Bright Side

13 Mysteries That World-Famous Paintings Are Hiding


In order to understand any piece of art, one needs to have extensive knowledge in the fields of history, religion, mythology, and literature. It’s this knowledge that helps to decode the things that insignificant details hide and helps you get to know why some artists continued to perfect their canvases for many years, while others created new paintings over other ones.

The authors at Bright Side spent many hours looking through the sites of various museums to tell you about masterpieces that are not as simple as they might seem at first glance. There is a bonus waiting for you at the end of the article — Mona Lisa, one of the most mysterious paintings in the world, has many “doubles.”

Unknown artist, The portrait of Isabella de’Medici

A Renaissance portrait by an unknown artist was discovered by accident. Initially, art critics believed that this was a very good fake of a medieval painting, but it turned out that the portrait was repainted in the 19th century. A prominent nose, a high forehead, and a large chin were hidden under layers of paint — the face of the medieval aristocratic girl was turned into the cute face of a young coquette to sell the canvas.

It was found out, with the help of x-rays, how the woman was depicted in the portrait initially. Restorers removed the paint layer by layer, bringing the picture back to its original form.

Ilya Repin, Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on 16 November 1581

Repin created this painting based on his feelings about the things happening around him. It was the assassination of Tsar Alexander II and the suite composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov that inspired him to create this canvas. The scene of killing the prince fully reflected Repin’s inner condition. He had been concocting this idea for 3 years.

For a long time, he couldn’t put the images in his head into one idea until he left for Spain and attended a bullfight there. The painter saw sand covered in blood and the look of bulls, full of hatred and pain. That’s when the idea was finally born. Repin was obsessed with his work, he would see the scenes of the assassination in his dreams, and was tortured by various visions. It was his friends who saved him from going crazy.

Francisco de Goya Portrait of Don Ramón Satué

Ramón Satué was Francisco de Goya’s friend. He was a member of the Madrid court and a senior official in Madrid. The portrait was painted in gratitude for the fact that the Satué family hid the artist during the repressions.

During an X-ray study, scientists found an underpainting — the image of a man in his uniform. It was not finished, which makes it impossible to say who was depicted in it. It was suggested that Goya painted the king of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother. After the government lost its power, the painter decided to not finish the painting and created a new one over top of it.

Vasili Pukirev The Unequal Marriage

According to one of the versions of the story behind this painting, the painter depicted the drama of his own life. The bride is Pukirev’s longed-for bride Praskovia Varentsova, while the elderly groom is the leader of the Tver nobility, Alexey Markovich Poltoratskiy.

If you look closer, there is an old lady standing behind the groom. But why is she wearing a white dress and a wreath on her head? This outfit is typical for the bride. Scientists suggest that this is the soul of his first wife who appeared at the wedding.

Pablo Picasso The Blue Room

In 2008, after a careful x-ray study, art critics found another hidden underpainting behind Picasso’s The Blue Room. It was the portrait of an old man wearing a suit with a bow tie. Picasso had many ideas, but he didn’t always have money to buy new canvasses and that’s why he would paint new pictures over the old ones.

Sandro Botticelli Primavera

The painting was created at the order of Lorenzo de’ Medici and was supposed to become a wedding gift. Not only is it a depiction of an antique plot, but a covert and sophisticated message for the upcoming marriage.

Venus here is a shy married woman and her veil proves it. Since the groom has chosen to marry a noble, goddess-like girl, his life will be sweet and happy. The Three Graces represent 3 things: pleasure, chastity, and beauty. Mercury represents the main male features of sensibility and eloquence. The Cupid’s blindfolded eyes say that love is blind.

Paul Gauguin Be Be (The Nativity)

How are Tahiti women connected with the Nativity? Paul Gauguin has never been religious — moreover, he was more of an agnostic, rather than an atheist. While living in Tahiti, the painter got interested in Bible plots. He even released a manuscript called The Modern Spirit and Catholicism.

During this period, Gauguin’s beloved woman, Pahura from the Maori tribe, gave birth to a son. Here he captured the moment of his son’s birth. Soon afterward, the child of Pahura and Gauguin dies and this tragic event took place on Christmas.

Gustave Courbet Preparation of the Bride

The realist painter Gustave Courbet depicted everyday life and its scenes: funerals, weaving work, after lunch naps, and village girls. The painting, Preparation of the Bride, could have gone unnoticed, among the other works of Courbet, if art critics hadn’t gotten interested in it.

In 1960, it was studied carefully with infrared rays and it was found out that there was no bride in it. The heroine is nude and the girls around her are wearing black dresses. It was figured out that initially the canvas was called Preparation of the Dead Girl.

Hans Holbein The Ambassadors

Holbein depicted 2 real ambassadors — Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve. Objects in the background speak of a dispute between the clergy and science. The broken lute, open psalter, globe, sundial, and arithmetic books confirm it.

There is a strange and unknown stain in the foreground — it’s a distorted skull that symbolizes death. If you look at the canvas straight, it seems normal and the skull is not that noticeable: according to the author, death is something that doesn’t really matter. But if you look at the canvas from a different angle, death becomes the reality that distorts ordinary things.

Ilya Repin A Nun

Art critics have been questioning themselves for a long time: why does the nun look like Repin’s brother’s wife Sophia Shvetsova? The answer was found in the artist’s diaries. Initially, Repin was creating a portrait of a woman in a ball gown. But when the work was over, Ilya and Sophia fought. The artist got so offended at her, that he decided to repaint this piece. Now Shvetsova is wearing a nun’s gown instead of a beautiful dress, while the fan was replaced with rosary beads.

In order to confirm their guesses, the canvas was x-rayed. Turns out, Repin re-did the painting without removing the old paint.

Johannes Vermeer Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window

This painting is an example of Vermeer’s early art. The plot might seem too ordinary and trivial — just a young girl standing at a window, but it has a hidden meaning. The apples in the fruit vase symbolize Adam and Eve’s lapse from virtue, while the open window symbolizes the desire for freedom.

However, this is not the full list of the painting’s mysteries. Using X-ray, it was found out that there was originally an image of a cupid on the wall, which the artist painted over for some reason.

Mikhail Vrubel The Demon Seated and The Demon Downcast

Vrubel claimed that his “seated demon” was not a demon at all, but a soul. That’s how the word “demon” translates from the Greek language. It is a proud and free personality that opposes the world. The Demon Downcast is broken and weak. He is the reflection of the author’s madness. Vrubel’s mental state was gradually worsening and he had redone this piece of art several times. He was suffering from insomnia and he was obsessed with his work.

The painting was bought by the famous art collector, Vladimir von Meck. Vrubel went on a spree afterward, he was wasting the money that he got, drinking a lot of alcohol, and continuing to fight with his wife. Eventually, the painter was put into a private hospital with the symptoms of a mental disorder.

Frida Kahlo The Bus

When Frida Kahlo was 17, she got into an accident. The bus that she was in collided with a tram. The future painter experienced a lot of trauma (a triple fracture of the spine, fracture of the hip, ribs, etc.) due to which, she couldn’t have kids. The memories about that accident continued to torture Frida for her entire life.

She painted in her moments of despair. That’s how the painting The Bus came to be. People are sitting at the bus stop waiting for a bus and don’t suspect what the future holds for them.

Bonus: Mona Lisa exists in several variations

There are about 20 canvases depicting La Gioconda. Some of them were painted by Leonardo da Vinci’s pupils. Though some researchers believe that the painter himself is the artist who painted those paintings. Some of them fully resemble the original, others depict the main character in a different pose. Her clothes and some details are different too. All replicas, with no exception, are an effort to repeat the famous smile of La Gioconda.

What other hidden details of famous paintings are you aware of? Please tell us about them in the comments.