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Five Spooky Paintings

Welcome back to the Accessible Art History Blog! Halloween is just around the corner, so I thought it would be a fun idea to round up five of the spookiest pieces of art in history! It’s important to remember that art doesn’t have to be beautiful to be art. The most important thing is that it allows you to feel something, even if that something is a bit of fear!

For more fun, make sure to check out the photo challenge running on the

Accessible Art History Instagram! It started on Monday the 19th, but feel free to join in for whatever days

strike your fancy!


Saturn Devouring His Children

(Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Saturn Devouring His Son is one of the most terrifying and haunting paintings in the history of art. It was painted during Goya's Black Period (1819-1823). He painted the walls of his house with dark and scary works and they were transferred to canvas after his death. This work depicts the ancient Greek/Roman myth where the Titan Saturn eats his children after they are born. It wasn't because he was hungry, but because he was told that there was a prophecy that one of his children would rise up and take his place as king of the Gods. (This would eventually come true when Zeus killed his father).

What makes this painting so terrifying is the brutality of the moment. Saturn grips the partially eaten body of his child. The dark red of the blood contrasts against the white skin and the black background. Goya did not leave any records of his reasons for creating the work, but some theories include the relationship with his own son or the wrath of God against all humanity. Regardless of its meaning, it's a disturbing work.

The Nightmare

(Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Painted in 1781, The Nightmare is one of the most haunting works in the history of art. In this painting, the viewer sees a woman in a deep sleep, while a demon like creature sits on her chest. Scarily, the creature stares out directly at the viewer. This work has a sexual undertone as well. The woman's body stretches sensually, her long neck exposed. Her nightgown clings to her, allowing the viewer to see her body.

This painting was exhibited in 1782 at the Royal Academy of London. Surprisingly, it was an instant hit! The combination of sensuality and horror struck a chord with patrons. This work became so popular that engravings were widely distributed over Europe and several artists produced their own versions. In fact, Henry Fuseli painted three different versions for his personal collection.

The Scream

(Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Edvard Munch is perhaps most famous for his work, The Scream. Painted in 1893, it is meant to symbolize the anxiety of modern man. A figure stands on a bridge, overlooking a river. His face is twisted in a grotesque scream, despite the beauty of the sunset behind him. Munch used several different mediums: oil, tempura, and crayons, on a cardboard background in order to achieve the vivid colors and twisting lines. There are a couple versions of this painting, this one is held in Norway's National Gallery.

The Scream is so popular that both museum held versions have been stolen multiple times! The version in Norway was stolen in 1994, on the same day as the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. A sting operation was set up and it was recovered unharmed a few months later. Eventually, four men were convicted. In 2004, the German held painting was stolen and it took police a couple of years to find it. The work was damaged, but repairs are being made.

Garden of Earthly Delights

(Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych painted by Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch between 1490-1510. This painting is one of the strangest in art history. Not only is the intent for painting unknown, but there are some crazy details! There are biblical scenes, for example, the joining of Adam and Eve on the left panel. However, the fantastical elements are far more prevalent. In all honesty, it is a bit jarring!

The right panel of this triptych could be described as downright terrifying. It seems to take place in hell, with flames spurting out of the top of the frame. Human bodies and miscellaneous body parts are twisted and distorted in a freakish way. A giant bird even eats people! These details make it likely that this triptych was commissioned by a lay person and not for use in a church.

Skull of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette

(Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1886, Vincent van Gogh was living in Antwerp and was studying at the Royal Academy. Historians know from his surviving letters that he did not enjoy the experience and felt that he learned nothing. While there, he painted this painting of a skull smoking a cigarette. This work is one of four similar subjects painted during this era. The skull and skeleton are anatomically correct, speaking to his training at the academy.

Van Gogh painted this work as a satire against traditional, academy training. It was common for classes to use skeletons, instead of live models, to teach students how the human body worked. But, since van Gogh did not enjoy his time at the Academy, he painted a skeleton smoking. He was an avid smoker himself. Some art historians have theorized that van Gogh also painted this as a memento mori painting, because he was in poor health at the time.


Although these works are spooky, they are fascinating in their own way. Each one pushes the boundary of the human imagination, which is scary!

Remember, for more works, check out the 13 Days of Halloween Challenge over on Instagram!



Gardner's Art through the Ages, 12th edition by Fred S. Kleiner

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