8 Interesting Interpretations of Famous Artworks

What does the depiction of an amputated foot tell us about ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’? And is one secret in particular lurking behind the smirk of ‘Mona Lisa’?
Paintings like ‘The Scream,’ ‘Starry Night,’ and ‘Mona Lisa’ have been subject to some interesting interpretations.
Paintings like ‘The Scream,’ ‘Starry Night,’ and ‘Mona Lisa’ have been subject to some interesting interpretations. / Art Media/The Print Collector/Getty Images (‘The Scream’), VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images (‘Starry Night,’ ‘Mona Lisa’), Grant Faint/The Image Bank/Getty Images (frames)

Not all artists make comments or leave documentation confirming the intended meanings of their work—which means that some of the most famous creations in the history of art have been subject to multiple interpretations. Here’s a chronological look at some notable artworks that have been interpreted in many different (and sometimes controversial) ways. 

The Arnolfini Portrait (1434)  // Jan van Eyck

Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride (The Arnolfini Marriage) by Jan Van Eyck
‘The Arnolfini Portrait.’ / Fine Art/GettyImages

Jan van Eyck’s portrait of a couple in a room might seem straightforward at first glance, but it has become one of the most debated in the history of art. In the 20th century, Erwin Panofsky put forward one of the most famous interpretations of the work when he argued that it wasn’t just a portrait, but also served as a legal document (sort of like a marriage license) confirming that the wedding had taken place. That take became a subject of further debate when documentation was discovered showing that the Arnolfini couple didn’t marry until years after the portrait was painted, so if it was a certificate, it wasn’t of them. Nonetheless, Panofsky’s argument has continued to be referenced in discussion of the portrait and the history of how it has been interpreted.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1500) // Hieronymus Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch
‘The Garden of Earthly Delights.’ / Fine Art/GettyImages

The lack of information about the life of Hieronymus Bosch means that his work has been subject to a lot of interpretation. One lesser-known but eye-catching theory concerns a detail in The Garden of Earthly Delights, which some believe is connected to Bosch’s creation of the painting.

Detail of Hell (Right Panel) from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch
Detail of Hell (right panel) from ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights.’ / Francis G. Mayer/GettyImages

An amputated foot located near a pig in a nun’s habit is thought by some to be reference to a form of gangrene called “St. Anthony’s Fire,” which was caused by consuming grain contaminated by ergot fungus. Eating the fungus caused hallucinations (it was eventually used in the 20th century to create LSD), so one interpretation of the painting is that Bosch created it while he was experiencing the after-effects of ergot poisoning, which could account for some of the more outlandish scenes in the painting.

Mona Lisa (1503/1519) // Leonardo da Vinci

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
‘Mona Lisa.’ / Fine Art/GettyImages

Arguably one of the most famous paintings ever, the Mona Lisa has been subject to numerous interpretations and arguments, ranging from the location of the subject to whether Leonardo painted more than one version of it. But one of the most notable is the argument that the subject is not, as commonly assumed, the Florentine woman Lisa del Giocondo (whose husband commissioned the painting), but actually a self-portrait of the artist. Using computer comparisons of the Mona Lisa and a known self-portrait of Leonardo to create a work she dubbed Mona/Leo, scholar Lillian F. Schwartz has argued that he based the face of the Mona Lisa on his own. She even took her discovery to Unsolved Mysteries; you can watch the segment here.

Laura (1506) // Giorgione

Portrait of Laura de Noves - by Giorgione
‘Laura.’ / Leemage/GettyImages

Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco—best known by his professional name, Giorgione—is an artist surrounded by so much uncertainty that a book, 2021’s Giorgione’s Ambiguities, was written on the subject. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the intentions of one of his most famous paintings are still debated.

The painting most commonly known as Laura, which is housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, never clearly identified its subject—but it has been argued that the woman in question could be Laura de Noves, who is believed to be the same Laura who inspired many of the love poems of Petrarch. Another interpretation is that the laurel in the background was used to symbolize that the woman was faithful and true; it’s possible this symbolism was requested by the man who commissioned the painting.

Das Eismeer (1823-24) // Caspar David Friedrich

‘Das Eismeer.’
‘Das Eismeer.’ / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The art of 19th-century painter Caspar David Friedrich often explored humanity’s relationship to nature. One of his most evocative works was Das Eismeer (The Sea of Ice), which has been interpreted as a bleak work showing the vulnerability of humans in the face of natural disaster. It portrays a shipwreck in an icy sea, but with the ice instead of the wreck of the ship at the center of the image, symbolizing nature overwhelming the creations of humans. The jagged slabs of ice are also said to symbolize gravestones and the fatal outcome of the voyage. Friedrich was inspired by the Arctic exploration happening in that era, particularly William Edward Parry’s North-West Passage expedition in 1819-20. While Parry returned home safely from his voyage, the scene in this painting shows an expedition that ended in disaster, as so many polar voyages did. But the work has also been interpreted as a form of political symbolism supposedly expressing the artist’s unhappiness about the state of Germany itself and the restrictions on political freedom that were taking place at the time.

The Starry Night (1889) // Vincent van Gogh

‘The Starry Night’ with dark blue border on left and right
‘The Starry Night.’ / VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

The Starry Night is one of a number of paintings Van Gogh made of the world at night. In this 1889 work, Van Gogh exaggerated certain elements in this painting—including the colors and shapes of the stars in the sky—more than he did in other nighttime works, which has led to much speculation as to why.

Some have interpreted the painting—which was created during his time at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in the late 1880s—as a sign of Van Gogh’s mental health crisis. One related interpretation is that the swirls of yellow in the painting could be the consequence of Van Gogh having taken (and been overmedicated with) the drug digitalis; those who took a lot of the drug reported “seeing yellow spots surrounded by coronas,” according to a paper published in the Western Journal of Medicine.

The Scream (1893) // Edvard Munch

The Scream
‘The Scream.’ / Print Collector/GettyImages

With its depiction of a man yelling against the backdrop of a fire-colored sky, The Scream is one of the most famous images in the history of art. There has been much discussion about what caused the red sky that Munch painted: Some argue that it was inspired by the artist’s memory of seeing the vivid skies created by particles in the atmosphere after a volcanic eruption, while others suggest it’s more consistent with the appearance of nacreous clouds.

Étant donnés (1946-1966) // Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp was known for his playful approach to art—and arguably one of his greatest feats was pulling off the creation of his final work, Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau / 2° le gaz d'éclairage (or, in English, Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas …) in total secret during a period when it was assumed that he had given up art and was spending his time playing chess [PDF]. By peeking through holes in a door, viewers can see a scene showing the torso and legs of a naked woman lying on twigs and leaves; in her hand, she holds a lamp, and there’s a working waterfall in the background.

The artist worked on the assemblage for 20 years and left no explanation as to what it means; some have gone so far as to speculate that the work is an allusion to the murder of Elizabeth Short, also known as the Black Dahlia. (However, curators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the work resides, refute that interpretation, pointing out that Duchamp had started on Étant donnés in 1946, the year before Short was murdered.)

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