After the invention of the camera, the portrait was forced to evolve. Realistic evocations went out of the window, in favour of portraits that caught the essence of a person’s spirit, and conveyed meaning not through figurative representation, but through colour, perspective and composition.
In honour of the rich history of portrait painting (and to inspire anyone looking to hang a self-portrait of themselves in a vast gold picture frame) we took a look back at seven of the most significant ever created.
‘Marilyn Diptych’, Andy Warhol (1962)
Less portrait and more portraits, this iconic silkscreen was created by Pop Art pioneer Andy Warhol in the weeks after Marilyn Monroe’s death – the contrasting coloured and black & white images seeming to hint at life and death.
The work contains 50 identical images of Monroe, based on a publicity shot for her film ‘Niagara’, and is widely interpreted as a piece about our obsession with celebrity and fame. Along with Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’, this work is his most famous and influential.
‘Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird’, Frida Kahlo (1940)
Frida Kahlo painted numerous self-portraits in her time, but this is perhaps her most famous and best loved. Like many of her paintings, ‘Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird’ combines the natural with the figurative, symbolic and surreal. Painted following her divorce from Diego Rivera, the portrait seems to point towards both suffering and renewal. A collar of thorns digs into Kahlo’s neck, drawing blood, but the framing of the vibrant green leaves and blue sky suggest the potential for hope and rebirth.
‘Self-Portrait (1889)’, Vincent van Gogh
Like Kahlo, van Gogh was another prolific portrait painter, taking to the canvas on hundreds of occasion to depict either himself or others.
Painted in the year before his death (and believed by some art historians to have been his final self-portrait) his 1889 work depicts the artist in a blue jacket and waistcoat, set against a background painted in the same shades of blue, and contrasting vividly with his red hair.
At first glance it is a peaceful, almost pretty image. But let your eye linger longer and you will identify something haunted and agitated in the expression. Note too that the seemingly delicate swirls of the background and the jacket suggest a creeping sense of chaos; a disquiet that is threatening to engulf him entirely.
‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, Johannes Vermeer (1665)
The Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is known for his artful manipulation of light, and nowhere is that more clear than in his most famous work, ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’.
Here, a beautiful young woman looks outwards from a black canvas, her head turning slightly over her shoulder. Natural light spills across her face, her headscarf and – of course – the large pearl dangling from her ear.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what has made this portrait so popular and enduring (it even spawned a historical novel, later turned into a feature film), but there’s no denying that – as with all the greatest paintings – it draws the eye back again and again.
‘The Weeping Woman’, Pablo Picasso (1937)
Along with ‘Guernica’, Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ is perhaps the one painting people imagine most often when they hear this painter’s name – and in fact, the two are closely related.
After the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, Picasso was inspired to detail the horrors of conflict and bloodshed. After completing ‘Guernica’, he found himself obsessed by one of his painted figures: a woman weeping as she holds her dead child.
For months afterwards, Picasso painted variations on this theme, the famous end result being his ‘Weeping Woman’. Based upon the features of his muse Dora Maar, the classic Cubist fragmentation conveys the fracturing effect that grief can have; the bright colour palette, meanwhile, points to the intensity of the subject’s feelings.
‘Portrait of Madame X’, John Singer Sargent (1884)
When it was first displayed, Singer Sargent’s ‘Madame X’ caused quite a stir, with art critics considering the bare skin and low cleavage rather too provocative.
Interestingly, the original version also showed one strap of the dress slipping down from the shoulder; in response to the critics, Singer Sargent re-painted it. Take a close look at the painting today and you can make out the strap’s original location. Though by today’s standards the painting is hardly scandalous, it retains a vivid sensuality that sets it apart from every other portrait on this list.
‘Mona Lisa’, Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1506)
No list of this kind would be complete without a nod to the most famous painting in the world. Housed in the Louvre in Paris since 1797, the iconic ‘Mona Lisa’ is most famous for the enigmatic expression of its subject, Lisa Gherardini. It has also been variously praised over the years for its realism, its mystery and its romance – and famously inspired many other artworks, including Marcel Duchamp’s ‘L.H.O.O.Q’ (a cheap postcard reproduction of the painting on which a beard and moustache have been drawn).
The enduring appeal of the Mona Lisa may be confusing to some, particularly those who consider da Vinci’s other works as more worthy of praise, but at EzeFrame we’ll always have a soft spot for that mysterious smile.
Hanging Portraits in Your Home
If you’re feeling inspired by this list, just know that it’s easier now than ever to get your hands on excellent reproductions of famous artworks – and with EzeFrame, you can get them in a custom-made picture frame and hanging on your wall in no time.
To find out more about our picture framing services, head to our Picture Frames & Mounts page.