Editorial Feature

What Are The Art World’s One-Hit Wonders?

Discover the one-off paintings that became more famous than the artists

Like music, the art world has had its fair share of one-hit wonders. It’s the classic tale of an artist capturing the public’s attention with a single genius artwork, while the rest of their work remains relatively unknown. Sob.

So join us as we take a look at some of the most well-known one-hit wonders and try to understand why viewers fell in love with these particular works more than others.

American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1930

American Gothic is one of the most recognizable images in 20th-century American art and is often interpreted as a satirical comment on the midwestern character. It depicts a farmer and supposedly his wife standing outside an all-American farmhouse. Though Grant Wood initially sold the painting for just $300 to the Art Institute of Chicago, it soon gained momentum, but why?

American Gothic was exhibited in 1930, a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing, which helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: city folk saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America and actual farmers and their families, welcomed it as a celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Although Wood created other memorable paintings often of farm workers and rural scenes, none of them caught the national consciousness in the way American Gothic did and it’s become a permanent pop culture fixture, having been parodied countless times.

American Gothic by Grant Wood (From the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago)

The Talisman, Paul Sérusier, 1888

Paul Sérusier’s painting The Talisman was painted when the artist was just 25 and this early work dominated his career. This painting was the artist’s first foray into color, sensation and abstraction, moving away from the Impressionist style he was used to. At the time, fellow artist Paul Gauguin advised him to move beyond the straightforward representation of a scene, but the artist went one step further, creating an abstracted landscape based predominantly on emotion and personal vision.

This painting also marked the beginning of the Nabis—a group of Post-Impressionist avant-garde artists who set the pace for fine arts and graphic arts in France in the 1890s. The painting essentially freed his fellow artists, including Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard, from the artistic shackles of representation and allowed them to pour their thoughts and emotions onto the canvas. The work was adopted by the group and used as a guide but unfortunately that seemed to be where Sérusier peaked. After that he found it difficult to stand on his own artistically compared to other members of the Nabis and critics felt his subsequent work never stood up to the original innovation of The Talisman.

The Talisman by Paul Sérusier (From the collection of Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1910

The Scream, part of a series of works, is undoubtedly Edvard Munch’s most famous motif. The painting is based on a walk he took when the sun was setting, as the sky turned blood red the artist felt an “endless scream” tear through nature.

The painting is deeply personal and sees him channelling his tormented psyche. Yet the themes of anxiety, fear and hopelessness are universal, which might have something to do with its enduring appeal. The anguish depicted saw Munch tap into something new for art lovers and the chaos still appeals today, so much so a pastel version of the work recently sold for $120 million.

The Scream by Edvard Munch (From the collection of The Munch Museum, Oslo)

LOVE, Robert Indiana, 1966

LOVE is a pop art image by American artist Robert Indiana. It sees the title word spelled out over two lines with a tilted O being the most recognizable feature of the design. The original image here, served as a print image of a Museum of Modern Art Christmas card in 1964, and then became a popular US postage stamp. In 1970, LOVE was rendered as a sculpture and has since been replicated all over the world.

His design has remained iconic and as a result overshadowed much of his subsequent output, though Indiana continued to produce work after LOVE. It was a symbol that brought the artist international recognition but in his later years, the artist became reclusive and avoided any interaction with fans.

LOVE by Robert Indiana (From the collection of Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields)

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942

Perhaps it’s unfair to name Edward Hopper as a one-hit wonder as the artist did produce several notable works in his career including Automat (1927), Chopsuey (1929) and Office in a Small City (1953). But Nighthawk, painted in 1942, remains his most recognizable and has become a key piece of work in American art today.

The painting depicts four people in a downtown diner late at night and epitomizes Hopper’s cinematic style perfectly. The anonymous and uncommunicative people in the painting seem as separate and remote from the viewer as they are from one another and the viewer is separated from the scene further by the large glass window.

Hopper once said of Nighthawks that “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city” and it’s said this eerie feeling of isolation made it so popular. The painting is an example of modern American Realism in that it captures contemporary social realities and the lives and everyday activities of ordinary people, giving it universal appeal. But there’s elements like the fluorescent lights (new to the 1940s) clashing with the dark, still streets that felt new and fresh at the time.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper (From the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago)

Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, Richard Hamilton, 1956

Richard Hamilton created his collage, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, for the seminal 1956 exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery titled This is Tomorrow. The work is described as the first genuine work of Pop Art, six years before the term had even been used. Within the collage are a contemporary Adam and Eve, surrounded by the temptations of the post-War consumer boom. Adam is a muscle man covering his groin with a racket-sized lollipop and Eve perches on the couch wearing a lampshade and pasties. Hamilton cut apart American magazines for the piece and the title stems from an image caption he read in one of the magazines he was using.

Though Hamilton did see success, for a while it was contained within art circles unlike Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein who had broad audience appeal throughout their careers. When people did become familiar with Hamilton’s work, this collage seemed to be the only work he was associated with, especially after it was cited as being the catalyst of the Pop Art movement.

Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? by Richard Hamilton (From the collection of Sound and Music)

The Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks, 1820–1849

In a way, American Quaker minister and artist Edward Hicks unintentionally made himself into a one-hit wonder through his work on The Peaceable Kingdom. 62 versions of the painting, all with the same title were painted by Hicks from around 1820 up until his death in 1849. The paintings represent a messianic prophecy in the book of Isaiah (11:6): “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

Hicks followed this spiritual description but added various imagery symbolic of Quaker belief and Pennsylvania history. Differences in the various versions are relatively subtle and often see a change in backdrop, a tweaked composition or the addition of rhyming text. So consumed was Hicks with this subject matter, he painted little else and as such is mostly only remembered for his incredibly detailed works of The Peaceable Kingdom. Check out some of the different iterations below.

The Peaceable Kingdom, 1848 by Edward Hicks (From the collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery)
The Peaceable Kingdom, 1868 by Edward Hicks (From the collection of de Young Museum)
The Peaceable Kingdom, 1826-1828 by Edward Hicks (From the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)
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