everett Millais, painter and inveterate whiner, was a member of the insufferably romantic boy's club known as the Pre-Raphaellite Brotherhood.  Early in his career, Millais was a dedicated realist, working in a densely detailed style, and at the age of only 22 he began what would be one of his most successful paintings. Millais began 'Ophelia' in 1851, painting the river and background by the river Ewell near Kingston-Upon-Thames. But painting outdoors is difficult for the time-intensive work of realistic painting, and Millais was sure to let people know of his suffering, describing the experience in a letter:

Heironymus Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights 1503–1504 2.20x3.9m Museo Nacional Del Prado

A window into Hell.

The Alterpiece Tryptich was an old idea by the time that Heironymus Bosch got ahold of it. Three painted panels in an elaborate frame, often telling a story from right to left. Giotto's Stefaneschi Triptych for St. Peter's cathedral is a good example of what a tryptich should look like — Christ, serene, surrounded by adoring disciples. But Bosch had a different story to tell. The Garden of Earthly Delights is a folding tryptich, the left and right panels fold inwards, and when closed is shows a meditative image of the world during its creation, painted in the gray-green grisaille common to Netherlandish triptychs of the time. A moment of solemnity before the leaping madness inside is revealed. 

For a year and half, Rosa Bonheur dressed in mens clothes to avoid attention and wandered the Parisian horse market at the Boulevard de l’Hôpital. Her sketches informed The Horse Fair — a painting of such grand scale that Bonheur called it her “Parthenon frieze.” The Horse Fair was first shown in the Paris Salon in 1583, but Rosa reworked the painting for the next two years. 32 years later the painting would be aired by Cornelius Vanderbilt, who donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Girl with a Pearl Earring has become one of the most well known paintings of the modern age. The mysterious girl is the subject of novels, she’s been played by Scarlett Johansson, and recreated as a Banksy mural — but we know nothing about the girl herself, and with good reason. The painting is what’s known as a Tronie, an idealized portrait designed to evoke an emotion rather than depict a specific person.

Every class has its clown. Joseph Ducreux worked alongside the great Neoclassical French painters like Vigée Le Brun, and Jacques-Louis David, but his work sparks with humor and weird energy. His self-portrait from 1793 is still phresh enough to generate its own meme — ‘Gentlemen, who hath released the hounds?’ 

We don’t know the artist who created this vivid, otherworldly portrait, but we know its subject is Guan Yu, descending from heaven. Guan was a Han dynasty warrior who died in 219 CE, and was posthumously elevated to the status of Emperor. Guan became a venerated symbol of courage and faithfullness, honored by the Manchu rulers in shrines throughout China. 

We know very little about the origin of this beautiful and symbol-laden quilt by Harriet Powers. The arresting use of graphic applique to illustrate stories is linked to artistic techniques in Benin, West Africa. Powers combines Biblical stories with representations of meteorological events in a quilt that is beautiful to the eye, yet gains an ominously apocalyptic tone on deeper inspection. Descriptions of each panel are below:

In 1699, Maria Sibylla Merian sold 255 of her own paintings to fund a research trip from her home in Amsterdam to Suriname in South America. For two years she explored the Dutch colony there, documenting the local flora and fauna. This lively fellow was painted during her trip, and is known as an Argentine black and white tegu (Salvator merianae), a large species of lizard found in South American rainforests and savannas.  Tegu are highly intellegent and very social, known to seek out human affection like a pet dog. PetHelpful's exotic animal veterinarian Dr. Mark gushingly calls them "the best, the perfect pet lizard." We do not know Merian's precise thoughts on the tegu, but she certainly painted this one with a smile on his face.