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 anamorphic skull at the bottom of The Ambassadors, digitally adjusted to correct  its perspective

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. 

The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) by Jan van Eyck

The painting: Early Netherlandish painter van Eyck has also inspired much discussion about his paintings - particularly this intricate portrait of what is believed to be rich trader Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife.

There are many signs of the Arnolfinis' wealth in the image, such as the fur trim on the woman's dress and her gold necklace and rings - both of which appear to be small details but would have been extremely expensive.

Other signs of the couple's wealth include the oriental rug by the bed, the brass chandelier and the convex mirror at the back - which was larger than could have been made at the time, and is likely a little artists' license on Eyck's part.

The detail: Above the mirror can be seen a message in elaborate handwriting, looking to the untrained eye like some ancient passage or motto, befitting the noble subjects. 

That would fit the realistic tone of the room - the portrait is thought to be one of the first paintings of everyday life in modern times - as people at the time would have such phrases inscribed on their walls.

In fact, it's a naughty little message from Eyck that simply reads 'Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434' - literally 'Johannes van Eyck was here 1434'. 

Oath of the Horatii (1784) by Jacques-Louis David

The painting: David's masterful painting depicts a scene from Roman legend in which two warring cities agreed to end their fight by sending three men each to battle one another, with the survivors' city winnin.

In this scene, three bothers of the ultimately victorious Horatii family salute their father, who holds out their swords for them. All four, in accepting death and duty, are symbolic of patriotism and moral strength.

Meanwhile, the women of the household - knowing that near-certain death awaits the young men - swoon on the side. 

The detail: One of the women, in black, clutches a little boy and girl - the children of one of the brothers - to herself. The girl buries her head in the woman's clothes, upset about the unfolding scene.

But the boy looks up at the men in, impressed by their devotion and bravery, reinforcing the idea that their patriotism is to be admired and mirrored.

Joseph the Carpenter (1645) by Georges de La Tour

The painting: The image, which was created in the tenebrist style, featuring deep, dark shadows and strong contrast between light and dark, shows the infant Jesus holding a dangle while his father, Joseph is at work.

The symbolism of Jesus lighting up the dark is clear, and his left hand is held up in manner used during the Catholic Benediction.

The carpenter Joseph, meanwhile, is hard at work using a auger to drill a hole in wood by hand. The painting is said to be symbolic of duty - to parents and to god.

The detail: The scene, with hard-working Jospeh and helpful young Jesus - seems gentle and calm. 

But there is dark foreshadowing here: The wood is laid crosswise from Jesus, while the angle of the auger resembles a crucifix.

Both are symbolic of Jesus's eventual sacrifice, and play into the theme of duty to fathers - heavenly and otherwise.

Las Meninas (1656) by Diego Velazquez

The painting: Las Meninas (Spanish for 'Ladies in Waiting' in Spanish) shows the infant Margaret Theresa of Spain - daughter of King Philip IV of Spain - surrounded by an entourage including a dog, two dwarfs and the titular ladies in waiting.

The painting is notable for complexity of its composition, with some of those in the painting look out at the viewer, as in a traditional portrait, while others appear to be caught 'off-guard'.

In the rear of the image, next to an open door - through which the keeper of the queen's tapestries can be seen - is a mirror reflecting the king and queen themselves - apparently standing somewhere near the viewer.

The detail: Almost lost in shadow, above the kneeling lady in waiting, is a painter stood in front of a large canvas, gazing out at the viewer, palette in hand.

His appearance twists the meaning of the painting and reveals that it has been drawn from the point of view of the king or queen, who are themselves waiting to be painted.

And the painter? Velazquez himself, in his only known self-portrait.

Entry of the Crusaders in Constantinople (1840) by Eugene Delacroix 

The painting: Delacroix's oil painting depicts the moment in the Fourth Crusade (on 12 April 1204) in which the Crusaders turned away from their invasion of Muslim Egypt and Jerusalem.

Instead, they sacked the Christian city of Constantinople after being refused long-promised aid. 

The leader, Baldwin, can be seen at the front of the parade, backed by his soldiers and surrounded by scenes of chaos and fear. 

He subsequently became Baldwin I of Constantinople.

Delacroix had studied the old masters, as seen in his use of light and shadow - although the Romantic style was controversial among viewers at the time.

The detail: Among the huddled masses is a young child, looking up to his wizened father, who clutches his wife and begs Baldwin for mercy.

Though Baldwin was a vassal of the French king, and although this painting was commissioned by King Louis-Philippe I of France, Delacroix made the effort to humanize the victims of the invasion.

The Battle of San Romano (c. 1438–1440) by Paolo Uccello

The painting: Ucello painted the battle between Florentine and Sienese forces in 1432 - which took place within his lifetime - three times, each time employing spectacular color and - for the time - great realism.

The secrets revealed in this article are included in the new book Art in Detail: 100 Masterpieces by Susie Hodge (pictured)

It's believed that the three images - of which this is the first - were intended to be hung side-by-side as a triptych. 

In the center of the image, leading the ultimately victorious charge for the Florentines, is Niccolo da Tolentino. 

The detail: Although the painting has a perspective similar to that of tapestries, in which the background rises up towards the top of the image rather than receding into the distance, the figures are details and realistic.

Particularly impressive are the soldiers on the right-hand side of the image, who can be seen swinging their weapons atop their horses.

But despite being largely realistic, the painting does have an inevitable break from reality: All of the horses are drawn in static positions, except for one galloping horse that is partly hidden from view.

That's because artists of the time had not yet worked out how to draw realistically running horses.

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