Banksy, Sunflowers, and Nympheas
Banksy & Art History Volume 2



“The bad artists imitate. The great artists steal.”

This famous quote attributed to Picasso refers to the fact that throughout art history, artists have found their inspiration in the work of their predecessors. Pablo Picasso was obsessed with a famous painting by Eugene Delacroix entitled “Women of Algiers,” Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat all referred to art history within their practice – they used it to guide their work.
Banksy is certainly no exception. His work makes extensive reference to art history, but of course always with a twist. Going through some of Banksy‘s works, whether that be murals, prints, or originals is a fun way to learn more about Art History. We will regularly publish editorials analyzing the links between masterworks from art history and Banksy.


1. Claude Monet
2. Vincent van Gogh
3. Rembrandt
4. Rene Magritte
5. Edward Hopper
6. Edgar Degas



1. Claude Monet

Claude Monet (1840-1926) was a French painter who is considered to be the founder of Impressionism, and the most consistent and prolific practitioner of the movement’s philosophy. This art movement encouraged expressing one’s perceptions before nature, especially as applied to painting outside (en plein air), which was quite innovative at the time, and a radical departure from the widely accepted practice of painting inside in their studios. In that sense, Monet could also be seen as one of the precursors to urban art, except that most of his urban landscapes were about nature. Just like Banksy, Claude Monet  was quite a revolutionary character in his own time.
Show me the Monet is among the most iconic paintings of Banksy’s provocative oeuvre. It is an extremely rare, entirely hand-painted canvas that helped secure Banksy’s position as one of the most controversial and decisive social commentators of our time. Banksy repurposes a famous image in western art history: Claude Monet’s career-defining view of the Japanese footbridge in his water garden at Giverny. 
With its tongue-in-cheek pun of a title, Banksy’s painstakingly observed re-painting delivers a complex dialogue about some of the most prescient issues of our time, such as the environment and the capitalist landscape of this contemporary moment, not to mention the art establishment and its ongoing identity crisis. With a sumptuously rendered orange traffic cone and a thickly textured shopping trolley disrupting the romance of Monet’s Impressionist masterpiece, Banksy’s version becomes a twenty-first-century tipping point instead of a timelessly idyllic scene. Delivered with the ironic dead-pan immediacy of a punchline, the underlying conceptual complexity at stake here belies its humor.
Monet’s beautiful paintings of Giverny are today considered a benchmark of established taste and crown jewels from a historical art perspective. Yet, at the time Monet was building his reputation during the 1860s and into the 1870s, he was considered a radical. By recording everything he saw and conspicuously refusing to omit ‘ugly’ scenic disturbances in his painting, his works sought to reflect the changing landscape of Modern France as the Industrial Revolution made its impact on the traditional landscape genre. This was controversial and seen as an affront to contemporary taste, a departure from the past, and this revolutionary perspective is amplified through Banksy’s reworking more than a century later. Echoing the way in which Monet translated the French landscape, complete with evidence of the encroaching Industrial Revolution, Show me the Monet presents a dialogue on the impact of the corporate world on our environment and the sacrifices made at the expense of so-called ‘human progress’.
Claude Monet, Japanese Bridge, 1899
As a work of art, Monet’s waterlilies are near the apex of artistic achievement. In choosing to appropriate and rework these works, Banksy challenges modern civilization in a single image. His ironic manipulation includes half-submerged shopping trolleys and a traffic cone that present an affront to an icon of art history while also building on Monet’s radical legacy as a painter of Modernity. Banksy uses Monet’s work to explicitly pass commentary on our time, an age of hyper-capitalism and waste. Using a heavy dose of irony and humor, Banksy’s work harbors a greater social agenda.
The term “Impressionism” is derived from the title of Monet’s painting Impression, Soleil Levant (translated as Impressions, Sunrise), which was exhibited in 1874 in the first of the independent exhibitions mounted by a group of artists as an alternative to what was called the Salon de Paris, one of the precursors of the large art fairs familiar today.

In the early 1880s, Monet lived in Giverny, France, where he purchased a property and began a vast landscaping project which included the lily ponds that would eventually become the subjects of some of his best-known works. He began painting the water lilies, also called Nympheas in 1899, first in vertical views with a Japanese Bridge as a central feature, and later in a series of large-scale paintings that would occupy him continuously for the next 20 years of his life. Claude Monet painted no less than 250 Nympheas of all sizes. Some have sold for record prices at public auction and are now in museums all over the world.


Monet‘s ambition of documenting the French countryside led him to adopt a method of painting the same scene many different times in order to capture the changing of light and the passing of the seasons. As such, Monet can also be credited as the source of Andy Warhol’s numerous series of repetitive subjects.


2. Vincent van Gogh

Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853-1889) was a Dutch post-impressionist painter who posthumously became one of the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western Art. In a decade, he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of which date from the last two years of his life. They include landscapes, still lifes, portraits and self-portraits. His work is characterized by bold colors and dramatic, impulsive, and expressive brushstrokes that contributed to the foundations of Modern Art.
Sunflowers (in its original title, in French, Tournesols) is the name of two series of still lifes painted by Vincent van Gogh. Those paintings are widely considered some of the most important paintings of still life in art history. The first series, executed in Paris in 1887, depicts the flowers lying on the ground, while the second set, made a year later in Arles, shows a bouquet of sunflowers in a vase.

The flowers in the painting are seen at various stages of the plant’s life cycle, symbolic to the cycle of human life. This subject was very significant for the artist as sunflowers represent devotion and loyalty, and the color yellow was a symbol of happiness for the artist.
Banksy, Sunflowers from Petrol Station, 2005
Oil on canvas in artist’s frame, 76.5×61 cm (29 7/8 x 24 inches)
In Banksy‘s version, obviously the sunflowers are all dead, most probably because of various human activities that are progressively destroying our planet, a recurring theme in the artist’s oeuvre.
On March 30, 1987, Japanese insurance magnate Yasuo Goto paid the equivalent of USD 39,921,750 for van Gogh‘s Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers at auction at Christie’s in London, at the time a record-setting amount for a work of art. The price was over three times the previous record of about $12 million paid for Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi in 1985.
This famous picture from Christie’s is actually the subject of one of Banksy‘s most iconic prints, entitled Morons.


3. Rembrandt

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) was a Dutch painter, printmaker, and draughtsman. He is generally considered one of the greatest artists in the history of art and the most important in Dutch history. Unlike most of his peers, Rembrandt worked in a wide range of styles and subject matter, from portraits to landscapes, genre, allegorical and historical scenes, biblical and mythological themes, as well as animal studies.
Banksy, Rembrandt with Googly Eyes, 2009
Googly eyes and acrylic on canvas, 102.3×77 cm (40 1/4 x 30 3/8 inches)
Banksy recreates Rembrandt’s well-known Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669) and covers the expressive eyes, which Rembrandt’s portraits are best known for, with googly eyes. This simple act undermines the painting itself and encourages the viewer to question the nature of art, creating a work that is not only witty, but visually amusing. Poignantly, in this case, Banksy has altered a work in much the same way he does when he throws up an illegal street piece on a building. However, this practical joke has a deeper meaning.

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669
Oil on canvas, 86×70.5cm (33.9×27.8 inches)

Self-Portrait at the Age of 63 is one of three from Rembrandt produced in 1669, and one of the last in his series of around 80 self-portraits, painted in the months before his death in October 1669. Despite the nearness of death, and his aging face, Rembrandt creates the impression of a self-assured, confident, calm artist. It was bought by the London National Gallery in 1851.


Banksy’s appropriation of  Rembrandt’s internationally beloved self-portrait invites the viewer to question why this act seems so audacious, why this painting is valued so highly, and furthermore, what constitutes “great art?” As a street artist, Banksy is no stranger to graffiti being considered “low art” or even “vandalism.” Consequently, he aims to subvert what we consider “high art” by taking a famous painting, catching the viewer’s interest with attention-grabbing googly eyes, and creating a piece that is entertaining, thought-provoking, and progressive.


4. Rene Magritte

René Magritte (1898-1967) was a Belgian surrealist artist. He became well known for creating a number of witty and thought-provoking images. Often depicting ordinary objects in an unusual context, his work is known for challenging observers’ preconceived perceptions of reality. His imagery has influenced pop art, minimalist art, and conceptual art.
In 1929, René Magritte created a work that he entitled The Treachery of Images (also known as Ceci N’est Pas une Pipe). The painting depicted a tobacco pipe, under which was written the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” French for “This is not a pipe.” Magritte painted it when he was 30 years old. It is now on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Challenging the presumed relationship between visual representation, language, and objecthood, the iconic painting posed a conceptual challenge, reminding the viewer that there is in fact no pipe present despite our instinctual response otherwise.
Rene Magritte, Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe, 1929
Oil on canvas, 60.3 x 81.1 cm (23 3/4 x 31 7/8 inches)

Banksy’s version flips Magritte’s work on its head, as he has chosen to use an actual, physical pipe as his subject, writing underneath “This is a pipe” in English while emulating the schoolboy cursive of the original. The gilt frame around the protruding pipe and text completes the work, elevating the corroded metal and completing the visual reference to Magritte’s painting. Yet Banksy’s decision to leave the raw edges of the metal protruding outside the frame is a reminder of the appropriated nature of his work, and his origins as a street artist painting on existing surfaces. The act also subtly references the work of Marcel Duchamp and his practice of coopting found objects as ready-made art pieces.
This work is yet another humorous example of Banksy’s artistic wit and penchant for using art historical references and found objects in his work.
Banksy, This is a Pipe, 2011
Paint, vintage frame and reclaimed metal
69x80x29 cm (27 1/8 x 34 5/8 x 11 3/8 inches)
This is a Pipe, though simple in its conception and execution, exemplifies one of the best qualities of Banksy‘s art: his ability to introduce shock, surprise, and humor into everyday life.
With a simple act and an ordinary object, Banksy not only subverts a famous work of art but challenges our own expectations surrounding art and originality. This challenge – the questions of what deserves to be considered art, definitions of ownership, and what is or is not permitted – is central to Banksy’s work, contributing to his international appeal as artist, activist, and rebel.
The reference to Rene Magritte is more subtle in Embracing Couple, an earlier work dated 2003. Masked like the clandestine identity of the artist himself, the figures in Embracing Couple are a variation from Banksy’s subversive theme of helmeted characters. The painting, spay-painted onto industrial sheet metal, is the study for one of the guerrilla artist’s rare artistic and commercial commissions, which wound up serving as the cover art for the English rock band Blur’s Think Tank album, released in 2003.
Banksy, Embracing Couple, 2003
Spray-paint on steel, 155×135 cm (61 x 53 1/8 inches)
Embracing Couple depicts lovers in a passionate hug, outfitted in diving helmets in a reference to the shrouded lovers in Magritte’s Les Amants (The Lovers).
Frustrated desires are a common theme in René Magritte’s work. In Lovers, a barrier of fabric prevents the intimate embrace between two lovers, transforming an act of passion into one of isolation and frustration. Some have interpreted this work as a depiction of the inability to fully unveil the true nature of even our most intimate companions.
Rene Magritte, The Lovers II, 1928
Enshrouded faces are a common theme in Magritte’s art. The artist was 14 when his mother committed suicide by drowning. He witnessed her body being fished from the water, her wet nightgown wrapped around her face. Some have speculated that this trauma inspired a series of works. Magritte disagreed with such interpretations: “My painting is visible images which conceal nothing” he wrote, “they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does it mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”
Magritte shows considerable skill in making the lovers very clear despite the fabric over their face. it would be easy to turn the shape too formless, but instead it only creates an eerie barrier between the viewer and the lovers themselves.
Banksy, Think Tank Album Cover
Think Tank is a concept album about “love and politics,” associated with the widespread protests against the Iraq war, most notably. Anti-war themes are recurrent in the album as well as in associated artwork and promotional videos.

5. Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was an American Realist painter and printmaker. While he is widely known for his oil paintings, he was equally proficient as a watercolorist and printmaker in etching. His career benefited immensely from his marriage to fellow-artist Josephine Nivison, who contributed much to his work, both as a live-model, and as a creative partner. Hopper was a minor-key artist, creating subdued drama out of commonplace subjects layered with a poetic meaning, inviting narrative interpretations, often unintended. He was praised for complete verity in the America he portrayed. He is now widely considered to have been one of the top painters of the 20th Century.
Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942
Oil on canvas, 84.1×152.4 cm (33×60 inches)
Art Institute of Chicago
Nighthawks portrays people in a downtown diner, late at night as viewed through the diner’s large glass window. The light coming from the diner illuminates a darkened and deserted urban streetscape.
It is considered to be Hoppers best-known work, and is one of the most recognizable paintings in American Art. Within months of its completion, it was sold to the Art Institute of Chicago on 13 May 1942, for $3,000.

Hopper‘s stunningly cinematic picture Nighthawks is one of the most reproduced paintings in art history. Indeed, this picture addresses the loneliness created by the alienating presence of the modern city. The judicious composition of this painting, together with the remarkable color treatment, provokes a strange feeling within the viewer. Psychologically speaking, these people are isolated, thrown together as a group, but also locked within themselves, left alone to dwell on their own fears and concerns. It is a picture of city life in the small hours when an unnatural silence and an uncanny stillness take hold, tugging suggestively at the senses of hearing and vision.
Banksy, Are You Using That Chair, 2005
Oil on canvas, 200×400 cm
Crude Oils, London, October 2005
Much like Hopper, Banksy is also recognized as an artist who does not shy from depicting the reality of our modern societies. In his version of Nighthawks, the artist depicts a threatening chubby man only wearing Union Jack underwear, pointing angrily at the cracked window of Hopper’s dinner. Two plastic chairs are scattered on the sidewalk around him, and it appears that he likely threw them in an attempt to break the window. This figure potentially represents the angry British working class demanding a seat at the elite’s table.

6. Edgar Degas


Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was a French Impressionist artist famous for his pastel drawings and oil paintings. He also produced bronze sculptures, prints and drawings. Degas was especially drawn to the subject of dance, as more than half of his works depict dancers. Although Degas is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, he rejected the term, instead preferring to be called a realist, as he did not paint outdoors like so many of the Impressionists did.


Edgar Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878-1881
National Gallery of Art
Degas only shared one of his sculpture with the public when, in 1881, he exhibited Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. A nearly life-size wax figure, complete with real hair and dressed in a cloth tutu, the piece provoked a strong reaction from critics – most of whom found its realism extraordinary, but denounced the dancer as ugly.
In a review, J.-K. Huysmans wrote: “The terrible reality of this statuette evidently produces uneasiness in the spectators; all their notions about sculpture, about those cold inanimate witnesses… are here overturned. The fact is that with his first attempt Monsieur Degas has revolutionized the traditions of sculpture as he has long since shaken the conventions of painting.”
Banksy, Ballerina with Action Man Parts, 2005
Painted resin, 31x20x18cm (12 1/4 x 7 7/8 x 7 1/8 inches)
Edition: 6
Banksy’s Ballerina might not be ugly, but one will never know for certain as she is outfitted in a gas mask. Our protagonist has likely had to endure some of the ecological disasters humans caused through their race for oil and gas, and she is seen stepping over a discarded oil drum. She is striking quite an elegant pose despite all of this, and she appears to be looking around in a curious manner at the world in which she now finds herself.
Banksy, The Dance Class


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