15 Facts About Roy Lichtenstein's Drowning Girl

 Sean Gallup // Getty Images
Sean Gallup // Getty Images

Arguably the most popular of American painter Roy Lichtenstein's works, Drowning Girl is an iconic landmark of pop art. But beneath its bold lines, clever circles, and rushing waves lies the story of a 40-something artist who finally found his calling by looking to kids stuff.

1. LICHTENSTEIN FOUND INSPIRATION IN COMIC BOOKS.

Though comic books had been overlooked by art critics, Lichtenstein, a Manhattan-born painter, relished in their bold lines, vibrant colors, and use of word bubbles to convey speech and thought. While the artist was also a sculptor and lithographer, he'd become best-known for his comic-influenced paintings, which elevated comics' low-brow aesthetic to high art.

2. HE EVEN MIMICKED THEIR PRINTING PROCESS'S LOOK.

At a glance, Drowning Girl might seem like she's printed like old-school comics. But Lichtenstein actually recreated this aesthetic with oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Brushing paint over stencils he'd perforated with a dot pattern, he mimicked the "tonal variations with patterns of colored circles that imitated the half-tone screens of Ben Day dots used in newspaper printing."

3. DROWNING GIRL IS A RIFF OFF A DC COMIC PANEL.

Lichtenstein lifted the imagery of the drowning girl and her thought bubble from the splash page of the 1962 comic Secret Hearts #83. There, a story called "Run for Love!" featured a full-page illustration with a drowning dark-haired girl in the foreground. In the background lies a small, capsized boat, and a befuddled blonde man holding on to it. For his 1963 homage, Lichtenstein cropped the image, bumped up the color, thickened the line work, and changed the thought bubble wording from "I don't care if I have a cramp! -- I'd rather sink -- than call Mal for help!" to "I don't care! I'd rather sink -- than call Brad for help!"

4. THE MAN'S NAME CHANGE WAS BECAUSE HIS DROWNING GIRL DESERVED BETTER.

"A very minor idea," Lichtenstein has said of the revision of Mal for Brad, "But it has to do with oversimplification and cliché." Or to simplify, he felt that his cartoon representation of frustrated American Womanhood demanded a boyfriend with "a heroic name." Mal just wouldn't cut it.

5. LICHTENSTEIN WAS A GROUNDBREAKER.

American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein stands in front of art
Wesley / Stringer // Getty Images

His peers Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had already been bringing popular imagery into their work. But by dabbling in comic motifs as early as 1958, Lichtenstein was the first pop artist to dive into cartoons and comics, beating even Andy Warhol whose brush with comic-based pieces came in 1960.

6. BEFORE DROWNING GIRL, HE PAINTED MICKEY MOUSE AND POPEYE.

In her book Roy Lichtenstein, art historian Carolyn Lanchner pinpoints the summer of 1961 as when the painter moved away from Abstract Expressionism, which was popular at the time, and toward cartoon imagery, which was overlooked if not despised. The acclaimed artist recounted this stage in his evolution by saying, "The early (paintings) were of animated cartoons, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Popeye, but then I shifted into the style of cartoon books with a more serious content such as 'Armed Forces of War,' and 'Teen Romance.'" He continued, "I was very excited about and interested in the highly emotional content yet detached impersonal handling of love, hate, war, etc., in these cartoon images."

7. LICHTENSTEIN USED AN OPAQUE PROJECTOR TO COPY THE DETAILS OF THE COMICS.

This machine allows opaque objects—like a pencil sketch—to be projected onto a screen, or canvas. He once described the process thusly, "From a cartoon, photograph or whatever, I draw a small picture—the size that will fit into my opaque projector ... I don't draw a picture in order to reproduce it—I do it in order to recompose it ... I project the drawing onto the canvas and pencil it in and then I play around with the drawing until it satisfies me." This process allowed Lichtenstein to work out composition and minor details on large canvases, like Drowning Girl which measures in at 67 5⁄8 inches by  66 3⁄4 inches.

8. THESE LICHTENSTEIN PIECES ARE REGARDED AS PARODIES.

He also crafted works inspired by Cézanne, Mondrian, and Picasso, which were likewise dubbed "parodies" by art critics. But Lichtenstein rejected this description—he didn’t want viewers to think he was mocking the works of others. Instead, he insisted, "The things that I have apparently parodied I actually admire."

9. DROWNING GIRL HAS HIGHBROW INSPIRATIONS AS WELL.

Hokusai's famous print, The Great Wave off Kanazawa, inspired Lichtenstein
Katsushika Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The pastiche-loving pop artist confessed that his use of blacks and blues to create the waves and the curls of the girl's hair was influenced by Japanese printmaker Hokusai's world-famous wood-block print The Great Wave off Kanagawa. "In the Drowning Girl the water is not only Art Nouveau," Lichtenstein explained, "But it can also be seen as Hokusai. I don't do it just because it is another reference. Cartooning itself sometimes resembles other periods in art—perhaps unknowingly ... They do things like the little Hokusai waves in the Drowning Girl. But the original wasn't very clear in this regard—why should it be? I saw it and then pushed it a little further until it was a reference that most people will get ... it is a way of crystallizing the style by exaggeration."

10. BRAD WAS A RECURRING CHARACTER.

While that cad Brad doesn't make into the frame of Drowning Girl, the mentioned boyfriend can be found in Lichtenstein's 1962 painting Masterpiece. There, a blonde woman says through speech bubble, "Why, Brad darling, this painting is a masterpiece! My, soon you'll have all of New York clamoring for your work!" But between the scenes something bitter must have befallen this mysterious beau. In 1963's I Know How You Must Feel, Brad ...”, he's out of frame, leaving a brooding blonde girl thinking, "I know how you must feel, Brad…"

11. CROPPING AND TWEAKING COMIC PANELS MAKES THEM UNIQUELY LICHTENSTEIN'S.

The provocative painter became known for focusing in on expressions of comic panels, and revamping their thought bubbles to play to a new context. In a recent re-assessment of Drowning Girl, Expressionist artist Vian Shamounki Borchert felt Lichtenstein's cropping suggests a woman drowning in her own tears over that dreadful Brad. Meanwhile, art critic Kelly Rand saw the hurt heroine as being "in a suspended state of distress," pointing out that the lack of any context leads the viewer to ask what’s happening. Had the boat and the heroine's lamentable beau been left in the frame, the meaning of the image would have shifted to a far more literal sense of peril.

12. APPROPRIATION FROM COMICS MADE DROWNING GIRL.

Drowning Girl had a coveted spot in some of Lichtenstein's early '60s art shows, and over the years has become one of his most adored creations. But even as his comic-inspired pieces made him famous in his 40s, a debate raged over whether this comic appropriation or parody was art at all. In 1963, New York Times critic Brian O'Doherty infamously declared Lichtenstein "one of the worst artists in America," bristling that the painter won praise as he "briskly went about making a sow's ear out of a sow's ear." Then in 1964, Life magazine covered the brewing art scene kerfuffle with the hurtful headline “Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?

13. THE TIDE TURNED FOR DROWNING GIRL.

Critics may have initially huffed, but over the decades, no one could deny that Lichtenstein's comic-influenced works had a lasting allure. Art collectors paid out enormous amounts to claim them as their own. Drowning Girl was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1971, and has been a proud part of their permanent collection ever since. Lichtenstein won redemption in 1986, when Life re-evaluated his works, declaring him "always the most thoughtful of the pop artists ... [who] had the most to say. Those cartoon blowups may have disturbed the critics, but collectors, tired of the solemnity of abstract expressionism, were ready for some comic relief. Why couldn't the funny pages be fine art?'' Ultimately, this daring artist's re-interpretation challenged art critics and broader audiences to examine their own biases. As his work grew in popularity, so did the art community's respect for comics and cartoons. Lichtenstein—who lived until 1997 and the ripe age of 73—had the chance to see the sea change he'd begun in the world's understanding of art.

14. WOMEN IN PERIL BECAME A THEME FOR THE PAINTER.

 A guest views 'Crying Girl' by artist Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein's Crying Girl
Ben Pruchnie // Getty Images

Now heralded as a "masterpiece of melodrama," Drowning Girl is by far the most famous of these. Other titles from this unofficial series include Crying Girl (1963), Crying Girl (1964), Hopeless, In the Car, and Oh, Jeff...I Love You, Too...But.... Each painting hints at a story, which the viewer is urged to imagine. It's believed this invitation to collaboration is a major part of what has made Lichtenstein's comic art, and particularly Drowning Girl, remain a popular attraction to museum visitors, even decades later.

15. LICHTENSTEIN BECAME CELEBRATED AS NOT JUST A PAINTER, BUT A STORYTELLER.

In 2012, Washington's National Gallery of Art helped put together a rousing Lichtenstein retrospective which did not shy away from his comic-inspired art, but rather relished in it. More specifically, a conversation emerged about the carefully selected images Lichtenstein plucked from comics. National Gallery curator Harry Cooper told NPR the artist "really looked hard for these comics that had a kind of crux of the story in them," then applied his unique perspective to them to open them up to an audience who might never touch a comic book, but could nonetheless be enchanted with their stories. With that, he helped elevate pop art to a place where it could not be ignored or written off as a "just a gimmick, just a joke." Though Lichtenstein experimented in many forms of art and style over his long career, it was his embracing of comics in works like Drowning Girl that secured his legacy as a painter, a pop art pioneer, and a visual storyteller in his own right.

18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer

iStock/MCCAIG
iStock/MCCAIG

Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. Rosé Wine Glasses; $60 for Two

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. Nerf N-Strike Elite Surgefire; $19

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Walmart

3. Bushel & Berry Plants; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon

4. Inflatable Donut; $11

An inflatable pool toy shaped like a pink donut with sprinkles
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon

5. Star Spangled Spatula; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked … with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. Mlb Hot Dog Branders; $6 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders (which come in a variety of different designs repping teams across the country) from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. Una Grill; $145

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, on your deck, or anywhere in between.

Find It: Una

8. Hamburger Grilling Basket; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon or Walmart

9. Copper Fire Pit; $120

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon

10. Bendy Straw Pool Noodle Float; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon

11. Griddler Deluxe; $115

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. Vintage Snow Cone Maker; $32

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon

13. Dachshund Corn On The Cob Holders; $6

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon

14. Ice Cream Sandwich Maker; $20

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon

15. Ue Wonderboom; $62

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable Bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon

16. Rollors Game; $50

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. Hammock; $177

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon

18. VSSL Survival Essentials; $45

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Moosejaw

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

A version of this story first ran in 2018. It has been updated to reflect current availability.

11 Unusual Cutting and Cheese Boards

Fred & Friends, Amazon
Fred & Friends, Amazon

Planning a wine and cheese party? Make sure what you're using to serve snacks is just as cute as your food is delicious.

1. Mouse Trap; $21

A cheese board shaped like a mouse trap

Fred & Friends, Amazon

At first glance, this item just looks like an oversized mouse trap. Ingeniously, the snapping part of the trap can be removed to reveal it's actually a cheese slicer. A chunk of cheese can be displayed and sliced on the 9-inch-long board—just don't invite any mice to the party.

Find it: Amazon

2. MOUSE BOARD; $30

A board shaped like a mouse hole with a mouse-shaped cheese cutter on top

Fred & Friends, Amazon

If a mouse trap is a little too macabre for your shindig, consider this adorable alternative. Assemble your cheeses on the 8-inch-long board and slice them up with a mouse-shaped knife that can be stored in the Tom and Jerry-esque mouse hole at the bottom.

Find it: Amazon

3. STATE SLATE; $20

Cheese and crackers arrayed on a slate cheese board

Bison Hill Stonecrafts, Amazon

Celebrate cheese from all over the United States with this patriotic slate. You can even grab a piece of chalk and write down the names of all the cheeses for hungry guests. Creator Bison Hill Stonecrafts will even personalize your board with a laser engraving, if you'd like.

Find it: Amazon

4. Log and Axe; $25

A cheese board shaped like a cut tree trunk

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Give your cheese a rustic presentation with this log and axe set-up. The solid beech cutting board is shaped like a log and comes with an axe-shaped knife to help you bring out your inner lumberjack.

Find it: Amazon

5. Mariner Wheel; $35

Invite all your sailor friends over for snacks with this nautical cheese board. When each of the four differently-shaped knives are placed into their respective holes in the board, the board looks like a ship's wheel.

Find it: UncommonGoods

6. Cheese Degrees; $20

A cutting board with a protractor design

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Make sure everyone gets an even amount of cheese with this obsessively precise cutting board. Whether you want perfect cubes or exactly portioned triangles, this cheese board can help ensure that everything is perfectly sliced.

Find it: Amazon

7. The States; $28

A cheese board in the shape of New York state

Amy Stringer-Mowat and Bill Mowat, UncommonGoods

Celebrate your home state with a bamboo cutting board created by New York-based woodworkers Amy Stringer-Mowat and Bill Mowat. You can see all the available state shapes in this PDF.

Find it: UncommonGoods

8. Voodoo Doll; $20

Pull out this voodoo doll-shaped board when you're feeling a little vindictive. You can hack away at meats and cheese and then store the knife appropriately in the wooden doll's back.

Find it: Overstock.com

9. Ampersand; $48

Delight your guests with some knowledge about where the ampersand comes from while using this board, which lets you fill a twisting line of crackers around three different cheeses.

Find it: UncommonGoods

10. Say Cheese; $19

A cheese board shaped like a smiling mouth

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Smile! It's cheese time. This mouth-shaped cheese board looks just as happy about the selection as you do. Underneath all the food, the board says "say cheese" in the center.

Find it: Amazon

11. The Obsessive Chef; $27

A cutting board with measurements on it

Fred & Friends, Amazon

This product comes with a series of lines to guide the cutter, including how to medium dice, small dice, brunoise, fine brunoise, batonnet, allumette, julienne, and fine julienne. The lines are burnished instead of printed, so they'll never get worn away.

Find it: Amazon or at one of the retailers below:

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

A version of this article first ran in 2017. It has been updated to reflect current availability.

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