The Origin Stories You Never Knew About Famous Images

Art tells stories with images. It pushes us to look beyond what we can see, into the artist`s mind and the stories in the brushstrokes.

But what inspires artists? How can they take such a simple scene and turn it into something masterful? For some artists, it`s simply a memory – a beautiful setting that they can`t get out of their minds. For other artists, it`s someone else`s story – something that has shaken them to the core, and for still other artists, it`s the blind power of ambition that elevated them to superstardom.

We explore the inspiration behind some of the world’s most famous works below.

A Beautiful Memory: `Starry Night,` by Vincent van Gogh

`Starry Night` is one of the world`s most famous paintings, but did you know that memory inspired this dreamlike image? Vincent van Gogh stayed in an asylum in Saint Paul following the infamous `ear incident` (more on that later) when he noticed the view from the window in his room in the early morning hours – specifically, the prominent morning stars. According to the experts at Art and Object, van Gogh “…was not allowed to paint in his room, so he began painting the star he had seen in his studio without the view for reference, applying paint to the canvas directly from the tubes to create the image’s iconic thick lines and intense colors.”

‘Starry Night’ became a combination of things that van Gogh saw out his window and images from van Gogh’s imagination. Even more surprisingly, van Gogh considered the painting to be a failure – we only wish we could fail in a way that has captivated the world for centuries!

A Canine Creation: `Dogs Playing Poker,` by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

Known as one of the most recognizable (and insouciant) works of 19th-century art, `Dogs Playing Poker` originated as an ad for a cigar campaign for tobacco company Brown & Bigelow. Artist Cassius Marcellus Coolidge didn’t set out to paint such a cultural phenomenon. According to the experts at Global Poker, “Coolidge worked in many different industries over the years. Eventually, he developed a reputation as a top-notch animal illustrator, and he became highly sought after, especially for children’s books. At some point, Coolidge developed an interest in painting dogs in human situations, which would eventually turn out to be his most famous works.”

The paintings have traveled worldwide and have featured in everything from Pixar films to a song by another prolific person with canine connections – Snoop Dogg.

Inadequacy and Ambition: `The Last Supper,` by Leonardo da Vinci

`The Last Supper` is another heavyweight in the art world, and it has the distinction of being as famous now as it was in its own time. The painting has a well-known backstory because it was a consolation prize – according to Business Insider, da Vinci`s initial commission, a bronze horse statue, was scuppered by a war between France and Italy. All of the bronze in Italy had been sent to the front lines, making the sculpture impossible. However, da Vinci was desperate to create a `work of fame` – something that would make him stand out as the painter of the century.

Those feelings of inadequacy inspired him to create a masterpiece (we’ve never identified with da Vinci so much!). It`s an absolute masterclass – each of the figures is unique, with memorable expressions, and none overshadows the work as a whole. It`s also incredible that the work has survived multiple bombings, attempted thefts, and simply being around for the past 500 years.

The Power to Persevere: `Portrait with a Bandaged Ear,` by Vincent van Gogh

This incredibly visceral painting is one of van Gogh’s finest – and most famous. For art experts at the Courtauld Gallery in London, this painting is where van Gogh “expresses his artistic power and personal struggles.”

Portrait with a Bandaged Ear` resulted from one of van Gogh`s most famous altercations. Several weeks prior, van Gogh argued with his associate Paul Gaugin, who had come to stay with him in the south of France. Van Gogh cut off most of his left ear after the argument – he and Gaugin clashed about his dream of setting up an artist`s paradise in Arles. This painting shows van Gogh`s commitment to creating art in the face of conflict – his promise to himself that he would persevere.

Justice for Christina: `Christina`s World,` by Andrew Wyeth

`Christina`s World` is a stark painting – just an image of a girl who appears to be sitting down in a pink dress in the rough, grassy landscape of coastal Maine. However, upon closer inspection, there`s something about the character that seems `off. Though her posture appears relaxed, the subject is tense – she seems to be frozen to the ground. According to the Museum of Modern Art, it’s this dichotomy that Wyeth strove to capture: “Wyeth’s neighbor Anna Christina Olson inspired the composition…as a young girl, Olson developed a degenerative muscle condition – possibly polio – that left her unable to walk. She refused to use a wheelchair, preferring to crawl, as depicted here, using her arms to drag her lower body along.”

For Wyeth, the challenge of the painting was about justice – specifically, “…to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.” What a fascinating story for a famous painting.

Walter Sickert as Jack the Ripper: ‘Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom’ by Walter Sickert

What if one of the most notorious serial killers of all time was an artist? This is a question many people have asked after getting a good look at Walter Sickert’s famous painting ‘Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom’ (1907) in England’s Manchester Art Gallery. Sickert was a post-impressionist artist, and according to the culture experts at All Things Interesting, "he was an eccentric man, and his work was often mysterious and ghoulish. At the time, his personality and eerie paintings simply defined the cutting-edge artist he was. But decades later, a deeper look at Sickert gave rise to the possibility of another identity – that of the person whose bedroom Sickert painted[sic] all those years ago: Jack the Ripper.”

When Sickert lived in London, he sought out the building where Jack the Ripper was thought to have lived. He had a fascination with the murders, and the time he spent in the room inspired one of his most famous (and haunting) paintings – `Jack the Ripper`s Bedroom.` Many art historians have tried to link Sickert with the Ripper murders. Some have made compelling arguments, but none have been successful enough to stick. You`ll have to make your judgments.

Many more pieces of art have excellent origin stories to rival these. Next time you see a painting you like, why not dig a little deeper and look into its back story?


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