For every picturesque painting that is considered pleasing to the eye, there is at least one strange and bizarre counterpart. We usually avert our gaze from these so-called oddities, because, well, they’re just weird or uncomfortable to look at. But many of these challenging artworks have hidden meaning or strange background stories. Some of these paintings may have absolutely no "shock value" in today's society but were vilified in their time for breaking societal norms. We have collated our top 5 shocking paintings - some of which may come as a surprise!
1. Édouard Manet - Olympia (1863)
Édouard Manet was among the first and most important innovators to emerge in the public exhibition scene in Paris. Although he grew up in admiration of the Old Masters, he began to incorporate an innovative, looser painting style and brighter palette in the early 1860s. He also started to focus on images of everyday life, such as scenes in cafés, boudoirs, and on streets. His anti-academic style and quintessentially modern subject-matter soon attracted the attention of artists on the fringes and influenced a new type of painting that would diverge from the standards of the time. This painting shows a nude woman ("Olympia") confidently reclining on a bed, wearing nothing but a black ribbon around her neck, a gold bracelet on her wrist, Louis XV slippers on her feet and a silk flower in her hair - all symbols of wealth and sensuality.
One of the most shocking statements Manet made with his Olympia was the deliberate use of a real-life model, as opposed to a fictional, fantasy female for men to ogle over, as seen in Titian’s Venus. Manet’s model was Victorine Meurent, a muse and artist who frequented the Parisian art circles. She modelled for several of Manet’s paintings, including a bullfighter scene and that other shocking painting titled Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe, 1862-3.
While the woman who modelled for Manet’s Olympia was a well-known artist and model, Manet deliberately posed her in this painting to look like a ‘demi-mondaine’, or high-class working girl. Manet makes this blatantly clear by highlighting the model’s nudity, and the fact that she lies sprawled out across a bed. The arched black cat in the right was a recognized symbol of sexual promiscuity, while Olympia’s servant in the background is clearly bringing her a bouquet of flowers from a client. Women working as ‘demi-mondaines’ were rife across 19th century Paris, but they performed a secret practice that no one talked about, and extremely rare for an artist to represent it in such a flagrantly direct way. It was this that made Parisian audiences gasp with horror when they saw Manet’s Olympia hanging on the wall of the Salon for everyone to see.
2. The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch (c.1480-1505)
The infamous masterpiece was likely commissioned by Engelbert, Count of Nassau, for the Coudenberg Palace. From outer panels to inside panels, it visualizes the Biblical creation and humanity’s fate, inflicted by our own tragic flaws. The story begins on the outer panels where Bosch created a monochromatic image of the Third Day of the Creation of the World. The half-empty sphere illustrates the formation of Eden as the waters of the world seem to drain and separate. God is perched in the top right corner as he observes his handy-work.
When the outer panels unfold, they reveal three brightly colored panels depicting a common theme: sin. As your eyes move about, you’ll probably conclude Bosch has created an image of a human menagerie. The left and central panels utilize a common horizon line that carries your eyes through Eden. As you take it all in, you’ll also probably wonder what Bosch ate to conjure such surrealistic images. In the air, you’ll find tree-bearing humans sailing through the air atop a swan-lion hybrid. Down on the earthly side, we see humans engaging in all kinds of behavior in a variety of odd places; two figures are laid up inside a clam, two more are face to face standing on their heads, or just chilling in an oddly egg-like object.
Then, on the right panel, all hell breaks loose – quite literally. Most depictions of the fiery depths are quite tame compared to Bosch’s painting. At the top, we see a shadowy city of sorts, illuminated by the fires springing up around it. As your eyes dare venture further down, there’s a pair of ears with a knife protruding through them, humans gathering for shelter, and all manner of strange beasts consuming humans. Just take a look at the blue, bird-like creature towards the right side. Seated atop a toilet-like throne, he is mid-snack while also excreting another human. Throughout the whole panel, there are several musical instruments that symbolize the evil distractions our senses create. Those ears are the perfect example; the knife piercing them strongly represents that deceptive lure. Many of these symbols are taken straight from the seven deadly sins, themselves, which often leads us to believe that over-indulgence and consumption ultimately lead to our demise.
There are too many shocking details in this work to adequately cover her but one example may give an impression of how shocking this work would have been to audieces in the 16th century: we can see that a nun has manifested into a pig to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the clergy while dipping her pen in the ink pot attached to the monsters beak. She is writing the contract for the soul of the sinful man who has been damned by his selfish ways.
Hieronymus Bosch, The Gardens of Earthly Delights (Front Panels)
3. Dante and Virgil in Hell, William Adolphe Bouguereau
A weirdly interesting painting from the darker side of the Romantic period. French artist, William Adolphe Bouguereau took inspiration from a page of Dante’s Inferno, with a lovely setting- the eighth circle of hell conveniently set aside for falsifiers and counterfeiters. Sounds pleasant enough. That is until you see the smirking bat-demon creature flying above or the strange pile of bodies in the background or the two humans tearing each other to shreds.
Dante and Virgil in Hell is oil on canvas and currently hangs in the Musée d'Orsay, in Paris. It was painted in 1850 by William-Adolph Bouguereau. It is a one-off, the artist never returned to this theme; maybe the intensity of the scene brought hell too close for comfort! The picture shows us Dante, accompanied by Virgil, wandering through the eighth circle of hell, the sector reserved for counterfeiters and falsifiers. They stop to witness an infernal combat, an unending fight to the death. The horror of the action is forceful: we see one combatant savagely biting the neck of the other while brutally kneeing his back. The desperation and the agony is strongly evident in the tense, straining muscles and the determined, combative faces. Yet, there is beauty here: the perfect, muscular bodies are depicted in harmonious lines which suggest a bold, supple strength. There is nothing static about the positions of the bodies, the scene is a fleeting moment of the combat - we fully perceive the movement and the fury of the fight. This horrific fight is between two damned souls, both condemned to eternal combat. The hellish circle they inhabit is the eighth circle, reserved for those who cheat, falsify and counterfeit in order to immorally or illegally improve their lot at the expense of others. The biting fighter, Gianni Schicchi, is a usurper who fraudulently adopted a dead man's identity in order to obtain an inheritance. He was duly sent to hell. The other fighter is an alchemist and heretic called Cappocchio. In an age when heresy and alchemy were deadly sins, hell was the inevitable final destination.
The plot of the picture The Sin is thematically related to the “Banquet of Chestnuts”. This name was given to a scandalous dinner, allegedly held in the Papal Palace by the former Cardinal Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI on October 30, 1501. The banquet report was preserved in the Latin diary of the Protonotarius the Apostle and the ceremonies of Master Johann Burchard (it is called Liber Notarum), but its accuracy is disputed.
According to the chronicler, a banquet was given at Cesare’s apartments in the Palazzo Apostolico. Fifty prostitutes or courtesans were present to entertain the guests of the banquet. Burchard describes this scene in his diary: “On the evening of the last day of October 1501, Cesare Borgia arranged a feast at his chambers in the Vatican with“ fifty honest prostitutes, ”called courtesans, who danced in the afternoon with servants and other people present, first in their clothes and then naked. After dinner, candelabra with burning candles were removed from the tables and laid on the floor, and around were scattered chestnuts, which the naked courtesans picked up, crawling on all fours between the candelabra, while Papa, Cesare and his sister Lucretia watched. enes prizes for those who could perform the act often with courtesans. The winners were awarded with tunics of silk, shoes and other things. “
However, modern scholars cast doubt on the veracity of the story of the “Chestnut Banquet”. Its internal implausibility is noted, as well as the fact that it is mentioned only in Burchard’s memoirs. The painting presented today caused a scandal. The artist got it from critics and from ordinary people, not to mention the church, which accused Heinrich Lossow of all mortal sins.
Gods and goddesses are the epitome of beauty and are portrayed as such, even in their most unflattering moments. until Francisco Goya decided otherwise! He broke from tradition with this rendition of Saturn. Before we dive into that, let’s take a look at the story behind this strange painting. According to the myth, the titan, Saturn, had been told via prophecy that one of his sons would usurp him and take his power, Naturally, Saturn wasn’t fond of that idea. He liked his power and wanted to keep it. So, Saturn ate one of his sons. Good parenting move, right? What Saturn didn’t know is that his wife, Rei, had hidden her youngest son, Zeus. In the end, Zeus ended up conquering the titans. At the time Goya painted this, he was contemplating the influences of power on humanity and likely painted this mural, and others, on the walls of his home, the Quinta del Sordo. Ironically, this one was painted on the dining room walls. Here, Goya has created a strikingly dark image that reflects the influence of what is essentially, the ego, on our own behavior, here shown as daddy’s snack time. As if to suggest that power also affects our appearance, he has depicted Saturn as a goblin-like creature, something most would consider sub-human. Saturn does not appear strong or god-like at all; while he appears tall, his limbs seem rather fragile and mangled. His frantic gaze and frazzled appearance reflect his desperation to hold onto his remaining shreds of dignity juxtaposed with the very inhumane action of eating your own offspring.