A portrait's purpose has always been to memorialize its subject. Over time, however, these works of art become important historical relics in and of themselves. Portraits capture the mood of a time and place, thanks to hints such as the painting's setting and the sitter's wardrobe. At once intimate and universal, they remain one of the most compelling and diverse genres of art, and one which we at M.S. Rau eagerly seek out for acquisition.
Our current selection of famous portrait paintings is among our best yet - important Dutch Golden Age portraits can be found on our gallery walls, as well as images of Franklin Roosevelt, Sarah Bernhardt, Marilyn Monroe, and Anne Boleyn. Yet, today I want to take a look back at some of my favorite portrait acquisitions in Rau's 106-year history. For me, the stories these five portraits tell about their makers, subjects, and moments in time truly embody the spellbinding nature of the genre.
Portrait of Margherita Gonzaga by Frans Pourbus the Younger
This compelling portrait was an easy contender for this list of favorites - it is such a masterfully composed example of court portraiture that it practically demanded inclusion. Luscious in detail and steeped in history, the 17th-century portrait was painted by the Baroque master Frans Pourbus the Younger, the most in-demand portraitist in Europe at the dawn of the Baroque era.
Pourbus depicts the famed Margherita Gonzaga, Duchess of Lorraine, cousin to France’s King Louis XIII and daughter of Eleanor de’ Medici and Vincenzo Gonzaga, 4th Duke of Mantua. It is believed that the Duke commissioned the artist to create this portrait as a wedding gift to Margherita upon her marriage to Henri II, Duke of Lorraine and Bar. From Margherita’s youthful and hopeful expression, to the meticulous rendering of her costume and jewels, every element serves as a testament to the importance of Pourbus' royal subject. Every inch of the canvas is a feast for the eyes and, at over 400 years old, it remains as entrancing as the day it was painted.
Emperor Napoléon In Coronation Robes by François Gérard and his Studio
Few world leaders have appreciated the power of the portrait as much as the legendary French Emperor Napoléon. Much like the rulers of Imperial Rome, Napoléon used his official portraits to cement his right to rule and promote his new code of laws. In terms of style and grandeur, François Gérard’s portrait is arguably the best Napoléon ever commissioned. The work depicts the Emperor in his coronation vestments as a true Imperial sovereign, surrounded by royal regalia and ancient Imperial icons. By showing himself with the emblems of the great ancient civilizations, Napoléon symbolically assumes a place amidst their ranks.
The original portrait by Gérard was painted for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1805; it is said that Napoléon liked it so much that he commissioned eleven others to give to members of his family. This version - the second largest composed - was gifted to Joséphine’s son and Napoléon’s adopted stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais, the Viceroy of Italy. As a political statement and as a work of art, this painting captures the true grandeur of Napoléon’s personality at the pinnacle of his power.
Profile for Victory Portrait of Churchill by Alfred Cooper
Standing in start contrast to Napoléon's highly idealized and excessively choreographed portrait is this intimate profile of Britain's most pugnacious statesman, Sir Winston Churchill. It is perhaps unsurprising that there are so many portraits of a man who, when asked by his grandson if he was the greatest in the world, replied, “Yes… now bugger off.” This example, however, is among the few portraits that were painted during the Second World War. Executed in 1942, it is a preliminary study for one of the most famous portraits of the Prime Minister, the Profile for Victory. It became one of the defining images of Churchill as a war leader, and was reproduced as a successful propaganda poster after its initial exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1943.
Composed by Alfred Egerton Cooper during the dark, early days of World War II, the work deftly captures Churchill’s legendary stubborn tenacity in the face of terrible odds.
Portrait of Rita de Acosta Lydig by Giovanni Boldini
Undoubtedly the most glamorous portrait to ever grace our walls, this extraordinary composition was painted by the great Giovanni Boldini. His subject is the fashionable and captivating socialite popularly regarded as "the most picturesque woman in America," Rita de Acosta Lydig. Above all, Mrs. Lydig was celebrated for her extensive wardrobe - in fact, her personal wardrobe would form the basis of the collection of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at its inception in 1937.
With his distinctive energetic brushstrokes, Boldini renders the socialite with a swirling palette of grays, blacks, and golds punctuated only by the brilliant splash of red and pink on her lips and nails. Her serpentine pose evokes the extreme style of the Mannerists, his sweeping brushstrokes the Impressionists, his palette and subject the grand portraits of the Belle Époque – all together the distinctive manner of this modern master.
Autoportrait II by Tamara de Lempicka
The only self-portrait to make the list, Autoportrait by Tamara de Lempicka is a highly modern ode to the free and modern woman of the 1920s. Art Deco and the Jazz Age - the words conjure images of Hollywood glamour, sleek style and bold luxury. The oeuvre of this Polish painter embodies them all. Her iconic self-portrait has become the piece most commonly associated with the Art Deco movement, and it truly encapsulates all that the term implies. From the geometric composition and rich, bold color to the sense of speed and feminine glamour, the piece is a study in both strength and seduction.
First painted in 1929 for the cover of German magazine Die Dame, Lempicka would revisit this self-study numerous times throughout her career. The present piece was painted almost 50 years after the original - an ode to the beginnings of her career as she was nearing its end.