6 Scary Paintings by Famous Artists That Will Shock You

The artworks of famous artists are not just beautiful and philosophical but timeless. However, within these glorious canvases are a myriad of scary paintings that illuminate the darkness of humanity.

Oct 22, 2020By Lara Colrain, BA Archaeology, BA Art History
scary painting dante virgil
Detail of Dante and Virgil by Willian-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1850 (left); with The Face of War by Salvador Dalí, 1940 (right)


It is human nature to be fascinated by the macabre. For some people, chilling illustrations are a reality check—a reminder that life is not all “rainbows and unicorns.” For others, they are a passionate interest, an exciting obsession, or just something fascinating to behold. No matter your inclination, all great art is worthy of debate and praise. These harrowingly scary paintings by famous artists will leave you feeling disturbed yet also moved by the subject matter.


Why Did Famous Artists Create Scary Paintings?

judith beheading holofernes gentileschi
Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620, via The Uffizi Galleries, Florence


Throughout history, artists have depicted the macabre in art, exploring themes such as death, violence, and the supernatural. During antiquity, artists used their talents to reckon with themes of death and violence seen in life and warfare. In the European Renaissance, art questioned the strict, overbearing Christian ideology. In Medieval Europe, dark art was employed to explore the effects of plague, ranging from the supernatural to the everyday. modern visual art uses disturbing imagery to confront uncomfortable truths of society. Here are 6 scary paintings that show this use of the macabre in them. 


6. The Face Of War By Salvador Dalí

the face of war salvador dali
The Face of War by Salvador Dalí, 1940, via Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam


Although it is ranked at #6, this painting is no mere honorable mention. In fact, the closer you examine The Face of War, by the famous artist and surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, the more its horrid yet cruelly on point details come to light. The painting portrays a disembodied head, set against a desert backdrop, with an emaciated face—much like a corpse—under attack from serpents. Its expression is bleak and forsaken, which was Dalí’s intention: to show the ugliness of war. Within the mouth and eye sockets are identical heads and within them, are more identical heads, making this aspect of it infinite—another rather depressing concept.


Dalí painted the work in California, 1940, and it is believed to be more evocative of the Spanish Civil War than the Second World War. The dominating color is brown, with a muted blue-green sky in the distance. Arguably, the brown shades represent war, while the blue-green tones represent peace.

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Overall, The Face of War is a stark reminder of humanity’s brutal and never-ending penchant for conflict.


Interesting Facts:


The handprint visible in the lower right-hand corner is actually Salvador Dalí’s.

Including The Face of War, Dalí attested that much of his artwork stemmed from premonitions of future wars.

Dalí claimed that two things inspired him: his libido and a general uneasiness when it came to death.


5. Severed Heads By Théodore Géricault

severed heads theodore gericault
The Severed Heads by Théodore Géricault, 1810s, via Nationalmuseum, Stockholm


Théodore Géricault is another famous artist known for his scary paintings. This gruesome illustration, labeled Severed Heads, literally depicts mortality in its darkest hour. The decay of the heads is evident. On the left, a female one has closed eyes and deathly white skin, while in contrast, on the right, a male head has open lifeless eyes with its mouth ajar. What is further fascinating about the composition is Géricault’s use of dark and light tones to convey his intention—the changeover from life to death.


Géricault was so obsessed with the notion of mortality that he was known to keep real dismembered body parts and cadavers in his studio. Like several of his other paintings, Severed Heads provided him a means to practice drawing the finer details of a corpse.


Interesting Fact:


The necks of the severed heads suggest that these former souls met their end via beheading. However, in reality, this is only the case for one of them. Géricault obtained the male guillotined head from a thief formerly held in Bicêtre (a hospital that also served as a death-row prison), while the female head was drawn from a live model. For this reason, it has been inferred that Géricault’s second purpose for painting Severed Heads was to highlight how both men and women often fell victim to decapitation via the guillotine.


4. Dante And Virgil  By William-Adolphe Bouguereau

dante and virgul bouguereau
Dante and Virgil by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1850, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Coming in at #4 is a haunting representation by the famous artist and French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau. At first, Dante and Virgil may not seem like an extremely scary painting, but when paired with its backstory, it becomes a morbid visual experience. The canvas portrays a scene from the poet Dante’s Divine Comedy. Here, Dante and his guide, Virgil, have ventured into Hell and are stopped at the Eighth Circle. This section of Hell is reserved for those who committed fraud upon humanity. Dante and Virgil are bearing witness to two damned souls engaged in eternal combat—a fight to the death! One of them is Capocchio, an alchemist and a heretic; the other is Gianni Schicchi, a trickster, and fraudster. It is Schicchi who has the upper hand, biting Capocchio’s neck while simultaneously kneeing his back. 


What is most impressive about this artwork—besides the disturbing backdrop of demons, an inferno, and naked figures writhing in agony—is the beautiful depiction of the fighters’ bodies. Bouguereau has brilliantly captured the “heat of the moment,” showcasing Schicchi’s fierce strength, the fluidity of the men’s’ poses, and the raw desperation in their expressions. 


Overall, Dante and Virgil is an artistic aide-mémoire, highlighting how individuals are all equal in God’s eyes, and that when banished to Hell, one becomes neither human nor beast but something in between the two.


Interesting Fact:


Regarding the theme of the painting, it was a one-off by Bouguereau, suggesting that the dark content was perhaps too unsettling for him to reproduce . . .


3. The Death Of Marat II By Edvard Munch

death of marat edvard munch
The Death of Marat II by Edvard Munch, 1907, via the Munch Museum, Oslo


This next scary painting draws upon the darkness of the human experience, particularly when it comes to the termination of a relationship. The Death of Marat II was born from the mind of the Norwegian famous artist Edvard Munch and has one helluva story behind it—well, two in fact. It all started when Munch broke up with his fiancée, Tulla Larsen in 1902. Sources claim that the pair quarreled at his summer house in Aagaardsstrand, and during the fray, a revolver went off, wounding Munch’s hand. This incident traumatized the artist—who insinuated that Larsen was at fault—and served as the inspiration for two paintings: The Death of Marat and The Death of Marat II.


The subject in both titles, “Marat,” refers to Jean-Paul Marat, a French revolutionary who was assassinated in a bathtub by radical Charlotte Corday in 1793. In The Death of Marat II, instead of Marat and Corday being the focus, it is understood to be Munch lying dead on the bed, with a naked Larsen standing upright beside him. She is seen as his murderess for two primary reasons: the wound on the man’s arm—symbolic of Munch shooting his own hand during his previous tiff with Larsen—and the physical similarities between the woman in the painting and Larsen herself.


Interesting Fact:


Munch did the painting while he was testing expressionistic techniques. He developed a unique method: distinct horizontal and vertical brushstrokes that were emblematic of his aggression and unhinged mental state—which eventually led to his breakdown in 1908.


2. Electric Chair By Andy Warhol 

electric chair andy warhol
Electric Chair by Andy Warhol, 1967, via National Gallery of Australia, Parkes


This image stands out somewhat from the aforementioned, but it is a justifiably scary painting that should send a cold tendril up your spine. Electric Chair is the brainchild of the famous artist Andy Warhol and represents his inception of hand printing images onto canvas and then translating the technique to paper. The original 1964 black and white artwork (pictured below) was based on a press photograph (1953) of the death chamber at Sing Sing State Penitentiary in New York and was screen printed with silver acrylic paint. 


The monochrome colored prints (such as the one depicted above) were developed a few years later when Warhol started to experiment with composition and color. In 1980 Warhol described his new process of printing as a significant change in his practice: “You pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across so that the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple—quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it.’ (Warhol and Hackett 2007, p.28.)


little electric chair andy warhol
Little Electric Chair by Andy Warhol, 1964-65, via SFMOMA, San Francisco


What is most haunting about the Electric Chair series is the political controversy surrounding the death penalty in America at the time, especially in New York City, where the last two executions at Sing Sing were scheduled via electrocution. Thus, Warhol provides a grim but highly poignant metaphor for death. The picture is devoid of all human presence. As the art historian Neil Printz observed, the print “is remarkable for its visual sobriety and emotional understatement,” while the emptiness and stillness of the room “represents death as absence and silence.” (Printz in Menil Collection 1989, p.17.) In essence, the opus is death exhibiting death, which should resonate with anyone conscious of human mortality.


Interesting Fact:


The inspiration behind Warhol’s Electric Chair series was a lunch date with curator Henry Geldzahler. Warhol stated: “We were both having lunch one day in the summer [of 1962] … and he laid the Daily News out on the table. The headline was ‘129 DIE IN JET,’ and that’s what started me on the death series—the Car Crashes, the Disasters, the Electric Chairs …” (Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol ‘60s, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, and London, 1980, p 75.)


1. The Top Scary Painting: The Massacre Of The Innocents By Peter Paul Rubens

massacre of the innocents peter paul rubens
The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens, 1610, via Art Gallery of Ontario 


Coming in at #1 is a scary painting that is definitely not for the fainthearted. Mothers especially be warned: the subject matter is not only graphic but extremely disturbing. The Massacre of the Innocents by the famous artist Peter Paul Rubens has earned its top spot due to its ruthless portrayal of infanticide, which—according to the Bible’s Gospel of Matthew—was a real incident. 


Whether fact or fable, the artwork has a disturbing ability to pull the viewer into the scene. If you take the New Testament’s account, it was the Judean King Herod the Great who ordered the butchering of all the male Bethlehem children aged two years and under. His inhumane rationalization for the command was, not surprisingly, ego related—no matter what version of the story you come upon. Herod either murders the infants due to his anger over being mocked by the Magi—aka the Three Wise Men/Three Kings—or because he is forewarned that the impending birth of a male child will usurp his crown. 


In essence, this is a moving canvas, with perhaps the most prominent point of focus being dead center: the mother, her child, and the soldier. The struggle between the three of them is brutally dramatic. Will the mother’s gouging of the soldier’s face save her son? Or will it be for naught? 


A secondary area of emphasis is far right: the soldier ready to propel a baby against an already crimson-stained pillar, and the two women reaching up to stop him. Can they, too, save the young babe, or has Fate already decreed the victor of this bloodbath given the amount of lifeless and bloody corpses of infants scattered about them . . .


the nightmare henry fuseli
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781, via Detroit Institute of Arts

Interesting Fact:


In 1923, a woman inherited The Massacre of the Innocents but refused to keep it. She found the painting too horrid—after all, the slaughtering of newborns and toddlers hardly passes as regular home décor. Instead, she loaned it to the Reichersberg Abbey monastery in Austria. It was later sold at auction for a whopping 76.7 million! 


In summary, The Massacre of the Innocents is a sobering depiction of something that is actually happening today. Young children are still being massacred, abused, and exploited, and no matter how much we might want to block out that fact, it is irrevocably that: fact. One we should not ignore but shed light on and change. Because only then can we break the cycle of history repeating itself. Only then can we call ourselves the height of humanity. Only then can we save the innocents, the ones who deserve the future that we were so fortunate to have.  


The writer Elie Wiesel said it flawlessly: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”


Author Image

By Lara ColrainBA Archaeology, BA Art HistoryLara is a published author, editor, poet, and archaeologist based in Hobart, Tasmania. She holds two BAs (Arts and Archaeology) and is deeply passionate about ancient history, antiquities, and mythology, with a special interest in indigenous cultures, notably the ancient Maya. She was fortunate to have known the late Mayanist, George. E. Stuart, who was a mentor during her archaeological studies. In her free time, Lara enjoys Painting by Numbers.