Hidden Details in 4 Famous Paintings

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by Jonathan Openshaw

The Dutch Proverbs (1559) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderGemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

There’s often far more encoded in a canvas than first meets the eye. One of the great joys of looking at historical art is trying to unravel the intentions of the artist and decipher the meanings these works would have had in their day. Here, we put 4 of history’s great masterpieces under the microscope.

The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein the YoungerThe National Gallery, London

The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger

European Renaissance art is known for its love of symbolism, not least in so-called "vanitas still lives" where earthly pleasures told complex stories. In this painting by Hans Holbein the Younger we see two men of the Tudor court surrounded by musical instruments, globes and the most high-tech gadgets of the day. At first glance, it seems to be a straightforward celebration of wealth, education and influence....

...until you notice the grey disk in the foreground. When viewed from the bottom-left this elongated object focuses into a human skull, in what would have been the equivalent of a VR experience for viewers at the time. This acted as a "memento mori", a reminder to anyone who saw it that even the most fabulously rich would die someday, so you better live the most devout life you can.

The Night Watch (1642) by Rembrandt Harmensz van RijnRijksmuseum

The Night Watch, Rembrandt

Few paintings have come to sum up the pride of a nation in the same way as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s masterpiece The Night Watch (1642). It depicts one of the militia companies of the early Dutch Republic, responsible for keeping law and order as the nation forged its independence from the Spanish Empire. Instead of a formidable fighting force, however, Rembrandt shows the company as a shambolic cross section of society, all the more noble for their normality.

The painting is often held up as one of the great depictions of democracy, where ordinary people can do extraordinary things. It's clear Rembrandt empathized, because if you zoom in and peek over the shoulder of the guard with a chinstrap in the center of the painting, you can see what is thought to be the artist’s eye peering out.

La Primavera (Spring) (1481 - 1482) by Botticelli FilipepiUffizi Gallery

La Primavera (Spring), Botticelli Filipepi

It’s hard to comprehend how radical Sandro Botticelli’s painting La Primavera (spring) (1481-82) would have been for viewers in 15th century Florence. Before this, large-scale European paintings tended to focus on delivering Christian sermons rather than presenting art as pleasure, and certainly would not have shown pagan rites.

Here, we see ancient gods and goddesses such as Venus, Cupid and Chloris set against a riot of foliage. Such a riot, in fact, that experts have identified 500 individual plants from over 200 species hidden in the painting, representing the entire flora of springtime Tuscany. La Primavera’s meticulous depiction of the natural world marks the dawn of humanism in previously dogmatic Europe: a new spring indeed.

Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, 'The Music Lesson' (c.1662 - 1665) by Johannes VermeerRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer deliberately alienates the viewer through the composition and perspective of this painting. The placement of the two figures at the back of the canvas, behind furniture and musical instruments, gives the clear sense that they are not expecting to be watched. There's mystery surrounding the relationship between these subjects as well.

If you look carefully at the mirror positioned above the virginal, you can see that the player’s eyes have wandered from the keys. What exactly is the nature of the relationship between the musician and her teacher? Is it romantic? Vermeer leaves it for the viewer to guess.

The Dutch Proverbs (1559) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderGemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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