Women have been a favorite topic of artists through the ages. In ancient art, women were often depicted as goddesses and mythological characters. The fifteenth century saw the emergence of idealized portraits of women with elaborate dresses. These paintings were often commissioned by rich families who wanted to showcase their affluence and power. However, the most famous female portrait of the Renaissance is the simply attired Mona Lisa. Another early famous portrait featuring a woman is the Girl with a Pearl Earring by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Nude depictions of women have created several controversies perhaps none more so than Manet’s Olympia, which depicted a high class prostitute gazing at the viewer in an unabashed manner. In modern art, Picasso’s Le Reve and Frida Kahlo’s self portraits are among the most renowned representation of females. Know more through the 10 most famous paintings featuring a woman as the primary subject.
#10 Le Rêve
English Title: The Dream
Artist: Pablo Picasso
Picasso is arguably the greatest painter of all time and this painting is perhaps his most famous portrait. It depicts his French mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter. Unlike his later mistress Dora Maar whom Picasso often portrayed as tortured or threatening, Marie-Therese usually appears as blonde, sunny and bright in his paintings. Picasso created numerous works with elements of eroticism and the erotic content of this portrait is often noted with critics pointing out that Picasso painted an erect penis, presumably symbolizing his own, in the upturned face of his 22-year-old model. In March 2013, Le Reve was sold in a private sale for $155 million making it the fifth most expensive painting ever sold at the time. As of August 2017, this price is the second highest ever paid to acquire a painting by Picasso after Les Femmes d’Alger (Women of Algiers), which was sold for $179.4 million in May 2015.
#9 The Nude Maja
Spanish Title: La Maja Desnuda
Artist: Francisco Goya
Francisco Goya is regarded as the most important Spanish artist of late 18th and early 19th centuries; and one of the great portraitists of modern times. The Nude Maja, one of his masterpieces, is known as the first “totally profane life-size female nude in Western art” and the first large Western painting to depict female pubic hair without obvious negative connotations. The painting was most likely commissioned by Prime Minister of Spain Manuel de Godoy. The identity of the model is not known with certainty. Likely candidates are Godoy’s mistress Pepita Tudo and María Cayetana de Silva, 13th Duchess of Alba. Known for the straightforward and unashamed view of the model towards the viewer, it is considered a revolutionary work which expanded the horizons of Western art.
#8 Whistler’s Mother
Alternate Title: Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1
Artist: James McNeill Whistler
James McNeill Whistler, though primarily active in the United Kingdom, was an influential American artist of the late 19th century. He was against sentimentality and moral allusion in painting and believed that true art is “complete in itself” and divorced from such attachments. The subject of this painting is his mother Anna McNeill Whistler. The artwork was originally titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 and the artist was annoyed by the insistence of others to view it as a portrait. The painting ultimately became an icon in America for motherhood, affection for parents and family values. In 1934, the U.S. Post office issued a stamp engraved with a stylized image of Whistler’s Mother with the slogan “In Memory and In Honor of the Mothers of America.” Whistler’s Mother has been called a Victorian Mona Lisa and it remains one of the most famous portraits by an American artist.
#7 Portrait of Madame X
Artist: John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent was an American artist residing in Paris at the time he created this painting. He was in his late twenties and trying to make a name for himself. Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau was an American expatriate who married a French banker and was well known in Parisian society for her beauty. After a couple of years of persuasion, the glamorous Mme Gautreau agreed to pose for Sargent. When the portrait was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884, it caused an uproar. It was considered too provocative by some while critics compared its model to a corpse and used words like hideous and atrocious in relation to it. Newspapers published cartoons and satirical poetry mocking both the artist and the model, as Sargent’s attempt to hide her name proved futile. Such was the scandal that Sargent had to leave Paris and move to London. Portrait of Madame X would eventually become one of the most admired and renowned portraits in western art. It is the work for which Sargent is most known.
#6 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I
Artist: Gustav Klimt
Gustav Klimt was an Austrian painter who remains one of the most well known artists. He achieved remarkable success in his “golden phase” during which he painted this famous portrait. The model in the painting, Adele Bloch-Bauer, was the wife of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish banker and sugar producer. She was 25 years old then. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, also known as The Woman in Gold, was stolen by the Nazis in 1941. Years later, Adele’s niece Maria Altmann fought a seven year legal battle against the Austrian government to reclaim the iconic portrait for the family in 2006. The same year, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was sold for $135 million creating a record for the highest price ever paid for a painting. As of February 2018, it ranks 13th on the inflation adjusted list of highest known prices paid for paintings. The story of Maria Altmann was captured in the 2015 drama film titled Woman in Gold. The Woman in Gold is undoubtedly one of the most famous portraits by a modern art artist.
#5 Las dos Fridas
English Title: The Two Fridas
Artist: Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist who is famous for her self-portraits which often incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds. She had a tumultuous relationship with another famous Mexican painter Diego Rivera during which they married, divorced and re-married. The Two Fridas was created around the time of Kahlo’s divorce to Diego Rivera and it is believed it portrays her loss. It is a double self-portrait. Frida on the left is wearing a white European style dress with her heart torn and bleeding while Frida on the right is wearing a traditional Mexican dress with her heart still whole. Kahlo remarried Rivera a year later and although their second marriage was as troubled as the first, it lasted till her death. This painting is the largest work of Kahlo and also her most famous.
Artist: Édouard Manet
French artist Edouard Manet is regarded as a pioneer of modern art and his works contributed significantly in modernizing painting. The most famous among these works is Olympia. The painting depicts a reclining nude woman attended by a maid. When it was first exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon, it caused a huge controversy; not because of Olympia’s nudity but because there are a number of details in the painting which identify her as a prostitute. These include the orchid in her hair, her bracelet, pearl earrings and the oriental shawl on which she lies. Also, the painting has a black cat, which traditionally symbolized prostitution. Olympia was inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino and several other paintings; but unlike these works, it did not depict a goddess or a court lady but a high-class prostitute. The most famous aspect of the painting is the confrontational gaze of Olympia; which is often referenced as the pinnacle of defiance toward patriarchy. Manet’s Olympia is regarded as a key work in modern art and it is perhaps the most famous nude of the 19-century.
#3 Marilyn Diptych
Artist: Andy Warhol
Legendary American actress Marilyn Monroe died in August 1962. In the following weeks, Andy Warhol, acclaimed as the Pope of Pop Art, made this masterpiece which contains fifty images of the actress. All the images are based on the same publicity photograph from the 1953 film Niagara. The 25 images on the left side of the work are vividly colored while the 25 on the right are in black and white with an effect of fading. Critics suggest that the contrast is suggestive of the star’s mortality. Marilyn Diptych is an iconic work of Pop Art, a movement marked by use of recognizable imagery from popular culture like advertisements, celebrities and comic book characters. It is also the best known masterpiece of Andy Warhol; and the most famous painting by an American artist. In 2004, it was named the third most influential piece of modern art in a survey of 500 artists, curators, critics and dealers, which was commissioned by the sponsor of the Turner prize.
#2 Girl with a Pearl Earring
Artist: Johannes Vermeer
Year: c. 1665
Johannes Vermeer is perhaps the best known artist of the Dutch Golden Age after Rembrandt. Girl with a Pearl Earring, his most renowned work, portrays a European girl wearing an exotic dress, an oriental turban, and a large pearl earring. Not much is known about the life of Jan Vermeer and nothing is known about the model who appears in the painting. Still, Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of the most famous portraits ever created and it is often called the “Mona Lisa of the North”. Perhaps the mystery surrounding the painting adds to its fame. In 1999, American novelist Tracy Chevalier wrote a historical novel with the same title as the portrait, fictionalizing the account of the creation of Vermeer’s masterpiece. It was later made into a film with the same title which was nominated for three Academy Awards.
#1 Mona Lisa
Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci is regarded as the preeminent figure of the Italian Renaissance who excelled in numerous fields including art. The Mona Lisa has been acclaimed as “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about and the most parodied work of art in the world”. Its fame rests, in particular, on the elusive smile on the woman’s face which is why it is also known as “la Gioconda”, or the laughing one. Based on accounts from an early biographer, the painting is a picture of Lisa Gherardini, the real-life wife of a merchant. For Da Vinci, Mona Lisa was forever a work in progress, as it was his attempt at perfection. The painting was never delivered to its commissioner; he kept it with him till the end of his life. Guinness World Records lists the Mona Lisa as having the highest insurance value for a painting in history. It was assessed at US$100 million on December 14, 1962, which after adjusting inflation, would be around US$790 million in 2016.