Throughout history, portrait paintings have captured the essence of their subjects, immortalising them in time. These iconic masterpieces not only showcase the artist’s technical skill but also provide a glimpse into the historical and cultural context of their era. In this article, we’ll explore 12 of the most famous portrait paintings in history, delving into the art movements that gave rise to these masterpieces and the stories behind their creation.
Mona Lisa (1503) by Leonardo da Vinci
Art Movement: High Renaissance
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris
Leonardo da Vinci, an Italian polymath, draftsman and Renaissance artist, painted the Mona Lisa, undoubtedly one of the most, if not the most famous paintings in history. The painting is famed for the subject’s enigmatic smile and the mysterious identity. But what is it that makes the painting so famous? Let’s explore the reasons why…
The subject of the Mona Lisa remains a mystery, which has caused widespread intrigue. It is widely believed to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo. However, some art historians have proposed alternative theories. Some have suggested that the painting could represent a self-portrait, an idealised woman, or even Leonardo’s mother.
In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre Museum by an Italian handyman named Vincenzo Peruggia. He believed the painting belonged in Italy. The theft garnered international attention, and the painting was recovered two years later when Peruggia tried to sell it to an art dealer in Florence. This sensational news story helped solidify the Mona Lisa’s status as a priceless treasure.
Leonardo da Vinci was a pioneer in his use of sfumato, a technique that involves blending colours and tones without discernible transitions or lines. This approach gives the Mona Lisa its soft, almost ethereal appearance. The subject’s facial features appearing to change subtly depending on the viewer’s angle and distance.
Additionally, the Mona Lisa has been endlessly reproduced, parodied, and referenced in popular culture. This makes it one of the most recognisable images in history. From Marcel Duchamp’s irreverent “L.H.O.O.Q.” to Andy Warhol’s pop art rendition, the painting has inspired countless artists and become a symbol of artistic achievement.
Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) by Johannes Vermeer
Art Movement: Dutch Golden Age/ Baroque
Location: Mauritshuis, The Hague
Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch painter, created this masterpiece during the Dutch Golden Age. The identity of the subject remains unknown. However, her striking appearance, with a pearl earring and blue headscarf, has made her one of the most recognisable figures in art. Vermeer’s mastery of light and shadow, also known as chiaroscuro, gives the painting a sense of depth and realism, contributing to its enduring allure.
The Girl with a Pearl Earring is often referred to as a tronie. This is a Dutch term for a character or type of person rather than a specific individual. Tronies were popular in 17th-century Dutch art and typically featured an anonymous sitter, often wearing exotic clothing or with exaggerated facial expressions. In this case, the subject’s enigmatic expression and striking attire contribute to the painting’s status as a tronie.
The background of the painting features a dark, almost black colour. This was achieved using a mixture of charcoal black and red ochre. The choice of pigments serves to heighten the contrast between the subject and her surroundings, drawing attention to her face and the eponymous pearl earring.
The cultural impact of the Girl with a Pearl Earring has been immense. The painting is often referred to as the “Dutch Mona Lisa.” It has inspired numerous adaptations, including a bestselling novel by Tracy Chevalier and the film starring Scarlett Johansson as the enigmatic girl. The painting remains one of the most iconic and beloved works of art from the Dutch Golden Age. Its influence can still be felt in contemporary art and culture.
The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) by Jan van Eyck
Art Movement: Early Netherlandish
Location: National Gallery, London
This double portrait by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck depicts Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, Costanza Trenta.
Painted in 1434, it is considered one of the most captivating works of art from the Early Netherlandish period. This masterpiece is not only a testament to van Eyck’s technical prowess but also a rich tapestry of iconography and symbolism that continues to fascinate art historians and enthusiasts alike.
One of the most striking aspects of the Arnolfini Portrait is its intricate iconography, with various elements holding deeper meaning. For instance, the convex mirror reflects the room and reveals two additional figures. One of whom could potentially be the artist himself. The mirror can be seen as a symbol of God’s all-seeing eye. It could also be seen as a representation of the artist’s presence in the scene.
Additionally, the richly decorated carpet beneath the couple’s feet symbolises wealth and luxury, highlighting the Arnolfinis’ social status.
Jan van Eyck was well-known for his innovative use of oil paints. This allowed him to create remarkable depth of form and realism in his artwork. One of the key techniques employed in the Arnolfini Portrait is the use of thin glazes. These glazes intensify the shadows and create a sense of three-dimensionality.
Thin glazes consist of multiple layers of transparent or semi-transparent paint, allowing the artist to build colour and shadows gradually. By using this technique, van Eyck could achieve a level of detail, subtlety and contrast that was unprecedented at the time.
American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood
Art Movement: Regionalism
Location: Art Institute of Chicago
Grant Wood, an American painter, created this iconic portrait of a stern-looking farmer holding a pitchfork and his daughter. The subjects were modeled after Wood’s sister and their dentist. The painting is a prime example of American Regionalism, reflecting the values of rural life during the Great Depression. American Gothic has become a symbol of Americana and is often parodied in popular culture.
One reason for the painting’s enduring popularity is its portrayal of archetypal American characters. The stern expressions and modest attire of the subjects convey a sense of strength and determination in the face of adversity—qualities that resonated with Americans during the difficult years of the Great Depression. This connection to the American spirit has helped the painting maintain its relevance over time.
Another factor contributing to the iconic status of American Gothic iconic, is its frequent parody in popular culture. The image of the farmer and his daughter has been reimagined countless times, often using humor or satire to comment on various aspects of American society. These parodies have introduced new generations to the painting, ensuring its continued visibility and cultural significance.
Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) by Frida Kahlo
Art Movement: Surrealism
Location: Harry Ransom Center, Austin, Texas
Frida Kahlo is known for her deeply personal self-portraits, which often feature symbolic elements reflecting her physical and emotional pain. In this painting, Kahlo wears a thorn necklace piercing her neck, symbolising the suffering she experienced in her tumultuous life.
The dead hummingbird hanging from the thorn necklace is a symbol of hope and freedom. In Mexican culture, hummingbirds are often associated with love and happiness. However, the lifeless bird in the painting suggests that these positive emotions may be out of reach for Kahlo.
Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico in 1907 and faced numerous challenges throughout her life, including a battle with polio as a child and a debilitating bus accident as a teenager. The accident left her with lifelong health issues and chronic pain, which became a recurring theme in her artwork. Kahlo’s tumultuous marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera also had a profound impact on her work, as she often depicted her emotional turmoil and feelings of betrayal in her paintings.
Kahlo’s art was deeply influenced by her Mexican heritage, and she frequently incorporated elements of Mexican culture and folklore into her work. Her use of vibrant colors, traditional clothing, and indigenous symbols helped to create a unique visual language that remains instantly recognisable today.
The Night Watch (1642) by Rembrandt van Rijn
Art Movement: Dutch Golden Age/ Baroque
Location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
The Night Watch, painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1642, is a monumental group portrait, in the Baroque painting style, that showcases the artist’s mastery of light, shadow, and individual characterisation.
The official name of the painting is “Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq.” However, it became popularly known as “The Night Watch” due to the dark varnish that had accumulated over the centuries, giving the impression of a nighttime scene
The painting was commissioned by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, a prominent Amsterdam citizen, and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch. They were members of the Kloveniers, a civic guard company responsible for the city’s defense. The painting was intended to be displayed in the company’s meeting hall, along with other group portraits of the same theme.
The Night Watch by Rembrandt was controversial for several reasons. This contributed to its enduring fame and fascination among art enthusiasts. Unlike traditional group portraits at the time, which often depicted subjects in static, orderly rows, Rembrandt chose a more dynamic and lively composition for The Night Watch. The painting captures the civic guards in action, as if they are just about to march out. This departure from convention was considered daring and unconventional, sparking debate and controversy among contemporary viewers.
Whistler’s Mother (1871) by James McNeill Whistler
Art Movement: Realism
Location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris
American-born artist James McNeill Whistler painted this portrait of his mother, Anna McNeill Whistler, during a visit to London. Whistler’s Mother has become an iconic representation of motherhood and a symbol of American art.
The painting, officially titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, is a study in simplicity and harmony, with a limited colour palette, composed of neutral tones. Regardless of the chromatic simplicity in the painting, Whistler created emphasis with the focal point as his mother’s face, by using strong contrast surrounding the figure.
In capturing his mother’s character, Whistler carefully considered her pose, opting for a dignified and contemplative expression. She is seated, with her hands folded gently in her lap, and gazes thoughtfully into the distance. This portrayal conveys a sense of serenity and introspection, offering viewers a glimpse into the subject’s inner world. The painting not only immortalises Whistler’s mother but also serves as a testament to the artist’s ability to convey emotion and personality through subtle details and visual cues.
Whistler’s Mother has gained significant recognition and has been referenced in popular culture numerous times. It has appeared in various films, television shows, and advertisements. This includes the Rocky Horror Show and John Lennon’s Album cover ‘Shaved Fish’. It is often seen as a symbol of maternal love and American cultural heritage.
The Blue Boy (1770) by Thomas Gainsborough
Art Movement: Rococo
Location: Huntington Library, San Marino, California
English painter Thomas Gainsborough created The Blue Boy, a portrait of Jonathan Buttall, the son of a wealthy merchant. The painting showcases Gainsborough’s skill in capturing the texture of fabrics and his ability to depict his subject with a sense of grace and elegance. The Blue Boy remains one of the most famous British portraits and a testament to Gainsborough’s artistic prowess.
Unlike many of Gainsborough’s other portraits, The Blue Boy was not a commission but rather an exercise in experimentation. The artist used this opportunity to challenge himself and explore new techniques and styles.
The rich blue hues of the subject’s clothing contrast beautifully with the warm, earthy tones of the background. Additionally, Gainsborough’s skillful brushwork and attention to detail lend the painting a sense of movement and vitality that sets it apart from more traditional portraits of the period. In creating The Blue Boy, Gainsborough demonstrated his willingness to push the boundaries of portraiture and explore new artistic possibilities.
Beyond his work in portraiture, Thomas Gainsborough is also recognized as a pioneer of the landscape genre in the United Kingdom. He held a lifelong passion for landscapes and often used them as the backdrop for his portraits, seamlessly integrating the natural world into his compositions. His landscape paintings were characterised by their atmospheric quality, masterful use of light and shadow, and a sense of harmony between nature and human figures. Gainsborough’s innovative approach to landscape painting greatly influenced subsequent generations of British artists and helped to establish the genre as a respected and valued form of artistic expression in the UK.
Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) by Gustav Klimt
Art Movement: Symbolism/ Art Nouveau
Location: Neue Galerie, New York City
Austrian artist Gustav Klimt painted this portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of a prominent Viennese industrialist. The painting is known for its intricate decorative patterns and gold leaf, characteristic of Klimt’s “Golden Phase.” The portrait was at the center of a high-profile restitution case before being acquired by the Neue Galerie in 2006.
The painting is renowned for its intricate details, use of gold leaf, and the captivating allure of its subject, Adele Bloch-Bauer. Delving into the history behind the painting, the influences on Klimt’s style, and the life of Adele Bloch-Bauer reveals the complexities and significance of this iconic artwork.
The portrait was commissioned by Adele’s husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy industrialist and art patron. Klimt was already an established artist in Vienna, known for his Symbolist paintings and affiliation with the Vienna Secession movement. The commission allowed Klimt to create an opulent and luxurious portrait that incorporated his fascination with gold and decorative patterns. This fascination was partly influenced by Klimt’s visit to the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, where he was captivated by the Byzantine mosaics adorned with gold leaf.
Klimt’s artistic style was also heavily influenced by the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) movement and Japanese art, which can be seen in the intricate patterns and flatness of the decorative elements in the painting. Adele Bloch-Bauer I showcases Klimt’s ability to harmoniously blend abstraction and symbolism with naturalistic representation. The golden background and ornamental patterns envelop Adele, while her face and hands retain a more realistic, delicate rendering, highlighting her beauty and elegance.
Madame X (1884) by John Singer Sargent
Art Movement: Realism
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
John Singer Sargent painted this portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, a Parisian socialite known for her beauty. The painting, with its daring pose and provocative dress, caused a scandal when it was first exhibited.
The subject of the painting, Virginie Gautreau, was an American expatriate living in Paris. She was a prominent figure in the city’s social scene. Her distinct appearance inspired Sargent to create an unconventional portrait. Sargent sought to capture Gautreau’s unique allure and make a strong impression at the Paris Salon, an annual exhibition showcasing the best contemporary art.
However, when Madame X was unveiled at the 1884 Paris Salon, it was met with shock and outrage. The initial version of the painting featured Gautreau’s right dress strap slipping down her shoulder, which was considered scandalous and indecent by the conservative standards of the time. Critics harshly condemned the portrait, and both Sargent and Gautreau faced public humiliation as a result. In response to the controversy, Sargent repainted the strap in its current position. The strap is now seen to be securely resting on Gautreau’s shoulder. However, the damage to his reputation was already done.
Despite the negative reception at the time, Madame X is now considered one of Sargent’s most significant and iconic works. The painting showcases his mastery of capturing texture, light, and form, as well as his ability to evoke the personality and presence of his subject. Gautreau’s pose, with her turned head and confident gaze, exudes self-assurance and defiance, while the stark contrast between her pale skin and dark dress adds to the dramatic impact of the portrait.
The Desperate Man (1844-1845) by Gustave Courbet
Art Movement: Romanticism
Location: Private collection
French painter Gustave Courbet created this intense self-portrait during the early years of his career. The Desperate Man showcases Courbet’s skill in depicting raw emotion and realism, with the subject’s wide eyes and disheveled appearance conveying a sense of urgency and despair. The painting remains a powerful example of Courbet’s innovative approach to portraiture.
The painting depicts Courbet with an intense, almost frantic expression as he clutches his disheveled hair. This powerful, emotive image is indicative of Courbet’s initial engagement with Romanticism, a movement characterised by its focus on emotion, individualism, and the dramatic aspects of the human experience.
Courbet’s artistic journey eventually led him to develop his signature Realist painting style, which sought to depict the world as it was, without idealisation or embellishment. His transition from Romanticism to Realism was influenced by his belief in the importance of portraying everyday life and ordinary people, as well as his desire to challenge the academic norms and traditional subject matter of the time. Courbet’s Realist approach can be seen in his later works, such as The Stone Breakers (1849) and A Burial at Ornans (1849-50), in which he captures the lives of working-class individuals and rural scenes with unflinching honesty and detail.
Portrait of Louis XIV (1701) by Hyacinthe Rigaud
Art Movement: Baroque
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris
Hyacinthe Rigaud created this grand portrait of King Louis XIV of France. It showcased the monarch’s opulent attire and regal bearing. The painting was intended to convey the power and majesty of the “Sun King” and has become an iconic representation of the French monarchy during the Baroque period.
The portrait captures the grandeur and majesty of King Louis XIV, who reigned over France from 1643 to 1715. He reigned during a period known as the “Grand Siècle.” Commissioned by the king himself, the painting was intended to serve as a visual representation of his power, authority, and achievements, while also glorifying the French monarchy.
The painting depicts Louis XIV in his coronation robes, adorned with intricate embroidery, lace, and the royal fleur-de-lis motif. He wears the Order of the Holy Spirit and the Order of Saint Michael. These were two prestigious French chivalric orders, signifying his status as the monarch. The king’s pose and facial expression exude confidence and command, while his extended right leg showcases his shapely calf. This was considered an attractive feature in the 17th century. In the background, opulent draperies and a column evoke the luxurious setting of the royal palace, further emphasising the king’s wealth and grandeur.