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Why Are Some Paintings Famous?


Why Are Some Paintings Famous?


I ponder sometimes if Leonardo da Vinci realized when he created the Mona Lisa that five hundred years later over six million people would queue up annually to gaze upon it.

I remember the first time I saw it; I was completely underwhelmed! I could pretend that I was awash with sentiment for a painting the world has decided is the most famous but in reality my initial reaction was “oh, is that it”! As I stood among the throng of people from all over the planet gasping, crying and wailing with emotion I wondered if we were looking at the same painting? In my mind of course the Mona Lisa was a huge painting, a piece that would tower over me and command me to bow in subservient obedience to its majesty; the reality was rather different. At 77cm X 53cm it is a painting that, to be honest, if we hadn’t anointed to be the best, one would glance at and walk pass drawn to some monumental canvass of some warring conqueror returning from battle! So why I ask is the Mona Lisa the world’s best painting? The answer is simple really, because it quite literally is a masterpiece, a work of sheer brilliance created by a man whose creativity and genius the world has not equaled in five hundred years.

Over twenty years passed before I saw the Mona Lisa again; this time afforded a private visit to stand before this giant of a painting – for size doth not diminish stature, alone. As I gazed beyond the bullet proof glass I was drawn to the majesty of the art; I was mesmerized by the borderless technique of sfumato that only Da Vinci mastered, other renaissance artists used the method but it was Leonardo and the way he created the Mona Lisa that has held us spellbound for half millennia. Twenty-five years after I first dismissed this painting I was now, like the wailing woman I looked upon with disdain decades before, absorbed by the magic that is Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Millions of paintings are created and shown in galleries and museums all around the world, a very small amount transcend time and make history. Mona Lisa is arguably the most famous but others rank in close comparison. Another of Da Vinci’s works, The Last Supper, hangs not in a gallery but on the wall of the dining hall at Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery in Milan, where it was first painted. Depicting the last supper of Jesus and his disciples as told in the Gospel of John 13:21, this painting has enormous religious importance to Christians. Yet unlike the Mona Lisa, very little of the original painting remains today. Historians estimate painting commenced around 1496 as part of plans to renovate the church and its convent buildings.

Most Famous Paintings: Girl with A Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer

Most Famous Paintings: The Night Watch, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Because the painting was on a thin exterior wall, the effects of humidity were felt more keenly, and the paint failed to properly adhere to the wall, soon after the painting was completed on February 9, 1498 it began to deteriorate. As early as 1517, the painting was starting to flake. By 1556, less than sixty years after it was finished Leonardo’s biographer Giorgio Vasari described the painting as already “ruined” and so deteriorated that the figures were unrecognizable. By the second half of the sixteenth century Gian Paolo Lomazzo stated that, “…the painting is all ruined.” In 1652, a doorway was cut through the (then unrecognisable) painting, and later bricked up; this can still be seen as the irregular arch shaped structure near the center base of the painting. It is believed, through early copies, that Jesus’ feet were in a position symbolizing the forthcoming crucifixion. In 1768, a curtain was hung over the painting for the purpose of protection; it instead trapped moisture on the surface, and whenever the curtain was pulled back, it scratched the flaking paint.

Numerous restoration attempts were attempted over the centuries, oil paints, varnish and even glue were used to stop the work deteriorating. Bomb damage in WWII was avoided thanks to the work having been covered and sandbagged. In the late 1970’s Pinin Brambilla Barcilon guided a major restoration taking 21 years and, on 28th May 1999, the painting was returned to public display. It has been widely condemned by art historians around the world and what we see today is merely an interpretation of Leonardo’s original piece, yet still we are spellbound.

Other paintings command the respect of nations and become icons that define their cultural heritage. Girl with A Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer is considered by many to be “the Dutch Mona Lisa” or the “Mona Lisa of the North”, this beautiful painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer features simply a girl with a pearl earring. The painting was completed around 1665 and is on display in the Mauritshuis Gallery in The Hague, Netherlands.

The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn was completed in 1642 at the peak of the Dutch Golden Age. With effective use of sunlight and shade, Rembrandt leads the eye to the three most important characters among the crowd: the two gentlemen in the centre (from whom the painting gets its original title), and the small girl in the centre-left background. Behind them, the company’s colours are carried by the ensign, Jan Visscher Cornelissen.

Rembrandt has displayed the traditional emblem of the arquebusiers in a natural way, with the girl in the background carrying the main symbols, the claws of a dead chicken on her belt represent the clauweniers (arquebusiers), the pistol behind the chicken represents clover and she is holding the militia’s goblet. The man in front of her is wearing a helmet with an oak leaf, a traditional motif of the arquebusiers. The dead chicken is also meant to represent a defeated adversary. The colour yellow is often associated with victory.

Most Famous Paintings: The Scream, by Edward Munch

Most Famous Paintings: The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dali

Other paintings have stood the test of time, The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, The Scream by Edvard Munch, The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali and Guernica by Pablo Picasso represent over five hundred years of artistic development. It is impossible to really understand why these paintings have held such a grip on the imagination and emotion of humanity. Many have been subjected to acts of wanton vandalism by individuals whose reason becomes unhinged by the passion these works invoke within us.

Most Famous Paintings: Guernica, by Pablo Picasso

Of the millions of paintings created, these few form part of a small group that enthrall us with their presence. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa remains the most revered but they all capture us in different ways. L’VOYAGE Life is pleased to arrange private tours to these masters and allow you the opportunity to stand in splendid isolation and sense the soul of these works as they reach out from history.

Mark Peaker
Co-Founder & CEO