Most Controversial Paintings in Art History

What are the most controversial paintings in art history?

Valid opinions have to incorporate a key premise of art history– that works of art must be assessed within their historical, political, and social contexts. Otherwise, “controversial” makes little sense.

How so? Imagine 1884, the year John Singer Sargent completed one of his best paintings, Madame X.

John Singer Sargent, Madame X.  Oil on canvas.  82 1/8" x 43 1/4".  Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916 (16.53).  Metropolitan Museum of Art.

John Singer Sargent, Madame X.  Oil on canvas.  82 1/8″ x 43 1/4″.  Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916 (16.53).  Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This portrait of the society beauty, Madame Gautreau, reveals decolletage and initially showed her right strap off her shoulder. Tame by 2011 standards, but the Paris Salon of 1884 was mortified.

Gautreau’s family was aghast, and persuaded Sargent to repaint the offending strap into “on” position.  (Read more about this and more famous paintings by Sargent).

As an additional reminder of context in art history… While Sargent complained that Gautreau’s beauty was so overwhelming she was “unpaintable”, a contemporary viewer might venture that the Madame sports a highly prominent, hooked, and rather unattractive nose, 19th century beauty or not.

So what does make controversial art? I venture it’s one (or a combination) of these factors:

Subject Matter: exemplified by Jasper Johns’ Three Flags, which some claimed desecrated the U. S. flag.

Albrecht Durer, Self-Portrait.  Oil on canvas, 1500.  26 1/4" by 19 1/4".  Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Albrecht Durer, Self-Portrait.  Oil on canvas, 1500.  26 1/4″ by 19 1/4″.  Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Technique and Materials Used: Jackson Pollock, for sure, but what about Albrecht Durer’s Self-Portrait (1500)? He rocked some boats by placing himself frontally, a stance used for the divine. (Read about other famous paintings by Durer).

Depiction of Political Situations: Antoine-Jean Gros’ Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Victims of the Plaque shows Napoleon munificently touching a plaque victim.  When you know that Napoleon himself had poisoned these victims, it’s propaganda by any other name. 

 Attribution is Uncertain: when artwork is newly attributed to famous artists like Michelangelo, the art history world cleaves into believers and non-believers.  Read more about the Met’s alleged Michelangelo painting,

Portrayal of Subject Matter: Although Madame X is a portrait – hardly a controversial genre – Sargent’s take on this genre was taboo.  Here are some other paintings with an unorthodox presentation of subject matter:

  • Edouard Manet and Olympia (1863).  Initially reminiscent of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), Olympia is actually the
    Edouard Manet, Olympia.  Oil on canvas, 1863.  4'3" by 6' 2 1/4".  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

    Edouard Manet, Olympia.  Oil on canvas, 1863.  4’3″ by 6′ 2 1/4″.  Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

    opposite of Venus: the latter is plump and round, gazes adoringly at the (male) viewer, and relaxes with her obedient, sleeping dog.

  • Manet’s lean Olympia, like her hissing black cat, looks menacingly toward her audience.  As Marilyn Stokstad notes, “…Manet in effect subverted the entire traditon of the accomodating female nude”.

Suffice it to say that critics despised Olympia at the 1865 Paris Salon.

  • Thomas Eakins and The Gross Clinic (1875). Although Realism was prevalent in the late 19th century, critics contended that The Gross Clinic was too realistic Realism.
  • Pablo Picasso and Les Demoiselles (1907): There’s nothing novel in art history about paintings of courtesans or harlots,  except when their faces are portrayed as African masks, with body parts virtually indistinguishable from backgrounds, thereby challenging the very ideal of beauty in art history.
  • Chuck Close, Big Self-Portrait.  Acrylic on canvas, 1967-68.  107 1/2" by 83 1/2" by 2".  Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

    Chuck Close, Big Self-Portrait.  Acrylic on canvas, 1967-68.  107 1/2″ by 83 1/2″ by 2″.  Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

    Chuck Close and Big Self-Portrait (1967-68).  Close took Picasso one step farther: classical, ideal beauty is no longer the domain of portraiture, which should instead acknowledge that the face of Everyman merited artistic consideration

Want to discover more about famous paintings?

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By |2018-03-24T18:25:51-04:00February 1st, 2011|Famous Paintings ebooks and Surveys|4 Comments

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  1. Bob Duggan February 1, 2011 at 2:56 pm - Reply

    Great list, Susan.

    If I can suggest one more artist for your controversial list, I’d nominate the man who called himself “the most outrageous man in Paris”–Gustave Courbet. Courbet’s “Origin of the World” qualifies as the most sexually explicit painting of the 19th century, and perhaps of all time.

  2. Susan Benford February 2, 2011 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    Yes, “Origin of the World” is a fabulous addition (though not an image I’ll post here!).

    I’d vote that Courbet shortchanged himself – he’s more likely “the most outrageous man in art history”, at least before contemporary art!


  3. Roger Conner September 16, 2013 at 2:59 pm - Reply

    I would say Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat”. David depict’s Marat as the great hero and poor victim of a terrible murder committed while Marat was bathing no less! Of course David, a supporter of the “Reign of Terror” glorifies the master of the “poison pen”, a mention by him in his “Friends of the People” revolutionary journal could send an innocent to the guillotine, he was famously quoted “five or six hundred heads cut off would have assured your repose, freedom, and happiness.” After the collapse of the Jacobins and the execution of Robespierre, the painting was hid, and later it literally could not be given away in France. Only in the 20th century has its revolutionary associations been forgotten and it has been considered, stylistically, a masterpiece of neo-classicism. But if you know the back story it is still like letting a neo-Nazi do a portrait of Goebbels, if you know what I mean…

  4. Susan Benford September 17, 2013 at 3:01 pm - Reply


    That’s a fascinating backstory about “Death of Marat” – it certainly casts the work in a different light.

    I’m reminded of David’s imposing painting, “Napoleon Crossing the Alps”, in which David portrays Napoleon on a rearing steed — truth is, Napoleon actually traveled the Alps on a donkey! Here’s a bit more about it:


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