Works of Art That Most People Have Fully Misunderstood

These paintings were seen as if they were depicting simple everyday situations, but the details show a deeper story.

We are deluded if we believe that art does not lie. Many authors base their work on some historical or literary event. So far, the ordinary path, but as the years go by and a second reading of the painting is made, sometimes hidden passages and clues are found that lead to a discourse contrary to what we thought to be true about the work.

In order not to fall into the lie, a common and basic art spectator must follow five simple steps for a correct pictorial interpretation. The first is to identify the title, author, place, and date of the work. Then one must trace an imaginary “Z” on the painting, which will serve as the reading path to follow. Like a sheet of text, the eyes first rest on the upper left side, and following the shape of the letter mentioned above, the eyes will end their journey on the lower right side.


The third step is to follow the gaze and gestures of the characters in the picture. The fourth is to analyze the objects that accompany the protagonists and see what role they play in the work. Finally, it is necessary to identify to which artistic current it belongs, because in this historical context we can find indispensable elements for its correct reading.

After carrying out the instructions, the truth will emerge, and you will not fall into the errors of meaning that the following works have. Here are some examples:


A Christian Van Gogh?

From an early age, Vincent van Gogh was extremely religious, which is why art critics have said that his paintings are infused with Christian depictions. In the case of Cafe Terrace at Night (1888), they claim it is an allusion to the Last Supper: there are 12 men around a male figure who has long hair and wears a white robe. Behind him is a huge cross. There is contemporary evidence to support this claim. When van Gogh wrote to his brother about painting, he had a “great need” for religion. He was also deeply in love with Rembrandt and expressed a desire to revive his style of subtle Christian symbolism.

Flower’s Hidden Messages

The first impression of Botticelli’s Primavera (1482) is that of a garden full of beautiful women, cherubs, and possibly a male mythological character. That is a misinterpretation because the important thing is not the people but the flowers. One theory says that, in the painting, there are at least 500 identifiable plants of 200 different species. After some studies, it was concluded that the cluster of flora is the one that sprouts around Florence between March and May in that distant fifteenth century.


Frida Kahlo’s Bus Scene

Since 1925, after a terrible bus accident, Kahlo concentrated on depicting her agony. No piece escaped the theme of pain. The Bus was painted in 1929, and it is feasible that it does not escape from that line either. From left to right are seated a housewife, a worker, an indigenous family, a rich man, and a woman who is most likely Frida. The work The Bus apparently shows the different classes that exist in Mexico on any given day, but the new interpretation says that the painting captures the moment before the accident.

Gabriel Metsu’s Hidden Clues

The Dutch Golden Age of painting, critics say, is only surpassed by the Italian Renaissance, for its aesthetics and discourse are very rich. One of its characteristics is the element of “a painting within a painting,” which provides clues for its reading. An example is the work Man Writing a Letter and Woman Reading a Letter (1662) by Gabriel Metsu. The first painting shows a man writing a letter. In the second, a lady is seen holding the letter to deliver it to the addressee, but not before looking at a picture of turbulent waters. The storm that can be perceived represents how cloudy their relationship is.


The Works of L. S. Lowry’s “Matchstick Men”

L. S. Lowry was known for depicting everyday life in northwest England. Despite the popularity of the “Matchstick Men” series, the art world dismissed his paintings for a long time as “trivial.” Again the critics were wrong. In the work An Accident (1926), a crowd of people gathers to see something on the ground. The scene is inspired by a painful local passing around that time. If L. S. Lowry’s paintings were thought to be devoid of emotion, this simple detail proves otherwise. His scenes are packed with emotions, and even more so when it is covered by the veil of mystery.

As you noticed, many of the works had an innocent scene that ended up being a scandal. For several centuries they lived with the incorrect interpretation until someone took the task of looking at it in detail.


Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva

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