Since Halloween is today, we couldn’t help dedicate this article to the most famous scary masterpieces. Forget watching horrors (or Stranger Things) on Netflix — here we have something that will make your jaw drop. Happy Halloween – full of scary art history!
1. Vincent van Gogh, “Head of a skeleton with a burning cigarette,” 1886
Regarding his personal story you wouldn’t tell that van Gogh had a sense of humor. But it seems he had – this skeleton with a lit cigarette in its mouth is a juvenile joke. Van Gogh painted it in early 1886, while studying at the art academy in Antwerp. Drawing skeletons was a standard exercise at the academy – and something serious to the bone.
2. Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare,” 1781
The painting’s dreamlike and haunting erotic evocation of infatuation and obsession was a huge popular success. After its first exhibition, at the 1782 Royal Academy of London, critics and patrons reäcted with horrified fascination and the work became widely popular, to the extent that it was parodied in political satire and an engraved version was widely distributed. In response, Fuseli produced at least three other versions. As you can see it’s very Romantic – in terms of the subject, so typical for Romanticism.
If you want to know more, read the article “Henry Fuseli And His Fantasy World“.
3. Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” details, 1480-1505
This masterpiece has so many scary details, that we must link you to our another article, explaining some of them. No one really knows why Bosch imagined the world in this particular way. It seems that he was sane. In the part with Hell, against a backdrop of blackness, prison-like city walls are etched in inky silhouette against areas of flame and everywhere human bodies huddle in groups, amass in armies or are subject to strange tortures at the hands of oddly-clad executioners and animal-demons. A real nightmare. Don’t look at this masterpiece closely just before you go to sleep.
4. Théodore Géricault, “Anatomical Pieces,” 1819
Yes, this is what you think it is – Théodore Géricault borrowed human remains from the morgue to paint them. Anatomical pieces cannot be categorized as an artistic study of human anatomy, because the remains are separated from the body, reason for which they have no value for this purpose. As we are all terrified with the idea of death and knowing that our body is eventually going to be the object of decomposition and oblivion, Anatomical pieces shock us for its morbidity. In this period Géricault was also commissioned with a series of 10 portraits of patients who were hospitalized in La Salpêtrière, the mental asylum from Paris – they are pretty creepy too.
5. Francisco Goya, “Saturn Devouring His Son,” 1819-1823
Saturn Devouring His Son is the name given to a painting by Spanish artist Francisco Goya. According to the traditional interpretation, it depicts the Greek myth of the Titan Cronus (in the title Romanized to Saturn), who, fearing that he would be overthrown by one of his children, ate each one upon their birth. The work is one of the 14 Black Paintings that Goya painted directly onto the walls of his house sometime between 1819 and 1823, when he was already 73 years old and deaf. The Black Paintings were never meant for public display and they reflect his darkening mood with some intense scenes of malevolence and conflict. Goya has seen multiple horrible war scenes in his life, which he even engraved in his “Disasters of War” series.
6.Odilon Redon, “Smiling Spider”, 1891
Odilon Redon had that weird period in his life, when he painted or drawn things like this smiling spider. The spider looks a bit cynical – maybe he knows some kind of mystery. Cyclopes, macabre animals and plants with human heads – were the creatures in Odilon Redon’s noirs which are equally unsettling and fascinating.
OK, the Smiling Spider isn’t the so spooky as it can be, comparing to the rest of the masterpieces in this article. But for someone with arachnophobia it’s probably the worst of them all (sorry if you have an arachnophobia!)
7. Katsushika Hokusai, “Katsushika Hokusai: The Ghost of Kohada Koheiji, from the series One Hundred Ghost Stories”1830
Hokusai created so many creepy woodcuts, that was a real challenge to choose one. Here he presented a scene from a Japanese legends in which a murdered actor rises from the dead to spook his wife and her lover. The actor looks like a quite handsome zombie, imagined as a skeleton with skin and hair still clinging to his skull. Charming.
8. James Ensor, “Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring”, 1891
Ensor was another painter who loved macabre. This painting supposedly depicts his critics (the skeletons) tearing him (the fish) apart. What does the furry hat on the right skeleton was supposed to mean, remains a mystery. I hope that at least the herring was tasty. You can read more about James Ensor here.
9. Caravaggio, “Medusa”, 1597
In Greek myth, Perseus used the severed snake-haired head of the Gorgon Medusa as a shield with which to turn his enemies to stone. By the sixteenth century Medusa was said to symbolize the triumph of reason over the senses; and this may have been why Cardinal Del Monte commissioned Caravaggio to paint Medusa as the figure on a ceremonial shield presented in 1601 to Ferdinand I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The poet Marino claimed that it symbolized the Duke’s courage in defeating his enemies.
10. Francis Bacon, “Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Innocent X”, 1953
Francis Bacon had many demons. This work shows a distorted version of the Portrait of Innocent X painted by Spanish artist Diego Velázquez in 1650. As with many other of Bacon’s popes, the painting is dominated by purple vestments. Bacon’s palette changed in 1953, and his paintings became darker, the earlier blues were replaced by velvet purples while his overall tone became more nocturnal.
11. Zdzislaw Beksinski, Untitled, 1894
Well, I could put here any painting created by Beksinski. This Polish artist, who was murdered in his house in 2005 is known for his surrealist-expressionist works. According to Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro “In the medieval tradition, Beksinski seems to believe art to be a forewarning about the fragility of the flesh – whatever pleasures we know are doomed to perish – thus, his paintings manage to evoke at once the process of decay and the ongoing struggle for life. They hold within them a secret poetry, stained with blood and rust.”
12. Alfred Kubin, “The Horror”, 1902
Alfred Kubin was an Austrian printmaker, illustrator, and occasional writer. Kubin is considered an important representative of Symbolism and Expressionism and is noted for dark, spectral, symbolic fantasies, often assembled into thematic series of drawings. He illustrated the works of Edgar Allan Poe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, among others. Kubin also illustrated the German fantasy magazine Der Orchideengarten.
13. Andy Warhol, “Big Electric Chair”, 1967
Created in 1967, the Stockholm Big Electric Chair is part of a series of works by Andy Warhol depicting an electric chair. Death by electrocution was a controversial subject in New York City, where the artist lived and worked, especially after the last two executions at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 1963. Warhol obtained a photograph of the empty execution chamber, which became the basis for this series.