Top 10 controversial paintings in Art History

What makes a painting controversial? People would say something that attacks our religious concepts can be controversial; some would argue, anything that contains nude matter is controversial. Well, nothing of this is wrong because people have general norms related to such matters. And paintings often become controversial when it goes against these commonly accepted norms. Matters also depend on the time and era we are living in. Then there is the painting style; Art is a subjective assessment, with different opinions from art critics and general viewers. An artist who has an unusual style of painting can also create controversy in the art world, arguing if the works created by that artist should be considered a piece of art or not. So you see, people are so complicated with such matters that there again can be controversy in deciding whether a painting is controversial or not.

Nevertheless, throughout history audiences have been offended and outraged by paintings that were socially, religiously or politically inappropriate. Artists used subject matters that were a taboo in social situations. This could be a matter relating to one human being or nudity or addressing a complicated moral issue. In this post, I have tried to analyze some of the paintings from history that were considered controversial. Read on as some might make you feel uneasy even today.

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10. Rokeby Venus by Diego Velazquez

Rokeby Venus by Diego Velazquez

This painting is the only surviving nude by Velazquez, a Spanish artist of the 17th century. Such  paintings were really rare during those times and due to its nude content it was officially discouraged by the Spanish inquisition. But Velazquez being King Philip IV’s painter did not fear making such paintings. Considerable controversy had taken place from time to time relating to history of this painting, but the main reason it made to top ten is because of the controversy  it faced in the later years. On March 10, 1914 this painting was mercilessly attacked by a woman named Mary Richardson. At first it was stated that the reason for her this action was provoked by the arrest of a fellow companion, but later in 1952, when interviewed she said that she destroyed the picture because she didn’t like the way men visitors gazed at it all day long. This act was observed as the representation of the feminist perception towards the female nude and that it showed a stereotypical image of feminism.

9. Sick Bacchus by Caravaggio

Sick Bacchus by Caravaggio

The painting shows a pale figure with blue lips which points at a serious disease called Syphilis. Syphilis is a sexually claimed disease which was extreme in the 19th century. The surprising fact about this painting is that it is a self-portrait of the artist himself. The artist, Caravaggio was suffering from the disease due to having multiple love partners in his life. The artist choosing himself to be painted as Bacchus (symbol in Greek mythology which stands for sexual liberation) is what makes this painting controversial. He had also killed his lover and lived the rest of his life running from authorities; adds up to the controversy of his paintings.

8. The Trench warfare by Otto Dix

The Trench warfare by Otto Dix

A painting that portrays the effects of World War I by Otto Dix who is well known for painting horrid war paintings. He himself was a German soldier and while on the front he was wounded and sent back to home where he started painting the vivid nightmares he had about the war during his stay. Otto Dix later became an art teacher at the Dresden Academy but when Nazi’s took over Germany, they asked Otto to step down from his Job. His war paintings were also burned saying it was a gruesome depiction of war.  ‘The Trench Warfare’ was the third in the three series paintings of the WWI by Otto. Otto was then forced to join the Nazi Government’s Reich chamber of fine arts and banned from making offensive paintings from there on

7. The Enigma of William Tell by Salvador Dali

The Enigma of William Tell by Salvador Dali

Shocking, weird, offensive and a lot other adjectives can be used to describe this painting from the very famous surrealist painter Salvador Dali. This is one of the strangest paintings to hang in any art museum. The reason that makes it a controversial piece of art is the way it represents Vladimir linen (the then Russian communist revolutionary, politician and political theorist). Andre Breton, the founder of surrealism, found this painting so outrageous that he and other Marxists surrealists wanted to destroy it and ruin the reputation of Dali. A lot of his other works are also provocative to look at but which made him famous. History also states that Breton’s anger was more of a professional jealousy. He thought that Dali’s art had become too commercialized and was threating the reputation and agenda of surrealists. After this Dali was no longer associated with the surrealists but he never left his paintings ever.

6. The last Judgment by Michelangelo

The last Judgment by Michelangelo

This is a fresco by Michelangelo on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. This painting was the reason of heavy dispute between the Catholic Church and those who appreciated Michelangelo’s work. The church stated that this painting was not meant for a chapel but rather for public baths and taverns for depicting nude figures in such a sacred place. All the genitalia exposed in the fresco were then censored by painting over with drapery after Michelangelo’s death. Later between 1980 and 1994 when the fresco was being restored, it was then that half of its censorship was removed which revealed various buried details.

5. The death of the Virgin by Caravaggio

The death of the Virgin by Caravaggio

Again a painting from Caravaggio. He was himself a controversial painter of the 16th century because he always painting the things as he wanted and not the way the church wanted. This is what makes this painting controversial as well. The church was outraged as soon as they saw this painting for many reasons. Firstly, because Caravaggio used a well-known prostitute of those times as the model of this painting. Secondly, Mary is considered a holy figure by many and according to the church Caravaggio had painted her as if she was just like everyone else. Also, that this painting was supposed to show Mary dying peacefully but looking at the painting, the figure suggested that she was long gone (due to her swollen feet and bloated stomach). Plus, they also didn’t like the way her legs were showing (Duh!).

4. The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins

Rokeby Venus controversial paintings

Thomas Eakins, the painter of this painting, had spent a large part of his career in scandals and controversy. When Eakins has submitted this painting to the exposition, it was rejected saying that it’s too gruesome to be called a work of art. The painting is controversial for both the odd representation of the figure of the patient, which is still not clear, is a male or a female and the displeasing procedure shown. Adding to the drama is the woman in the painting sitting aside, possibly the patient’s mother in distress. This blood-spattered and dull depiction of surgery had shocked the audience when it was first exhibited.

3. The Nude Maja by Francisco Goya

The Nude Maja by Francisco Goya

The nude Maja is the first in a two paintings series, the second being ‘The clothed Maja’ by Francisco Goya. The painting is controversial for obvious reasons of exposing a naked woman. The 1815 Spanish inquisitions had rejected the painting saying that it’s obscene and Goya had to paint a clothed one. In 1936 the former painting was returned to the Academy of Fine Arts. What adds to the controversy is that later in 1930, two sets of stamps depicting ‘The nude Maja’ was privately produced which the Spanish postal authorities had approved of but the US government barred from entering it into the country and returned the mails bearing the stamp as it was the first time a stamp represented a naked woman.

2. The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Toping second on the list is Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci. This painting has never failed to captivate the countless generations in its mystery and ongoing controversy. It still remains a suspense weather the speculations put upon The Mona Lisa are real or is it just a simple beautiful painting which it is supposed to be. It began at first by arguing that the painting has been trimmed and the panel on both sides of the painting has been removed as earlier copies had depicted column on both the sides of the figure. But later it was proved to be genuine and not edited. Then came the landscape, which seemed more than just a landscape to the speculators. They started to claim that the background contained hidden images of animals such as a lion, an ape and buffalos hovering in the air, even crocodiles and snakes and that Mona Lisa is actually an epitome of envy.  Then the epic smile, which seems different to everyone who looks at it. Also, the eyebrows and eyelashes, it was strange that Mona Lisa didn’t have any of it. And the list would go on and on.  If Vinci was alive today, he would be thoroughly amused by the way people interpreted his paintings.

1. The Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet

The Origin of the World by Gustavo Courbet
The image has been censored in the blog due to explicit sexual content

A very bold painting by Gustavo Courbet. This realistic, graphical eroticism in the name of painting still have the power to shock and trigger censorship. Gustavo tried to violate the public and he loved doing that via his paintings. But he never dared to cross the lines. He made ‘The origin of the world’ in protest against the Academy, where students were trained to draw the statues with stereotyped and camouflaged bodies. Courbet hated this formula and said he could only paint what he saw. Then started the paintings ride with controversies. In 1994 a French novel reproduced this painting on its book cover, which the French police removed from the stalls as soon as it was published. Similar controversy was repeated in 2009 in Baraga, Portugal. Later in 2011, Facebook also censored ‘The origin of the world’, disabling the accounts and pages about this painting. (better not to put up a picture)


Final Conclusion:  So, one can say that it really boils down to three major factors- sex, religion and politics when it comes to controversies related to paintings. All other issues link to or fall between those three only. So, if you can combine all the three factors and come up a piece of art, then voila! You are in news already.