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Five Well-Known Paintings and their Lesser-Known Origins

Written by Sakshi Sharma, Edited by Aakanksha Gupta (Weloquent)

Did you know that the Mona Lisa has her own mailbox in the Louvre to accommodate all the love letters she receives from her admirers? That is the kind of emotion that classical paintings continue to evoke in people.

Almost all of us have a favourite iconic composition, yet a layperson's knowledge of these paintings ends at the immediate aesthetics and bizarre rumours about the painters.

So we took a dive into the pages of history to find out what inspired the paradigmatic artists of the past to create their well-known pieces. Here is a list of five of our favourite paintings and a sneak peek into their origins:-

1. Shakuntala Patra Lekhan, 1876 (Raja Ravi Varma)

Referred to as the “father of modern Indian art,” Raja Ravi Varma was famous for his unique features of ancient kings and queens in his illustrations of love. Varma's own ancestry was filled with women who had been consorts to queens and princesses of their time.

Shakuntala, Varma’s recurring muse, was a queen and wife to King Dushyanta (as mentioned in the Mahabharata). Shakuntala Patralekhan portrays Shakuntala lying in the grass in a meadow engaged in deep thought as she writes a letter to Dushyanta. Seated around her are two women who appear to be her close confidants.

To quote Deepanjala Pal, the author of The painter: A life of Raja Ravi Varma-

“The images were a composite created out of what [Varma] saw during his travels. The skin colour was from North India, the way the sari was draped was Maharashtrian, and the jewellery was usually from South India.”

Such statements from art critics suggest that Varma travelled nationwide in search of ideas. When inspiration struck, he conveyed his experiences through the familial narratives of ancient Indian royalty.

Like many of Varma’s pieces, Shakuntala Patralekhan received international recognition. The painting was presented at the Madras Fine Arts Exhibition of 1876, and later that year, it was acquired by the Duke of Buckingham. It eventually made its way back to our homeland and is currently exhibited at The Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation in Bengaluru, India.

2. Three Girls, 1935 (Amrita Sher-Gil)

Amrita Sher-Gil is known to be one of the pioneers of modern Indian art. She was born in 1913 to Hungarian-Indian parents in Budapest, where she lived until her family moved to Shimla in 1924 due to financial problems.

Like many artists, Sher-Gil’s creativity was fueled by her travels. Until 1937, her trips majorly included destinations in Europe and the US. Hence, her early paintings, like Young Girls, all show a heavy influence of the post-impressionist genre that was popular in the West at the time. Her trip to South India in late 1937 proved to be a turning point in her career, inspiring her very first set of India-based pieces like Brahmacharis and South Indian Villagers Going to Market.

As the title suggests, her 1935 piece Three Girls is a depiction of three young women all dressed in plain pastel clothing against a shadowy background, as if deliberately trying to be inconspicuous. Despite their best efforts, these elements, in particular, intrigue the viewer about the girls and their lives. Sher-Gil explains,

“I realized my real artistic mission, to interpret the life of Indians and particularly the poor Indians pictorially; to paint those silent images of infinite submission and patience... to reproduce on canvas the impression those sad eyes created on me.”

She wanted to capture the pain she saw in the lives of the citizens of colonial India, but suffering is not the full extent of what her paintings convey to their appreciators. When referring to the painting, poet Rupi Kaur said, “For some reason, I always referred to it as ‘Three Sisters’. Why? This was perhaps because it reminded me of sisterhood, had a quality of a posed studio picture so common in my childhood and also because I have had a very loving relationship with my sister, sharing joy and sorrow alike.”

The three girls give the viewers invisible courage to sit silently yet powerfully in the face of adversity. The painting is currently exhibited at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.

3. The Scream, 1863 (Edvard Munch)

Edvard Munch was a Norwegian painter, well-known for his paintings about bereavement and pain. Of all his pieces, The Scream is by far the most iconic one, having made its mark in the world of art.

As art critic Luke Chant writes, “It depicts, at face value, one central figure who has his/her hands over their ears while two figures walk into the distance. The scenery is a sunset and a sea or river. The brush strokes cause the scene to appear to swirl, giving it a sense of motion.”

There is a lot of speculation around the symbolism of The Scream, with the most prominent theory being that the painting is a depiction of anxiety and fear. In a diary entry from January 22, 1882, Munch wrote about the event that inspired the piece:

“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature."

Many scholars believe that the “red sky” and “tongues of fire” refer to a volcanic eruption that took place in Krakatoa, Indonesia, and reached Norway in the form of debris. Others theorise that Munch's mental state may have been influenced by his sister’s recent admission to a mental institute. To this day, the piece has personified people’s fears through its portrayal of a serene yet typical background, only disrupted by the subject being severely out of sorts.

The Scream is currently displayed at the National Gallery and Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway.

4. American Gothic, 1930 (Grant Wood)

In August 1930, Grant Wood, an American painter, was driving through Eldon, Iowa, when a small Carpenter Gothic-style house caught his eye. Right then and there, Wood sketched the house on the back of an envelope.

Soon after, Wood decided to paint the house with “the kind of people I fancied should live in that house.” Thus, American Gothic was born as the ambiguous piece we are all familiar with: a portrait of a stern-looking farmer couple yielding farm tools in front of their simple and typical American home.

Many people mistake the pair to be a husband and wife, but Grant actually drew a daughter with her father to embody the farm-folk. When it came to selecting models to base the pair on, Grant got his sister Nan and his dentist Byron McKeeby to dress as what he called “tintypes from my old family album.”

The Great Depression came soon after the painting was published, so it was widely interpreted as a representation of the "steadfast American pioneer spirit.” This coincides with Grant’s intentions for the painting.

As writer Elena Martinique puts it,

“[Grant] realized that American art needed to break free from Europe and express the specific character and culture of their own regions.”

Since 1974, the home has been on The National Register of Historic Places, making it a pop-culture tourist attraction that hosts no less than 15,000 visitors a year.

The painting is now an exhibit at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois.

5. Girl With a Pearl Earring, 1665 (Johannes Vermeer)

Johannes Vermeer was known for his small portfolio, having produced only 36 paintings in his entire lifetime. The most celebrated one is Girl with a Pearl Earring, a portrait of a young woman adorned with a tiny yet all-important pearl earring as she looks back at viewers from a dim backdrop.

This piece is an excellent example of genre painting, a style that depicts scenes from ordinary life. This style originated in Holland in the 17th century and was commonly used by the painters of the time. It is this simplicity of the girl that made art critic Alistair Stoke say, “We will probably never know the identity of the model of Vermeer’s girl if there even was one.” The lack of an explanation from Vermeer made this painting a blank canvas for critics and fans alike, allowing people to project their own psyche onto the potential meaning of the painting.

As art curator Emilie Gordenker perceives it -

“It isn’t meant to be a specific person, but someone more generalised, timeless and mysterious.”

Tracy Chevalier, the author of the piece’s namesake novel, believes that “the image works because it is unresolved.” Chevalier’s historical fiction story has led to a recent rekindling of public interest in the painting.

It is in this mystery that the girl retains her fame. The painting is currently part of the permanent collection at the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague, Netherlands.


Sakshi is a psychology, literature, and fashion enthusiast. She loves all things art: cinema, paintings, music; and bringing her thoughts to life through words is her chosen art of expression. She is currently a Communications Intern at Weloquent.

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