One of the greatest attributes of a distinguished artist is his or her ability to leave us, the viewers, continually guessing, or discovering new details about their work we had not noticed before. In fact, some of the most famous paintings in world history have a treasure trove of hidden details waiting to be discovered — some cleverly concealed in the painting, while others lurk beneath the surface.
1. The Old Guitarist – Pablo Picasso
The Old Guitarist is one of Pablo Picasso’s most famous paintings from his Blue Period, an early stage of his career between 1901 and 1904 when the color blue became a staple in almost all of his works. During this time, Picasso focused on “the poor, the ill, and those cast out of society.”
Picasso himself was part of that class, struggling to provide for himself while creating his art as he floated between Paris and Barcelona. Look no further than this painting for proof of Picasso’s poverty: the artist reused the same canvas to save money. Under this famous work, experts have found that two previous paintings — one of a woman’s face that can still be seen, and one of a cow — are buried beneath the old guitarist.
2. The Starry Night – Vincent Van Gogh
The Starry Night, one of Vincent Van Gogh’s most lauded and dreamy pieces of artwork, was painted while he checked into the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum after that now-infamous breakdown in which he cut off his own left ear. But during a time when some would consider the artist to be a “lunatic,” he managed to create a work of mathematical brilliance.
While the painting itself is already brilliant and visually arresting in its own regard, the scene actually shows a pattern that aligns with the concept of “turbulent flows” decades before the mathematical notion was first discovered. Was this a coincidence? Or was Van Gogh not just a artistic genius, but a mathematical one as well?
3. The Arnolfini Portrait – Jan van Eyck
Flemish master Jan van Eyck’s painting known as The Arnolfini Portrait is said to have been commissioned by the man in the painting himself all the way back in 1434, a.k.a., way before the times of selfies. Not to be outdone, van Eyck was able to place himself hidden in the complexities of his subject’s portrait.
Hidden in the background in the space between the loving couple (hey, it was the 1400s, so that shocking hand-holding was considered to be a lot of PDA), admirers of the painting will notice a small mirror. And while it might seem impossibly small to fit all of this, upon closer inspection, it seems that not only does the mirror reflect the couple, but also a mystery third person. That person is said to be van Eyck himself.
4. The Last Supper – Leonardo da Vinci
Nearly everyone in the world would recognize Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper. And we would go ahead and guess that nearly everyone has heard of the notorious hidden messages that are said to be buried within the painting, sparking books and movies such as The Da Vinci Code in 2003.
But in 2008, an Italian musician named Giovanni Maria Pala claimed that he’d found the real Da Vinci code. Apparently, mapping the positions of each of the hands and loaves of bread on the painting reads much like sheet music. Once Pala played it from right to left, the musical composition came to life. Talk about unsung details.
5. Primavera – Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli’s painting Primavera, “spring” in Italian, has been called “one of the most important Botticelli paintings,” as well as “one of the most written about, and most controversial paintings in the world.” Yet even with all of that attention, experts still are not sure of the exact meaning of this painting.
But one thing is definitely sure: it appears that Botticelli was quite the botanist. Throughout the painting, onlookers with a keen eye will be able to spot plenty of foliage — and that’s an understatement. Botticelli actually included in this piece over 200 species of plants, each of them painted in precise and accurate detail.
6. Madonna with Saint Giovannino – Domenico Ghirlandaio
A strange thing happens when someone does a quick search to get information about Florentine Renaissance painter Domenico Ghirlandaio’s work known as Madonna with Saint Giovannino. Within the first few results are included wacky headlines like “UFO In A 15th Century Painting?” and “Top 7 Alien Evidences Of The Madonna With Saint Giovannino.”
Here’s one thing everyone can agree on: the hidden detail in this painting is just above the Virgin Mary’s shoulder. But while many of the more science fiction-inclined art lovers would jump to conclude that the hidden detail in this Ghirlandaio painting is a UFO, art experts believe that this is actually a cloud where angels can be found looking down observing the scene.
7. Netherlandish Proverbs – Pieter Bruegel the Elder
At first glance, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1559 masterpiece Netherlandish Proverbs looks like a depiction of a busy, bustling, late medieval Flemish street. And on closer inspection, any admirer of this chaotic piece can see that there seems to be a lot going on here. As such, there is far more in this painting than meets the eye.
This piece is said to provide visual representations of no less than 112 Dutch expressions and parables, some of which English speakers will also be familiar with. Those in the red circles include (in counter-clockwise order): the world is upside down, running into a brick wall, armed to the teeth, the world in the palm of your hand, a bigger fish in the sea, roasting marshmallows at a house fire, and running like you’re on fire.
8. Portrait of Madame X – John Singer Sargent
Viewer discretion is advised for this work of art. Back in 1884, American artist John Singer Sargent painted this portrait of a woman in France whom he had admired for her beauty, a socialite named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. He decided to paint her in a black dress, as the strap slips down slightly from her right shoulder.
Apparently, this shoulder action was downright scandalous in the 1880s, and people were absolutely horrified by that slack strap. Sargent went on to paint over the strap, repainting one that sat properly atop her shoulder. But the damage had already been done: Sargent would be so humiliated by the reception of this piece that he would flee Paris and relocate permanently to London. That’s a bit much.
9. View of Scheveningen Sands – Hendrick van Anthonissen
This is a tale of two paintings by the same name. The first is the painting that came to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. This work was one of the less popular pieces in the museum, and featured a scene of people walking on the shoreline.
The second painting was not discovered until 2014. When a conservator noticed something was peculiar, he began carefully peeling away the paint and found that the original had featured a beached whale on washed up on the shore. While it is unknown when exactly the whale was painted over, experts believe it was done around the 18th century when the previous owner found the image offensive.
10. Mona Lisa – Leonardo da Vinci
When it comes to one of the most famous portraits in the entire world, the Mona Lisa, there is a lot of emphasis and attention on her slight smile. The Mona Lisa smile has become a phenomenon deserving of intensive study in and of itself. But the true secrets of the Mona Lisa, also called La Gioconda, might lie not in her smile, but in her eyes.
While people say that the eyes are the window to the soul, Mona Lisa’s own peepers could be a window into gaining more information about Leonardo da Vinci himself. A combination of imaging technology and microscopes found that the letters LV can be found in Mona Lisa’s eyes, and the number 72 can be found in the background close to her head.
11. Café Terrace at Night – Vincent van Gogh
It is a known fact that artists often draw influence from other art greats when creating some of their own masterpieces. But would anyone have guessed that the Vincent van Gogh painting Café Terrace at Night would be paying homage to Leonardo da Vinci’s works? Just look a little closer.
Art experts believe that there are plenty of nods to da Vinci’s Last Supper hidden in this piece of Post-Impressionist art. First, there are exactly twelve patrons sitting in this cafe terrace, reminiscent of the 12 Apostles. And the server does look quite Jesus-like in that white robe standing in front of the cross of the windowpane.
12. Bacchus – Caravaggio
How can a painting depicting the Greek god of the grape harvest, known by his Greek and Latin names of Dionysus or Bacchus, simultaneously be a self-portrait of master painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio? The answer is in the details. And in this case, the wine has us seeing double.
While this painting was created all the way back in 1595, it was not until 2009 that art experts discovered this hidden detail. When using modern technology, they found that the reflection of a man painting onto a canvas can be seen in the reflection of the wine jug. Experts believe this is a secret self-portrait of Caravaggio himself. Can you see it?
13. Young Woman Powdering Herself – George Seurat
This pointillist oil painting by French painter Georges Seurat, composed of myriad tiny dots, shows a woman applying powder to herself while she looks in a mirror. That woman is said to be Madeleine Knobloch, Seurat’s mistress, and it originally contained two different mirrors. So what happened to the second one?
The window that showcases the vase of flowers was originally another mirror, where Seurat painted a reflection of himself. Apparently, he went to a friend to ask for advice, and that friend told Seurat that the self-portrait was a bit creepy. He took his friend’s advice and painted over the second mirror, though experts say that the evidence of the old mirror can still be seen under close inspection.
14. Sistine Madonna – Raphael
It seems that Raphael was a big Madonna fan. And of course, we are not talking about the singer. Raphael is known as one of the most admired and well-known artists in history, one of the greatest figures of the Italian Renaissance. During his time as an artist, he painted about 66 images of either the Virgin Mary or a young Mary Magdalene.
His painting Sistine Madonna was one of the last in his Madonna series. And while it is one of the most instantly-recognizable pieces done by Raphael, there are still hidden details that few observers are aware of. For example, upon closer inspection, one can see that the clouds in the background are all angel faces.
15. Self-Portrait – Rembrandt van Rijn
The Dutch painter known simply as Rembrandt to most is one of the most famous art masters of all time. Throughout the 1600s, Rembrandt would go on to create over 100 self-portraits at different times in his life. And while that is no secret, his trick when it came to self-portraits was discovered later, due to some hidden details within his works.
In 2001, experts said that they had found indications within Rembrandt’s works that he had used curved mirrors and lenses to achieve his famed self-portraits. In 2016, that conclusion was reached by a different set of experts, due to cues like the focus of the light in the middle of the frame, while the edges faded into darkness.
16. The Creation Of Adam – Michelangelo
The fresco painting on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel is not only one of the most famous works by artist Michelangelo, but it is easily one of the most famous pieces of art in world history. And for all of the complexities of this masterpiece, it’s easy to understand how some of its hidden details might have gone overlooked.
But upon closer inspection of The Creation of Adam, art experts have found that details of Michelangelo’s intense interest in human anatomy are present. No, we are not talking about the naked Adam on display — instead, notice that God in this painting lays inside an anatomically accurate outline of a human brain.
17. Portrait of a Woman – Edgar Degas
Secrets have their way of coming forward with time. In this case, the secrets hidden beneath one Edgar Degas piece came out decades after it was first painted. Questions first began to surface around the 1920s, when the French Impressionist’s oil painting called Portrait of a Woman began to fade.
Experts began to notice that lines seemed to reveal themselves as the painting faded with time. Then, in 2016, scientists used X-ray and infrared technology to reveal that hidden underneath Degas’ work was a previously unknown painting. It seems that even the masters do not get it right the first time, and Degas had decided to recycle a canvas by painting over a previous work.
18. The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest – Willem van Haecht
Willem van Haecht was an “artist’s artist.” By that, we mean that the Flemish artist was known for his interesting style featuring his paintings of paintings, namely his detailed works depicting art collections and galleries. And in his work The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, van Haecht painted the gallery owned by his boss, a wealthy merchant.
This particular piece is basically a Where’s Waldo-esque look at some of the jaw-dropping paintings that his employer had amassed. But the true Where’s Waldo moment comes by way of the doorway painted on the right side of the canvas, where a small man can be seen peering into the gallery. That man is actually van Haecht himself — although, unfortunately, he is not in a white and red striped shirt.
19. The Blue Room – Pablo Picasso
A young Pablo Picasso was just 19 years old when he painted The Blue Room. Already, he was showing promise of being one of the world’s most talented and innovative artists. But it would be years before he was considered to be one of the greats, and at 19, he was just a poor, struggling creator trying to make ends meet.
As with his work The Old Guitarist from the same period of his life, evidence of his poverty can be found right on his own canvas, as he conserved resources. In 2014, art experts used infrared technology to reveal that there is actually a secret painting hidden beneath The Blue Room. This previously unknown work depicted a man in a bow tie with his chin in the palm of his hand.
20. The Ambassadors – Hans Holbein the Younger
The 1533 oil painting known as The Ambassadors is showcased at The National Gallery in London. If anyone is lucky enough to see it in person, they can observe all of its rich details up close and personal, from the perfect portraits to the intricate touches used to give form to the still-life objects on the shelves.
But there is one detail that is truly best to see in person. On the floor in between the feet of both of the men in the painting, anyone looking at the artwork from one angle will see a tan marking that may blend in with the floor tiles. From another angle, it becomes pretty clear that the marking is actually a human skull.
21. Supper at Emmaus – Caravaggio
Caravaggio is known as an Italian master of the Baroque period, the master of the interplay between light and shadow, and his 1601 painting titled Supper at Emmaus is no exception. The piece, originally commissioned by the prolific art-collecting Mattei family, shows disciples Luke and Cleopas with the “resurrected by incognito Jesus Christ” at a dinner table.
In this scene, the disciples are unaware that Jesus in disguise, who is not donning his usual beard, is among them. That being said, the observer of the painting is given a few clues. For example, the shadow shown under the basket of fruits shows the outline of a fish, a symbol synonymous with early Christianity.
22. The Night Watch – Rembrandt van Rijn
If Rembrandt was around during the time of selfies, we have a feeling that he might have been a pretty big fan of selfie-mode. That is because the master artist was known for creating over 100 self-portraits. And it becomes apparent why the exact number is not truly known once anyone digs a little deeper into his piece titled The Night Watch.
While this gigantic painting (12 feet by 14 feet, to be exact) is seemingly not a self-portrait, do not be fooled. Between the shoulders of two men in the back row, a careful inspection shows that the face of a man in a hat is peering over. Many have speculated that the man peeking into the scene is Rembrandt, inserting himself into yet another one of his unique scenes.
23. The Birth of Venus – Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is one of the most easily recognizable and oft-referenced paintings in the world. In this image, created in 1484, shows the Greco-Roman goddess Venus being brought into the world, gliding ashore on a seashell in one of the most timeless visions of beauty emerging from the Italian Renaissance.
Venus’ hair can be seen blowing in the wind (personified by the beings surrounding her), with some locks gathering on her shoulder. Upon closer inspection, an observer can see that the hair on her right shoulder wraps into a beautiful spiral. But that is not just any spiral. It is a perfect logarithmic spiral, discovered decades later as a naturally-occurring natural spiral also known as “the marvelous spiral.”
24. The Bus – Frida Kahlo
The 1929 Frida Kahlo painting titled El Autobús, or The Bus, is said to contain within its tableau a representation of the class struggles in Mexican society at the time. Sitting and waiting for the same bus, an onlooker can see a wealthy woman, a working class man, a barefoot woman with a bundle of all her possessions, and a young boy.
Art experts believe that the woman sitting all the way to the right is Kahlo herself, who was involved in a horrific bus accident that would affect her for the rest of her life. The man holding onto the bag of money sitting to her right is not only supposed to represent the upper class, but may in fact also represent one of the men who saved Kahlo during the crash.
25. Patch of Grass – Vincent Van Gogh
One never knows what they might find hidden beneath a patch of grass. But in this case, we are not talking about insects; we are talking about the astounding work found buried under layers of paint in Vincent Van Gogh’s piece Patch of Grass from 1887.
In 2008, a full 121 years after the the painting was created, experts found an entire other painting hidden under that Patch of Grass. Using X-ray technology, the researchers found a portrait of a woman, said to have been painted between 1884-1885. Experts guess that Van Gogh had quickly shifted his painting style. He decided to scrap the “out-of-date” portrait and paint over it.
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