6 Surprising Secrets Behind Western Art History’s Most Revered Paintings, From Van Gogh’s Portrait of His Doctor to Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece

Which painting inspired the illustration for the Jabberwock in "Through the Looking Glass"? Which picture bankrupted James McNeill Whistler?

Restorers of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage at work on the Ghent Altarpiece. Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP via Getty Images.

While speculative tomes have been written about the mysterious attributes of Leonardo da VInci’s Last Supper, it is far from the only one of the world’s most famous paintings to have its own secret history, astonishing inspirations, and shocking sagas

Here are some of the most compelling stories behind the paintings you love best.


The Dragon and the Jabberwock 

Paulo Uccello, St. George and the Dragon (1470). Collection of the National Gallery, London.

Paulo Uccello, St. George and the Dragon (1470). Collection of the National Gallery, London.

Paolo Uccello’s Saint George and the Dragon (1470) presents two different scenes from the story of George and the dragon, side-by-side, as though they were happening simultaneously.

The first, on the right, shows the moment when George spears the mythical beast with his lance. The second, on the left, shows a princess having leashed the dragon with her belt, whom she will, as the story goes, bring to heel by the water.

The painting, which is on display at the National Gallery in London, has a certain storybook quality, which caught the eye of at least one very important illustrator. Uccello’s unusual two-legged dragon is believed to be the inspiration for celebrated illustrator Sir John Tenniel’s depiction of the Jabberwock in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 book Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.


A Suffragist Slashed Velásquez’s Venus 

Diego Velazquez, Rokeby Venus (1649), the victim of a suffragette attack. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Diego Velásquez, Rokeby Venus (1649). Courtesy of Wikimedia.

On the centennial of the passing of the 19th Amendment in the US, which finally granted women the right to vote, we would be remiss not to mention the painting best known as Rokeby Venus, which once absolutely scandalized a suffragist.

The Diego Velásquez picture, which is actually titled Venus at Her Mirror, depicts the nude goddess of love supine and gazing into her mirror. But in 1914, the languorous image of sensuality was met with swift action when British suffragist Mary Richardson, wielding a meat cleaver, slashed the painting with five clean strokes while it was hanging in London’s National Gallery early one morning.

Richardson, who earned the nickname “Slasher Mary” for the act, said she had attacked the painting in protest of the arrest of fellow suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst. But there was more to it than that: Richardson later confessed that much of what had provoked her was “the way men visitors gaped at it all day long.”


John Singer Sargent’s Wardrobe Malfunction

John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) 1883–84. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916.

John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1883–84).

Today regarded as the epitome of John Singer Sargent’s elegant style of portraiture, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) once had a much more tawdry reputation.

When Sargent undertook the 1884 portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, the American wife of French banker Pierre Gautreau, he had grand hopes, believing that the commission from the charming socialite would earn him an increased reputation in artistic circles. What the future held was quite the opposite.

Gautreau was regarded for her daring style. And so, with her permission, Sargent originally painted one of the jeweled straps of her gown slipping down her shoulder. When the painting was unveiled at the Paris Salon of 1884, it garnered, much to Sargent’s alarm, outrage and ridicule from the upper classes, who thought it quite déclassé.

Chastened, Sargent repainted the shoulder strap and kept the work from view for over 30 years. When he did eventually sell the work to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he did so on a strict condition: that the museum promise to keep his sitter’s identity a secret. 


The Whistler Fireworks That Caused Critical Combustion 

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket (1875).

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket (1875).

Today, James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s 1875 painting Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket seems a far cry from controversial, with glittering fireworks bursting and falling in the night sky over a London park.

But when revered and wildly influential Victorian art critic John Ruskin saw the Whistler work, he flew into a critical tempest.

Besides loathing the style, he found the asking price of 200 guineas obscene. Whistler, for his part, didn’t take the critique quietly, and sued Ruskin for libel. In the end, the painter won the court case, but both men were badly damaged by the battle—Whistler emerged from the fight in financial ruin from legal fees, and Ruskin walked away without his Oxford professorship, from which he resigned in 1880.


The Ghent Altarpiece Was Held for Ransom

Jan and Hubert van Eyck, <I>The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb</i> (1432). Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent.

Jan and Hubert van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432). Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.

The Brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s 1432 masterpiece, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, better known as the Ghent Altarpiece, could be called a painting with nine lives.

Made for St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, the 12-panel polyptych—considered by many to be Western art history’s first major oil painting—was nearly set aflame by rioting Calvinists, was stolen by Napoleon, and has been a favored object of intrigue for con men for centuries.

In one of the painting’s many sagas, one of the smaller panels was stolen in 1934. (The night of the theft, the Ghent police commissioner focused his attentions on a pressing theft at a cheese shop). A ransom was demanded, and as a show of good faith, one of the panel’s two sides was returned, though the other has never been found.


Van Gogh Thought His Doctor Was His Doppelganger 

Vincent van Gogh, <i>Portrait of Dr. Gachet</i> (1890). Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890). Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

After spending time in an asylum for infamously cutting off part of his ear, Vincent van Gogh was sent, upon his release, to see one Dr. Gachet for continued supervision. Upon their first meeting, the troubled artist didn’t take to the doctor, writing to his brother Theo that he felt even more distressed and would begin looking for another physician.

But soon, Van Gogh warmed to Gachet, in whom he found a kindred spirit (Gachet also an art enthusiast). But more than that, Van Gogh noticed a physical resemblance, writing again to his brother and sister: “I have found a true friend in Dr. Gachet, something like another brother, so much do we resemble each other physically, also mentally.”

After completing this first of two portraits of the kind doctor, Van Gogh explained: “I’ve done the portrait of M. Gachet with a melancholy expression, which might well seem like a grimace to those who see it.”

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