Almost everyone I have met who has taken any art history courses called it one big yawn. This included the people who were artists – the ones you’d think would be dying to learn about it. To hear anyone tell it, learning art history facts in the classroom was about as exciting as brussel sprouts.
Apparently, I was lucky. The first art history classes I took were incredibly fun to me. And when I look back on it, I am sure it was the teacher. I took other classes after hers and found them to not be nearly as interesting. If the teacher does nothing but show slides and drone on and on about dates, then yes, I can envision this being a great time to practice your napping. But my first teacher made it fun to learn art history facts.
We had great class discussions and projects where we didn’t just memorize stuff. We found ways to connect to it. Not only that, she told us interesting little tidbits that made the facts stick in our heads. There are things I remember to this day because of the comments she added in when we were viewing slides. I would like to try to follow her example and do the same for you.
Interesting Art History Facts
Starry Night at the Asylum
Everyone knows Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. It’s beautiful, dreamy and has that “When You Wish Upon A Star” kind of feel. But not everyone knows that he painted it from his room at an asylum. And while we’re on the subject of Vincent, it’s also been said that he used to eat his paints. Apparently, he thought that if he ate the color yellow, it would literally get the happiness inside of him. This could explain some of his paranoia fits and manic depression as oil paints aren’t exactly filled with the healthiest of things.
I have always admired the sculpting skills of Michelangelo. Who hasn’t? One day, I would love to see his David statue in person. But I was surprised to learn that Michelangelo supposedly never bathed. He rarely even changed his clothes and often had to peel them off when he finally did. Makes me wonder how on earth he lived to be 89 years old.
Renaissance giant, Leonardo da Vinci, used to buy caged birds with the sole purpose of setting them free. Inflicting pain on animals seemed to be a big issue with him and he may also have been a vegetarian. Some people claim he was also vegan. But seeing as how his brushes probably contained animal hair of some sort, I don’t know if that would fit into a vegan lifestyle.
Monet vs. Walmart (or whatever grocery store chain you think of first)
Claude Monet’s father did not approve of his art. He wanted his son to go into business and be a grocer. This strikes me as amusing because usually an art disapproving parent will want you to be a doctor or lawyer or something. Not a grocer. As you know, Monet did not listen and pursued his artwork instead which happens to be very lucky for us! Truthfully though, he probably was able to not listen because his mother happened to support him completely. If you’ve got one parent rooting for you to follow your dream, you have a much better chance of success.
Madame Didn’t Mean It
This portrait appears tame compared to what you might see lurking around on the screen or the internet these days. But back then, it was considered totally scandalous. And despite what you see in the painting today, originally, Madame X’s right strap had been depicted as falling off her shoulder until John Singer Sargent repainted it. Still, he received such aftermath (much to his disappointment as well as his model’s) after painting this portrait, that he hid the painting away for twenty years before allowing the public to see it again. Now, of course, everyone loves it.
Mona Lisa Huh Whaaa??
The Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci’s most famous painting, was stolen in 1911 right off the wall. The thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, hid it under his coat and walked right out past a sleeping guard. That’s already interesting. But what I find even more interesting, in a funny kind of way, is that no one even noticed the painting was gone for a day or so. And then, they only noticed because painter, Louis Béroud, had come in the Louvre to study it and wondered where the heck it was. (Pablo Picasso was a suspect for awhile.)
What a Scream
Speaking of stealing famous works of art, The Scream by Edvard Munch, was the subject of a couple of high profile thefts as well. Just in 1994, two men broke into the National Gallery, stole it, and left a note that said, “Thanks for the poor security.” It was swiped again in 2004 along with Munch’s Madonna painting. Luckily, everything has been recovered without too much damage.
Don’t Put Your Labels on Me
Edgar Degas is grouped in with the founders of Impressionism but fiercely stayed to himself and did not want to be associated with any so called “movements”. It seems like this extended further than art. He was a lifelong bachelor and despite his obsession with ballet dancers, referred to them as “monkey-girls”. I guess it’s no surprise he did not get married as most women don’t enjoy being compared to zoo animals.
Quick Art History Fun Facts
Georgia O’Keefe painted in her car.
Da Vinci didn’t finish a lot of his paintings.
Picasso didn’t like discussing his art. He was known to fire a revolver (with blanks) at people who inquired about the meanings of his paintings.
Dali drove a Rolls Royce full of cauliflower from Spain to Paris.
Michelangelo got punched in the nose. It was left permently crooked.
Monet drew caricatures of his teachers when he was in school.
Carvaggio was once issued a death warrant by the Pope.
Van Gogh only sold one painting in his whole lifetime.
Gustave Klimt used cat urine as a fixative.
Matisse was first a lawyer and painted flowers on legal documents until he left to become an artist full time.
Manet’s father wanted him to be a lawyer. He joined the Navy as a compromise.
Raphael had a rivalry with Michelangelo.
Peter Paul Rubens earned knighthood twice.
Vermeer was supposedly self taught.
Andy Warhol owned over forty wigs. He also had a foot fetish.
Frida Kahlo had 35 operations as a result of the bus accident she had in her youth.
Paul Cezanne was a diabetic.
Rembrandt painted his dead pet monkey.
Gauguin was a sailor then stockbroker before becoming an artist.
Dali included his silhouette in all of his paintings.
This is just a quick, easygoing way to introduce you to a little art history and help you remember some of the facts – especially if you are new to it. If you’ve been through it and just find it boring, this may be a way to liven things up a little so the art history facts stick in your head. Like my first art history teacher, I feel that you will better remember the actual art and movements and dates if you can connect it to something fun, weird or quirky about the artist itself. I always find that when I’m reading about a new artist, I immediately start looking for something that accentuates the person behind the art. But at this point, it’s no longer a way to make me remember certain things. It’s just become a personal preference!