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Michelangelo's David

From parody and pastiche to artistic references and everything in between, art has always made use of iconic images for different purposes. Mountains of academic texts have been written arguing which images are “iconic” and how they have been used over the centuries. Still, there’s a more basic question – namely, what makes images iconic in the first place?

Religion and Politics

There’s no denying the impact of these two factors on the history of art. Countless paintings have been made of kings, queens, popes, military leaders, and figures of power, which have in turn become iconic.

This has likewise led to parodies of these images to suit the occasion meme-style.

A group of people eating together?

They’ll be immediately recognizable if you arrange them like Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper.”

Protesting the horrors of war?

Art lovers will instantly catch onto your meaning if you pose them like Goya’s “The Third of May 1808.”

On the flip side, if you want to show a figure triumphing, depicting them in the style of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” or “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” can help people make the connection. 

The Power of Portraits

From Leonardo’s enigmatic “Mona Lisa” to Vermeer’s scintillating “Girl with a Pearl Earring” to countless portraits of the rich and powerful, portraiture has long been used to iconize the self.

Sometimes this has been done with a blend of national pride, as in Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits, which draw upon traditional Mexican imagery as she reimagines her culture’s relationship to herself and vice versa. Other times this portraiture has reflected a deep dive into a troubled psyche, as in several of van Gogh’s self-portraits.

The Power of Numbers

Certain numbers have symbolic resonance. 

Given the aforementioned power of religion, the number “three” has proven hugely symbolic for countless painters using it to reference or parody the concept of The Trinity. 

Twelve, seven, and six likewise have Judeo-Christian resonance.

However, numerical meaning can come from a variety of sources. Consider, for example, Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Diptych” with 50 Marilyn Monroes, half technicolor and half black and white. The meaning – or lack thereof – comes from their ubiquity.

Finally, some paintings derive their full meaning not just from the number of figures in the painting but the number of paintings in the series. Monet’s “Haystack” series, for instance, show haystacks in different lighting conditions, while the eight “Water Lilies” painted at the end of his life are done on massive curved panels which, assembled together, encircle the viewer in a world all their own.

There is no one formula for instantly making a painting iconic, but knowing where iconography comes from can help us better understand why certain paintings mean so much to us.