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Who The People In Famous Paintings Actually Were

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Vote up the fascinating stories of how these models became immortal works of art.

Ever wonder about the identity of the woman posing for the Mona Lisa, or think about the life of the “farmers” depicted in American Gothic? Check out who the people in these 12 famous paintings actually were.

Artists Leonardo da Vinci, Andrew Wyeth, and Grant Wood get all the acclaim for their priceless works of art. But what about the models that inspired those artists? It’s rare to ever hear their stories. Perhaps the models were artists, as well? Maybe they were the artist's secret lover? Or, could it be in some cases that the model is actually the artist doing a disguised self-portrait?

Vote up the most interesting tales of how these models became enduring masterpieces.

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  • The Woman Depicted In 'Christina's World' Is Not Sitting - She's Crawling Because She Could Not Use Her Legs
    Photo: Andrew Wyeth / Wikipedia / Fair Use
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    496 VOTES

    The Woman Depicted In 'Christina's World' Is Not Sitting - She's Crawling Because She Could Not Use Her Legs

    Andrew Wyeth painted Christina's World in 1948. The piece is widely considered one of the best-known paintings of the last 100 years. It is part of the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection in New York City.  

    The American artist's composition is highly regarded for its incredible attention to detail. In the landscape of coastal Maine, a woman named Christina faces away from the viewer, sitting on the grass and staring at her house off in the distance. 

    It turns out that the Christina in the picture is Anna Christina Olson. She suffered from a degenerative muscle disorder called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which left her unable to walk and greatly affected her coordination. Christina opted to crawl instead of using a wheelchair. 

    Wyeth became inspired to paint Christina's World after spotting her crawling across a field. 

    “The challenge to me,” Wyeth said, “was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.”

    496 votes
  • Elizabeth Siddal Contracted Pneumonia While Posing For John Millais's 'Ophelia'
    Photo: John Everett Millais / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Sir John Everett Millais's Pre-Raphaelite painting Ophelia depicts the popular Shakespearean character from Hamlet. The work features Ophelia's tragic demise as she drowns in a Danish river. 

    The British artist painted Ophelia between 1851 and 1852. A 19-year-old woman named Elizabeth Siddal posed for the painting by lying fully clothed in a bath of water kept warm by oil lamps. 

    When the lamps went out at one point, the painter did not notice and Siddal didn't say anything. She got a severe cold and caught pneumonia. The young girl's father demanded that Millais pay for his daughter's medical expenses, which he did. 

    Siddal made a full recovery. She went on to be an acclaimed poet, artist, and model.

    350 votes
  • John Singer Sargent's Portrait Of Virginie Gautreau, 'Madame X,' Caused A Scandal And Resulted In The Artist Leaving Paris Forever
    Photo: John Singer Sargent / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    American artist John Singer Sargent's most famous portrait, Madame X, is also his most controversial. In 1883, Sargent was an up-and-coming artist living in Paris when he painted a portrait of Virginie Avengno Gautreau. He thought the piece would propel him into a lucrative art career; instead, it created so much scandal that Sargent was flushed out of Paris into London.  

    Stephanie L. Herdrich, assistant curator of the American Wing at the Met in New York City, wrote regarding the scandalous portrait:

    Many who saw the portrait were shocked by Gautreau's haughty demeanor, provocative dress, and the dramatic artificiality of her cosmetics. In addition to displaying her daringly bare shoulders and plunging décolleté, Sargent originally painted her right, jeweled strap sliding off of her shoulder. Perhaps what astounded viewers the most was that the ambitious, young Sargent had boldly portrayed a new brazen "type" in Parisian society: the so-called professional beauty, a woman who audaciously used her appearance to gain celebrity and advance her social standing.

    The portrait's subject, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, was born in America but moved to Paris as a child. Gautreau became a staple presence in French society and was renowned for her beauty. Her reputation took a nosedive after Sargent's work rocked the art world. Gautreau even begged the artist to stop exhibiting the piece. After the initial Paris Salon exhibit, Singer kept the portrait in his studio for years. 

    Eventually, Madame X became less scandalous and was ultimately revered. Sargent started to display the portrait around the world. He eventually sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it still hangs today and is one of the most popular pieces.

    237 votes
  • The Models For 'American Gothic' Were The Artist's Dentist And Sister
    Photo: Grant Wood / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Artist Grant Wood was born in Iowa. The region greatly influenced his work. He became mostly known for illustrating life in the rural American Midwest.

    By far his most popular piece, American Gothic has become one of the most famous paintings in modern American art - and one of the most parodied images in popular culture. The 1930 oil painting is now displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago. 

    Wood was visiting Eldon, IA, when he saw the Dibble farmhouse, which was constructed in the "carpenter Gothic Style." The structure inspired Wood to create American Gothic.

    The two somber but stoic-looking figures in the portrait may look like actual rural farmers. However, it turns out that the woman in the picture is Wood's sister Nan Wood Graham. Nan was a painter, model, and art teacher. The older man is his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby. "The kind of people I fancied should live in that house," described Wood.

    Neither McKeeby nor Graham ever stood in front of the actual house. Instead, Wood sketched the structure and then separately added his sister and dentist.

    The artist originally intended the figures to represent a father and his daughter. However, the artist later wrote that their relationship is not the most important takeaway. "These particulars, of course, don't really matter,” wrote Wood in 1941. "What does matter is whether or not these faces are true to American life and reveal something about it.”

    228 votes
  • The 'Mona Lisa' Is Believed To Be Lisa del Giocondo - Though da Vinci Never Gave Her Family The Painting
    Photo: Leonardo da Vinci / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Perhaps the most famous painting in history, the Mona Lisa was created by Leonardo da Vinci in the early 1500s. For centuries, art historians debated the inspiration for the oil painting almost as much as art students have debated whether or not Mona Lisa is smiling. Some have even argued that it was da Vinci painting himself. 

    It is most likely that the "Lisa" in question is wealthy Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo. Scholars confirmed this theory in 2005 with the discovery of a note in which da Vinci reportedly confirmed del Giocondo as the model. 

    Lisa was a mother to five children. It is rumored that her silk merchant husband paid da Vinci to paint a portrait of his wife, who may have even been pregnant at the time. However, the Italian artist never delivered the finished product to the del Giocondo family. Da Vinci instead gave the now-priceless artwork to a beloved apprentice named Salai. 

    The Mona Lisa is currently displayed at the Louvre Museum in Paris. 

    179 votes
  • The 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' May Have Been Vermeer's Daughter, A Mistress, Or No One At All
    Photo: Johannes Vermeer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Who is the girl with the pearl earring in Johannes Vermeer's ever-popular 1665 work? Art historians have long argued over the girl's identity. The most commonly held belief is that it is the Dutch artist's oldest daughter, Maria Vermeer. However, others have argued that it's actually Vermeer's mistress.

    Some art scholars even contend that it is of no one at all. "While it is possible that someone modeled for it,” said Emilie Gordenker, the director of the Mauritshuis, “just as Rubens often painted figures who looked like his wife, it isn’t meant to be a specific person, but someone more generalized, timeless and mysterious - perhaps a sibyl or a figure from the Bible.”

    Additionally, Tracy Chevalier's novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was adapted into a film of the same name starring Scarlett Johansson, makes the fictional claim that it was the artist's maid. 

    It is the mystery that makes Vermeer's priceless work such a massive attraction. 

    “The image works because it is unresolved,” said Chevalier. “You can’t ever answer the question of what she’s thinking or how she’s feeling. If it were resolved, then you’d move onto the next painting. But it isn’t, so you turn back to it again and again, trying to unlock that mystery. That’s what all masterpieces do: we long to understand them, but we never will.”

    The work can be seen at the Mauritshuis in the Hague, Netherlands. 

    140 votes