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Famous artworks inspired by masterpieces

Famous artworks inspired by masterpieces

Some of the most famous paintings in history were inspired by the masterpieces painted before them. Here are some of our favourites. 

Igor Stravinsky once said, "Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal." This summer (3 June - 9 October 2022), the National Gallery is making a case in point by showcasing Picasso’s Woman with a Book (1932) next to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Madame Moitessier (1856), which famously inspired it, in an exhibition called Face to Face.

Picasso was not the only artist to be inspired by another iconic painting. Amongst many, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, Frida Kahlo, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol were motivated by former masterpieces to produce their own great works of art.

Why see the original and the new painting together?

Pablo Picasso and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
(L) Madame Moitessier, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres,1856, Oil on canvas 120 x 92.1 cm, © The National Gallery, London. (R) Pablo Picasso, Woman with a Book, 1932, Oil on canvas 130.5 x 97.8, The Norton Simon Foundation, © Succession Picasso/DACS 2021 / photo The Norton Simon Foundation

Seeing the original together with a new masterpiece is absorbing. The viewer can consider what the art has in common as well as how they differ. Is the new work a homage or a parody? Is it as good as the original or an improvement?

It’s also an exercise in the history of art, highlighting changes in artistic style over time and the stories behind famous artists and their work. 

"Seeing the original together with a new masterpiece is absorbing"

Rather than studying Ingres’ technique or trying to replicate the portrait, Picasso chose his own muse and deployed his own inimitable style. Woman with a Book is a portrait of Picasso’s young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter. Madame Moitessier is a portrait of the young wife of a wealthy French merchant. Marie-Thérèse Walter’s flowery sleeves evoke Madame Moitessier’s silk dress. An open book, placed suggestively across her lap, replaces the aspiring aristocrat’s fan.

Manet, Titian, and Monet

Manet and Titian side by side

(L) Edouard Manet, Olympia, in 1863, oil on canvas, H 130.5; L 191.0 cm, 1890, © Musee d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt. (R) Venus of Urbino, Titian (Pieve di Cadore 1488/90 - Venice 1576), © The Uffizi

Similarly, Édouard Manet’s impressionist painting Olympia (1865) takes its inspiration from Titian’s Venus of Urbino which dates back to the Renaissance c1534.  

Both nudes are reclining, looking directly at the viewer. Both have a hand laid across their naked laps. At the foot of Titian’s nude lies a small, sleeping dog which Manet replaces with a startled black cat. Venus of Urbino was commissioned by the Duke of Urbino, as a gift to his wife to encourage her in the art of seduction. Manet’s nude goes a step further, staring directly at the viewer. This caused an enormous stir when presented in Paris in the 1860s—that and the luxurious shawl and bedding which suggests that the muse is also a mistress.

"Manet’s scandalous paintings were an ongoing source of inspiration for many artists"

Manet’s scandalous paintings were an ongoing source of inspiration for many artists. Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur L'herbe (Lunch on the grass,1863), led fellow impressionist Claude Monet to paint his Le Déjeuner sur L’herbe (1865–1866), an unfinished, life-size work. In Manet’s painting, a naked woman sits audaciously with a couple of suited men whilst Monet’s refined picnickers are fully dressed.

Later, in 1892, Paul Gauguin painted Spirit of the Dead Watching, prompted by Manet’s Olympia in which a 13-year-old Tahitian girl, his “bride”, lies on her front naked with startled eyes. Gauguin explained her fear as something to do with ghosts although historians point to Gauguin’s notorious abuse of women as a more likely explanation. 

Duchamp and Da Vinci

Da Vinci's Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre

Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., (1919) was derived from Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (c1503–1506).

Duchamp found a postcard of the Mona Lisa and drew a moustache and beard on her face. The acronym sounds like “elle a chaud au cul” (“she has a hot ass” in French). Duchamp often reclaimed and manipulated objects, an art form he termed “readymades”.

Miro and Bosch

Bosch and Miro side by side

(L) The Tilled FieldJoan Miró, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, © 2020 Successió Miró/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. (R) The Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych, Hieronymous Bosch, 1490 - 1500. Grisaille, Oil on oak panel, © Museo Nacional del Prado

Joan Miró’s Surrealist painting of his family's farm in Catalonia, The Tilled Field (La Terre Labouree, 1923) was inspired by Hieronymous Bosch’s head spinning triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights composed between 1490 and 1510.

Bosch’s painting depicts the Garden of Eden, earth, and hell. It is peppered with obscure objects and naked people in contorted poses as well as flocks of birds and herds of circling animals like a grotesque fantasy. Miro’s patriotic Catalan painting is also dotted with bizarre creatures and vegetation on flat levels: earth, sea, and sky.

Kahlo, Warhol, and Da Vinci

Da Vinci's Last Supper
Last Supper, wall painting by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1495–98, © Milan Museum

Both Frida Kahlo’s The Wounded Table (1940) and Andy Warhol’s series of paintings The Last Supper (1984) were inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (1496-98).

Leonardo da Vinci’s mural signifies the period known as the High Renaissance. It shows the 12 disciples with Jesus before he is betrayed by Judas. When her husband Diego Rivera divorced Kahlo, she turned to da Vinci’s masterpiece to depict her own suffering and sense of betrayal. Blood drips from her skirt and across the table. Beside her, Diego is a tortuous, Judas figure.

"When her husband Diego Rivera divorced Kahlo, she turned to da Vinci’s masterpiece to depict her own suffering"

Warhol used a facsimile of an earlier engraving of da Vinci’s Last Supper and, in keeping with his iconic Pop Art style, produced a hundred images entitled Warhol—Il Cenacolo (1984) of which 60 were displayed in a grid. Poignantly, this was Warhol’s last work. Art historians point to his Catholic upbringing and the vilification of gay men during the 1980s AIDS endemic as inspiration.

Van Gogh and Lichtenstein

Bedroom in Arles
Bedroom in Arles, Vincent van Gogh, Arles, October 1888, oil on canvas, 72.4 cm x 91.3 cm © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Unsurprisingly, many artists have been stimulated by the works of the Dutch, Post-Impressionist, Vincent Van Gogh. His famous interior painting Bedroom in Arles (painted in three versions between 1888 and 1889 and originally entitled The Bedroom) was taken up by the American Pop Artist, Roy Lichtenstein who produced a bigger-than-life-size version Bedroom at Arles (1992).

Lichtenstein’s painting is meticulous compared to van Gogh’s more spontaneous piece, but the objects and composition are similar. Van Gogh’s rustic, nineteenth-century furniture is replaced by Mies van der Rohe designer chairs, and his crumpled shirts hanging behind the bed are substituted with starched, white, office shirts.

Vincent Van Gogh takes centre stage in this theme of inspiration. He credited his sources in the titles of his works. The list is illustrious. He painted Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) in 1887, The Sower (after Millet) in 1888, Noon Rest from Work (after Millet) between 1889-1890, The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix) in 1890, and in the same year The Raising of Lazarus (after Rembrandt).

Van Gogh copied others’ work from photographs, but like Picasso, used his own unique style to produce yet another masterpiece.


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