1. Vincent van Gogh - Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette
We kick off our haunted art tour with the legendary Vincent van Gogh. The creation of this particular piece occurred during van Gogh's time at the prestigious art academy in Antwerp. It was an era where the meticulous study of anatomy, including the art of anatomical drawing, formed an integral part of the curriculum. Rather than approaching this exercise with solemn reverence, van Gogh, ever the iconoclast, infused his work with a dash of irreverent humor.
In this artwork, he dared to depict a human skeleton, gripped by a touch of whimsy, sporting a lit cigarette clutched between its teeth. The cheeky portrayal of the skeletal figure, juxtaposed with the symbolism of the cigarette, offers a glimpse into van Gogh's unique perspective. His distinctive brand of slightly rebellious humor is something that I will forever cherish and appreciate.
Vincent van Gogh, Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette, 1886, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI, USA.
2. Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare
Among his many masterpieces, "The Nightmare" stands as a haunting testament to Fuseli's prowess. This painting unfurls a chilling narrative, portraying a woman ensnared in the depths of a harrowing nightmare. Regarded as "a nightmare that causes nightmares" by many, it delves into the abyss of humanity's most profound fears. Fuseli's deft use of chiaroscuro imparts an intense emotional depth to the composition. As one gazes upon this work, it becomes all too easy to place oneself in the shoes of the tormented dreamer, to experience a palpable sense of dread. At its core, "The Nightmare" encapsulates a fear as old as humankind itself – the terror of vulnerability while in the embrace of sleep, a primal apprehension that resonates through the ages.
3. Katsushika Hokusai - The Ghost of Kohada Koheiji
From Romanticism to Japanese legend, Katsushika Hokusai's "The Ghost of Kohada Koheiji" offers a glimpse into a spectral world. In this painting, a murdered actor rises from the dead to haunt his wife and her lover, his gruesome appearance causing shivers down your spine.
Katsushika Hokusai, The Ghost of Kohada Koheiji ( from the series One Hundred Ghost Stories), 1830, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA.
Francisco de Goya, Saturn Devouring One of his Children, 1819-1823, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.
4. Francisco Goya - Saturn Devouring His Son
Francisco Goya takes us deeper into darkness with "Saturn Devouring His Son." This disturbing artwork depicts a gruesome scene from Roman mythology in which Saturn consumes his own children to prevent his downfall. Goya's "Black Paintings" series, which includes this piece, reflects his descent into a darker, more pessimistic state.
Goya stands as a unique figure in the realm of art, straddling the transition between the old masters and the dawn of the modern era. Throughout his lifetime, he achieved remarkable acclaim as both a Spanish Romantic painter and an accomplished printmaker. His artistic journey began under the tutelage of José Luzán y Martinez and Anton Raphael Mengs, ultimately leading to his prestigious appointment as a court painter under the Spanish Crown.
In 1793, a devastating illness struck Goya, rendering him deaf. This affliction brought a noticeable shift in his artistic expression, leading to a darker and more somber tone in his work. Among his creations from this period, one of the most haunting is the portrayal of a Romanized Greek myth where Saturn, driven by the dread of a prophecy foretelling his downfall, devours his own offspring.
5. Francisco Goya - The Dog
Among Goya's 'Black Paintings,' there is one that stands out—a haunting portrayal of a dog in distress. This austere and desolate artwork brims with poignant emotion as the terrified dog finds itself ensnared in the vast voids of emptiness. In this somber and solitary masterpiece, the canine appears to be sinking rather than swimming, teetering on the brink of being overwhelmed by an impending deluge. The fear etched into the canvas evokes a profound sense of powerlessness, perhaps echoing Goya's own personal battles with deafness and the weight of old age.
Francisco de Goya, The Dog, 1819-1823, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.
Francis Bacon, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953, Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, IA, USA.
6. Francis Bacon - Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X
Francis Bacon, a celebrated Irish-British painter, is known for his distinctive and unrefined artistic style, often exploring profound religious themes. Bacon's journey into the world of art was a later endeavor, as he spent most of his life meandering through various roles, including interior decorating, a life of indulgence, and a penchant for gambling. His creative focus often gravitated towards a single subject, delving into it intensely for prolonged periods.
Following the tragic suicide of his beloved, Bacon's artwork underwent a transformation, adopting a more somber and introspective tone, fixated on the inexorable march of time and the specter of mortality. Throughout his illustrious career, Bacon repeatedly revisited Velázquez's iconic Portrait of Innocent X, continually reinterpreting the original masterpiece. This relentless exploration of the original is widely regarded as Bacon's magnum opus, particularly his powerful utilization of a vivid purple color palette and bold lines that transform Pope Innocent X into a haunting figure, almost ethereal, as he gradually fades into the background.
7. Théodore Géricault - Heads, Severed
Théodore Géricault acquired human remains from the morgue to incorporate into his art. His series, known as "Anatomical Pieces," challenges traditional perceptions of artistic studies in human anatomy. By isolating these remains from their original bodies, Géricault transcends conventional anatomical representations, invoking a sense of intrigue.
Anatomical Pieces serves as a stark reminder of our inherent fear of mortality, emphasizing the inevitable decay and eventual obscurity of our own bodies. Géricault's work is profoundly unsettling in its morbidity, capturing the viewer's attention.
During this period, Géricault also undertook a commission to create a series of ten portraits of patients residing in La Salpêtrière, a mental asylum in Paris. These portraits, marked by their eerie quality, further reflect the artist's exploration of the human psyche and the unsettling aspects of existence.
Théodore Géricault, Anatomical Pieces, 1819, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, Rouen, France.
Salvador Dalí, The Face of War, 1940, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
8. Salvador Dalí - The Face of War
Salvador Dalí, renowned as one of the world's most iconic surrealist artists, was a versatile Spanish creative who dabbled in a multitude of artistic mediums such as painting, sculpture, film, and jewelry. His distinctive and eccentric style seamlessly meshed with the surreal, giving birth to his remarkable body of work.
This particular masterpiece came to life during Dalí's residence in California, deeply influenced by the harrowing experiences of wartime. The sense of perpetual infinity conveyed by the recurring faces within the eyes and mouth evokes an unending haunting by the memories of those lost in an everlasting war. The stark and desolate background against which the portrait is set may allude to the isolation and desolation that often accompanies the weight of depression.
9. William Blake - The Ghost of a Flea
In another eerie creation by the visionary artist William Blake, we delve into the unsettling realm of "The Ghost of a Flea." Drawing inspiration from a spiritual vision, Blake's macabre masterpiece portrays a peculiar fusion of human-like traits in a flea. This enigmatic artwork prompts us to ponder the depths of human nature, particularly its darker aspects. The use of somber and muted tones amplifies the painting's spine-chilling ambiance.
In a similar vein, Blake's unsettling portrayal of "The Great Red Dragon and The Beast From The Sea" draws inspiration from the Book of Revelations in the Bible. This nightmarish composition unveils a menacing representation of the devil looming over a seven-headed sea creature. The dark and subdued color palette intensifies the horror and theatrics of this artwork. One can't help but shudder at the thought of encountering these unearthly entities on a moonless night!
William Blake, The Ghost of Flea, 1819–20, Tate Gallery, London
Zdzislaw Beksinski, Untitled, 1894, Muzeum Historyczne w Sanoku, Sanok, Poland.
10. Zdzislaw Beksinski, Untitled
Zdzisław Beksiński, a Polish artist known for his focus on surreal dystopian art, crafted a unique style often described as a fusion of Baroque and Gothic influences with expressive elements. Beksiński originally trained as an architect but quickly discovered that his true passion lay in the realms of sculpture, photography, and painting. His art frequently delves into the depths of anxiety, particularly evident in his later, more eerie creations.
In this unnamed and foreboding masterpiece, we are confronted with a haunting portrayal of two skeletons enfolded in a macabre embrace. Painted in somber, earthy-red tones, this potent artwork encapsulates the eternal struggle between the pursuit of life and the inescapable grasp of death. The piece evokes a profound emotional response, tapping into primal human fears.
I could feature any of Beksinski's paintings in this description. This Polish artist, tragically murdered in his home in 2005, is renowned for his surreal-expressionist masterpieces that continue to captivate and intrigue art enthusiasts.
11. Edvard Munch - The Scream
This artist is one of Norway's most renowned figures - Edvard Munch, a painter and printmaker whose work drew inspiration from psychological themes and expressionism. Raised by his aunt and a deeply religious father, he once reflected, "My father had a temperament marked by nervousness and obsessive religiosity, almost to the point of psychoneurosis. From him, I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death were my constant companions since the day I was born." Munch's childhood was marred by poor health, and he turned to painting to alleviate the monotony of being kept home from school. His fertile imagination was consumed by eerie visions, fueled by ghost stories and religious doctrine.
Subsequently, he pursued his artistic education at the Royal School of Art and Design in Kristiania (present-day Oslo). The iconic masterpiece "The Scream" was born from a moment of profound emotional turmoil. As Munch walked home one evening while the sun set, he felt as though nature itself was screaming. The blood-red sky in the painting intensifies the overwhelming sense of dread, with the central figure appearing to "scream" in the grip of anxiety.
Edvard Munch, 1893, The Scream, oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard, 91 x 73 cm, National Gallery of Norway
Caravaggio, Medusa, 1597, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy.
12. Caravaggio, Medusa
In Greek mythology, Perseus famously wielded the decapitated, snake-haired head of the Gorgon Medusa as a formidable shield, capable of petrifying his adversaries. Fast forward to the 16th century, Medusa took on new symbolic significance, representing the victory of reason over the whims of the senses. This transformation could be one reason why Cardinal Del Monte entrusted Caravaggio with the task of painting Medusa as a central figure on a ceremonial shield, which was later presented in 1601 to Ferdinand I de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The renowned poet Marino boldly asserted that this emblematic depiction signified the Duke's unwavering bravery in vanquishing his foes.
13. Odilon Redon, Smiling Spider
Odilon Redon went through an intriguing phase in his artistic journey when he created works such as the enigmatic Smiling Spider. This spider exudes an air of sly mystery, as if it holds secrets known only to it. Redon's noirs were populated with a surreal menagerie of beings, including cyclopes, grotesque animals, and plants with human features, all of which are simultaneously unsettling and captivating.
While the Smiling Spider might not be as eerie as some of Redon's other masterpieces featured in this article, it still has the potential to send shivers down the spine, especially for those afflicted with arachnophobia. Apologies to anyone with arachnophobia; this one might be the most unsettling of them all!
"Odilon Redon, Smiling Spider, 1891, private collection