5 Depressing Facts That Ruin Famous Art
Art brings tears to your eyes. Sometimes, it’s because you find it so moving. Other times, it’s just because it’s all so sad.
Art is pain. Pain and death. Understand this, mourn and only then are you free to truly appreciate anything.
Michelangelo Hated Doing the Sistine Chapel So Much
Behold, the Sistine Chapel, a complex work of art beside which all future magnum opuses must be compared. When you yourself devote time to a particularly elaborate embroidered cushion, and you consider taking a break for a beer, you ask yourself, “Did Michelangelo break for beer when he painted the Sistine Chapel?” He presumably did, many times, since painting the chapel took years, so you break for a beer, and we now forget where we were going with this.
Frescoes cover every wall of the Sistine Chapel, but the most famous part of the chapel is, of course, the ceiling. That’s where we have The Creation of Adam, which is just one of dozens of scenes of Biblical figures and prophets. The problem with painting art on a ceiling, though, is it’s really hard.
We don’t just mean it takes artistic skill or creative vision. We mean it’s physically hard. One popular story has Michelangelo lying flat on his back while painting the Sistine ceiling, which sounds downright cozy, but he actually had to stand on scaffolding and face straight up. Try doing that for just a few minutes, then think about what it felt like doing that every day for years.
“I've grown a goiter by dwelling in this den,” wrote Michelangelo, in a poem he penned about the experience. “My nape falls in, fixed on my spine. My breast-bone visibly grows like a harp... My loins into my paunch like levers grind. My buttock like a crupper bears my weight... Come then, Giovanni, try to succor my dead pictures and my fame, since foul I fare and painting is my shame.” Michelangelo didn’t even consider himself a painter, by the way. He preferred sculpting and had been roped into this project against his will.
On the same page as the poem, he sketched himself painting the ceiling. You’ll first notice Michelangelo’s flattering depiction of his own curves. Look next to goofy scrawls that he uses to represent the ceiling painting. It should tell you all you need to know about how much esteem he had for this work of his.
Michelangelo finished work on the ceiling when he was 37. Twenty-five years later, he came back and painted another fresco for the chapel’s altar wall, this one with more penises. Painting a wall is a vacation compared to doing a ceiling.
A Whole Lot of Real People Died Alongside the Terracotta Warriors
When the first emperor of China died in the third century B.C., the court made thousands of sculptures of warriors to accompany him in the afterlife. Constructing and burying these terracotta warriors took years. Then the endeavor was totally forgotten by history, until some random farmer looking to dig a well discovered the whole thing in 1974.
The whole complex is kind of creepy, in a these-mannequins-probably-come-to-life-when-you’re-not-looking sort of way. But at least it’s not like they went and killed thousands of real people and buried them with the emperor, the way the old stories say emperors used to do, haha! Except, yes, a whole lot of people did die making these sculptures, which is why the emperor’s tomb is surrounded by mass graves.
Check out the map of the complex below. You’ve got the Terracotta Warriors, and the emperor’s tomb lies a mile away. Close by are graves of various people who died working on the project. Then we have a separate mass grave of people who also died working on the project but wore handcuffs and iron collars, which would make them prisoners sentenced to hard labor.
The other sections here are where things get really juicy. After the emperor died, one child managed to replace him on the throne, but it wasn’t the oldest son. No, the next emperor, Qin Er Shi, murdered the oldest son, and we think we’ve found the slain bro’s remains buried here with a crossbow bolt still in the skull. Then, to make his claim to the throne extra secure, Qin Er Shi killed all his younger brothers as well. They’re the section marked “murdered princes.”
But what if the First Emperor had any illegitimate children out there? What if he had any unborn illegitimate children (he was just 49 when he died and was having plenty of sex right up until the end)? To take care of that, Qin Er Shi murdered all the royal concubines. We believe they are the remains labeled here as “mutilated skeletons.” Either that or those remains were skeletal warriors who rose up and had to be defeated, but that would actually be the less horrifying alternative.
The ‘Las Meninas’ Girl Had a Terrible Life
The below artwork is a cropped version of Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, painted in 1656. It influenced centuries of paintings that followed it — one time, Picasso did 58 different paintings based on this one, just for fun. That girl in the center is a princess, and several nieces assure us that being a princess is the greatest life possible.
She’s Margaret Theresa of Spain, five years old at the time of the painting. Her father was the King of Spain, while her mother was the daughter of Maria Anna of Spain, the king’s sister. Incest was accepted and indeed required for royalty in those days.
Margaret’s mother was 14 when she married her 44-year-old uncle. Margaret Theresa married her uncle as well. Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor, was another of Maria Anna’s children. Since Maria Anna was Margaret’s aunt as well as her grandmother, Leopold was Margaret’s cousin as well as her uncle.
When you engage in incest, experts suggest birth control, for fear of bringing recessive genes together and producing offspring with nasty diseases, or at least unsightly chins. As Holy Roman Empress, Margaret Theresa was most definitely required to have children. She married at 15 and had her first child at 16; he died before he reached four months. She had her second child a year later — this one would live to the age of 23 before dying after childbirth.
Margaret had her third child when she was 18. He died the same day he was born. She had her fourth child at 20; this one lived 14 days. Over the course of these five years, she also got pregnant two additional times, resulting in miscarriages. Then she got pregnant a seventh time, and this pregnancy killed her. She was 21 years old.
We can blame Margaret’s tragic life and death on 17th-century customs and 17th-century science. She herself, however, blamed it on 17th-century Jews and therefore ordered all Jews expelled from Vienna, so maybe she’s not the hero in this story.
FDR’s Portrait Caught the Moment of His Death
Unfinished works have their own special attraction. Consider, for example, the Athenaeum Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. He painted Washington’s head and shoulders, and that was pretty much all the time Washington was willing to spare and all the info Stuart needed. He never finished the portrait, but he used it as a model for other portraits he did of Washington without having to drag the guy back into the studio again.
Franklin Roosevelt also had an unfinished portrait. On April 12, 1945, he sat down with painter Elizabeth Shoumatoff. It was quite a time in history, with World War II drawing to a close, but he’d taken a few days off to visit the town of Warm Springs, Georgia. He’d gone to this retreat many times over the years for swimming (not a lot of kicking involved here, so he put all his energy into using his arms).
The portrait wouldn’t take long; this was no Sistine Chapel. Shoumatoff would paint him, then he’d leave and attend a barbecue in his honor. But while sitting for the portrait, he suffered a stroke, which killed him shortly after.
The painter captured FDR’s final conscious moments. We catch people’s final moments on camera fairly regularly nowadays, due to our penchant for filming ourselves when we juggle chainsaws, but it’s less common to manage the same thing through oil on canvas.
The ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’ Guy Died Young
“Do not go gentle into that good night,” says the first line of a Dylan Thomas poem. Sources say the title of the poem is “Do not go gentle into that good night” — no capitalization, just the first line again — because he gave the poem no title himself. Even if you don’t spend much time reading Welsh poetry, you know this poem from TV and movies. The line pops up in Independence Day, and Michael Caine recites the poem six or seven times in Interstellar.
Feel free to yell that opening line as a perseverance anthem, regardless of how old you are. But the poem is specifically about old people striving to stay alive. It’s about the sort of person some might argue ought to happily embrace death — “wise men at their end” — and the poem finally reveals it’s directed to the poet’s father. Thomas’ father was 75 when the poem was published and died the following year.
So, what about Dylan Thomas himself? When he grew old, did he go gentle into that good night, or did he rage against the dying of the light? Neither, as he never did grow old. He died a week after turning 39. Some people blamed alcohol, because all writers are contractually obligated to drink heavily, but an autopsy revealed no liver damage. One possible cause was an attempt to counter his drunkenness: the morphine injections his personal doctor gave him as a stimulant that night.
“Is that bloody man dead yet?” asked his wife that night, when she came to the hospital, also drunk. When she learned the answer was yes, they had to put her in a straight jacket, and they committed her to a mental institution.
Thomas has another death-themed poem, “And death shall have no dominion.” It’s a nice sentiment, but death does in fact have dominion, over us all.