Portrait painting is a genre in art where the primary focus is on the human subject. The face, expression, personality and even the inner essence of the model are often captured by the artist in the greatest portraits. Detailed knowledge of anatomy and light as well as interest in how humans register emotions are often key factors in executing a successful portrait. Many of the best known artists in history including Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso explored the genre of portraiture. 17th century Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn is perhaps the greatest master in the genre of group portraiture while 20th century Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is the most renowned painter of self portraits. Here are the 10 most famous portrait paintings including Girl with a Pearl Earring, Portrait of Madame X, Mona Lisa and Arnolfini Portrait.
#10 American Gothic
Artist: Grant Wood
The American Gothic House, also known as the Dibble House, is a house in Eldon, Iowa, U.S. The house is designed in the Rural Gothic style. In August 1930, Grant Wood, an American painter known for his depictions of rural American Midwest, noticed the Dibble House and sketched it on the back of an envelope. The next day he made a sketch of the house on paperboard after obtaining permission from its residents. He then painted the house along with “the kind of people I fancied should live in that house.” His dentist Dr. Byron McKeeby posed as the gentleman while his sister Nan Wood Graham posed as the lady. The painting was submitted to the 1930 annual exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it won a bronze medal. It was acquired by the museum where it still resides. American Gothic is among the most recognized paintings in 20th century American art and it has been widely parodied in popular culture.
#9 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 20s 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.
#8 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.
#7 Arnolfini Portrait
Artist: Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck was a Flemish painter who was one of the most important artists of the early Renaissance. Arnolfini Portrait, his best known work, is a full-length double portrait most likely depicting Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife. The painting is also known as The Arnolfini Wedding. The woman in the painting is not his first wife Costanza Trenta as she had died in 1433. From 1861 till the 1990s, it was thought that the woman depicted was Giovanna Cenami but it was found in 1994 that the wedding of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami occurred in 1447, six years after the death of Van Eyck. Hence her identity still remains unknown. Arnolfini Portrait is regarded as one of the most original and complex paintings in Western art. It is especially noted for its beauty, complex iconography and the accurate use of a convex mirror.
#6 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.
#5 The Night Watch
Dutch Title: De Nachtwacht
Artist: Rembrandt van Rijn
Rembrandt van Rijn is considered one of the greatest artists in history. The Night Watch was commissioned to him by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and 17 members of his company of civil guards. Apt title of the painting would be The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch. However, due to the dark impression it makes on the viewer, it became known as The Night Watch. Comprising of 34 characters, the colossal masterpiece depicts the company, led by Cocq and Ruytenburch, moving towards the viewer. Its fame rests on several factors including its enormous size (11.91 ft × 14.34 ft); its coherent, dynamic and realistic portrayal; brilliant use of light and shadow by the artist; and Rembrandt’s mastery in making it appear to the viewer that the painting’s nearly human size figures are about to jump off the canvas and into real space. The Night Watch is one of the most renowned works in group portraiture and it is the most famous painting of not only Rembrandt but of the entire Dutch Golden Age.
#4 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.
#3 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 August 2017, it ranks 12th on the inflation adjusted list of highest known prices paid for paintings.
#2 Las Meninas
English Title: The Maids of Honour
Artist: Diego Velazquez
Considered one of the most important paintings ever, Las Meninas depicts at its center the 5 year old Margarita Teresa. The infant Margarita is surrounded by her maids, bodyguard, two dwarfs and a dog. On the left, Velazquez depicts himself with a brush, leading to BBC calling this masterpiece “the world’s first photobomb”. Above the princess’ head is a mirror which shows her father and mother, King Philip IV of Spain and Mariana of Austria. They appear to be in position of the viewer. Velazquez perhaps depicts the scene of him painting the royal couple. Las Meninas has been described to represent the “theology of painting” and “the true philosophy of the art” by notable artists. Diego Velazquez is regarded as one of the most influential painters in European history and Las Meninas is considered his supreme achievement. It is one of the most analyzed paintings in Western art history.
#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.