What Makes Famous Art Famous?

What Makes Famous Art Famous?

Overnight sensations come and go. Viral dances, comedic sketches, short-lived romances—social media has become the hub for new creators. But a few creators always stand out among the masses that stick around longer than a week.


This pattern is also found in the art world—millions of paintings exist yet such a small percentage are hung in museums. There are many artists around the world, yet only a handful secure a position in the history books. Why? So many artists who create incredible work are left to live on Instagram's Explore page. It makes you wonder, “Why aren’t they as famous as Picasso?” Like abstract art, it’s more complicated than that.

Art Provides Answers to the Public

Humans are innately curious; partly because we want to find the answer to something and partly because we will never know the reasoning for something. We do this in religion, science class, and art. How was the Pyramid of Giza built, and why does it perfectly align with Orion’s constellation? What did the first humans really look like? Many may gravitate towards conspiracy theories or even spiritual reasoning. But some of these questions are answered thanks to art.


Depictions of what ancient civilizations, like Mesopotamia, looked like grant modern-day historians the key to unlocking what our ancestors looked like and the achievements they made. The Standard of Ur is a mosaic box decorated to display four scenes: a war zone with prisoners and guards on one side, men carrying fish and animals while watching a singer on the back, and the triangular sides are unknown due to damage when archaeologists found the artifact. The Standard of Ur shows the dichotomy of humanity—how vicious wars and crimes coexist with simple and peaceful civilization.

The Standard of Ur
The Standard of Ur

The more we learn about human history, the more we understand how ancient societies lived, dressed, and worshiped. Portraits of early life on Earth, orchestrated from fossil findings, gift today’s society the luxury of visualizing what human’s first relatives looked like. It’s one thing to find a skull and say it belonged to one of the first forms of homo sapiens, but it’s another for an artist to illustrate what these creatures may have looked like.


Fast forward to the Roman Empire, also known as the time Jesus walked the Earth. Religion is undoubtedly an act where millions can unite and form a strong bond. But religion also poses questions and theories. What did Jesus look like? How can we accurately depict Jesus’ image? Who knows if Christianity would have survived without putting a face to the Holy name?


The Creation of Adam is a famous painting millions of people can admire due to its religious context and how important it is to the story in the Bible. More candidly, Michelangelo’s vision of human anatomy is downright impeccable—especially for someone in 1512. This was around the same time modern human anatomy became widely known thanks to surgeon and anatomist Andreas Vesalius.

The Creation of Adam Meme
The Creation of Adam Meme

The Story Behind a Painting Carries a Lot of Weight

It’s easier to digest and truly understand a work of art when you know the piece’s backstory and what the artist’s life was like at the time of creation. Art’s allegories always enrich the viewers’ perception of a painting.


“The artist's story, who they are, how they exist in society, their entire narrative, and how that is either self or externally constructed” plays a massive role in what makes a famous painting famous, says ArtRKL’s founder, Rebecca Levenson.


Van Gogh’s The Starry Night is a beautiful illustration of a midnight sky and the lights from a nearby city. Superficially, the painting is just a pretty portrait of the sky. But the common motif in Van Gogh’s work is how it reflects his state of being at the time.  The Starry Night is more than just a starry night—it is a glimpse into Van Gogh’s mind, body, and soul during his time at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole mental institution. The one thing that kept Van Gogh connected to the rest of the world was his ability to share the same stars and moon as everyone else.

Starry Night
Starry Night

Van Gogh actually considered this piece—arguably his most notable piece—a “failure.” In a letter to fellow painter Emiliee Bernard, he listed many of his paintings and excluded The Starry Night because of his resentment toward the piece.


The Scream by Edvard Munch is another famous painting with a deeper meaning. During Munch’s career, he felt “stretched to the limit” with very little left to give. Contrary to the painting’s title, the figure is not screaming but rather covering his ears to tone out demanding screams from those around him.

Renditions and Recreations of Artworks Delivered to the Media Increase Exposure

Renditions and recreations of artworks can be catalysts for a piece’s notoriety. Countless books, shows, and movies have referenced a specific artwork, an artist, or a fictional combination. Heists are commonly known to involve expensive paintings or rare jewels. However, those typically involve made-up art and artists.


Sometimes, directors will use an actual painting in a movie’s plot. The 2004 Polish crime film “Vinci” covers the events of stealing The Lady with Ermine. “Mona Lisa Smile” (2003) does not technically involve the Mona Lisa painting itself but tells the story of a graduate art history professor with uptight students who can learn a lot from Mona Lisa’s smile. There are also subtle inuendos in movies that hint at other iconic paintings. Kevin’s screaming scene after using his dad’s aftershave resembles the same pose as the man in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.


Morphing an original painting or concept into something light-hearted isn’t uncommon. These renditions are often referred to as memes. When COVID-19 was at its peak, the health and cleaning industries thrived. One creative way to encourage people to use hand sanitizer was a meme referencing The Creation of Adam, a painting that features two figures’ arms extending toward one another. The meme represents the company handing over its hand sanitizer to its audience, saving them from germs.

Mona Lisa Lego
Mona Lisa Lego
Mona Lisa CEO
Mona Lisa CEO

Unsurprisingly, Mona Lisa has been recreated countless times. In fact, the Mona Lisa is one of the most reimagined artworks in history. Whether the artist changes her smile to be toothy, alters her outfit to make her appear as a hipster or a corporate CEO, or completely replaces her with a different character as the LEGO® company did.


It doesn’t stop there. New takes on notable paintings are created daily, constantly expanding the original artists’ exposure.

Art Created in a Specific Era Can Speak to the Political and Economic Status of That Time

Political cartoon courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

Art often resonates with a large group of people about the current political or economic climate of a country or even the whole world. When the masses can connect with a piece of art, it is bound to be a part of the collective discourse.


American artist Grant Wood painted American Gothic in 1930 when the Great Depression struck the nation. During a time of uncertainty and pessimism, Wood saw the opportunity to create something that highlighted the good that America still had. The man and woman represent the importance of Midwestern culture and farming practices—an area that was severely struggling in the 1930s.


Not all monumental art is from the distant past. We see artwork today that speaks out on current issues in the world. Political cartoons can be used to emphasize one’s opinion of a politician—typically negative. Most of these cartoons are rough sketches and have a caricature-like style. Like a painting by Picasso, political cartoons can be deeply analyzed for hidden meanings. The comics don’t die after a presidential election is over. AP US History classes use these satirical drawings as prompts, challenging the students to decode, interpret, and explain the image.  


Regardless of new or old, art always finds its way to critique or highlight an element of what makes up society.

But in All, Art Isn’t Born Famous

Sometimes it takes years for paintings to reach a level of notoriety that warrants the title “famous.” Leonardo de Vinci’s Mona Lisa, painted in 1503, did not gain extreme fame until 1911 when the painting was stolen by a Louvre ex-employee for two years. Who knows, maybe in 200 years, an NFT made in 2020 can be the next Mona Lisa or an Instagram artist will be the next Picasso.

Home Alone Scream
Home Alone Scream

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