The human face draws our attention and art is no exception. People from ages past look out at us from their golden frames and remind us how much we humans are the same. Costumes and circumstances change, but the expressions and features of the human face are constant. The earliest painted portraits date from the 1st-3rd century AD and were found in Egypt. We do not know the names of those long-ago artists, but today the names and stories of many painters are as familiar to us as the images they left behind.
But, What is Portraiture?
Portrait art focuses on specific individuals and appears in the form of paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and sculpture. Transmitted through the filter of the artist’s personality, they can reveal something about the maker as well as the subject. Perhaps this interplay between two personalities contributes to their presence. A list of eight famous portrait artists who captured the spirit of their age follows.
Eight Popular Portrait Artists Who Were Undisputed Masters of Their Age
Pablo Picasso affected the course of modern art like no other artist. This father of modern art broke barriers that other artists didn’t even question. Demoiselles d’ Avignon, Guernica, and Ma Jolie triggered seismic waves that changed the course of art history. Never one to stop expanding, toward the end of his life Picasso was still exploring painting portraits. In 1965, just eight years before his death, Picasso began a compelling portrait series of bearded men. The example here reflects the assurance of his stroke and his keen ability to create powerful images with the simplicity that is only available to a great master.
Rembrandt van Rijn was creating his portraits of wise elders 250 years before Picasso was born. The prolific Dutchman’s fascination with portrait art began early and continued throughout his career. Known for his lush use of paint and magnificent use of light, this Baroque master elevates humanity with penetrating and sensitive portraits that revel in the individuality of his subjects. His more than forty penetrating self portraits list among the icons of art history. Also, venerated as one of the greatest printmakers of all time, Rembrandt’s deft command of line and sensitive handling of value created prints that are considered the pinnacle of the art form as in the portrait above.
Van Gogh (1853-1890)
Vincent Van Gogh is a Post-Impressionism giant and one of the most beloved heroes in art history. No one has been able to emulate his pulsating paintings that burst with color, but his art has inspired a myriad of artists, including Picasso. His penetrating portraits are iconic. Van Gogh was a man who felt deeply, particularly caring for the working poor. His initial desire to be a minister had a strong influence on his artistic life, and his portraits of working-class people are among his most well-known works. When Van Gogh moved into an apartment overlooking a carpenter’s yard, he quickly began creating works on paper like the one above that celebrates nobility in the people others often overlooked.
A mere thirty years after Van Gogh, the world had changed dramatically. Like many greats of 20th century art movements, Art Deco artists celebrated modernity and all it represented. Tamara de Lempicka is an embodiment of the new aesthetic and also the new freedom granted to women in the modern age. Lempicka embraced a radically different approach than the female artists who proceeded her. Lempicka’s paintings are unabashedly strong and mirror the exhilarating possibilities that emancipation afforded women. Wildly popular with the upper echelons of Parisian society, her classically inspired, neo-Cubist portraits of elite members of this private world were influenced by her admiration for Picasso and Modernism. In addition to being a successful portrait artist, her images recall the world of Ayn Rand and fully capture the verve and energy of her era.
The fine art portraits of John Singer Sargent evoke a time when people of high society used calling cards and dressed for the opera. His work is frequently considered the pinnacle of portraiture. Sargent had an uncanny ability to capture the nuances of expression that telegraphed the character of his sitters, and his name is synonymous with easy elegance. His bravado brushwork is demonstrated in the above beautiful portrait painting where he captures the restless energy of a young boy. Sargent and his friend, Giovanni Boldini, were among a select group of artists who were accepted as equals by the fashionable set who ruled Paris society during the Belle Époque.
Giovanni Boldini and Sargent shared a solid grounding in academic painting that allowed the two, who were friends, to confidently move into their own styles. Boldini became known for his daring combination of grand salon portraiture with a bold modern emphasis on mark-making and line. Portraits by Boldini were widely coveted and to have one was considered a social triumph. His portraits, like the one here of Lucie Gérard, were the talk of Paris. The famous silent film star and stage actress was Boldini’s muse and mistress and her face graces many of his paintings. The pastel portrait of Gérard exemplifies the boldly, modern style that was so desirable to his fashion-conscious clientele.
The highly skilled French painter James Tissot was more famous in his lifetime than either Degas or Manet. Rich from his enormous success, he built an elaborate studio where he kept champagne on ice for the constant stream of the beau monde who collected his work. Sargent referred to Tissot as a “dealer of genius”. After conquering the art world of Paris, Tissot moved to London where the gentleman painter quickly became just as successful. During this period, Tissot fell in love with Kathleen Newton who became his muse and is the subject of Promenade Dans La Neige. After her tragic, early death, he returned to France. Today he is remembered for his facile ability to capture detail and social nuance.
Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828)
Gilbert Stuart epitomizes the American dream. When the 19-year old arrived in London, he was penniless and hungry. He finally wrote a letter to the great Benjamin West about his plight. West accepted him as a student, and five years later Stuart exhibited a groundbreaking, portrait at The Royal Academy that established him as equal to Europe’s greatest. Masters like Joshua Reynolds flocked to view The Skater which triumphantly defied the accepted Grand Manner portrait style. The daring Stuart famously began his paintings with direct brushwork on the canvas - forgoing preliminary drawing was unheard of at the time. Despite assured success in England, Stuart returned to America where he became known as the Father of American Portraiture.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 –1901)
Lautrec served as a documentarian of his times, capturing interior scenes of Montmartre in its heyday as the center of Parisian life. Writers, poets, artists, prostitutes and models filled every cafe, club and apartment in the neighborhood, and it is these artists and vagrants who became the subjects of so many of Lautrec’s paintings. Painted in 1894, Femme de maison hails from a series depicting the lives of Parisian prostitutes that the artist completed between 1892 and 1896. These sensuous and intimate renderings of women relaxing and chatting in brothels throughout Paris retain a candid quality, feeling spontaneous in their subject and in Lautrec’s loose application of paint. A highly celebrated Post-Impressionist artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec remains a beloved painter among collectors for his colorful compositions and for his thoughtful, discerning eye.
What is self-portraiture?
Self-portraiture is any image created by an artist of themselves. Many artists turn to the mirror to experiment with techniques or to hone their skills - after all, this model is always available. The lack of a patron to please can be freeing, and so many artists enjoy the process. As a result, creating a self portrait evolved as a rite of passage for the developing artist. Many of the self-portraits they left behind are our only glimpse at the master behind the canvas.
Self-Portraits by Eight of the Most Famous Portrait Artists of All Time
Lempicka, 1928 (private collection)
A great portrait painting does more than capture the likeness of a person. Filtered through the hands and eyes of the artist the best portraits capture a liveliness and sense of character that surpasses documentation. Portraiture artists and their magnificent work connect us to our shared humanity, and ultimately, to a timeless aspect of ourselves. M. S. Rau has a wide array of captivating portraiture in our fine art collection that pays tribute to this honored tradition in Western art; simply follow the link: https://rauantiques.com/pages/search-results?q=portraits&search=
Interested in learning more about different artists and their influences over time? From famous abstract artists to art nouveau artists, discover everything you need to know to expand your fine art expertise.
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Lempicka preface bruno foucart; l’artiste: editor: suzanne tise-isore editions flammarion 2006.
Matyjaskiewicz, Krystyna, editor, James Tissot Abbeville Press. 1985.
McLanathan, Richard, Gilbert Stuart: Father of American Portraiture. Harry N. Abrams, Inc in association with the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 1986
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