When cabin boy Brook Watson fell overboard near Havana, Cuba, it took three attempts to rescue him from sharks. He lost his leg in the process. It took place in 1749, and in 1778 John Singleton Copley immortalized the event with this dynamic painting.
As members of the crew of the “Royal Consort,” the ship where Watson worked, struggle to reach him, a shark approaches with an open mouth. Why Watson is unclothed remains a mystery, though it’s possible it was a detail added to play up the boy’s vulnerability. Watson himself owned a copy until his death in 1807.
“Portrait of Madame X” by John Singer Sargent
Painted in 1883 and 84, this portrait caused an uproar. But why, you might ask. It was due to how much skin Madame X, actually Virginie Avegno Gautreau, the American wife of a French banker, was showing off.
The female form has always been a subject of paintings, but the mythological heroine was far different than actual upper-class ladies such as Virginie. For a lot of people, it was downright offensive for such a woman to be portrayed as in this painting, especially since the woman herself posed for the piece of art.
“Girl With A Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer
With just a minor change to the outfit, it looks like this painting could have come from just a few decades ago. Yet when Vermeer painted this gal, it was only halfway through the seventeenth century. Little is known about the young girl who appears in the painting, though it's mostly thought she was either Vermeer's daughter or his mistress.
However, the image wasn't intended to represent an actual person – the turban the girl wears indicates it was something called a “tronie,” or an idealized image wearing exotic clothing. If the painting's popularity tells us anything, it's that Vermeer succeeded.
“Jack the Ripper's Bedroom” by Walter Sickert
It had only been twenty years since the reign of terror that struck the Whitechapel neighborhood of London when painter Walter Sickert painted this dark and moody scene.
Sickert is known for his dim, depressing interiors, and while many artists have been inspired by Jack the Ripper in one form or another, it's sometimes thought that this and other paintings by Sickert suggest a possible connection between him and Jacks actions – with some people even suspecting that he could be Jack himself. We may never know, but the depressing atmosphere in the painting is certainly noteworthy.
“Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci
You knew this enigmatic smile would appear eventually. Out of all the works da Vinci has done, this small painting is perhaps the most famous. The subject is thought to be Lisa Del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy silk merchant, and the painting was commissioned to celebrate the move to a new home and the birth of their second child.
“Mona” is a polite form of address from the era, similar to Madam or Ma'am. It's the most expensive insured item in the world, worth a hundred million dollars even back in 1962 – which is around nine hundred million dollars today.