Photo: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Facts We Just Learned About Famous Artworks That Made Us Say 'Really?'

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Vote up the facts you never knew about these famous art pieces.

"Art" is a subjective phrase. Some people hear it and think of music, beauty, or anything that inspires a burning passion. Others hear it and picture rich, snooty folks sipping rich, snooty wine and eating the richest, snootiest cheeses. Both interpretations can be correct.

Genuine art is an expression of the artist, but once a piece of art is out in the world, it takes on a life of its own. You may already be familiar with the Mona Lisa, the Girl with the Pearl Earring, or Laöcoon, but each of these masterpieces is surrounded by a wealth of history - and sometimes intrigue.

The following fun facts about art may make you see these popular works in a new light. Vote up the ones you just learned today.

Photo: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • The Statue Of Abraham Lincoln In The Capitol Rotunda Was Sculpted By The First Female Artist Commissioned By The US Government
    Photo: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    401 VOTES

    The Statue Of Abraham Lincoln In The Capitol Rotunda Was Sculpted By The First Female Artist Commissioned By The US Government

    While still a teenager, Vinne Ream became the first female artist to be commissioned by the US government. She was chosen to sculpt a memorial statue of President Abraham Lincoln in 1866, following his assassination. She had previously sculpted a bust of Lincoln while he was still alive. Her statue of Lincoln, unveiled in 1871, is located in the US Capitol Rotunda.

    Ream was also commissioned to create sculptures for the National Statuary Hall Collection (Sequoyah) and the Hall of Columns (Samuel Jordan Kirkwood).

    401 votes
  • Michelangelo Believed The Missing Arm Of 'Laocoön' Was Bent Backwards - And Was Proven Right 400 Years Later
    Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Vatican Museums / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The sculpture known as Laocoön and His Sons was first described by Ancient Roman writer Pliny the Elder in the 1st century. The same sculpture he described (or one very much like it), depicting the myth of Laocoön being ensnared by sea snakes during the Iliad, was unearthed by an Italian farmer in 1506.

    The ancient sculpture was missing a few pieces, including Laocoön's right arm. Based on the sculpture's musculature, Renaissance artist Michelangelo believed the main figure's right arm was meant to be bent behind him. Fellow artist Raphael disagreed, and when a competition was held in 1510 to see which artist could construct the best replacement, Raphael was the judge. A straight arm won the day, and until the 20th century, Laocoön's right arm was straight and pointed toward the sky.

    In 1905, the original arm was found in Rome, and it was bent backward - just as Michelangelo believed. Laocoön has sported this version since 1950.

    If you enjoy art gossip, here's a hot take: Lynn Catterson, a lecturer in art history at Columbia University, has speculated that Laocoön isn't a classical statue at all but a forgery created by Michelangelo himself. As Catterson says, "He had the motives and the means." Michelangelo allegedly got his start forging an antiquity, so it's not outside the realm of possibility. Of course, this theory has received major pushback from the art community.

    226 votes
  • Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' Was Painted On Cardboard
    Photo: Edvard Munch / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    There are in fact five versions of The Scream, four of which Edvard Munch created on cardboard. He made two in 1893, one in tempera paint and the other in crayon; two in 1895, one in pastel on cardboard, the other a black-and-white lithograph; and one around 1910, which is in tempera, oil, and crayon. 

    As to why Munch painted on cardboard? According to ThoughtCo:

    Munch used cardboard out of necessity at the beginning of his career; it was much less expensive than canvas. Later, when he could easily afford canvas, he often used cardboard instead just because he liked—and had grown accustomed to - its texture.

    Fun fact: According to Munch, the figure in The Scream is not actually the one screaming. The artist created the work after experiencing a moment of intense anxiety, and the 1895 composition contains an inscription in German that reads, "I felt a large scream pass through nature."

    352 votes
  • You Can Thank 'Stuart Little' For Rediscovering The Lost Masterpiece 'Sleeping Lady with Black Vase'
    Photo: Stuart Little / Sony Pictures Releasing
    288 VOTES

    You Can Thank 'Stuart Little' For Rediscovering The Lost Masterpiece 'Sleeping Lady with Black Vase'

    Stuart Little is a 1999 family film about a CGI mouse voiced by Michael J. Fox. It was a success at the box office, raking in more than double its $133 million budget, which led to a slightly less profitable sequel in 2002. Yet the original film is notable not so much for its kid-friendly whimsy as the fact that it led to the rediscovery of a painting that had been missing since the 1920s. 

    In 2009, art historian Gergely Barki was watching the film with his daughter and spotted Sleeping Lady with Black Vase hanging over the Littles' mantelpiece. Considered an avante garde masterpiece by artist Róbert Berény, the painting had been missing since 1928.

    Upon recognizing the painting, Barki made several attempts to contact the filmmakers, but his emails went unanswered for two years. He was eventually contacted by the film's set designer, who had bought the painting at an antique shop in Pasadena, CA. The painting was then sold to a private collector, who put the painting up for auction in Budapest in December 2014. It sold for $285,700.

    288 votes
  • Claude Monet's 'Haystacks' Inspired Wassily Kandinsky To Become An Artist At The Age Of 30
    Photo: Claude Monet / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Though he would become one of the most important abstract artists of the 20th century, Wassily Kandinsky's first career was in education. He originally studied law and economics at the University of Moscow, then became a member of its law faculty.

    According to the Tate, his decision to become an artist occurred when he was 30, after two key experiences:

    When he saw one of the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s paintings of haystacks at an exhibition in Moscow, Kandinsky was stirred by the colour and composition of the work, which he realised was far more important than its depiction of a physical landscape. The other experience was a performance of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. Music influenced Kandinsky’s art profoundly: he admired the way it could elicit an emotional response, without being tied to a recognisable subject matter. Painting, he believed, should aspire to be as abstract as music, with groups of colour in a picture relating to one another in a manner analogous to sequences of chords in music.

    Kandinsky moved to Munich in 1896 to study art. However, he wouldn't move on to abstract imagery until 1908, when he was in his forties.

    147 votes
  • Jacques-Louis David Painted Five Versions Of 'Napoleon Crossing The Alps'
    Photo: Jacques-Louis David / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The first painting of a fearsome-looking Napoleon Bonaparte astride a rearing horse was completed by Jacques-Louis David in January 1801. David had a real tough time getting Napoleon to actually sit for the painting. However, the French ruler seems to have liked the artist's work, because he commissioned three more copies.

    The original painting was hung in the royal palace of Spanish King Charles IV. The other three Napoleon commissioned were installed in one of his homes, Château de Saint-Cloud; in Paris; and in the palace of the Cisalpine Republic in Milan. David also painted a fifth version for himself, which made its way back to the Bonaparte family after his passing.

    There are differences in the paintings, particularly in the colors of Napoleon's cloak and his horse. The original (pictured here) features Napoleon in a gold cloak riding a piebald horse. 

    171 votes