10 Secrets Hidden in Famous Paintings

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According to a 2017 study conducted by the American Psychological Association, the average museum-goer will regard a painting generally considered a masterpiece for 27 seconds, though the median amount of time that a person studied one was for 17 seconds. That might seem like evidence that social media and mobile devices have ruined our attention spans, but it’s actually only a second shorter than a 2001 study, so at least it seems like it’s a fairly slow process.

With that in mind, it makes sense that even with millions of people giving them a look in person for years, decades, or even centuries, little surprises, flourishes, or even jokes can be overlooked while in plain sight. Some have amounted to little more than fun surprises, others recontextualize the entire piece. So join us on our 10 piece perusal of our humble gallery of all time masterpieces. 

10. Earthly Delights

Hieronymous Bosch was a Dutch 15th Century pioneer in combining naturalistic style with surreal subject matter. While many his surviving 35 paintings and eight drawings are piously religious in nature, it is the bewildering animal hybrids and other tableaus he imagined to portray uncanny demons for his triptychs such as The Temptation of Saint Anthony and The Last Judgement that are likely first to come to mind when discussing his work. With so many bizarre sights such as floppy-eared birds delivering mail and a pair of ears with a knife extending from them, no one could be blamed for missing a fairly crude element of The Garden of Earthly Delights. 

On the bottom of a person partially hidden by a cloth, Bosch painted what turned out to be actual, performable music for a demon character. We know that it’s actual performable music because a musician on Tumblr who went by the username Amelia transcribed and recorded a track of the music. This means that since both the notes and a subject actually playing them are visible, Bosch may be the only Renaissance painter with a piece possessing a canonical soundtrack. And it happens to be mostly known as “butt music.” 

9. Sistine Fresco

There have been past TopTenz lists devoted to the many ways that painting the Sistine Chapel was a years-long ordeal for Michelangelo instead of something he regarded as a passion or triumph, to a point where he included a portrait of the skinned Saint Bartholomew that doubled as his cameo. But even that wasn’t the strongest expression of Michelangelo’s displeasure with the whole project and his patrons. 

As reported by ABC News, when Michelangelo was dragged back to work on an expansion to the chapel by the new pope Julius II, he decided to hide an employer review, as it were, in his paintings. Specifically in the section called The Last Judgement, he had a putti, a childish angelic figure widely mistakenly called a cherub, perform a hand gesture called “the fig” at the Prophet Zacharias, who Michelangelo gave Julius II’s face. Others have noted that the opening to Perdition was painted near where the pope would be seated. This apparently was not common knowledge during Michelangelo’s time as he got future commissions from the Catholic Church, or Pope Julius II was a much better sport than his nickname “Il Papa Terribile” would suggest. 

8. Mural

Jackson Pollock’s splatter work was so singular that it’s as much a punchline as it is an oeuvre these days. Even the later revelation that his popularity was to a degree literally, directly funded by the CIA and the fact he killed himself and a young lady through drunk driving has not lowered the profile of his abstract work. This is especially true of Mural, even though it seems we may have all been very wrong about this painting since Pollock unveiled it in 1943. It turned out his signature work was much more literally a signature piece than anyone expected. 

The discovery was made in 2009 by the anonymous wife of art historian Henry Adams that seemingly just one more collection of splotches of paint buried under other paint was a rough cursive approximation of Pollock’s own Johnny Hancock. Now obviously people don’t paint letters eight feet high and 13 feet wide the same way that they sign on the dotted line, making the choice all the more interesting. Goodness knows what this means might be hiding in other Pollock pieces. 

7. Persistence of Memory

For people with only a passing interest in art, this 1931 self-portrait is probably the only Salvador Dali painting they’ve ever seen. Wait, you might ask, that painting known mostly for the melting clocks is a self-portrait?! Is he reflected in one of their melted faces? Do the clocks symbolize him?

No. 

He’s actually that object on the ground that looks like some kind of crumpled pelt. Along the bottom hem, you can see his elongated nose extending. His eye is closed, with his trademark mustache not in evidence as it would be a few years before he began growing it and made a big public splash on it with the cover of Time magazine in 1936. It’s certainly not the usual shape or angle we see faces from, so no shame to anyone who missed it for years despite the content of the painting being fairly sparse. Probably now many people won’t be able to unsee it. 

6. Old Man in Military Costume

In these days of global supply chains providing abundance, we can lose track of just how significant material shortages affected the art world back in the day. So it was that even during one of the more robust periods of his career that Rembrandt had to reuse whole canvases. His 1630-1631 piece (accounts vary) piece, which is generally interpreted to have been a tribute to Dutch perseverance against its Spanish adversaries, was discovered to have been one such example in 1968. 


During a study that included x-raying all of Rembrandt’s paintings that could be done so practically, it was discovered there was an image of a fresh-faced young man under there, but x-ray technology of the time did not give a very clear picture. In 2015 the Los Angeles Times reported that a new Macro X-ray Fluorescence gave details that allowed for a much more accurate reproduction of the image, which it turns out was turned upside down by Rembrandt before he did his bit of 17th Century recycling. So far, no word on whether the Getty Museum which owns the canvas intends to list it as a two-for-one sale. 

5. Guernica

Pablo Picasso’s 1937 piece on the aerial bombardment of the town of Guernica, a show of power by Francisco Franco’s fascist government and the ascending Third Reich, is so rich with symbols that despite its movie theater screen size (about 11.5 feet by 25.5 feet) that the pioneer of cubism managed to hide some in there that it took decades even for the dedicated professionals to find them. It doesn’t help that for many people, the hidden symbol is a bit problematic. 

For the very cubist figure of a woman in a side profile with both eyes still on one side of her head holding a kerosene lantern, it has been found that the figure symbolizes the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The giveaway was that five pointed object next to her head where the hand would be for balance, which has been pointed out to be a combination of the Soviet star and the hammer and sickle. The USSR’s support of the Spanish Republic was much more than merely symbolic, as they would provide nearly 1,500 aircraft and 900 tanks among other arms. It was also quite reasonable, as Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf had already made it perfectly clear to the world that the Soviet Union would be in its crosshairs for Lebensraum before long, no matter what non-aggression pacts said. For his part Picasso was a passionate proponent of the Soviet Union, communism in general, and Stalin in particular, even through 1956 when Premier Khruschev’s speech denounced the former late general secretary. 

4. Olive Trees

Completed by Vincent van Gogh in September 1889 when he was an asylum patient, The Olive Trees was one of a series of tributes he painted of a grove during time when he was allowed off the grounds of the institution. What went unnoticed until 2017 was that the painting was in a sense a piece of accidental mixed media that van Gogh had indulged in. By that is meant that the impression of a grasshopper leg was left in the canvas, as conservator Mary Schafer found when going over the painting with a magnifier. She also found at least a blade of grass and other bits of debris, as van Gogh had rendered the piece outside. This would have been completely unsurprising to Vincent, who lamented in a letter to his brother Theo about how he “must have picked a good hundred flies” off of four paintings that he worked on. 

One painter who certainly can relate to that feeling would be David Lynch. While is much more famous for his filmmaking, he has a considerable body of paintings. According to David Hughes’s The Complete Lynch, ever since an insect flew into one of his wet canvases and smudged the paint in a way he found interesting, he was a proponent of the value of accidents in art. If only he could have shared that attitude with van Gogh. 

3. Supper at Emmaus 

Caravaggio wasn’t just a controversial painter of dark, “blood and thunder” depictions of scenes from the Bible in the 16th and 17th centuries. He was the kind of man who would get in trouble with the law for throwing rocks at guards. His papal connections allowed him to get away with that sort of thing until having to flee Rome in 1605 for killing a pimp over a fight brought on by a tennis game. Four years before that crime, Caravaggio included what may well have been a little tribute to the need for secret lives in the early days of Christianity. 

If you need a refresher on the Book of Luke, the Supper at Emmaus was when Jesus Christ met with the apostle Luke and his uncle Cleopas after his resurrection, then vanished into thin air. For his version of the scene, Caravaggio put a wicker fruit basket in the foreground. As reported by the BBC, the partially undone weave is shaped as an Icythis, the fish shape used as a secret symbol between Christians in the 2nd Century AD when the religion was still banned in the Roman Empire. As if to emphasize the point, the shadow of the fruit basket looked uncannily more like a fish’s tail and top fin than a pile of fruit. It might seem redundant to hide a Christian symbol in an explicitly Christian painting, but as columnist Kelly Grovier postulated, the purpose is more about the themes of identifying the presence of holiness, as the oblivious innkeeper is supposed to help illustrate by being oblivious to the significance of Christ’s presence while his intimates are overwhelmed by it.  

2. The Scream

Many people only know expressionist Edvard Munch by his 1893 tribute to a panic attack he had the year before when a particularly vivid sunset left the sky blood red. It is hardly a subtle work, but apparently it was felt that the piece deserved additional explanation. In 1895, someone wrote “can only have been made by a madman” in the upper lefthand corner. As Munch’s painting was critically bashed at the time, it was presumed that it was some disgruntled viewer who defaced the piece that would go on to be for a time the most expensive painting in the world. The identity of the culprit wasn’t determined until 2021. 

It turned out to be Munch himself who wrote it in a fit of pique. This was determined through comparing notes on Munch’s activities that placed him in the city of Oslo when the vandalism took place. He’d been recorded as being offended by psychology student Johan Scharffenberg implying that he might be going insane. So Munch apparently took the tentative diagnosis more as a bad review.  

1. Mona Lisa

Painted between 1503 and 1519, the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait has been inconclusively identified as Lisa Gheradini. It was sent on its way to being the most famous painting in the world first by being stolen in 1911. Then in 1919 Marcel Duchamp made a defaced parody of its postcard version. Those aren’t the most dignified reasons for a painting to become famous, and they hint to how everyone can miss the symbols looking them straight in the face. 

In Mona Lisa’s right pupil, Leonardo painted the letters LV. In her left pupil, he painted CE. And in the background, he painted “149” with a fourth digit erased, which seemed very likely to have been a sign Leonardo actually painted it the decade before it’s generally supposed. Ironically, researcher Silvano Vinceti claimed not to have discovered this in 2010 through his own analysis, but to have been put on the trail by a book by another art historian published in the 1960s. 

Dustin Koski cowrote the post-apocalyptic supernatural comedy Return of the Living, which has many secrets in it you’ll need to read it again and again to find.


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