Vincent van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet. Yes, I know you know, but I have to caption just to be fair.
The first time I went to Paris, my friend and I made sure, like any good American tourists, that we went to the Louvre. Mostly we meandered through the galleries, trying to make sure we saw the museum's greatest hits. The greatest hit of all in the Louvre is the Mona Lisa, of course. We made our way into the room where it hangs, and there was a crowd about six people deep in front of the roped off picture. We got as close as we could, and looked at the painting. After a minute I turned to my roommate and said, "Well, it looks just like the postcard." And we left.
Famous paintings travel different routes through history. Some were immediate stars, some spent years being ignored until they were "discovered." If they become famous enough, they become prints, posters, postcards, and t-shirts, their ubiquity all but obscuring what once made them startling and different. Once avant-garde, now part of the furniture, these paintings, although quite well-known, can become lost again in our familiarity with them.
Cynthia Saltzman tells about one such painting in The Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a van Gogh Masterpiece. The painting of Dr. Gachet, a physician who was treating van Gogh for his various, unidentified ailments, was described by the artist as having "the heartbroken expression of our time." The painting has become famous for that expression, but to me, it seems more pensive than heartbroken (and ladies and gentlemen, I know my heartbreak). Then again, I know nothing about art.