Top 10 Unsolved Art Mysteries
Who doesn’t like a good mystery, or even better, trying to solve one? And while not all questions have an answer, it’s fun to play with hypotheticals! Even the art world has a few, so let’s take a closer look, shall we?
1: The Unturned Rocks of Stonehenge
By garethwiscombe - https://www.flickr.com/photos/garethwiscombe/1071477228/in/photostream/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13278936
You must be living under a rock if you haven't heard of Stonehenge! But all puns aside, this curiously-arranged stone monument has stumped scholars, archaeologists, and historians for centuries.
Found in Wiltshire, England, the arrangements of the stones clearly show some sort of thought-out design and purpose behind them – kind of like coming across a sculpture or painting. The reason for its size and location is not known, and because of this, there's been much speculation about why Stonehenge was built and how.
Popular theories include Stonehenge being some sort of summoning circle for aliens, a graveyard, or even a structure created by the wizard Merlin. What do you think? What would you use a giant stone structure for?
2. Drawing the Nazca Lines
By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42787825
For something more “art-like” but still quite old, try researching the Nazca Lines, which are geoglyphs drawn in the Nazca Desert, Peru.
On the ground, they look like narrow yet long trenches that break the red soil of the desert. But from a bird’s-eye-view, you’ll literally get the bigger picture – a series of symbols that look like different animals and plants.
While this isn’t too difficult to create with today’s technology, what makes this a mystery is that its creation has been dated back to around 500 BC to 500 AD. The sheer scale of these drawings makes it a fantastic feat to accomplish, while its purpose is still a complete mystery!
Again, theories include the ever-popular aliens, or perhaps it was created by the Nazca people to serve as a calendar to remember important dates. Or maybe it was some sort of cultural or religious ritual, lost in the folds of time.
3. The Death of an Artist
By Vincent van Gogh - mwF3N6F_RfJ4_w at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21977797
The clues surrounding Vincent van Gogh’s death in 1890 seem to point to suicide – his struggles with poverty, severe depression, and overall poor mental health.
However, there were a few inconsistencies with said clues, such as how the gun was never found or testimonies on how two teenagers were bullying van Gogh not long before he was shot. This led to a few theories, such as being murdered or accidentally shot after getting into trouble.
Regardless, van Gogh passed away too early for his time, and the world lost a great artist and pioneer of post-impressionist art.
4. Caravaggio’s (not-so) Covert Crime
By Caravaggio - Self-scanned, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15216338
Speaking of murder mysteries, the baroque painter Caravaggio may have gotten away with one himself. A famous Italian artist from the 16th century AD often features human subjects in dramatic situations, evoking emotions through bold lighting and contrast that border on disturbing.
And perhaps he was disturbed himself, considering that he committed murder two years before painting The Beheading of St. John the Baptist. He escaped to Malta before he was caught and was even commissioned to paint this painting while being a fugitive.
What’s so mysterious is that centuries later, his signature was found in this painting, signed in St. John’s blood.
This is the only work he’s ever signed, and some say he depicted his own crime in this painting. But who knows? How he did it was never confirmed, and he pretty much got away with murder (but maybe not a guilty conscience).
5. The Elusive Banksy
By Dominic Robinson from Bristol, UK - Banksy Girl and Heart Balloon, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73570221
On the more modern and light-hearted side, we have the mystery of Banksy, a prolific street artist since the 90s whose satirical graffiti pops up on walls here and there, mainly in the streets of England. But while the art proves that Banksy exists, no one actually knows who they are.
Speculators think Banksy is most likely British, or at least live in Britain because most of their works are there, but other than that, little is known about this artist. But many more – especially fans of Banksy – believe that their identity should remain unknown, not only to add to their intrigue but also to protect them, as some of their more politically-inclined art could get them in trouble.
All that aside, there’s a sort of thrill imagining that the ordinary stranger next to you could be a famous artist, no? And so, some mysteries are best left unsolved.
6. Mona Lisa’s Smile
By Leonardo da Vinci - Cropped and relevelled from File:Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci, from C2RMF.jpg. Originally C2RMF: Galerie de tableaux en très haute définition: image page, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15442524
Ah, the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s most well-known work, and perhaps even the most famous painting in the world! Her eyes seem to follow you around the room and can see through your soul…
Besides how mesmerizing her eyes and smile are, the mystery was also a question of identity for a long time. After a lot of research, though, most believe that she’s Lisa Gherardini, an Italian merchant’s wife.
Nowadays, scientists are more interested in using infrared imaging to see what’s underneath the visible layer of paint, uncovering even more about the painting. This includes da Vinci’s initial sketch or tweaked things while painting her.
In any case, if you ever have a chance to go to the Louvre, see if you can solve the mystery behind the moving eyes or what makes her smile almost come alive.
7. The Polynesian Perplexity
By Ian Sewell - IanAndWendy.com Photo gallery from Easter Island, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1193567
Back to the more geographical side, Easter Island’s head-shaped monoliths are unmissable. Dating back to the 13th to 16th century, these were created by the Rapa Nui people, a Polynesian tribe that lived on the Island.
First off, it’s pretty impressive that they made so many (almost 900 total!), but the most impressive yet bizarre thing is how more than half are positioned on stone platforms that surround the Island’s coastline.
The mystery is similar to Stonehenge’s one – how were they moved? Some speculate that the Rapa Nui people cut down the trees, lined the logs up, and basically rolled the stones away from the stone quarry and to the coast to carve, which is why there was a significant lack of trees when the Island was discovered by the Europeans in 1722.
But these moai (i.e. monoliths) are really, really heavy – anywhere from 80 to 145 tones! So who knows – maybe it’s the aliens again, with their beaming technology that helped move these statues.
8. Just an Ordinary Girl?
By Johannes Vermeer - https://www.mauritshuis.nl/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55017931
While not as famous as the Mona Lisa, there’s another girl who sparks almost as much intrigue. This would be the Girl with a Pearl Earring, a lovely painting by Johannes Vermeer back in c. 1665.
She isn’t smiling like the Mona Lisa, and yet her eyes have entranced many from far and wide. And unlike the Mona Lisa, we still don’t know who she was, only that she must have been quite the muse to inspire Vermeer.
Not much is known about Vermeer’s personal life, either, so that also contributes to her mysterious identity. People think she might have been his mistress or daughter, but in the end, it seems like he’s managed to take this secret to his grave.
9. Mystery with a $10mil Reward
By Federal Bureau of Investigation - https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2013/march/reward-offered-for-return-of-stolen-gardner-museum-artwork/reward-offered-for-return-of-stolen-gardner-museum-artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43485034
This is like the Millennium Prize Problems, but of the art world, and more sinister.
The crime to solve is an art heist back in 1990, where thirteen artworks by several famous artists like Rembrandt and Manet were taken from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The art has been valued at $500 million, but that figure has likely gone up in the past few decades.
Reward money aside, the events and lack of clues surrounding the heist have offered little to no insight on who could have done such a thing or where the art has ended up. Not even the FBI could find many leads, and the trail has long gone cold.
Perhaps I’ll have to classify this as more of an “anti-art mystery” than an “art mystery”.
10. A Painting that Danced Away?
By Edgar Degas - https://art.nelson-atkins.org/objects/55627/dancer-making-points
For our last mystery, we have Edgar Degas’ Dancer Making Points. After being transported to the US to avoid World War II, it was eventually sold to Huguette Clark in c. 1955, a wealthy yet withdrawn lady.
She lived to the ripe old age of 104, spending the last twenty years at a hospital. But around a year after she moved, the painting had mysteriously disappeared from her apartment home. It reappeared a few years later and was sold to Henry and Marion Bloch by an anonymous man.
When Clark learned of this, she wanted to pursue legal action, but things got a little messy since she never reported it as stolen. The FBI also couldn’t find out how the painting was taken in the first place, though there have been rumors of the staff taking it or the doorman finding it in the bin.
Thankfully, everything was settled in the end, and the painting had been found. But how did it “disappear”? Was it theft, accidentally thrown out, or something else? Perhaps you can come up with your theories!