Before smartphones and DSLR cameras, people had other ways to immortalize the big moments in their lives: paintings.
Artists would frequently capture even the most mundane activities, such as a weekend brunch or a card game. In fact, there seem to be many of these seemingly ordinary paintings with ordinary people, mostly just lounging around. But there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye.
Although these paintings may seem like a waste of time and money, they tell us a lot about what life was like in that period. So let’s take a closer look at some of these popular paintings and appreciate their significance.
Hip Hip Hurrah! Artists’ Party at Skagen by Peder Severin Krøyer
“Hip Hip Hurrah! Artists’ Party at Skagen” is an 1888 oil-on-canvas painting by Danish artist Peder Severin Krøyer. As the name suggests, this famous art of people captures a scene from a typical gathering of Skagen painters and artists.
At the time, Skagen was a remote fishing village on the northern tip of Denmark. With its scenic nature, local milieu, and thriving social community, this quaint village was the perfect spot for Danish artists to come together and paint en plein air (painting outdoors). Hence, Skagen was a hotspot for the Scandinavian artistic community, and artists would frequently gather at someone’s house and spontaneously create paintings with people of the community.
This particular painting depicts a scene from one of these gatherings. Its painting began in 1884 following a party at one of the members’ houses but took four years to complete because of a falling-out between the host and Krøyer.
As was typical with Skagen painters, this painting of people imitates the style of French impressionists, with an emphasis on the changing quality of outdoor lighting. The painting currently hangs in the Gothenburg Museum of Art. Furthermore, modern recreations of the painting also exist, including a full-scale Lego blocks model and a 3-D digital model at Skagens Museum.
Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
“Luncheon of the Boating Party” is a 19th-century oil-on-canvas painting by French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Renoir was a leading figure in the development of the impressionist painting style, and the Boating Party is his magnum opus.
Following its debut in the Seventh Impressionist Exhibit in 1882, the painting was and still remains one of the most famous paintings of people in modern times. What makes this painting so memorable two centuries later?
Marjorie Phillips— a 19th-century impressionist artist and wife of the painting’s owner— notes: “In the light of time, it does not matter much who the figures are. They are every man, all people.” In other words, Renoir’s painting is simply timeless. The figures that Marjorie speaks of are Renoir’s friends and family, all of whom have been successfully identified.
The painting depicts them lounging on a balcony at the Maison Fournaise restaurant along the Seine river in Chatou, France. Apart from figures, the painting also combines elements of still-life and landscape. The painting currently hangs in The Phillips Collection art museum in Washington, D.C.
The Card Players by Paul Cézanne
You might have seen different versions of this painting under the same name. That’s because “The Card Players” is not a single painting but a series of oil-on-canvas paintings by Paul Cezanne— one of the most famous art people of all time. Cezanne was a French post-Impressionist painter and is hailed as the bridging figure between 19th-century Impressionism and 20th-century Cubism.
Cezanne painted “The Card Players” during his so-called “final period” from the 1890s till his death in 1906. The series comprises five paintings depicting peasants from Provence smoking pipes and playing cards. Furthermore, the players always seem to be wearing top hats in each iteration of the painting.
However, each painting varies in size, the number of players, and the setting where the game takes place. Cezanne allegedly spent years working on studies and preparatory drawings to help him finalize the series. The order of the paintings is still unclear, although recent x-rays suggest that the smaller paintings and studies came first in preparation for the largest and most complex iteration.
One version of “The Card Players” broke the record for the highest price ever for a work of art when the Royal Family of Qatar purchased it for $250 million in 2011. The remaining four paintings hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Courtauld, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Barnes Foundation.
The Cleopatra by John William Waterhouse
“The Cleopatra” is an 1888 painting by John William Waterhouse, often hailed as one of his most famous paintings. Countless artists have produced their own depictions of the bewildering Egyptian ruler, some emphasizing her regal beauty while others accentuate her infamous wit and strength. But with this painting, Waterhouse struck the perfect balance between these contrasting traits.
The painting depicts Cleopatra slumped alone in a settee, wearing a white kaftan-like dress and stroking a statue of a lion. But the most striking feature of this painting is the Egyptian queen’s intense and piercing gaze, the authority in her eyes evident despite the shadow of her hair and crown.
In this way, Waterhouse created an entirely new perspective about Cleopatra, who had otherwise been depicted as an otherworldly beauty. Waterhouse’s Cleopatra was equally as powerful, imposing, and intelligent as she was a sight for sore eyes.
The Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull
“The Declaration of Independence” is a 12-by-18-foot oil-on-canvas painting by American artist John Trumbull. People often incorrectly describe the painting as a depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, it depicts the presentation of the Declaration draft to Congress two months before its signing.
This painting isn’t historically accurate, nor was it meant to be. It depicts all five drafting committee members, even though only Thomas Jefferson was present to submit the draft. But when the painting was commissioned in 1817, Trumbull consulted Thomas Jefferson and John Adams— the only living members of the original committee. They urged Trumbull to include all delegates whether or not they were present or accepted the Declaration.
In this way, Trumbull achieved what he set out to do: immortalizing every single one of those who rewrote American history, from aristocrats and lawyers to farmers and shopkeepers.
Whether you’re an amateur or a long-time art enthusiast, there’s no denying the brilliance of these paintings. Each painting in this list reflects a distinct historical period or artistic movement— an authentic, unfiltered glimpse into the times past.
click here for more articles.