Introduction to Portraiture:
A portrait painting is a picture of a person in which the face is the main focus of attention. Traditional easel portraits can be executed in a variety of poses, such as head-and-shoulders, half-length, or full-body. In addition, there are numerous varieties of portrait art, including: individual, group, or self portraits. In all cases, the portrait is usually specially composed, in order to depict the character and the unique attributes of the subject. Other forms of portraiture include representations of pets or animals.
Portrait art was ranked number 2 in the hierarchy of the genres (behind history painting) by the great European academies of fine art. The other types of pictures (in order of importance) were History, Genre-Works, Landscape and Still Life. The high ranking given to portraiture was because of its high human narrative content. The work was supposed to convey the "noble" attributes of the sitter, either as an individual or a symbol of humanity.
Portrait art was practised during the earliest civilizations, as exemplified by the wonderful collection of Egyptian Fayum portraits. From the Italian Renaissance era, the evolution of portrait art has mirrored the evolution of society in general. At first, Christian deities were the principal subjects, then Popes, Kings and Cardinals, then nobles and other important citizens. Complex rules evolved concerning pose, angle and background of the sitter, while the overall effect was progressively enhanced by the introduction of oil paint, as well as the painterly techniques of varnishing, sfumato and chiaroscuro. Increased middle-class commercial prosperity during the 17th century opened up this genre to a new range of patrons. Portraits can sometimes take considerable time. Cezanne, a notoriously slow painter, sometimes required more than 100 sittings to complete a portrait. On rare occasions, a completed canvas is completely rejected by the sitter. Graham Sutherland's portrait of Winston Churchill was famously rejected by the sitter who kept it in storage until he died, whereupon it was destroyed.
Self portraiture, an independent artform, has been explored by nearly all portrait artists, not least as a way of honing their painterly skills. The greatest exemplars of self-portrait painting include Albrecht Durer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Egon Schiele, to name but a few.
The Top 10 Portrait Artists
This list of famous portraitists has been compiled by our Editor Neil Collins MA LLB. It represents his personal view of the ten best exponents of portrait art. Naturally, like any such compilation it reveals more about the personal tastes of the compiler than the creative practitioners being ranked.
STYLES OF PORTRAITURE
For more information about
exponents and styles of portrait
art see these resources:
19th Century Portraits
20th Century Portrait Artists
Portrait Art by Picasso
Expressionist Portrait Painters
WORLD'S GREATEST ART WORKS
For a list of masterpieces
of painting & sculpture,
by contemporary artists, see:
Greatest Paintings Ever
Oils, watercolours, acrylics,
by the best painters.
Greatest Sculptures Ever
Top 3-D art in marble, stone,
bronze, wood, steel and
WORLD'S GREATEST ARTISTS
Best Artists of All Time
The greatest painters & sculptors
Best History Painters
Top 10 exponents of allegorical,
mythological, narrative art.
Best Genre Painters
Top 10 exponents of genre
painting, notably Dutch Realists.
Best Landscape Artists
Top 10 view painters and
Best Still Life Painters
Top 10 exponents of still life
MOST FAMOUS ARTISTS
For a list of the greatest exponents
of painting and sculpture, see:
Old Masters (1300-1830)
Great European painters.
Famous Painters (1830-present)
Greatest painters of modern era.
Best Contemporary Artists Top 20
World's top postmodernists.
BEST ART IN IRELAND
For a list of the greatest
painters and sculptors from
Famous Irish Artists
Great exponents of visual
art from Ireland.
Best Irish Artists
Top living painters/sculptors
across all the genres.
Best Contemporary Irish Artists
List of exciting new talents
in fine art, photography, and
Best Irish Portrait Artists
Review of the top exponents
of portraiture in Ireland.
MOST VALUABLE ART
For information about the world's
most highly priced works of art
and record auction prices, see:
Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings
Top 20 Most Expensive Paintings
Most Expensive Irish Paintings
BEST ART MUSEUMS IN WORLD
For a list of the finest public
art galleries in Europe, America
and worldwide, see:
Art Museums: Greatest
EVOLUTION OF FINE ART
For details about the development
of Western painting and sculpture
see: History of Art Timeline.
MOVEMENTS, PERIODS, ARTISTS
For more information, see:
History of Art
No 10. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593)
After a conventional start as a religious painter in Milan, Arcimboldo was appointed court painter to the Imperial court in Prague, where he was able to give full expression to his range of artistic talents. He became involved in costume and stage design, wrote a treatise on the theory and practice of fine art, and became the official art agent for the Emperor. He also invented a completely new genre of portrait painting, which involved the arrangement of flowers, fruits, animals, books and other everyday objects - into a recognizable human portrait, typically with allegorical meanings. The results of this naturalist-Mannerist style are nothing short of amazing, and - as a piece of creative visual art - rank with the finest examples of Surrealism, if not at times Dadaism. Considering that all this was achieved some four centuries before the arrival of Salvador Dali, Arcimboldo must surely rank as one of the greatest and most innovative of portrait artists since the Renaissance.
Famous portrait paintings by Arcimboldo
- The Librarian (1566) oil on canvas, Skoklosters Slott, Sweden
- Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus (1591) oil/wood, Skoklosters Slott, Sweden
- Spring (1573) oil on wood, Musee Louvre, Paris
- Winter (1573) oil on wood, Musee Louvre, Paris
- The Gardner (1590) oil on panel, Museo Civico, Cremona
No 9. Theodore Gericault (1791-1824)
Best known for his modern history painting "The Raft of the Medusa", the talented and highly influential, if somewhat indolent, French romantic painter Theodore Gericault was also an outstanding portraitist. In the early 1820s, he was commissioned by Dr Georget, head of the Paris asylum, to paint a series of portrait studies of the insane. These portraits, with their infinite compassion and sensitive characterization have rarely been bettered. A monumental study of humanity.
Famous portraits by Theodore Gericault
- Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy (1822) oil, Fine Arts Musrum, Lyons
- Woman Addicted to Gambling (1822) oil on canvas, Musee Louvre, Paris
- Kleptomaniac (1823) oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent
No 8. Sir Anthony Van Dyck (Flemish, 1599-1641)
The second greatest Flemish painter after Rubens, whom he excelled only in portraiture, Anthony Van Dyck was court painter first to the Archduchess Isabella, governor of the Netherlands, then King Charles I of England (of whom he painted dozens of portraits). His success as the leading North European portrait painter of his age, rested on his keen observation, his life-like portrayals (none of his subjects appear stiff or artificial), and his unique ability to convey the majestic dignity of his sitter, albeit with occasional flattery. Van Dyck was also a skilled etcher, who produced a series of 100 large scale portrait etchings of famous contemporaries.
Famous portraiture by Sir Anthony Van Dyck
- Portrait of Cardinal Bentivoglio (1623) oil on canvas, Palazzo Pitti, Florence
- Portrait of the Painter Frans Francken II (1630) etching
- Queen Henrietta Maria (1633) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
- King Charles I of England in Hunting Dress (1635) oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris
No 7. Hans Holbein The Younger (1497-1543)
The greatest portrait painter of the 16th century Northern Renaissance, the talented Hans Holbein eventually settled in London at the age of 29, where he specialized in painting portraits of the Tudor Royal Court, and the merchants of the continental Hanseatic League. Characterized by meticulous attention to detail, together with a combination of clinical detachment and perceptive characterization, Holbein's masterpieces include portraits of the astronomer Nikolaus Kratzer, Henry VIII, The Ambassadors, The Merchant Georg Gisze, Erasmus of Rotterdam. The Gisze picture, in particular, illustrates Holbein's fusion of Renaissance simple grandeur with Northern European detail: the latter exemplified by the still-life quality of the objects and items depicted.
Famous portraiture by Hans Holbein The Younger
- The Astronomer Nikolaus Kratzer (1528) tempera on panel, Louvre, Paris
- Lady with Squirrel & Starling (1526-8) oil on panel, National Gallery, London
- The Ambassadors (1533) oil on oak, National Gallery, London
- Portrait of Henry VIII (1540) oil on wood, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte, Rome
- The Merchant Georg Gisze (1532) oil on panel, Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin
PORTRAIT PAINTERS: ENGLAND
For some of the most important
portrait artists, during the
eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, (1700-1900) see:
Best English Painters.
No 6. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
In a curious if unintentional confirmation of John Singer Sargent's growing stature as arguably the greatest portrait painter of the modern era, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art at a recent exhibition juxtaposed the works of Velazquez with those of some of his admirers, including Edouard Manet and Sargent. While the Frenchman's paintings were made to look quite weak in comparison, those of the American retained all their robustness and style. Sargent's acknowledged masterpiece is "Madame X", painted in Paris when he was 28. Aside from exemplifying his unsurpassed hand-eye coordination and his classical "au premier coup" technique (one precise stroke of the brush, no reworking), its bold composition gives this work intense value and interest. His quite different group portrait "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" is a masterful mixture of classical form and Impressionist brushwork, and ranks as one of the greatest Impressionist portraits.
Famous portraiture by John Singer Sargent
- Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882) oil, Boston Museum of Fine Arts
- Madame X (1884) oil, Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Mrs Adrian Iselin (1888) oil, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
No 5. Raphael (Raffaello Sanzi) (1483-1520)
A mere 37 when he died, Raphael is traditionally considered to be the finest painter of the High Renaissance. In addition, he was regarded as the leading portraitist of the Renaissance in Rome. His contribution to the art of portrait painting includes his Madonna portraits, and at least two individual masterpieces: "Portrait of Baldassar Castiglione" and "Portrait of Pope Leo X". Whereas the Madonna portraits had brought the classical triangular composition to its culmination, that of Baldassar Castiglione - the first great portrait of the Italian Renaissance - is based on circular forms. The papal work is more complex: Leo is sitting, framed by the presence of two cardinals in the background, and each man is looking in a different direction. The effect is unsettling, and generates a significant degree of underlying tension.
Famous portraiture by Raphael
- Agnolo Doni (1506) oil on panel, Palazzo Pitti, Florence
- Portrait of Baldassar Castiglione (1514-15) oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris
- Portrait of Pope Leo X (1518) oil on wood, Uffizi, Florence
No 4. Jan van Eyck (Dutch, 1390-1441)
Active fifty years before Leonardo and some two hundred years before Rembrandt and Velazquez, Jan Van Eyck pioneered the use of oils, using them to create a number of outstanding true-to-life portraits. His most famous work is probably the double-portrait "The Arnolfini Wedding", a fiercely complex picture replete with symbols and clues of hidden meanings. Other portrait masterpieces include "Man in a Red Turban", supposedly a self-portrait, which exemplifies the brilliance and luminance of van Eyck's oils, and the figures of Adam and Eve from the Ghent Altarpiece, two of the earliest and most naturalistic nudes. Considering the antiquity of these works they are surely evidence of a remarkable talent.
Famous portraiture by Jan Van Eyck
- Adam/Eve from The Ghent Altarpiece (1432) oil on wood, St Bavo, Ghent
- Man in a Red Turban (1433) oil on wood, National Gallery, London
- The Arnolfini Wedding (1434) oil on wood, National Gallery, London
- The Virgin of the Chancellor Nicolas Rolin (1435) oil on panel, Louvre, Paris
No 3. Diego Velazquez (Spanish, 1599-1660)
Any list of the world's best portrait painters must surely include Velazquez among its number. The greatest artist ever produced by Spain, outshining even El Greco, Goya and Picasso, Velazquez produced at least two unforgettable masterpieces: "Portrait of Pope Innocent X" and the group portrait "Las Meninas". The former perfectly captures the penetrating gaze of a deeply ambitious man, while the latter is a stunningly complex portrayal of Margarita, daughter of Phillip IV, and her attendants, which weaves illusion with reality. Like both Rembrandt and Leonardo, Velazquez was a huge influence on his contemporaries and subsequent generations of artists, notably Edouard Manet and Francis Bacon.
Famous portraiture by Diego Velazquez
- Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) oil on canvas, Galleria Doria Pamphili
- Las Meninas (1656) oil on canvas, Prado Museum, Madrid
No 2. Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519)
Probably no other artist has produced so little and received so much praise, and here's why. Leonardo was a universal genius. In fact he was so clever that he got bored too easily, which was why he finished so few works. Even so, I challenge anyone to see his tempera and ink drawing "Drapery Study for a Seated Figure" (1470s) in the Louvre and not feel the presence of genius. Moreover, his portrait of the "Mona Lisa" is by most reckoning the best example of portraiture ever produced, and "Lady with Ermine" (Cecilia Gallerani) isn't far behind. Nevertheless, despite his outrageous draughtsmanship, oil painting skills, mastery of sfumato and more, I feel he doesn't quite have Rembrandt's degree of empathy with the sitter.
Famous portraiture by Leonardo Da Vinci
- Lady with Ermine (c.1490) oil on wood, Czartoryski Museum, Cracow
- Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) (1503) oil on wood, Louvre, Paris
No 1. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)
Arguably the greatest ever portrait painter in the history of art, Rembrandt was the most sensitive and perceptive painter of the human face - the gateway to the soul - while his complete mastery of shadow and light lent his portraits an added drama - even super-reality. It is this combination of profound humanity and master craftsman which lifts him above the other great portraitists, into a class of his own. The Mona Lisa may be the finest individual portrait, but Rembrandt in my view is unquestionably the greatest portrait painter: a gallery of Rembrandts has almost every human quality from supreme confidence to suicidal despair. And no list of portrait masterpieces could exclude his group portraits "Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild", and "The Nightwatch". As for self-portraits, I can think of no other artist who chronicled his aging with greater honesty or realism. His pictures may be dark, but Rembrandt's unique genius shines through regardless.
Famous portraiture by Rembrandt
- The Nightwatch (1642) oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
- Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild (1662) oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum
- Self-Portrait (1669) oil on canvas, National Gallery, London