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4 Famous Portraits and Their Mysterious Sitters

Portraiture, one of the oldest genres of art dedicated to capturing a person’s likeness, has made a significant impact not only on art history but also on the wide range of global history. Royal portraits have solidified ruling regimes, socialite portraits have established fashion through the decades and self-portraits have determined artistic legacies, as well as providing ample social commentary. These works of art are captivating for their lifelike allure, often serving as a window into the lives, personalities and motivations of their subjects.

But what happens when the window is a bit foggy—when the subject matter in art is somehow obscured? Some of the most iconic portraits in history are shrouded in mystery and ambiguity regarding the identity of their sitters. Read on to learn about the historical context of four such famous portraits.

The Mysterious Portrait Paintings in Art History

Portraiture's origins can be traced back to ancient civilizations, and portraits of all shapes and sizes fill the halls of every art museum in the world. We are fascinated by the art form's ability to capture the visual elements and illustrious stories of significant sitters, but perhaps even more fascinating are the stories that are more difficult to pin down and that prompt us to use our imaginations.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Circa 1503-1506.
  Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Circa 1503-1506. Source.

Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci between 1503 and 1506, is arguably the most famous piece of art in history, yet the real Mona Lisa’s identity and mysterious smile have been the subject of much speculation. Traditionally, she is believed to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo.

This theory is supported by Giorgio Vasari, a 16th-century biographer of Leonardo, who mentioned that the portrait was of Lisa del Giocondo. However, the true identity of the sitter has never been definitively proven, leading to various historical and cultural theories over the centuries.

Leonardo’s masterful technique, particularly his use of sfumato, which creates a softness across the composition, contributes to Mona Lisa’s mysterious allure. Her enigmatic smile and direct gaze, the unknown reason for her mourning veil and fantastical landscape behind her all add layers of complexity to the painting, inviting endless interpretation and debate.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. Circa 1665.

  Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. Circa 1665. M.S. Rau.

Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is often referred to as the "Mona Lisa of the North." This magnificent portrait, known for its remarkable use of light and color, depicts a young girl wearing an exotic dress and turban, along with an oversized pearl earring. Vermeer intended this work to represent a type of character or human experience, rather than a specific person—but this has not stopped art lovers and historians from speculating on Vermeer’s model.

Some experts have suggested that the sitter may have been the artist’s eldest daughter, Maria Vermeer, or perhaps a maid in the household. Whoever she was, her striking gaze and the luminous play of light on her face and earring create an intimate and immediate connection with the viewer, enhancing its artistic expression. As art historians Arthur K. Wheelock and Ben Broos have stated, “Like a vision emanating from the darkness, she belongs to no specific time or place.”

Madame X by John Singer Sargent

Madame X by John Singer Sargent. Circa 1883-1884. Source.

  Madame X by John Singer Sargent. Circa 1883-1884. Source.

John Singer Sargent’s Madame X is another portrait enveloped in mystery and controversy. The painting depicts Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, an American expatriate known for her uncommon beauty and daring personal style in Parisian high society.

Sargent sought to evoke her unique appearance in this portrait, but her provocative pose and dress scandalized contemporary viewers when it was first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1884—so much so that Sargent both repainted her gown to be more modest and asked the Metropolitan Museum of Art to conceal her identity when they acquired the work in 1916. Thus, Madame X was born.

Gautreau’s identity was well-known, but Sargent's controversial choice of subject matter and attempted disguise surrounding this portrait has made her one of the most enigmatic sitters in art history. Despite the controversy, Madame X is now celebrated for its bold composition and striking, psychological presence, and the portrait remains one of the most popular works in portrait art history.

American Gothic by Grant Wood

American Gothic by Grant Wood. Circa 1930. Source.
  American Gothic by Grant Wood. Circa 1930. Source

Grant Wood’s American Gothic is one of the most iconic—and parodied—focal points in American art. The painting depicts a stern-looking farmer standing beside a woman who appears to be his wife or daughter. The exact relationship between the two figures and the peculiar details of their environment, however, are delightfully ambiguous, sparking much debate over the years.

Their rigid stances and expressions, combined with the absurdity of placing a Gothic window on a simple farm house, has prompted art historians to suggest American Gothic is ultimately a satire. To add to the tone of absurdity, Wood did not use actual farmers as his models, but instead chose the unlikely pairing of his sister, Nan Wood Graham, and his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby. Even though Wood himself stated his interest in shining a positive light on rural American values, it’s easy to see why American Gothic and the serious expressions of his sitters have captivated imaginations for generations.

The Mysterious Sitters of Rau

At M.S. Rau, we have a compelling range of portraiture by some of art history’s greatest masters, from Renoir to Hals. Below are a few of our best portraits that prompt a closer look and tell a multitude of stories about their captivating subjects.

  The Nude Nanny

Après le bain by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Circa 1898. M.S. Rau.

  Après le bain by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Circa 1898. M.S. Rau.

This large-scale Renoir sanguine drawing, one of just a handful of its kind, displays the artist’s virtuosic ability to render the female form in a quiet moment of tranquility. Inspired by the red chalk drawings of Renaissance masters like da Vinci, Renoir captures the feminine softness of the figure and draws us into her peaceful aura. More than just a study of the nude, however, Après le bain also reveals details about Renoir’s intimate circle of friends and family.

The model for this drawing is almost certainly Gabrielle Renard, who was the nanny to Renoir’s children and an important model for the artist. Gabrielle was the cousin of Renoir’s wife, Aline, and came to Montmartre to work for the family at the age of 16. She developed a strong bond with the family and became a favorite subject for Renoir, appearing in several of his most important works, including his 1911 Gabrielle with a Rose (Musée d'Orsay). When Renoir began to suffer from severe rheumatoid arthritis that would eventually leave him unable to walk and scarcely able to grasp a paintbrush, it was Gabrielle that would assist the artist by positioning the paintbrush between his fingers.

  The Parisian Painter

La femme aux fleurs by Paul César Helleu. Circa 1910. M.S. Rau.

  La femme aux fleurs by Paul César Helleu. Circa 1910. M.S. Rau.

Paul César Helleu was one of the most important society portraitists of Belle Époque Paris, capturing the likenesses of influential women such as Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Marlborough and the Comtesse de Loriol Chandieu. This work, with its generalized title of La femme aux fleurs (Woman with flowers), might seem at first like a simple study of women’s fashion and a smattering of spring blooms, but the identity of Helleu’s sitter carries profound meaning.

This pastel captures the charming likeness of one of Helleu’s artist friends, Mathilde See, a Parisian-born decorator and painter of floral still lifes. Her fine navy blue dress is the height of fashion, exquisitely accented by dainty white gloves, a silver-handled parasol, an opalescent brooch and an exquisitely ornate peacock feather hat. The careful attention Helleu gives to her glowing visage and ornate attire hints at their personal connection, rendering his friend as the essence of the modern woman. The flower bush behind her is more than a backdrop with its subtle nod to See’s own body of work.

  Mysterious Mr. Blevet
Portrait of a Gentleman by Frans Hals. Circa 1630. M.S. Rau.

  Portrait of a Gentleman by Frans Hals. Circa 1630. M.S. Rau

Frans Hals was the unequivocal master of portraiture during the Dutch Golden Age and one of the most revered painters of all time, rendering his subjects with a boisterous, lifelike warmth and sensitive attention to color. His works grace the halls of the world’s most prestigious museums such as the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre, rarely appearing for sale on the market. This exceptional portrait of a rosy-cheeked gentleman offers a chance to own not only a quintessential masterwork from this history-altering artist but also an intriguing puzzle of identity.

At one point, the sitter was identified as Willem Warmondt (1583-1649), a well-known brewery owner and one time mayor of Haarlem, where Hals lived and work all his life. Scholars later surmised that the work instead likely represents calligrapher and schoolmaster Theodore Blevet, noting the sitter’s resemblance to an engraving of Blevet by Theodor Matham done after a lost 1640 portrait by Frans Hals. The sitter’s pose—quill in hand, almost as if caught in the middle of writing—and his tasteful clothing certainly suggest an air of scholasticism and wealth, and a Latin inscription offers one final, mysterious clue: “He is 30 years old.”

  Sweet Sisters
Les deux sœurs by Federico Zandomeneghi. Circa 1895. M.S. Rau.

  Les deux sœurs by Federico Zandomeneghi. Circa 1895. M.S. Rau

Arriving in Paris from Italy in 1774, Federico Zandomeneghi quickly joined the ranks of the French Impressionists, showing in four of their exhibitions at the insistence of his friend Edgar Degas. “Zandò,” as his French friends affectionately nicknamed him, became beloved for his vivid palette and textured application of paint in his landscapes and domestic scenes.

Titled Les deux sœurs (The Two Sisters), this work captures an intimate moment between the two figures, secluded behind a lush wall of greenery. The viewer is drawn into their space by Zandomeneghi’s skillful asymmetrical composition, and it’s easy to wonder and guess what has caught the girls’ attention. This line of inquiry naturally leads to questions of their identity. Scholars have interestingly pointed out that the blonde girl on the right resembles another painting the artist created titled Little Hélène, and her darker-haired companion wears a nearly identical red silk scarf to another Zandomeneghi portrait. Hélène appears in other works from the artist as well— sometimes accompanied by a well-dressed woman, possibly her mother. Whoever they are, these sisters beckon viewers to join them in their world that glows with the rosy explorations of youth.

Here you can learn more about and speculate on the sitters that have fascinated artists and viewers for decades. Check out our extensive collection!


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