Ghostly women, potential murder plots, and hidden images… we’ve chosen six of the most mysterious works from art history for you to explore!
Young Hare, Albrecht Dürer
Albrecht Dürer was a 16th Century “Jack-of-All-Trades” and master of many. Skilled in painting, various forms of printmaking, and drawing, Dürer created a number of technically challenging works that boggle the minds of contemporary art critics even today. Dürer created his works in a time of much political and religious turmoil, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses sparked a reformation and Suleiman the Magnificent was on Europe’s doorstep. Yet, Dürer’s works exude a beautiful stillness, or otherworldliness, while still speaking to the historical context of the time.
His painting, Young Hare, completed in 1502 is one of his most beloved works. It has been much discussed due to its simplicity, subject and one detail that many even fail to notice, until pointed out…the mysterious details hidden in the hare’s right eye. Are those white brush strokes the artist’s studio windows as so many suggest? And what of the darker figure just to the right of the white strokes?
If you enjoyed Albrecht Dürer’s Young Hare, and are curious about other works, you might enjoy this article.
La Primavera, Sandro Botticelli
Painted around 1480, Sandro Botticelli’s La Primavera (Spring) is his second most popular piece, after Birth of Venus, which he would create a few years later. While La Primavera‘s origin story is murky, it was believed to have been commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, a member of one of Florence, Italy’s wealthiest families, as a wedding gift for his wife.
The work centers around Venus, beneath a blind-folded Cupid. To the far left, Mercury uses his caduceus to disperse gathering clouds while the Three Graces dance to his right. On the Far right, Zephyr uses his breath to transform Chloris into Flora, bringing about the birth of spring. The lush scene conjured by Botticelli’s brush is adorned by *”at least 138 identified”, and accurately portrayed, plant species. Though art historians have been able to identify many of the mythological figures represented in the piece, the true meaning behind the painting remains a mystery.
*According to Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi in Florence, Italy, where the work is on permanent display
If you enjoyed the painting, you might enjoy visiting the Gallery Degli Uffizi website to experience their “Factories of Stories” series based on La Primavera. These fictional pieces allow you to experience the work in a whole new way.
Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck
The Arnolfini Portrait, painted by Flemish artist Jan van Eyck in 1434, is another painting rich in symbolism and detail but where the intended meaning is a mystery. At first glance, it appears to be a fairly straightforward depiction of a wealthy husband and his expectant wife. Upon closer inspection, we are left with more questions than answers as we soon find that what we thought to be an expectant wife is a woman holding a heavily-draped dress. Is this painting merely a display of family wealth? A portrait to mark the occasion of entering into a marriage contract? Or something more?
While much of the symbolism in this portrait can be compared to other common symbols used in art at the time, such as the oranges for fertility and the rosary beads for piety, we are left to wonder how they all fit together. However, even if we know the common symbolism of the day, interpretations will remain mysteries without written records. Here’s one art history major, turned comedian’s take on the portrait.
Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve aka “The Ambassadors”, Hans Holbein the Younger
The Ambassadors was painted in 1533, amidst the tumultuous political landscape of Henry VIII’s England. Hans Holbein the Younger’s works earned him a place in the controversial Tudor King’s court around 1535, as he would complete the famous Portrait of Henry VIII in 1536 or 1537.
While The Ambassadors is another painting rich with religious and political symbolism, the most mysterious portion of the painting is the cream-colored “smudge” that sits in the center of the lower portion of the panel. At first glance, it appears to be a mistake but when looked at from an acute angle, this “smudge” becomes a fully-formed human skull. Known as anamorphic art, this technique was not unknown at the time but it was not widely incorporated either. Many art historians have commented on Holbein’s intended meaning, most settling on the idea that it serves as a memento mori, a constant reminder that we all grapple with the fragility of our own humanity.
Find out what the National Gallery in London has to share about The Ambassadors here.
The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn
Arguably one of the most famous paintings in the world, Rembrandt’s Dutch Golden Age masterpiece, commonly referred to as “The Night Watch”, was completed in 1642. Rembrandt was well-known when he was alive, regarded as one of Holland’s greatest artists, and was at the height of his career when he was commissioned to paint “The Night Watch”, yet, he died penniless in 1669, and was buried in an unmarked grave. Is it possible that this piece unveiled a murder plot that lead to Rembrandt’s downfall?
The Old Guitarist, Pablo Picasso
Completed during Pablo Picasso’s “Blue Period”, The Old Guitarist is one of his most popular works from that period. While the meaning behind the work itself is not much of a mystery, what physically lays behind the painting was until the Art Institute of Chicago took x-rays and performed technical examinations of the piece. What prompted the examination? The visible outline of a “ghostly woman” found just above the neck of the Guitarist. It wasn’t unusual for artists, especially Picasso, to reuse the canvases of failed paintings but what was it about the woman that made him want to change his subject? Why didn’t he, or couldn’t he, remove her completely? Who was she? Again, we’re left with more questions than answers.
To explore more of Picasso’s Blue Period and The Old Guitarist you can read this article.
If you enjoyed this post you might like to explore more odd details hidden inside of famous paintings in this article by the BBC.