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A History Lesson in the Destinations That Inspired Iconic Artworks

The beautiful landscape and people of Tahiti, French Polynesia, have inspired artists over the years
The beautiful landscape and people of Tahiti, French Polynesia, have inspired artists over the years | © Zoonar GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
Everyone loves a random fact, and a good old-fashioned quiz to show it off. Armed with the knowledge of our round-up, make art history your speciality the next time you’re playing Zoom quizmaster.

‘A Bigger Splash’, David Hockney

British artist David Hockney set his sights on Los Angeles in his late 20s, arriving in California in 1964. That year came Picture of a Hollywood Swimming Pool, his first painting featuring a pool, which would become a recurring motif in his work. By 1967, he painted what the Tate argues is his best-known artwork, A Bigger Splash. It’s a painting of pure escapism, with a sky as blue as the water itself.

Los Angeles and its numerous swimming pools inspired David Hockney’s works, including ‘A Bigger Splash’ | © Stephen Chung / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Sunflowers’, Vincent van Gogh

It doesn’t take a degree in the history of art to have heard of Vincent van Gogh. But his place of inspiration? Maybe. Leaving Paris and heading south towards the Rhône River, Van Gogh arrived in Arles on 20 February 1888. He spent just over a year on the coast, in which time he created about 300 paintings and drawings, including his fabled Sunflowers. To the artist, they symbolised gratitude; to generations of artists to come, they demonstrated the possibility of creating artwork with variations of a single colour.

Van Gogh found inspiration in the beautiful landscape in and around Arles, Provence, France | © Panther Media GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Vahine no te vi’, Paul Gauguin

Much of Paul Gauguin’s work is in homage to French Polynesia. He began his trip to Tahiti in April 1891, after bidding adieu to his family in Copenhagen and old life in France, which included time spent in Arles with Van Gogh before his death. During his time in this far-flung paradise, the post-impressionist painted some 70 works of art. One of his earliest and most famous from that period is Vahine no te vi, which translates to Woman with a Mango; the woman in question was his controversial 13-year-old lover.

For Gauguin, Tahiti was paradise | © iPics Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird’, Frida Kahlo

For Frida Kahlo, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, it was the place of her birth and death – Mexico – that inspired her seminal works. It was the theme that ran through her art, which questioned the female experience, along with gender, class and race as a whole in Mexican society. Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird is among her most famous self-portraits – one of the 55 she painted. It followed a messy time in her love life, including the divorce from her husband, painter Diego Rivera, and the end of her love affair with photographer Nickolas Muray.

Frida Kahlo’s ‘Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird’ is one of 55 self-portraits | © The Artchives / Alamy Stock Photo

‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’, Katsushika Hokusai

An artwork that has sparked many artists’ imaginations and knock-off Etsy posters alike, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which also goes by The Great Wave, is a Japanese classic from the Ukiyo-e art movement. The title of the work is a giveaway for the location: Kanagawa in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, an area that greatly inspired Hokusai. Most likely published between 1829 and 1833, it’s the first woodblock print in the artist’s series of 36 that featured Mount Fuji.

There is no denying that Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, had a huge influence on Hokusai | © Aflo Co., Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Radiator Building – Night, New York’, Georgia O’Keeffe

The oeuvre of Georgia O’Keeffe, known as the “Mother of American Modernism”, spans from tropical waterfalls in Hawaii to desert landscapes in New Mexico. However, one of her most famous paintings isn’t out in nature; it’s in the centre of it all in New York City. Painted in 1927, Radiator Building – Night, New York captures the Art Deco skyscraper of the same name in Midtown Manhattan. The painting intended to emphasise the oppression felt from what she called a claustrophobic skyline.

O’Keeffe began painting New York skyscrapers, including the American Radiator Building, in 1925 | © Glenn Harper / Alamy Stock Photo