1. Danaë, Rembrandt H. van Rijn
Danae was a mortal whom the god, Zeus, took as his illicit lover, a situation with a direct and personal parallel in this painting. In the 1960s, an X-ray of this masterpiece discovered the woman's original face was that of Rembrandt's wife, Saskia. He must have painted over it after she died because the face we see here is that of his lover, Geertje Dircx. So, on the one hand, it's a romantic tribute for his lover, and on the other hand, a dark but poignant acknowledgment of the dubious morality of his affair.
2. Bedroom in Arles, Vincent Van Gogh
The vibrant and cozy colors of this work, one of Van Gogh's most familiar and loved, have two contrasting explanations and meanings. On one hand, Van Gogh was painting an idealized, bright retreat - a kind of artist's haven in which he could escape all the trials and tribulations that are associated with being a mentally-disturbed genius. On the other, Van Gogh, as a sufferer of epilepsy, was taking the drug digitalis. One of the side effects of digitalis is an inability to properly perceive color. Therefore Van Gogh may have really perceived the world tinged with yellows and greens for this portion of his life.
3. Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci
The Mona Lisa is the most famous portrait in art history, yet one recent explanation for the subject's enigmatic expression has ruffled quite a few feathers. Joseph E. Borkowski is an art expert and dentist, who trusted his instincts on this one, and examined Mona's mouth for abnormalities. Spotting a scar around her lips, he determined that the renowned lady must have lost a lot of teeth. He explains that her type of smile is actually typical of those without teeth.
4. Major's Betrothal, Pavel Fedotov
This picture greatly amused art lovers when it was first exhibited, due to the flouting of mores and conventions which the actors in the painting were committing. To us, these things are largely lost, living in a modern world that has eliminated many procedural and social niceties; yet critics agree that this is the point of the painting. The major at the door has not brought any flowers for his bride and her mother, a 'major faux-pas.' The bride herself is wearing an evening dress at daytime, which is also considerably revealing for her time period. She appears to be ashamed and about to escape to her chamber.
5. Liberty Leading the People, Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix
This iconic image of the modern French idol, Liberty, appears somewhat improper compared to its New York counterpart, the Statue of Liberty. However, experts agree that the bare-chested Liberty is an apt illustration of freedom from the kind of social mores that the French Revolution sought to evaporate. It is thought that the deity here is actually based on a real-life rampage of revenge. Laundress, Anna-Charlotte, avenged her dead brother by charging the barricades and killing nine guards herself. Her open chest evokes her hearty courage and dedication to the so-called ideals of the era.
6. Black Square, Kazimir Malevich
This painting is simply not what it seems. First, ask yourself what you see - a black square. However, the artist used no black paint at all - he simply combined various other colors together. Secondly, there is no square either. None of the sides are parallel with each other, and the same goes for the whitish frame. Here is a painting that really merits close attention.
7. The Old Fisherman, Csontváry Kosztka Tivadar
The Old Fisherman is a very striking portrait, and hardly anyone who sees it goes away without it making a strong lasting impression upon them. However, all is not as it seems. If you feel unsettled by the man's very realistic face, you will be very surprised when you see what was only discovered after the painter's death.
When a mirror is placed at the center of the painting it is possible to see two separate faces. The left side (the man's right) is a godly, father figure. The other side is a quite devilish being. The artist's ingenuity in managing to place both these aspects harmoniously within one simple fisherman (he makes me think of St. Peter) is really incredible. He has managed to show the two sides of humanity, the good and the evil. This is truly a work of art that could only be properly understood after the secret was revealed.
8. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Gustav Klimt
Behind this most famous illustration of erotic romance comes quite an excellent love triangle story. The artist, Klimt, fell for the woman pictured here, and her husband learned of their subsequent affair. The husband coolly concocted a plan to dull the lovers' passion. He simply and secretly commissioned the painter to paint his wife, ordering him to take hundreds of sketches and to spend a few years on the work. Here is the result of those labors. And what became of the artist and muses' passion? Just as the husband hoped, it was completely dulled. What an amazing thing!
9. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, Paul Gauguin
This painting tells the story of Gauguin's despair but actually ended with him beginning a new chapter of joy and fulfillment. Read from right to left, life starts its journey as an infant and finally ends as a lizard in a bird's death grip (bottom left). When the painting was finished, Gauguin tried to commit suicide but got the arsenic dose wrong. So when he found he was alive, he grabbed life by the scruff of the neck and made a real success of his career from then on.