From making students fail exams to bringing a variety of deadly misfortunes onto their owners, these allegedly cursed paintings have become infamous pieces of art history.
Trigger warning: The following article contains mentions of physical abuse, murder, suicide, and death, as well as certain disturbing imagery. Kindly read at your own discretion.
“Cursed” artworks, for the most part, lie mainly in the realm of urban legends. However, that hasn’t stopped them from capturing society’s collective imagination, as well as changing the way people perceive and interact with art.
As to how a work becomes cursed, there’s no clear answer. Some people believe that tragic circumstances in an artist’s life can change a painting’s effect on viewers. Others think that dark subject matters can inject a sense of dread and horror into a piece so strongly that it manifests in the real world. Many artists pour their heart and soul into their masterpieces; to the superstitious and spiritual, this means certain artworks can possess a life or spirit of their own—for better or for worse.
Of course, skeptics can freely debunk certain occurrences or stories as purely fictional. After all, there’s no way to prove these works are truly harbingers of misfortune. However, in the same vein, there’s no way to really disprove these notions either. When multiple people report of strange situations or tragic accidents with one common denominator—that is, any form of interaction with a cursed work—who’s to say they’re wrong?
So, if you’re curious to know more about these allegedly cursed paintings, below are four of the most iconic ones:
“The Hands Resist Him” by Bill Stoneham
“The Hands Resist Him” is probably one of the most famous examples of a cursed painting, as it gripped the internet in the early 2000s and continues to haunt those who learn about it. Bill Stoneham, a surrealist painter, created the piece based on a poem his first wife wrote, as per The Telegraph. This poem of the same name was about Stoneham, who never knew his biological parents.
The Boy and the Doll
The artist created the paintings based on a dramatic childhood photograph of him standing next to a neighborhood girl. However, Stoneham took creative liberties, changing the girl into a doll-like figure in the painting and adding disembodied hands by the window in the background. The hands are certainly one of the more unsettling elements of the painting. The artist told The Telegraph that they represented the distance and nebulous opportunities that awaited someone going through adoption. The other subject, a young boy, stares ahead with an unnerving intensity.
When Things Go Bump in the Night
So, how did the painting gain internet fame? It all started when a couple posted it on Ebay in February 2000, stating that a “picker” had found it behind an abandoned brewery. The husband and wife acquired the work, wondering “why a seemingly perfectly fine painting would be discarded like that,” as per the BBC. Unfortunately, they soon found out why when their four-year-old daughter told them she saw the children in the painting fighting and entering her room at night.
While the couple considered themselves skeptics, the husband decided to set up a motion-triggered camera to get to the bottom of things. The wife wrote this in her description: “After three nights there were pictures, the last two pictures shown are from that ‘stakeout.’ After seeing the boy seemingly exiting the picture under threat, we decided the painting (sic) has to go.”
Right after the couple posted the painting on Ebay, users quickly passed it around internet circles. Then, the alarming reports began. People who saw the pictures claimed to faint, fall violently ill, and even noted the feeling of an “unseen entity” gripping them. Meanwhile, children who viewed the picture reportedly screamed from fear. Did the painting really cause these reactions, or was it all some form of mass hysteria? One thing’s for certain, this wasn’t the only unsettling circumstance surrounding the work’s odd properties.
Two people died after handling “The Hands Resist Him,” as per The Telegraph. Of course, the deaths may have been completely unrelated, but the common element is the painting. The first person is Henry Seldis, who was a Los Angeles Times art critic that reviewed Stoneham’s show featuring the work. He died of apparent suicide on his 53rd birthday, though people around him stated that he’d been grappling with depression for a while.
The other person is Charles “Chuck” Feingarten, a gallerist who purchased many of Stoneham’s works including “The Hands Resist Him.” He passed away three years later during open heart surgery, right after selling the painting.
As to how the eerie work ended up in an abandoned brewery, no one’s quite sure why to this day. However, given the things that have happened to those who interacted with it in some way, perhaps it should’ve stayed there.
“Man Proposes, God Disposes” by Edwin Landseer
In the halls of University of London’s Royal Holloway is another allegedly cursed piece: Edwin Landeer’s “Man Proposes, God Disposes.” Unlike Stoneham’s work, whose disturbing quality is arguably more subtle and mundane, Landseer’s painting tackles a rather gruesome scene.
The artist was inspired by the grim death of Sir John Franklin and his crew during an expedition charting the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. Of course, the painting is Landseer’s conjecture, as experts still aren’t sure how exactly Franklin and his men died. The artist, however, pictured a dark conclusion to the tale: a shipwreck surrounded by ice, with two polar bears chewing on the boat’s ruins—as well as the remains of the humans that once rode it.
Omen of Failure
Gory as the painting’s scene may be, it doesn’t compare to the gruesome urban legends that surround the piece. Apparently, students are so disturbed by the painting, they fail exams when they look at it.
“If you sit directly in front of it in an exam, you will fail—unless it’s covered up,” shared Dr. Laura MacCulloch, the current curator of the Royal Holloway, to the BBC. She adds that ever since the painting arrived, students have reported experiencing “headaches, nightmares, and […] just general feelings of doom,” as per the ArtCurious podcast.
A particularly haunting myth that spread around the school centered on a student who committed suicide during an exam after staring at the painting in a trance-like state. Before they died, however, they wrote the following words: “The polar bears made me do it.”
Granted, the university’s records show no trace of this incident, leading experts to believe that it’s untrue. Nevertheless, fear of the painting was so strong that one student in the 1970s refused to take his exam until someone covered the work with a large union jack flag. To this day, professors continue to hide the painting during exams—as the old adage goes, better safe than sorry.
“The Crying Boy” by Giovanni Bragolin
It’s difficult to watch children cry, especially during particularly distressing circumstances. One might wonder why anyone would hang a picture of a crying child on their walls, let alone paint one. However, this was the case for “The Crying Boy”—another reportedly cursed painting that caused fires around multiple households across the U.K.
The Sun brought the painting’s curse to public attention through a 1985 article entitled “Blazing Curse of the Crying Boy Picture!” The picture had, apparently, been at the scene of many blazes—something that was supported by a firefighter who claimed that, in every house he visited, a copy of the painting was one of the only things left unharmed, as per Atlas Obscura.
The Mysterious Artist
“The Crying Boy” was actually part of a vast series of mass-produced paintings focused on crying children. These strange yet popular works attracted young couples in the U.K., and for one reason or another, ended up in many households throughout the 1950s to 1970s.
What complicates things is that the homes which were ablaze each had different paintings of the “crying boy” from various artists. Experts attributed some to the late Scottish artist Anna Zinkeisen, and credited others to a mysterious figure who signed off as “G. Bragolin,” according to professor and journalist Dr.David Clarke.
As it turned out, the name (short for Giovanni Bragolin) was one of the many pseudonyms of Italian artist, Bruno Amadio. He also referred to himself as “Franchot Seville” and lived in Madrid. In 1995, a school teacher named George Mallory was so invested in the crying boy story, he went as far as searching for the artist in Spain. People can read this account in Tom Slemen’s collection of documented paranormal stories, Haunted Liverpool 4. Mallory did find Amadio, and asked him to discuss the boy’s identity.
A Boy Called ‘Diablo’
Amadio told Mallory that the specific crying boy he painted was an urchin who roamed around Madrid in 1969. He was a silent child, and barely spoke; a priest identified him as Don Bonillo, and said he watched his parents die in a fire. The priest also told Amadio to avoid interacting with the child, as fires would follow him wherever he went—as such, villagers would refer to him as diablo [Spanish for “devil”].
It’s a rather harsh thing to say to a child, but this was the story in Slemen’s book. In his feature for the topic, Dr.Clarke warns that while Slemen’s work is marketed as “non-fiction,” his research and eyewitness accounts aren’t heavily backed by sources. Still, whether or not the story is true, it does make for a chilling narrative that fits the curse attached to these sorrowful paintings.
“Portrait of a Lady” by Juan Luna
Last but not least is an infamous painting that may be familiar to some: Juan Luna’s “Portrait of a Lady.” Indeed, the Philippines has its very own “cursed” painting with a wealth of disturbing stories attached to it. As with many of these haunting paintings, most people pass on information through hearsay. However, if the portrait’s reputation is enough to warrant a mention in historian Ambeth Ocampo’s book Looking Back, and a whole comprehensive feature from Esquire, then it certainly yields some food for thought.
It’s a seemingly simple painting that depicts an unidentified lady lying in bed, part of her dress slipping past her shoulders as she clutches a rosary. The popular belief is that it’s Luna’s wife, Paz Pardo de Tavera. However, some argue that it’s an “idealized” version of his spouse, as the subject bears little resemblance to her. Meanwhile, others claim that it’s one of Luna’s favorite models, Angela Duche. Whoever the subject may be, its presence has sparked multiple misfortunes over the years.
People say that those who owned the painting, even for a time, experienced bad business, illness, and even death. Ocampo mentions that Manuel Garcia, the painting’s first owner, had to sell it because his business began to fail. Then, Betty Bantug Benitez died in a tragic road accident after purchasing the piece.
Tony Nazareno, its later owner, fell ill when it was in his collection, convincing him to sell it once more. My own father told me how the house of one of his first cousins, who had owned the portrait for a time, experienced a terrible fire shortly after the work was sold.
One could argue that these strokes of bad luck simply happen, but as it goes with cursed paintings, coincidences can become disturbing common denominators.
Another creepy anecdote of the painting, as per Esquire, happened during a Luna-Hidalgo retrospective show at the Metropolitan Museum. The spotlights near “Portrait of a Lady” exploded—but it was the only painting that experienced the malfunction. A pipe had also burst during the exhibit’s run, leaking right in front of the portrait.
Tale of a Tragic Marriage
Luna’s marriage to Paz Pardo de Tavera was quite haunting in itself, having ended in tragedy. The artist was a temperamental man, and his disposition worsened when he had suspicions that his wife was cheating on him. In a 2020 piece for the Inquirer, Ambeth Ocampo confirms that de Tavera did engage in an affair with Monsieur Dussaq, a French doctor.
When Luna found Dussaq searching for his wife, and learned that she had escaped to a house with the man, he proceeded to physically assault her. De Tavera’s brothers intervened, but the tensions eventually reached a breaking point. A few weeks later, on September 22, 1892, Luna shot his wife and mother-in-law in the head, also injuring his two brother-in-laws.
The French courts acquitted Luna, writing his actions off as a “crime of passion,” according to Ocampo. Unfortunately, laws in France at the time permitted husbands to punish or even kill their wives for adultery, as per Esquire.
Whether or not “Portrait of a Lady” features de Tavera, Luna’s dark past might have something to do with the painting’s negative effects on its holders, if one is to believe that such things can be imbued into a person’s work. At present, the portrait hangs in the National Museum of the Fine Arts where the public can, thankfully, safely view it at a distance.
Banner photo by Giovanni Bragolin from the Gallerix online gallery.