13 Disturbing Pieces of Art from History

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iStock.com/guruXOOX

The media is often criticized for showing violent and disturbing imagery. Movies, TV, video games, tabletop RPGs, comic books, and various other things have all gone through periods where they're blamed for exposing children to dark and unsettling things. But as these fine art examples prove, violent and disturbing imagery is nothing new.

(Obviously, this article contains some disturbing content.)

1. Peter Paul Rubens - Massacre of the Innocents

Painted in 1611, Massacre of the Innocents is Rubens' interpretation of Herod's order to kill every young male in Bethlehem, as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. Featuring nude men ripping babies out of the arms of their mothers and then murdering the children in front of them, the painting is certainly not for the squeamish.

2. Théodore Géricault - Anatomical Pieces

This is but one of a series of works featuring disembodied body parts (including a painting of a pair of severed heads, equally as unsettling as this one) painted by French artist Théodore Géricault. The most disturbing part is that all the paintings were based on real model remains Géricault acquired from the Paris Morgue.

3. Andy Warhol - Big Electric Chair

Andy Warhol is most famous for his pop art pictures of soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, but he also dabbled in some darker works, including his chilling piece, Big Electric Chair. The painting is based on a photograph of the former execution chamber at Sing Sing prison in New York. For more daring readers, Warhol also released artworks featuring police photos of suicides and car fatalities. Feel free to look those up on your own.

4. Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Triumph of Death

An army of skeletons attacks peasants and royalty alike in Bruegel's The Triumph of Death. Every inch of the painting presents some new horror committed by the army of death, and many easily missed details can be seen by looking at a full-sized representation of the piece. Although it's commonly mistaken as being a depiction of the Black Plague, it was actually painted over 200 years later.

5. Odilon Redon - Smiling Spider

If you're arachnophobic or just generally not a fan of small, many-legged critters, you might want to avoid some of Odilon Redon's works. This is just one of a couple of paintings displaying the emotions of a weirdly human-faced spider. Even if you're okay with spiders or downright love the little guys, this thing is still creepily unsettling.

6. William Adolphe Bouguereau - Dante and Virgil in Hell

Although it shares traits common with contemporary vampire stories, this painting by Bouguereau is 50 years older than even Stoker's Dracula, and is essentially an exact interpretation of an event described in Canto XXX of Dante's Inferno. While touring the eighth circle of Hell, Dante and Virgil look on as Capocchio, a heretical alchemist, is bitten on the neck during a fight with Gianni Schicchi, a con artist who stole a dead man's inheritance.

7. Hieronymous Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights

This is but a detailed view of just one part of Bosch's famous Garden of Earthly Delights. The original is a triptych--a single work split among three panels--and the section here is merely from the bottom-right of the right-hand panel. Like Bruegel's Triumph of Death, the numerous details in this work really benefit from a high-resolution image. (Warning for readers with slower connections: That file is nearly 100mb in size.)

8. Francisco Goya - Saturn Devouring His Son

In Greek mythology, the titan Cronus (Saturn in Roman texts), fearing that he would be overthrown by his children as he had usurped his own father, began swallowing each of them whole. (They're later purged, still alive, by Zeus.) However, in Goya's take on the tale, painted as a mural on the wall of his own house, a deranged-looking Cronus violently consumes them piece by piece instead.

9. Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare

Fuseli's most famous painting, The Nightmare, may not seem creepy in the traditional sense. The incubus, by today's standards, looks a little like a cartoonish gremlin, for example. But the dream-like, surreal quality of the piece has kept its legacy alive. Even during the artist's lifetime, the work was so popular that he created an even creepier alternate version.

10. Giovanni Boldini - Spanish Dancer at the Moulin Rouge

While Boldini is primarily known for his portraiture, he also did paint some original works. It may be hard to see what's creepy about this particular work at first. It helps to know that the title is sometimes pluralized and called Spanish Dancers at the Moulin Rouge. If that's not doing it for you, look at the hand over the dancer's shoulder at the left side of the painting and follow it right.

11. Caravaggio - Judith Beheading Holofernes

In the deuterocanonical Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, Judith charms Holofernes with her beauty, gets him drunk, and then decapitates him, just like an episode of Game of Thrones. While the story has inspired hundreds of artists throughout history, Caravaggio's is easily one of the most gruesome interpretations.

12. Salvator Rosa - The Temptation of Saint Anthony

According to a biography of St. Anthony by Athanasius of Alexandria, Anthony was attacked and killed by demons in a cave on his trip across the Egyptian desert, only to later be revived. When he re-entered the cave, the demons turned into monstrous creatures who attempted to kill him once more. While this is a very popular subject for artists throughout history, Rosa's take, especially on the forms of the demons, is very surreal and nightmarish.

13. Francis Bacon - Painting (1946)

Described as either one of the greatest painters of the 20th century or a complete madman, depending on who you ask, Francis Bacon's work was nothing if not creepy. Painting, containing various images reminiscent of a butcher shop, was created completely by accident, according to the artist himself. Originally intended to be a chimpanzee standing in tall grass and a bird landing nearby, Bacon said that he then unintentionally painted what you see above.

Bob Dylan's Lyrics, Poetry, and Prose Showcased at Chicago's American Writers Museum

A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Like a Rolling Stone, Tangled Up in Blue, Blowin’ in the Wind, and The Times They Are a-Changin’ are among Bob Dylan’s best songs, but the 77-year-old singer’s writing isn’t limited to lyrics. Dylan has also penned poems, prose, an autobiography, and a nearly four-hour movie (that got terrible reviews).

An ongoing showcase at Chicago’s American Writers Museum is paying homage to Dylan the writer. The "Bob Dylan: Electric" exhibit, which will remain on view though April 30, 2019, highlights dozens of items from Dylan’s expansive career.

“The world knows Bob Dylan as a prolific songwriter,” museum president Carey Cranston said in a statement. “'Bob Dylan: Electric’ gives the public a chance to see how his writing shaped more than just American music, but American literature as a whole.”

The period covers Dylan’s “electric” career, beginning with the time he made his electric guitar debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The exact instrument he played at the festival—a 1964 sunburst Fender Stratocaster—is naturally one of the items on display.

Visitors can also check out Dylan’s personal copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which he read in the summer of 1961. He jotted down notes and drew doodles in the back of the book, including a bottle of rye and the words “good book.” (Interestingly enough, a talent agent approached Dylan the following year and asked if he’d play Holden Caulfield in a movie adaptation of the book. For better or worse, that never came to fruition.)

Dylan’s writing was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. At the time, the committee's decision to award a songwriter rather than a novelist was a controversial one. The New York Times dubbed it a “disappointing choice,” while Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) was a little more blunt, calling it “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Nonetheless, Dylan accepted the award, eventually releasing a video detailing his literary influences. Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey are just a few of the singer-songwriter’s many inspirations.

Vinnie Ream: The Teen Who Met With Abraham Lincoln for 30 Minutes Every Day

Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most important people in the world have trouble getting even a few minutes of the president’s time. But in 1864, 17-year-old Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream managed to steal half an hour with Abraham Lincoln every day—for five months.

Ream made a name for herself as an artist at a young age. Word of the teen prodigy’s painting prowess quickly spread, and in 1863, Missouri Congressman James Rollins introduced her to sculptor Clark Mills. Through Mills, Ream discovered her talents included molding clay.

After creating small, medallion-sized likenesses of General Custer and many Congressmen, including Thaddeus Stevens, several senators commissioned Ream to create a marble bust—and this was just over a year after she had picked up the skill. The senators allowed Ream to choose her subject, and she picked the president—Abraham Lincoln.

Ream's friends in the Senate personally asked Lincoln to pose for the sculpture, but he declined. After hearing that she was a struggling artist from a Midwestern background not dissimilar to his own, however, Lincoln relented. “He granted me sittings for no other reason than that I was in need,” she later wrote. “Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world I am quite sure I would have been refused.”

Not only did the president agree to the sitting, he gave her a half-hour of his time every day for five months—no small sum of time for a man in such demand. “It seemed that he used this half-hour as a time for relaxation, for he always left instructions that no one was to be admitted during that time,” Ream said. “He seemed to find a strange sort of companionship in being with me, although we talked but little.” He occasionally talked about his son Willie, who had died two years before. The stories sometimes moved him to tears, and he told Vinnie that she reminded him of Willie. Lincoln "never told a funny story to me. He rarely smiled," Ream later recalled.

After Lincoln's fateful night at Ford's Theatre, Congress hired Ream to create a memorial statue of the fallen president, making her the youngest artist—and the first woman—to receive a commission from the U.S. government.

Though she had already proved that she could create a remarkable likeness of Lincoln in bust form, not everyone on the commission was convinced she would be up to the task of sculpting a full-length version. “Having in view the youth and inexperience of Miss Ream, and I will go further, and say, having in view her sex, I shall expect a complete failure in the execution of this work,” Senator Jacob Merritt Howard said.

But Ream had the last laugh: Her work still graces the Capitol Rotunda today.

Vinnie Ream's sculpture of Abraham Lincoln still stands in the Capital Rotunda
USCapitol via Flickr // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

This article originally ran in 2016.

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