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Symphony in White

Vandalized Artworks: 5 Famous Defaced and Damaged Paintings 1024 291 Kathy

Vandalized Artworks: 5 Famous Defaced and Damaged Paintings

In February of this year, a “bored” Russian art gallery guard doodled on Anna Vandalized Artworks Three Figures painting. Drawing eyes on two of the figures with a ballpoint pen, the guard defaced the painting worth over $1.4 million.

Whilst the gallery blamed a temporary “lapse in sanity” – it’s not the first-time valuable paintings have been shockingly vandalized.

Great works of art evoke strong emotions, connecting with the viewing public in a truly unique way. Because of this however, they frequently attract strange behavior or political statements. These instances provide fascinating insights into the way artistic masterpieces become part of the public imagination.

With these anarchistic acts in mind, here are five of the most astonishing examples of art vandalism throughout history. From elbows through canvases to meat cleavers and acid attacks – there’s a reason we’re told “don’t touch the art”!

What is artistic vandalism?

Before we take a look at famous examples of damaged and defaced paintings, it’s worthwhile exploring exactly what “art vandalism” means.

Artists have long altered (and sometimes even destroyed) their own artworks. Equally, many contemporary artists undertake collaborative and communal approaches to art, building upon (and sometimes completely reworking or destroying) the work of others.

For instance, the artist Ai Weiwei broke a million-dollar Han Dynasty Urn in 1995, documenting its destruction in three black and white photographs. A protest against Chinese communism, the work was certainly controversial. But was it “art vandalism”?

Willful defacement and destruction of art stretches back to the 455 AD Vandal Sack of Rome and even earlier. Iconoclasm was widespread during the subsequent English Tudor Reformation. The Germans even specifically refer to “Beeldenstorm” (translating as “statue storm”) relating to the destruction of Catholic art and artifacts.

Despite this, the term “vandalisme” was only coined in 1794 by Henri Grégoire (the Bishop of Blois in France). He used it to describe the destruction of artwork in the French Revolution.

In this context, art vandalism refers to purposely defaced or damaged artworks. It also applies to art in public institutions such as museums or galleries, rather than within an artist’s studio or public graffiti.

So, what famous paintings have been destroyed, damaged and vandalized? Here’s five examples…

Five famous art vandalism cases

1. Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (c.1503-1506)

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of the most famous and recognizable portraits of all time.

This made the painting’s vandalism even more shocking, when in 1956, a gallery-goer threw acid at the artwork. That same year, a Bolivian man (Ugo Ungaza Villegas) threw a rock at the painting, chipping the paint.

After these two attacks, the Mona Lisa now sits behind bullet-proof glass. This didn’t deter would-be vandals, however. In 1974, a disabled woman upset at the Tokyo National Museum’s lack of handicapped access (where the painting was on loan at the time) spray-painted the glass with bright red paint.

In 2009, back at the Louvre, a Russian woman threw a gift-shop mug directly at the painting. Whilst the glass shattered, the painting was thankfully undamaged. Protesting a recent decision to refuse her French citizenship, the vandalism did nothing to warm the French government to her case.

2. Rembrandt Van Rijn, The Night Watch (1642)

Like the Mona Lisa, Rembrandt Van Rijn’s The Night Watch is the victim of repeated instances of art vandalism.

In 1975 an unemployed schoolteacher cut the painting in multiple zig-zag patterns. Quickly apprehended by gallery guards, the man entered a psychiatric hospital soon after. He sadly committed suicide the following year.

Repairs to The Night Watch took six years, and faint traces of the attack are still visible today.

In 1911, a Dutch Navy cook attempted a similar attack but was unable to penetrate the painting’s thick varnish. In another attack in 1990, an escaped psychiatric patient threw suspected sulfuric acid on the artwork. Luckily, gallery staff efficiently neutralized the chemical before it harmed the paint.

Rembrandt also has the unusual accolade of a double mention on this list. In 1985, his mythological painting Danaë (1636) suffered an acid attack in the Hermitage Museum in Russia.

Subsequently judged insane, the culprit tossed sulfuric acid onto the canvas before slashing the painting twice with a knife. He completely destroyed large swathes of the painting as a result. The subsequent conservation and restoration efforts took a staggering twelve years. After this unfortunate event, the painting now hangs behind armored glass.

3. Diego Velázquez, Rokeby Venus (1647)

Painted between 1647 and 1651, Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus is a truly beautiful yet controversial artwork. As a famous nude painting, it drew the attention of the Canadian Suffragist Mary Richardson. In 1914, she slashed the painting seven times with a meat cleaver.

Speaking in a 1952 interview, she described the way male visitors to London’s National Gallery “gaped at it all day long”. As well as protesting the objectification of the female form, Richardson drew attention to the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst (the famous Suffragette leader) the previous day.

She described her destruction of the “most beautiful woman in mythological history” as a statement against the British government’s jailing of Mrs Pankhurst. Richardson labeled Pankhurst as the “most beautiful character in modern history” for her tireless campaign for women’s votes and rights.

Richardson’s aim of permanently damaging the painting didn’t come to fruition, however. The gallery’s chief restorer successfully restored this artistic masterpiece.

Sentenced to six months imprisonment, Richardson received the maximum sentence allowable for destruction of artwork in the UK.

4. Claude Monet, Argenteuil Basin (1874)

Claude Monet’s Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat depicts a serene autumn scene. A small sailboat gently glides through the waters surrounding Argenteuil, a small commune on the outskirts of Paris.

In 2012, Andrew Shannon shattered this tranquility by punching straight through the canvas. This outrageous act resulted in a hole over one foot wide, covering a quarter of the painting. Described by the National Gallery of Ireland Director as “huge damage, shocking damage” the painting was feared irreparable.

Despite this, a resolute team of conservators meticulously worked on the masterpiece (valued at over $13 million) for eighteen months. Today, the damage is barely noticeable.

Sentenced to five years for the crime, Shannon’s legal defense unsuccessfully claimed he’d fallen against the painting during a fainting fit. Today, the painting remains carefully protected behind a thick glass casing.

In another special mention, Monet himself committed a famous act of art vandalism. A hotly anticipated Paris exhibition of his art was about to launch in 1908. Before the doors opened however, the artist destroyed all his paintings with a knife and paintbrush.

The incident provoked heated public debate about whether artists had the legal right to destroy their own work. It prompted one writer in the New York Times to sardonically comment “it’s a pity, perhaps, that some other painters do not do the same.”

5. Pablo Picasso, The Dream (1932)

Last but not least on this list of art vandalism is Picasso’s Le Rêve. Depicting the artist’s primary model and muse Marie-Thérèse Walter, the artwork is a stunning example of Picasso’s cubism.

In 2006, the painting’s owner (Casino magnate Steve Wynn) sold the portrait for $139 million. Just days before the final exchange, Wynn accidentally backed into the painting. Whilst this wasn’t purposeful art vandalism, it certainly was shocking! His right elbow created a six-inch hole in the canvas, leading the buyer to pull-out of the sale.

Luckily for Wynn however, the painting was fully repaired just eight weeks later. Although the restoration cost $90,000 no visible damage remained. The incident led to Wynn’s comedic nickname of the man with the “40-million-dollar elbow”.

The original purchaser also re-committed to the deal in 2013. It eventually sold for an even higher price of $155 million. All’s well that ends well?

Protecting artworks for the future

With their unique ability to inspire creativity, evoke passion and assist communication and learning, the great masterpieces of art are truly irreplaceable.

Each painting represents an artist’s unique vision and moment in history. Great paintings elucidate the development of art movements, techniques and cultural shifts. Consequently, art galleries and museums undertake enormous efforts to restore damaged paintings.

Art galleries exist to allow the public to get up close and personal with great art. This naturally comes with risks, despite the significant security and safety protocols in place.

To enable careful conservation, art galleries often have extensive insurance policies covering the masterpieces in their care. In addition to stringent measures such as safety glass and preventing visitors concealing weapons in backpacks or umbrellas, many galleries produce digital files of their most famous paintings.

This means that should damage occur, high resolution images help conservators capture the exact colors and composition of the paintings, with a reliable record to work from.

Reproduction Gallery proudly boasts a unique collection of hand-painted museum quality oil painting reproductions. Browse our most popular paintings and find artwork that enriches your life and your walls.

Whistler’s Symphony in White 800 316 Kathy

Whistler’s Symphony in White

Whistler’s Symphony in White:

Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler

Joanna Hiffernan played an essential role in Whistler’s early years as an artist.

From 1860 onwards, she served as his muse, model, lover and confidante. He painted, sketched, etched and drew her many times over his career – most notably in White Girl: Symphony in White, No. 1.

Despite this, Joanna Hiffernan’s name is little-known, even within the artworld. A recent show held at the Royal Academy in London (an institution that previously rejected this masterpiece of modern art) seeks to change this.

Inspired by this exhibition, today we’re shining a light on this influential woman and her work with James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Before we take a look at Whistler’s most famous painted portraits, who exactly was “the white girl”?

Who was Joanna Hiffernan?

Baptized in Limerick, Ireland in 1839, little is known of Joanna’s early life. We do know that by 1843 however, her family joined thousands of impoverished Irish migrants in London. Fleeing the effects of successive crop failures and rural poverty, she spent much of her early years in the English capital city.

Whistler was also an immigrant in London. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, he undertook his early art education in Paris in 1855, moving to London shortly after.

The pair met in 1860, and commenced an artistic and romantic partnership that changed the course of modern art…

What inspired Whistler to paint Symphony in White?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini (c1850) is frequently cited as an early inspiration for Whistler. Depicting the moment of the Annunciation in stark realism, a red-haired Mary appears paralyzed with shock and fear in the presence of her angelic visitor. The angel hands Mary a sprig of White lilies, symbolizing her transition from chastity to pregnancy.

Another inspiration came from Frederic Watt’s striking Lady Dalrymple c1851. In this portrait, the woman wears a loose-fitting, simple dress whilst standing on the balcony of Little Holland House in Kensington.

Ultimately however, Whistler’s artistic inspirations lay in color, harmony and “art for art’s sake”.

Contemporary commentators accused Whistler of capitalizing on the runaway success of Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White novel. Whistler categorically denied these claims, however. He described the painting as simply representing “a girl in white, standing in front of a white curtain”.

Of course, another key inspiration for Symphony in White was Whistler’s infatuation with Joanna Hiffernan. Writing to the artist Henri Fantin-Latour, Whistler described how Hiffernan had “the most beautiful hair you have ever seen.” He spoke of her copper-toned locks as “Venetian as a dream.”

Whistler’s paintings of Joanna Hiffernan

In addition to Symphony in White, Whistler created several famous painted portraits of Joanna Hiffernan throughout his career.

After his move to London, Whistler initially lived at respectable Sloane Street. He subsequently moved East to the Docklands area of London. His friend George Du Maurier described Whistler “working in secret down in Rotherhithe” amidst the most “beastly set of cads and every possible annoyance”.

Despite his friend’s consternation, Whistler painted some of his best-known paintings here, including Wapping on Thames. The painting prominently features Hiffernan alongside the French artist Alphonse Lagos.

Painted between 1860 and 1864, critics were concerned by the lack of an identifiable moral and the low neckline of Hiffernan’s dress. Despite this, Dante Gabriel Rossetti described the work as “the noblest of all the pictures” Whistler had created.

Hiffernan also appeared in another East London painting, Battersea Reach (1862). Her red hair and white dress are just visible as a ghost-like presence on the riverside.

She also features in Whistler’s explorations into Japonisme, notably Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks and Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen (both painted in 1864).

As well as numerous drypoint etchings (revealing a touching insight into the couple’s intimate relationship), Hiffernan also appears in Whistler in his Studio (1865). In this composition highly reminiscent of Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas (1656), Whistler also stares out of the canvas.

From his studio, Whistler directly challenges the viewer’s gaze, raising issues of pictorial ownership and his own “possession” of Hiffernan.

Artistic possession and partnership

Whistler was deeply possessive of Hiffernan throughout their entire relationship. He refused to “lend” her to the painter Frederick Sandys, who requested Hiffernan for his portrait Gentle Spring (1865).

Ironically however, Sandys hired Emelie “Millie” Eyre Jones for the work (the second woman in Whistler’s later Symphony in White, No. 3). The two paintings hung side by side in direct competition at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1867.

The only other artist “allowed” to paint Hiffernan was Whistler’s friend Gustave Courbet. The two men (accompanied by Hiffernan) went on a memorable holiday to the Normandy Coast in 1865.

Here, Courbet described Hiffernan as a “superb redhead” and painted her portrait in Jo the Beautiful Irishwoman (1866). Courbet refused to ever sell the painting, instead painting three additional versions for sale.

Before his death in 1877, Courbet wrote to Whistler nostalgically recalling their trip with Hiffernan. He described how she “sang Irish songs” and “played the clown” to amuse the two men. Courbet opined she sang so well because she had the true “spirit and distinction of art”.

The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler

Originally titled “The White Girl”, Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1 is actually one of three paintings depicting Hiffernan in her iconic white dress.

The first Symphony in White (1861-3) was rejected by the highly traditional Royal Academy. Joanna described how “Millais thinks it splendid” however, saying it was “more like Titian” than anything he’d previously seen.

She added comically “Jim says for all that, the old chuffers [at the Royal Academy] may refuse it all together.” The painting was simply too abstract for art audiences more used to narrative works.

Later displayed at the 1863 Paris Salon des Refusés, one critic described the work as a Symphonie du Blanc. After this, Whistler changed the name.

The painting caused a great sensation (both for and against) in Paris, helped in no small measure by its display alongside Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe.

Variations on Whistler’s Symphony in White

After the significant publicity of his Symphony in White, Whistler painted The Little White Girl, otherwise known as Symphony in White, No. 2. Here, Hiffernan wears a fine white muslin dress, standing in front of the fireplace at Whistler’s Chelsea home.

In the painting, Hiffernan’s fan features a woodcut by Hiroshige (The Bank of the Sumida River). The same Hiroshige print is also visible in Whistler’s Caprice in Purple and Gold. 

The white and blue porcelain further references Whistler’s growing fascination with Japonisme. In a further intriguing detail, Hiffernan noticeably wears a wedding ring. She never married, however.

Completing the trio is Symphony in White, No. 3, painted between 1865 and 1867. Featuring Hiffernan alongside Emelie Jones (the model for Sandy’s Gentle Spring), Whistler was particularly proud of this painting. In a letter to Latour, he described the “very delicate gray background” and Jo wearing the same white dress as his earlier work.

Whistler also claimed Hiffernan’s figure was the “purest” he’d ever created. Other artists clearly agreed, with Edgar Degas sketching the painting at its 1867 exhibition in Paris.

Why is Whistler’s Symphony in White important?

Aside from being a true masterpiece in its own right, Whistler’s Symphony in White inspired many subsequent artists (especially during the American Gilded Age). Some of its many fans included the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais, the Vienna Secessionist Gustav Klimt and the American painter Albert Herter.

Albert Herter’s Portrait of Bessie (1892) directly references Whistler with its white lilies and bearskin rug. The muted, almost abstracted color palette further speaks to Whistler’s groundbreaking exploration of white.

Whilst the woman in Millais’ A Somnambulist bears a striking resemblance to Hiffernan, the painting differs in its distinct narrative qualities. Referencing Bellini’s opera La Sonnambula (“The Sleepwalker”), it shows the female protagonist sleepwalking dangerously close to a cliff.

There are also uncanny similarities with Gustav Klimt. Klimt tackled the “woman in white” theme many times, notably in Portrait of Gertrude Loew (1902), Portrait of Hermine Gallia (1904) and Portrait of a Lady in White (1917).

Just like Whistler, Klimt also had a flame-haired muse. He frequently painted the model known as “Red Hilda” throughout his career, most notably in Danaë and The Kiss.

Reproduction Gallery proudly boasts an unparalleled collection of James Abbott McNeill Whistler artworks. Browse our oil painting reproductions today and enjoy the beauty and delicacy of Whistler’s art on your walls.