The Laughing Cavalier was a true gent and the two figures lurking in The Scream were the artist’s friends: Secrets behind masterpieces are revealed in new book

Susie Hodge’s new book Art in Detail: 100 Masterpieces explores the details and meanings behind famous paintings
It reveals secrets about how paintings were made or their subjects’ lives
The identity behind those lurking in the background of The Scream and how you can tell The Laughing Cavalier is a gentleman is revealed in the new book Paintings such as The Scream and The Laughing Cavalier have graced art books and walls for so long now that they almost seem commonplace.
But within those paintings – and many more – lie rarely known details that bring them to life all over again.
Those details form the basis for Susie Hodge’s new book Art in Detail: 100 Masterpieces, CNN reported – and some of the most fascinating can be found below.

The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch
The painting: In 1893’s The Scream, Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch created one of the most enduring and memorable images in modern art: A distorted, skeletal figure, mouth open and face grasped in horror in front of a malevolent red sky.
Munch was inspired when, feeling tired and ill while crossing a fjord on a bridge, he gazed out across the sunset and ‘sensed a scream passing through nature’.
‘It seemed to me that I heard the scream,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.’
The detail: The viewer’s gaze is drawn almost instantly to the iconic, terrified figure, the sickly near-black fjord, and the apocalyptic skies above.
Less obvious are the shadowy figures in the background. They look threatening, but in reality, they are representations of Munch’s two friends, who were with him on the bridge but oblivious to his vision.
The incident was written by Munch on the frame of one of the four versions of the image that he created, in the form of a poem.
It read: ‘I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.’
The Laughing Cavalier (1624) by Frans Hals
The painting: One of the most celebrated Baroque portraits of all time, Dutch painter Hals put an extraordinary amount of detail into his subject’s clothing and appearance – particularly his wry and enigmatic smile.
It’s not known who the cavalier is – although the Latin in the top-right of the picture says he was 26, and it was painted in 1624.
It was originally untitled, being called only Portrait d’un homme (‘Portrait of a man’) when listed in France in 1791; it gained the name The Cavalier after it was exhibited to critical acclaim in London shortly afterward and had gained its familiar name by 1888.
The detail: While we know nothing about Hals’s puckish subject, the round, golden pommel of a sword can be seen in the crook of his left arm.
That would suggest that the subject, or at least his character, was a proficient swordfighter – the sign of a gentleman at the time.
The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein the Younger
The painting: The Ambassadors has been the subject of debate by art historians for years, who have pondered the symbolism of the items on the tables between the two men, and the identities of the figures themselves.
Holbein added details such as a lute with a broken string, a symbol of disharmony, next to a copy of Martin Luther’s translation of a hymnbook – perhaps representing the religious strife seen at the time.
Even the globe on the table is carefully recreated, right down to the names of the countries and seas. The detail: The Ambassadors clearly doesn’t lack for details to consider, one startling addition is often overlooked at first glance: the stretched skull in the bottom-center of the image.
Shown in anamorphic perspective – an invention of the early Renaissance that renders 3D objects ‘flat’, the skull is commonly regarded as a ‘memento mori’ – a humbling reminder of death common in paintings of the time.
Why Holbein stretched the skull out isn’t known, but it’s been suggested that the painting might have been intended to hang in a stairwell – where people approaching it from the left would have seen it in the correct perspective.
Others simply think it was done to show off Holbein’s talent, and garner more commissions.

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