Famous Artworks by Anonymous: Must Art be Connected to an Artist?

From anonymous painters to certain street artists, many famous artworks deconstruct the idea that it is the artist who gives art its value. Here are some well-known examples.

Mar 7, 2021By Anna Sexton, BA Int'l Relations, BA Art History, MA in-progress
banksy marcel duchamp
Rage, The Flower Thrower print by Banksy, 2005; with L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp, 1930


From the prehistoric age to the present, there exists for a variety of reasons famous artworks with no known creator. Sometimes it is because there is not enough historic evidence to connect a person to a painting. Other times it is because anonymity defines who they are as an artist. And still, other times, it is because of a stark difference in cultures, which causes a recontextualization of what is considered to be valued as art. 


Read on to discover examples of famous artworks with anonymous artists throughout history and how they all relate back to the same big question: must art be connected to an artist?


Prehistory: Famous Artworks Of The Lascaux Caves

Ceiling of Lascaux Caves, France, c. 17,000-15,000 BC, via Lascaux Médiathèque


Hidden away in southwestern France near the village of Montignac is what is considered to be the most famous example of prehistoric art: the Lascaux Caves. Close to 600 paintings and 1400 engravings adorn the inner walls, depicting horses, bulls, and other animals. Created between 17,000 and 15,000 BC, this cave of anonymous art was created by humans during the Upper Paleolithic period. We know nothing more of who they were or why this art was created, although many experts guess a ritualistic or spiritual practice was involved in the creation of these cave drawings. 


Because the exact identity of the creators of this anonymous art is virtually unknown, we instead tend to associate this famous artwork with the era in which it was created: The Lascaux Caves tell us about the type of humans living during the Upper Paleolithic period. The paintings and engravings on the walls indicate that the homo sapiens who inhabited the region were skilled artisans and also had the capacity for spiritual life.


deer detail lascaux caves
Deer, detail in Lascaux Caves, France, c. 17,000-15,000 BC, via Lascaux Médiathèque

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Thus, the artists of the Lascaux Caves remain shrouded in anonymity. We only know generic facts about their lives and nothing of the individuals who painted the horses and bulls onto the caves’ inner walls. However, these famous cave drawings were created well before the concept of “artist” was developed. 


As time goes on, historians begin to attempt to connect famous artworks with artists. This is especially apparent during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. When the artist is unknown, historians will develop a name, or rather a Notname, for them in order to attribute anonymous art to a creator. From this process, we have a number of Anonymous Masters: the work is known, but the identity of the artist is not.


Northern Renaissance Anonymous Art: Master Of The Embroidered Foliage

virgin and child master embroidered foliage
Virgin and Child in a Landscape by Master of the Embroidered Foliage, c. 1500, via the Philadelphia Museum of Art


The majority of Unknown Masters from this era come from Northern Europe because they did not usually sign their works. Furthermore, thanks to Giorgio Vasari’s book published in 1550 entitled Lives of the Artists, historians have a much easier time attributing art to the painters and sculptors of the Italian Renaissance


One important example of this phenomenon is the painter or group of painters with the Notname “Master of the Embroidered Foliage.” He is thought to have been an artist based in Brussels towards the end of the 15th century. 


Several works containing an intricate arrangement of shrubbery in the background are attributed to this anonymous artist and thus provide the basis for his Notname. In addition to paintings with the embroidered foliage, the German art historian Max J. Friedländer attributed four paintings of Madonna and Child in identical poses to this unknown master in 1926.


triptych virgin with child musician angels
Triptych of the Virgin with Child surrounded by Musician Angels by Master of the Embroidered Foliage, c. 1490, via Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille


But again, the true identity of the Master of the Embroidered Foliage remains unknown. Rather than relating these works to an entire time period like with the Lascaux Caves, viewers are able to identify the works to be from one (or several) Northern Renaissance artists. Although the artist lacks a personal identity, historians have ultimately created one for him. This begs the question; how much do we truly need to know about an artist?


In some cultures, the answer is nothing at all. However, this is due to the fact that the definition of art changes from culture to culture. Famous artworks in one culture could be virtually unknown in another.


19th Century Opium Wars: Spoils From The Yuanming Palace

yuanming palace
Guanshuifa Zhengmian (Viewing the Great Mountain main façade) Plate 16 from the series Twenty Views of the European Palaces of the Yuanming yuan after Yilantai, c. 1783-1786, via the British Museum, London


There is a fundamental difference between how different societies perceive art. This can result in famous artworks having no known author, especially if the work wasn’t originally considered to be art. Thanks to the power and influence of the Western museum, many cultural objects from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East were recontextualized and made to fit under the European definition of “art.” As a direct result of this, many artists remain unknown.


During the colonial era, objects from Asia, Africa, and the Americas were coveted for their “otherness” and “exoticism.” Explorers would ship cultural items they found back to Europe and into the private collections of the elite. In time, these private collections became the basis for the first public museums in the modern era.


summer palace imperial seal
Square jade imperial seal acquired from the Summer Palace, 1764, via the British Museum, London


What was considered to be valuable in Europe was not necessarily considered to be valuable elsewhere. For example, many objects considered to be traditional Chinese art today were not originally created as a work of art. Thanks to European imperialism, Chinese porcelain, ceramics, and textiles found their way into art and anthropology museums. In these spaces, the objects were recontextualized to represent Chinese art and culture from a Western perspective. 


During the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, French and British troops looted and destroyed the Yuanming Palace (Old Summer Palace) in Beijing. They sent many of their spoils back to France and England, including the emperor’s throne. In England, the throne is seen as a symbol of the power and might of the monarchy. It does not, however, carry the same significance in China. Furthermore, the looters favored porcelain as there was high demand for it in Europe and seen as the epitome of Chinese exoticism and culture. This shows how the European soldiers took what was deemed valuable by European standards, and not necessarily by Chinese.


Whoever built the throne and whoever made all of the porcelain remains unknown to this day. But in this case, historians do not attempt to attribute Chinese artifacts to an individual. These objects instead are left as anonymous art representing Chinese history and culture at large.


20th Century: Surrealist Readymades And The Mystery Creator

fountain marcel duchamp
Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917 (replica 1964), via Tate, London


In addition to this culture clash, we also tend to forget about the secret, more hidden contributors to works of art: the original makers and builders of famous artworks. Although there were no unknown masters in the Surrealist movement, the popularity of appropriation meant that the artists had stopped actually creating what they exhibited. This phenomenon began with the use of collage and readymades. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp would appropriate premade objects and label them as art. Thus, these objects are forever associated with the artists and not those who actually made them.


Ironically, one of the most famous readymades was made of porcelain. Fountain by Marcel Duchamp is a urinal turned on its back with the inscription, “R. Mutt 1917.” He had purchased the urinal from a sanitary ware supplier, with the intention of submitting it to the Society of Independent Artists in Paris. 


Readymades do not acknowledge the original creator of the object. Thus, is the true artist the builder of the object, or the one who thought to call it art? Is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain truly his, or is the true artist the anonymous person who built the urinal in the first place?


This question can be incredibly complicated, especially with mass-produced objects. The actual builder remains shrouded in anonymity, and many would find it ridiculous to credit a factory for creating a famous artwork. 


L.H.O.O.Q. marcel duchamp
L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp, 1930, via Centre Pompidou, Paris


Another interesting example of this is Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., which is a postcard of the Mona Lisa that he drew a mustache on and added the acronym: “L.H.O.O.Q.” (This is a double play on words; one for the English “look” and the other when saying the letters out loud. Aloud it sounds like “elle a chaud au cul”; French for “she has a hot ass.”) Due to the fame of the Mona Lisa, it is impossible to attribute this work solely to Duchamp. The viewer cannot help but think of da Vinci as well, even if the work is simply a reproduction of his original painting. 


At the same time, the printer of the postcard remains anonymous. Who was the person who created these mass-produced postcards? Although they too had a hand in creating L.H.O.O.Q., the printer receives no credit.


Today: Famous Artworks Under The Reign Of Banksy

graffiti removal banksy
Graffiti Removal by Banksy, 2008, via Banksy Official Site


Today, anonymity has become an identity in and of itself. The illegal origins of street art made this necessary, but as graffiti artists rise to fame their very anonymity can become a sensation. Such is the case with Banksy, whose art is recognized by virtually everyone, but his personal life remains completely unknown. His primary medium of stencil work, as well as images of apes, rats, and other iconography, make Banksy’s street art easy to attribute to him. 


And for many, this is enough. A lot of Banksy fans don’t even want to know his true identity. The mystery adds to the fame of the artist and ironically makes his works recognizable to more people. 


Similar to the Unknown Masters of the Northern Renaissance, Banksy is merely a name attributed to a collection of works. In this case, however, the artist himself developed his pseudonym and therefore has complete control over how he is perceived as an artist. We know he is from Bristol, England and we know his signature stencil style, which, according to Banksy, has “been used to start revolutions and stop wars.” Other than that, there is little more to learn about Banksy’s personal identity.


banksy rage the flower thrower
Rage, The Flower Thrower print by Banksy, 2005, via Banksy Official Site


In sum, the standard connection between an artist and his art assumes originality and denies anonymity. This also assumes that the artist has a certain identity, one that fits within the bounds of who we consider an “artist.” When the creator of a famous piece of art is unknown, we tend to create an identity for the artist ourselves. In some situations, this identity can even be a reference to an entire culture or time period. Thus, rather than asking if art must be connected to an artist, perhaps it is better to wonder, “what identity am I creating for the artist?”

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By Anna SextonBA Int'l Relations, BA Art History, MA in-progressAnna holds a BA from the University of Washington in Art History and International Relations and is currently based in Strasbourg, France. She has worked in several museums and art galleries in the Seattle area as well as abroad. She is currently completing her Master's thesis on the spoliation and restitution of Nazi-looted art in Strasbourg. When she is not writing & researching, Anna enjoys dancing ballet, learning languages, doing crosswords, and drinking tea.