The Most Intriguing Stories Behind 5 of the World’s Most Popular Paintings


Artistic inspiration is, for the most part, a fickle thing. Between fixation on a muse and random bursts of creativity, there’s no real way to predict when or how inspiration will strike.

The randomness of it all has led to quite the number of interesting stories throughout art history, and some of the most popular paintings of all time have truly fascinating origins. Some of them are by chance, others by reaction, and some were conceived out of crippling anxiety, as in the following pieces:

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871): Convenience

Whistler's Mother, by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

James Whistler’s most famous work might have happened by accident. It’s said the painting’s original subject pulled out of modelling for the artist. Since the work was to be study more on the interaction between form and color than of the subject itself, the artist asked his mother Anna—who was conveniently living with him at the time—to take the model’s place.


According to legend, Whistler had conceived the piece with the model standing, but relented on the idea when his mother felt too uncomfortable with the pose. With that, Anna settled into her now-iconic position. To think that one of the world’s most famous paintings came into being as the result of a substitution only adds to its timeless mystique.

Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962): Unhealthy eating habits

Campbell’s Soup Cans, by Andy Warhol

Tracing the origins of Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup Cans is a tricky endeavor, as there are multiple conflicting reports regarding its inspiration. According to one of his close friends, Ted Carey, Warhol was looking to differentiate himself from Roy Lichtenstein, whose comics-inspired pop art closely mirrored his own. The gallerist Muriel Latow suggested he paint an instantly recognizable, everyday object: the Campbell’s soup can.

Ronald Tavel, the screenwriter for Chelsea Girls and many other underground films by Warhol, offers a different account: The artist allegedly told him that he wanted to paint “nothing” and saw the cans as the “essence of nothing.”

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Regardless of how Warhol came up with the idea, it’s clear their beginnings as artistic subject matter came from personal experience. According to his brother, Paul Warhola, everything Warhol did was a significant part of his life. During their youth, Warhola said their mother served the soup every day for lunch, and Warhol picked the flavor.

Words from Warhol himself supported this claim. In an interview about the cans, Warhol said, “I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for 20 years, I guess, the same thing over and over again.”

Of course one shouldn't drink the soup on a daily basis. A can of Campbell’s soup has, on average, more than the recommended amount of sodium one should consume in a day.

Guernica (1937): Nazi bombings

Guernica, by Pablo Picasso

Had it not been for the Nazi party, Pablo Picasso’s most recognizable masterpiece may not have existed.


On April 26, 1937, Germany—under the command of Adolf Hitler—bombed the Spanish town of Guernica. Hitler was supportive of General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War, and Guernica was deemed a strategic location for Franco’s Republican opponents. The bombing allegedly lasted more than two hours, killing somewhere between 170 to 300 people.

The Republican leader Jose Antonio Aguirre, however, inflated the numbers in a statement made after the siege. He reported 1645 deaths and 889 wounded, which some experts believe was a ploy to drive up support for their side.

At the time of the bombing, Picasso was living in Paris, and was working on a mural to be displayed at the Paris Exhibition later in the summer. When news of the bombing reached him, he immediately changed his plans and began work on Guernica. The painting depicts the chaos wrought by Germany’s attack, and contains symbolisms for Picasso’s own protests against fascism.

The Persistence of Memory (1931): Dairy and the subconscious

The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dali

The melting clocks present in Salvador Dali’s most recognizable work are, depending on the viewer, a creative interpretation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, or a statement on how memory warps one’s experience of time. If we are, however, to take the surrealist’s word for it—and his word was often Dadaist to the point of unreliability—the clocks represent something far less ambitious: runny Camembert cheese.

It should be noted that The Persistence of Memory and a great deal of Dali’s other works were created using his Paranoid-Critical Method, in which he painted shortly after coming out of a self-induced hypnagogic state. This primarily involved taking short naps and jarring himself out of them. While still caught between sleep and waking, he would capture “photographs” of whatever his mind showed him.

In the case of Memory, it’s believed the melting clocks came from a childhood medical check-up, in which he confused “montrer langue” (“to show the tongue”) as “montre langeur” (“languid watch”).

Or it could simply have been his subconscious was still fixated on the cheese.

The Scream (1893): Existential agony


Edvard Munch’s masterpiece is one of the most recognizable pieces in global art, in large part because of the tremendous sense of dread the image conveys. What surprises many is the fact the scene is anecdotal: Munch was depicting a real-life experience within The Scream. In one of his diary entries from 1892, he wrote the following account:

I was walking along the road with two friends
– the sun was setting
– I felt a wave of sadness–
– the Sky suddenly turned blood-red
I stopped, leaned against the fence
Tired to death– looked out over
The flaming clouds like blood and swords
–The blue-black fjord and city–
–My friends walked on– I stood
there quaking with angst– and I
felt as though a vast, endless
Scream passed through nature

Every detail in the post-impressionist work, from the figures in the background to the blood-red clouds, was taken directly from this terrifying moment in Munch’s life. He constantly worried he’d inherited his father’s mental issues—what he referred to as “the seeds of madness”—and The Scream was, in a sense, a portrait of the artist succumbing to the existential angst brought about by these fears. 

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