Art is all about the emotions it conjures. While we typically think of art evoking tranquility- such as Monet’s impressionistic water lilies, or romance like Klimt’s The Kiss, sometime artists prefer to elicit more sinister feelings.
Though, generally the genre of horror is associated with novels or movies, paintings can be equally terrifying.
Brace yourself, we’re taking a look at the 9 most frightening paintings in art history.
Edvard Munch. The Scream. 1893.
We’ll start with the most obvious first, Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream. While we may be desensitized from seeing it printed everywhere from coffee cups to t-shirts. It's quite possibly the most referenced painting in pop culture, whether Macaulay Culkin's infamous scene in Home Alone or the iconic Halloween mask from the 90s film bearing the same name.
The intense coloration of the fiery sky, the skull-like appearance and agonized expression of the protagonist convey a primal sense of pure horror.
Despite its simplicity, The Scream conveys a genuine sense of dread. Often regarded as a self-portrait, it is clear that Munch used his fragile health, personal tragedies and failures to influence this work, creating an iconic image that speaks to universal existential fears.
Henry Fuseli. The Nightmare. 1781.
There’s nothing more frightening than sleep paralysis - a condition that is defined by a feeling of consciousness but inability to move, often combined with a feeling of dread and a sensation of choking. It’s no wonder that its symptoms have been attributed to an “evil presence”.
Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting The Nightmare has become the poster child for sleep paralysis.
The painting was first exhibited in 1782 at the annual Royal Academy exhibition in London, where it rightly shocked and terrified both visitors and critics Its stark mixture of horror, sexuality and morbidity were a defining image of gothic horror which later emerged with authors like Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe.
Vincent van Gogh. Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette. 1886
Fears surrounding the dangers of cigarette smoking might be relatively contemporary, but Van Gogh’s 1886 painting serves as a powerful icon.
The terror in this painting is the life imposed on the skeleton. He is animated, involved in an action that is associated with the living. Considered a memento mori (Latin for “Remember, you will die”), Head of Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette reminds us of our own mortality.
Francisco Goya. Saturn Devouring His Son. 1819-1823
According to the traditional interpretation, Goya’s painting is based on the Greek myth of the Titan Cronus, who fearing he would be overthrown by his offspring devoured each one upon their birth.
Goya purchased a house in Madrid called Quinta del Sordo (Villa of the Deaf Man) in 1819 wherein he produced 14 works painted directly onto the walls of the house. Known as the Black Paintings, they were never intended for public viewing. These paintings represent Goya’s increasing obsession with mortality, the civil strife occurring in Spain and his darkening mood.
The ghastly figure and dismembered body are just as frightening as any Hollywood monster. In fact, Guillermo del Toro modelled his monster, the Pale Man, in his 2006 movie Pan’s Labyrinth after the Saturn who devoured his children.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Triumph of Death. 1562.
Bruegel the Elder is generally associated with his bucolic paintings of European countrysides. But, his art takes a darker turn in The Triumph of Death. The painting has traditionally been thought to depict the Plague, however, it was actually painted 200 years before.
This painting is a powerful allegory for the fact that death is inescapable – whether you’re a peasant or royalty. But, it’s hard to not immediately think of the white walkers and army of the dead in Game of Thrones when looking at the army of skeletons who ravage the village.
Otto Dix. Dr. Heinrich Standlemann. 1920
Otto Dix was never one to shy away from the darker themes of life. Undoubtedly influenced by his experience as a frontline soldier in the first world war, his work deals with the underworld of society from prostitution, poverty and the inevitability of death - an oeuvre filled with frightening works that subconsciously instill fear. His figures are always distorted, ill-proportioned and unbalanced, imparting an uneasy surreality to his portraits.
Part of the permanent collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Dr. Heinrich Standlemann is no exception to the grotesque reality of Dix’s work. His pallid skin tone and bulging eyes make him more reminiscent of Dr. Jekyll than a trustworthy medical professional.
[Authors Note: This painting both fascinated me and terrified me as a child. It was always the highlight of my trips to the AGO.]
William Adolphe Bouguereau. Dante and Virgil in Hell. 1852.
After failing on two occasions to win the Prix de Rome, it is thought that Bouguereau wanted revenge against the academy, creating an impression on the judges through horror.
Inspired by a scene in Dante’s Inferno, this painting depicts the eighth circle of hell where Dante watches a fight between two damned souls. The desperation and agony depicted by the fighting figures are visceral reminders of the darker sides of the psyche – one of the most frightening themes imaginable. And that’s not even mentioning the skull-faced bat demon who looms in the background.
Pablo Picasso. Guernica. 1937.
Is there anything more horrifying than war? Regarded by many critics as the most powerful anti-war work of art, the mural sized Guernica by Pablo Picasso is a surreal nightmare.
The 25 ft. mural depicts the bombing of Guernica by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italian warplanes through the suffering of people and animals wrenched by violence and chaos.
This classic work just proves that true horror isn’t always supernatural.
Francis Bacon. Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Innocent X. 1953.
To some he’s one of the greatest painters of the 20th century. To others, he’s a complete madman. But, one thing remains agreed upon with this polarizing figure – his work is really creepy.
Hailed as both grotesque and visionary, Bacon’s work hold a primal violence rarely depicted in the art world.
Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Innocent X is based off Velázquez’s great portrait of Pope Innocent X, a subject that fascinated Bacon for much of his career. His subversive renderings of papal figures – ghostly visions of screaming popes create an icon that will haunt your dreams.