Mark Twain Skewers Great Works of Art: The Mona Lisa (“a Smoked Haddock!”), The Last Supper (“a Mournful Wreck”) & More


Some of the U.S.‘s great­est sec­u­lar sages also hap­pen to be some of its great­est cranks, con­trar­i­ans, and crit­ics. I refer to a cat­e­go­ry that includes Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Menck­en, and Hunter S. Thomp­son. The many dif­fer­ences between these char­ac­ters don’t eclipse a fun­da­men­tal sim­i­lar­i­ty: not a one embraced any of the usu­al pieties about the inher­ent, infal­li­ble great­ness of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion, though each one in his own way made a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the West­ern canon. We would be great­ly remiss if we did not include among them per­haps the great­est Amer­i­can satirist of all, Mark Twain.

Twain skew­ered all com­ers, usu­al­ly with such wit and inven­tion that we smile and nod even when we feel the sting our­selves. Such was his tal­ent, to deflate puffery in West­ern lit­er­a­ture, pol­i­tics, reli­gion, and… as we will see, in art. “Through­out his career”—writes UC Berke­ley’s Ban­croft Library—“Twain expressed his strong reac­tions to West­ern paint­ing and sculp­ture, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Old Mas­ters, both in his pub­lished works and in pri­vate.” He offered up some hilar­i­ous­ly irrev­er­ent takes on some of the most revered works of art in his­to­ry: “his opin­ions are often pas­sion­ate, some­times eccen­tric, and always live­ly.” Take for exam­ple Twain’s tepid assess­ment of that most rec­og­niz­able of Renais­sance mas­ter­pieces, the Mona Lisa. In an unpub­lished draft called “The Inno­cents Adrift,” an account of an 1891 boat trip down the Rhone Riv­er, Twain “admit­ted to being puz­zled by the adu­la­tion accord­ed” the paint­ing.


To Twain, the Mona Lisa seemed “mere­ly a good rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a serene & sub­dued face… The com­plex­ion was bad; in fact it was not even human; there are no peo­ple of that col­or.” The paint­ing’s green­ish hue prompt­ed one of Twain’s com­pan­ions, pos­si­bly an inven­tion of the author’s, to exclaim in response, “that smoked had­dock!” “After some dis­cus­sion,” write the UC Berke­ley librar­i­ans, “the trav­el­ers con­cede that it requires a ‘trained eye’ to appre­ci­ate cer­tain aspects of art.” Such train­ing in art appre­ci­a­tion seemed to Twain as much gen­uine edu­ca­tion as instruc­tion in stud­ied, insin­cere pos­es.

The author took his first “grand tour” in 1867—travelling through Europe and the Lev­ant on the cruise ship Quak­er City in the com­pa­ny of many “prosperous—and very proper—passengers.” Unlike these bour­geois trav­el­ling com­pan­ions’ “con­ven­tion­al appre­ci­a­tion for all that they saw,” Twain—writing as a cor­re­spon­dent for the San Fran­cis­co Alta Cal­i­for­niacon­fessed him­self under­whelmed. In par­tic­u­lar, he described anoth­er Da Vin­ci, The Last Sup­per—“the most cel­e­brat­ed paint­ing in the world”—as a “mourn­ful wreck.” (The work was then unre­stored; see it above as it looked 100 years lat­er in the 1970s.) Twain lat­er revised his obser­va­tions for his first full-length book, 1869’s Inno­cents Abroad, a car­i­ca­ture of ugly Amer­i­can tourists filled with what William Dean How­ells called “deli­cious impu­dence.” While the oth­ers mar­veled at Da Vin­ci’s crum­bling fres­co, Twain, in the cur­rent par­lance, expressed a great big “meh.”

The world seems to have become set­tled in the belief, long ago, that it is not pos­si­ble for human genius to out­do this cre­ation of Da Vin­ci’s.… The col­ors are dimmed with age; the coun­te­nances are scaled and marred, and near­ly all expres­sion is gone from them; the hair is a dead blur upon the wall, and there is no life in the eyes.… I am sat­is­fied that the Last Sup­per was a very mir­a­cle of art once. But it was three hun­dred years ago.


Twain and the pro­fes­sion­al crit­ics did not always dis­agree. Take J.M.W. Turn­er’s famous­ly riotous can­vas Slave Ship (or Slavers Over­throw­ing the Dead and Dying: Typhoon Com­ing On), above. John Ruskin may have praised the work as the “noblest sea… ever paint­ed by man” and it has come down to us as a vio­lent rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the hor­rors of the slave trade, occa­sioned in part, writes Stephen J. May, by Turn­er’s sense of “shared guilt about his own role and Eng­land’s role in con­don­ing and per­pet­u­at­ing slav­ery’s malev­o­lent lega­cy.” The anti-slav­ery, anti-impe­ri­al­ist Twain would sure­ly have appre­ci­at­ed the sen­ti­ment; the paint­ing, how­ev­er, not so much. Oth­er crit­ics felt sim­i­lar­ly, one call­ing Slave Ship a “gross out­rage on nature.” Twain’s sum­ma­tion in an 1878 note­book is much more col­or­ful, a piece of vin­tage Samuel Clemens under­cut­ting: “Slave Ship—Cat hav­ing a fit in a plat­ter of toma­toes.”

Censored Titian

For all his snide por­traits of con­ven­tion­al mid­dle-class atti­tudes toward art, Twain could also be a bit of a prig, as we see in his response to Titian’s Venus of Urbino. In this, he was not so far removed from our own cul­tur­al atti­tudes (or Face­book and Google’s atti­tudes) about nudi­ty. The cen­sored ver­sion of the paint­ing above (see the orig­i­nal here) comes to us via Buz­zfeed, who write “Remem­ber kids, blood and gore are fine but boobs will make you blind.” Twain seemed to have uniron­i­cal­ly agreed, rail­ing in his 1880 trav­el book A Tramp Abroad against the “inde­cent license” afford­ed artists and call­ing Titian’s sug­ges­tive reclin­ing nude “the foulest, the vilest, the obscen­est pic­ture the world pos­sess­es.” (Ah, if only he had lived to see the inter­net’s foulest depths.)


Twain’s own mea­ger con­tri­bu­tions to the visu­al arts—consisting of a dozen sketch­es, like that above, made for A Tramp Abroad—fall some­what short of the stan­dards he set for oth­er artists. Nev­er­the­less, he recalled in The Inno­cents Abroad his dis­may at the “acres of very bad draw­ing, very bad per­spec­tive, and very incor­rect pro­por­tions” in the muse­ums and church­es across Europe. What, we might won­der, could pos­si­bly move such a harsh, unspar­ing crit­ic? In art, it seems, Twain val­ued “strict real­ism, grandeur of theme and scale, and propriety”—all on dis­play in abun­dance in Amer­i­can artist Fred­er­ic Edwin Church’s The Heart of the Andes, below.


After view­ing this ide­al­ized South Amer­i­can land­scape in St. Louis, Twain called the enor­mous (over five feet high by ten feet wide) can­vas a “most won­der­ful­ly beau­ti­ful paint­ing.” “We took the opera glass­es,” he wrote to his broth­er, “and exam­ined its beau­ties minute­ly…. There is no slur­ring of per­spec­tive about it.” He rec­om­mend­ed mul­ti­ple view­ings: “Your third vis­it will find your brain gasp­ing and strain­ing with futile efforts to take all the won­der in… and under­stand how such a mir­a­cle could have been con­ceived and exe­cut­ed by human brain and human hands.”

Twain, won over by this sub­lime spec­ta­cle, seems to have tem­porar­i­ly sur­ren­dered his crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties. In read­ing his response, I found myself want­i­ng to egg him on: C’mon, what about this soft, gauzy light­ing, those lumpy moun­tains, and the kitschy, over­ly-sen­ti­men­tal look of the whole thing? But there was room enough in Twain’s crit­i­cal arse­nal for gen­uine awe as for amused con­tempt at what he saw as pho­ny expres­sions of the same. And that breadth of char­ac­ter is what made Mark Twain, well, Mark Twain.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mark Twain Cre­ates a List of His Favorite Books For Adults & Kids (1887)

Mark Twain Drafts the Ulti­mate Let­ter of Com­plaint (1905)

Mark Twain Writes a Rap­tur­ous Let­ter to Walt Whit­man on the Poet’s 70th Birth­day (1889)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • Lewis Walston says:

    I like so many things about Mark Twain. I have final­ly found some­thing that I do not agree with him about. His taste in art is very very dif­fer­ent from mine. I real­ly like the Turn­er paint­ing and was sur­prised that he was offend­ed by the nude.

  • Simon Lépine says:

    … M’am, Sir,

    Very inter­est­ing, I love your arti­cle … but I repeat myself !
    Thank you.

  • Rhea says:

    He was only rab­ble rous­ing, as was his wont.

  • Edgy says:

    When you write “sub­lime spec­ta­cle,” I’m remind­ed of how Clemens described a sun­rise over Haleakala, on the island of Maui, in the 1860s. It’s a descrip­tion that the tourism author­i­ties still called on when I first vis­it­ed there 25 years ago: “the sub­limest spec­ta­cle ever wit­nessed.” This was a cut-down ver­sion of his actu­al quote: “the sub­limest spec­ta­cle ever wit­nessed through the bot­tom of a tum­bler.”

  • Alessandro Forghieri says:

    On this page to read about Twain’s wits, I had to triple take at your repro­duc­tion of the Venus of Urbino **CENSORED**. Open cul­ture indeed! Il Braghet­tone ( is alive and well in the USA, it seems. Now that is one painter Twain would have loved.

  • Chris says:

    I know I’m late to the par­ty, but bet­ter late than nev­er:

    With­out giv­ing prop­er con­text to the pas­sages where Twain crit­i­cized these paint­ings, the arti­cle gives off the vibe that Twain was a great hater of great art. This isn’t true in the least! If it was your inten­tion to make Twain out to be a South­ern yokel with unre­fined, ple­beian tastes, then accord­ing to some of the oth­er com­ments post­ed here (by peo­ple who evi­dent­ly haven’t read much of Twain beyond Huck and Tom’s adven­tures), you’ve cer­tain­ly suc­ceed­ed!

    I have “A Tramp Abroad” lying before me right now. Here is the prop­er con­text to Twain’s com­ment about Titian’s Venus:
    The chap­ter starts off with Twain com­plain­ing about the sud­den moral cen­sor­ship in media and arts. He points out that in Flo­rence, for instance, the city has put fig-leaves on all of the mar­ble stat­ues, which he thought was a par­tic­u­lar­ly stu­pid and inef­fec­tive act, since the naked stat­ues weren’t provoca­tive to begin with. How­ev­er, he not­ed, very graph­ic nude paint­ings haven’t been “fig-leaved” or cen­sored, and remain in full view of the pub­lic. He essen­tial­ly called peo­ple out for being selec­tive­ly moral — naked stat­ues are bad, but nude paint­ings are okay.
    As an exam­ple of a par­tic­u­lar­ly provoca­tive paint­ing, he men­tioned Titian’s Venus and point­ed out that if he was to explic­it­ly describe the act she was com­mit­ting (name­ly, plea­sur­ing her­self), he’d raise a howl around the world for being gross­ly inde­cent. But if he had been a painter like Tit­ian and drew the act, peo­ple would hail him a genius.

    Did the per­son who wrote this arti­cle even read his sources? Or was he or she try­ing to slag off on Mark Twain? How sad must one’s life be, to either be too stu­pid to under­stand Mark Twain or too much of a scum­bag to quote him prop­er­ly.

    As for his com­ments on Turn­er and oth­er “Old Mas­ters”, it was all tongue-in-cheek, and Mark Twain’s own com­ments about his pho­tographs and draw­ings are obvi­ous­ly jokes, like Kurt Von­negut’s sketch­es. You can’t take them seri­ous­ly. Mark Twain was a SATIRIST, a HUMORIST, a COMEDIC WRITER. Does any­body know what humor means any­more, or only two-bit pseu­do-jour­nal­is­tic reviews like this arti­cle are all that’s left in the world?
    I think that if Tit­ian or Da Vin­ci had been alive to meet Twain, they would have found his com­ments absolute­ly hilar­i­ous!

    If some­body’s respect for Mark Twain dimin­ish­es this arti­cle, or this arti­cle fuels their exist­ing jeal­ousy of such giants like Twain, all’s worse for them and bet­ter for the rest of us nor­mal read­ers. No true admir­er of Twain los­es respect for him, and nobody cares about those pathet­ic weak-mind­ed noo­dles who think they are above clas­si­cal Amer­i­can writ­ers and try to besmirch their good rep­u­ta­tion, but mere­ly end up look­ing like obnox­ious, pseu­do-intel­lec­tu­al trash.

  • Nicolas Martin says:

    Sure­ly the cen­sored paint­ing is a joke; or this site caters to Jehovah’s Wit­ness­es.

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