Artworks That Were Hung Upside Down

Aug 3, 2023 3 comments

Art evoke emotions, provoke thoughts, and inspire, but it also challenges our perception because art eludes simple definition. The baffling nature of art lies in its power to mean different things to different individuals, fostering a diverse tapestry of interpretations that defy singular understanding. Even some of the most experienced curators have found it difficult to navigate the intricate corridors of artistic expression, as evidenced in these eight silly examples, where artworks have been inadvertently exhibited the wrong way up.

Piet Mondrian, New York City 1 (1941)

“New York City I” by Piet Mondrian, as it hangs at Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, upside down.

Just before Dutch painter Piet Mondrian died in 1944, he had been working on an abstract artwork titled New York City I. It consisted of a complex interlacing lattice of red, yellow, black and blue adhesive tapes, which the artist could rearrange at will to experiment with different designs. Before Mondrian could finish his artwork, the artist died, and since then New York City I has been hanging on the walls of various museums, albeit upside down.

The mistake was discovered only in 2022 when a photograph of Mondrian’s studio, taken a few days after the artist’s death, emerged that showed the same picture sitting on an easel the right way up.

Despite the discovery, the artwork was not righted because correcting the orientation would have damaged the painting.

“The adhesive tapes are already extremely loose and hanging by a thread,” says Susanne Meyer-Büser, the curator of Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, where the painting currently resides. “If you were to turn it upside down now, gravity would pull it into another direction.”

Paul Gauguin, Breton Village under the Snow (1894)

“Niagara Falls”. Oh! wait. That’s “Breton Village under Snow” by Paul Gauguin. Turn your screen around to see the actual painting.

In 1894, the French artist Paul Gauguin embarked on a journey to Brittany, following years of residing in Tahiti where he produced numerous artworks capturing life on the island. It was during this period that he crafted his painting titled Breton Village under Snow. Controversy lingers among scholars regarding whether this scenic portrayal sprung entirely from the depths of the artist's imagination or if it was a rendition of an actual landscape. Gauguin's arrival in Brittany occurred in April, and by November, he had returned to Paris, making it plausible that he did not encounter snow there. Gauguin's recognition only truly flourished posthumously, coinciding with the discovery of this painting on an easel in his studio in Papeete. Following Gauguin's demise in 1903, the artwork was included in an auction in Tahiti. During the auction, the painting was inadvertently showcased upside down and mislabeled as "Niagara Falls." Victor Segalen, a friend of the artist, acquired the painting for a nominal sum and turned it the right way up, revealing that it depicted Brittany cottages rather than cascading water. Breton Village under the Snow was later acquired by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon (1958)

Museum workers hang the “Black on Maroon” correctly at Tate Gallery.

In 1958, Latvian-born American abstract painter Rothko was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. Rothko originally intended Black on Maroon to be a fairly light work, influenced by the work of the Renaissance painter Michaelangelo in Florence’s Medicean Library. But as time went on, he adopted an increasingly solemn tone. Eventually, this darkness progressed so far that he felt compelled to abandon his initial series altogether and begin again, using the mixture of red, maroon, and black which can be seen in the finished painting.

Black on Maroon was never installed at the Four Seasons restaurant because Rothko did not think it was an appropriate setting for the works. In 1970, he gifted the painting to the Tate Gallery, but on the day of its delivery, Rothko was found dead in his studio.

The gallery did not know which way was up, and hung the painting horizontally, reflecting the way that the artist had signed the canvases on the reverse. But nine years later, curators changed their minds, and hung the painting vertically. In 1987 they reverted to a horizontal hang, but then went back to vertical. This is how the painting currently hangs at Tate.

Salvador Dalí, Four Fishermen’s Wives of Cadaqués (1928)

“Four Fishermen’s Wives of Cadaqués”. Apparently, this is the right way up. Who could tell?

In 1994, five years after the death of Salvador Dali, one of his paintings titled Four Fishermen’s Wives of Cadaqués was found hanging upside down by a visitor at the Hayward Gallery in London. The mistake was confirmed by Antoni Pitxot, director of the Dali Theater-Museum in Figueres, a close friend of Dali's and one of the few people who was familiar with the work, since it remained in Dali's private collection until he died. According to Mr. Pitxot, Dali told him that he painted the women as he saw them from his house overlooking the beach in Cadaques, on the Costa Brava. They looked like crabs, Dali thought, as they sat mending nets facing the sea with their legs spread wide apart.

There is also a mystery why the title specifies “four” wives when only three are visible. Ana Beristain, curator of the Reina Sofia Art Center in Madrid, concedes that it must be a mistake and that the museum was considering renaming it.

Van Gogh, Long Grass and Butterflies (1890)

Van Gogh’s “Long Grass and Butterflies” oriented correctly.

In 1965 a 15-year-old schoolgirl visiting the National Gallery pointed out that Long Grass and Butterflies by Van Gogh was hanging upside down. The staff was alerted and the mistake rectified without much harm done. It emerged that the painting had been temporarily taken away for photography and, on its return, it had been hung the wrong way up. Fortunately, it had only been upside down for 15 minutes.

Henri Matisse, Le Bateau (1953)

Le Bateau, or “The Boat”, is a paper-cut by French artist Henri Matisse. The picture is composed from pieces of paper cut out of sheets painted with gouache, and was created during the last years of Matisse's life. The work caused a minor stir in 1961 when a visitor to the Museum of Modern Art, New York noticed that the work was hung upside down. The Museum's art director was notified and the artwork was rehung properly. It had spent topsy-turvy for 47 days.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Oriental Poppies (1928)

“Oriental Poppies” as it meant to be viewed.

Oriental Poppies, a 1928 oil painting by Georgia O’Keeffe is perhaps one of the best known works of the acclaimed American artist. Yet, for 30 years, the painting was hung the wrong way at the University of Minnesota Art Museum. It’s supposed to be a horizontal painting, but it was hung vertically.

The error came to light in 1986 when museum director Lyndel King came across an old newspaper clipping from 1937 about the painting with a photograph of the painting itself, but published horizontally. At first King dismissed the newspaper’s reporting because he knew newspapers cannot be trusted on these matters, but when he went to the museum’s archives and pulled the original accession record, he was surprised to learn that the painting was indeed supposed to be horizontal.

It is not the only painting by O'Keeffe that has been exhibited inappropriately at times. Another of her painting, The Lawrence's Tree , was exhibited inverted in 1931 and, again, for ten years, between 1979 and 1989.

Josep Amorós, Philip V of Spain (~1700)

Photo credit: Enrique Íñiguez Rodríguez/Wikimedia Commons

At the Almodí Museum near Valencia, there is a portrait of King Philip V hanging unmistakably upside down. Unlike other examples in this article, this is intentional.

During the Siege of Xàtiva in 1707, the King of Spain ordered the town burnt, the population banished and the execution of several notable citizens. The city was rebuilt two years later, and a portrait of the king, made by a local painter, was eventually hung in the town’s Almodi Museum. More than two centuries later, in 1940, the then curator of the museum took a stand and hung the painting upside down as a symbolic gesture of protest. The king, who had commanded the destruction of the town in the midst of the War of the Spanish Succession, has faced this silent act of resistance ever since then.


  1. Correction on the Mondrian:
    Susanne Meyer-Büser works in Düsseldorf where the error was discovered, not in Paris. What's hanging in Paris is part of the same work as the taped picture, but as an oil painting.

    1. Thanks for the correction. The article has been edited.

  2. Mondrian, Rothko, inter alios: Upside-down makes no difference to anybody except the artists... and maybe not even to them.


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