The Horrifying Beauty Behind Famous Art Gallery Pieces

Art, whether visual, performance-based, musical, or literary, both shapes and reflects the culture that surrounds its creation. Although you can learn about the surface of each work in your local art gallery, there is often a story behind the artist and the piece itself. Below is a list of some of the most horrifying (and hauntingly beautiful) secrets hidden in creative works throughout history.


In June of 2013, the curator of the Egyptian wing of the Manchester Art Museum checked the surveillance tape after complaints were filed about visitors turning a certain 3,800-year-old sculpture. The 10-inch figurine of Neb-Senu turns a full 360 degrees over the video lapse, but no one is shown touching the sculpture. The curator’s explanation? Spirits. He claims that in the figure’s 80 years with the gallery, it hasn’t moved until now!

The Nightmare

The Nightmare remains Henry Fuseli’s best known work. The painting depicts a small gremlin-like creature sitting atop a woman’s chest. The woman lies supine, covered in languid white drapery. The Anglo-Swiss artist even went so far as to create a second, creepier version with darker colors and an even more terrifying creature. Even more horrific? The fact that numerous cultures possess some myths with a creature lying on one’s chest, constricting a person’s ability to breathe during sleep. For some, it is an elderly woman or witch. For Fuseli, it seems that it was this shadow beast. Currently, the piece can be found at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Saturn, The Worst Dad Ever

From Paul Rubens to Francisco Goya, we have all seen a scarring image of Saturn devouring his son in one art gallery or another. Pulling from the dark, twisted world of Greek mythology, artists love to portray Cronus’s act of filicide. The titan believed that he would be overthrown by his children. So, instead of taking chances, he opted to eat each of his children. Luckily, Cronus’s wife was aware of his scheme and gave birth to their son Zeus in secret. Each depiction of the tale is far darker than any Disney movie would have ever been able to portray. Goya’s piece currently hangs in Museo Nacional Del Prado, but you don’t have to visit the art gallery to experience the feelings of isolation, chaos, and fear associated with the image. Many copies of the original are available across the web as well as numerous variations.

Next time you visit an art gallery, look a little closer. There may be some dark secrets or stories hidden behind the piece. For instance, artist Walter Sickert was thought to be Jack The Ripper due to his obsession with the murderer’s handiwork and depictions of intimate details of the killer’s life. Van Gogh cut off his own ear. The surrealists tapped into their innermost nightmares and set them free. Get the whole picture when you look for the story behind the art!

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