Since the beginning of time, portraiture has played an important role in human history. Whether on walls of caves, wooden boards, or canvases, portrait artists worldwide have the duty of immortalizing and documenting human progress and existence. Although painting portraits has always been as important as landscape paintings or famous locations, renowned portrait painters like Leonardo and Rembrandt have made substantial contributions to elevating the genre to one of the unique forms of painting in art.
Before the invention of photography, artists and sculptors were responsible for creating the most accurate portraits of people, elevating portraiture to a status symbol of refinement. Portraiture changed along with civilization, advancing from Biblical and religious themes to images of aristocratic families, ordinary people, and self-portraits. Portrait artists also improved their skills and techniques along the way.
Creating a portrait is personal and intensely significant for the painter creating the work and the sitter who is the portrait’s subject. Below are a handful of the greatest portrait painters in history.
Leonardo da Vinci
No other painter has likely created as little work while garnering as many accolades as Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo da Vinci is a significant portrait artist who should not be underestimated. He is known as one of the greatest Renaissance painters and the author of one of the most famous portrait paintings in art history.
Leonardo da Vinci was an inventive polymath who worked to improve and understand the human form, its perfection, biology, and anatomy, making it an excellent illustration of the connections between art and science, despite his talents being stretched outside the field of visual arts. But, unfortunately, Leonardo was so brilliant, and in reality, he was so intelligent that he easily became bored, which is why he completed so few pieces.
No one can look at his tempera and pen artwork “Drapery Study for a Seated Figure” located in the Louvre without sensing the presence of brilliance. He is regarded as one of the greatest portrait artists because of his astounding draughtsmanship, oil painting prowess, and other talents.
Rembrandt van Rijn
Rembrandt was the leading figure in Dutch Baroque art and is regarded as the most significant portrait artist in history. He was the most delicate and sensitive artist of the human face, considered the “gateway to the soul,” and his comprehensive prowess of light and shadow gave his portraits a dramatic, almost super-realistic quality. His profound humanity and masterful craftsmanship set him apart from other great portrait painters and put him in a league of his own.
The Mona Lisa is perhaps the most known individual picture, but it’s safe to say that Rembrandt has equally quality portrait paintings. A collection of Rembrandt paintings exhibits nearly all facets of the human condition, from sublime grandeur to suicidal anguish. In addition, Rembrandt’s group portraiture includes famous art portraits “Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild” and “The Nightwatch”, which are indispensable to any ranking of the most extraordinary portraits ever created.
Regarding self-portraits, it is difficult to think of another artist who captured his aging process more truthfully or realistically. Despite the darkness of his works, Rembrandt’s singular brilliance is evident.
Velazquez is unquestionably among the top portrait painters in the world, according to any list. Velazquez, who ranks among El Greco, Pablo Picasso, and Goya as one of Spain’s best artists, created at least two famous portraits: “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” and the collective portrait “Las Meninas”. The latter is a marvelously detailed depiction of Margarita, the daughter of Phillip IV, alongside her maids, which combines illusion with truth.
The former perfectly portrays the penetrating stare of a highly ambitious man. Velazquez had a significant impact on his predecessors, and later generations of artists, particularly Francis Bacon and Edouard Manet, just like Rembrandt and Leonardo did.
One of the most well-known contemporary portrait artists in America during the pinnacle of the mid-twentieth century is Andy Warhol. He is a Pop art movement enthusiast. Warhol’s areas of expertise were filmmaking, silkscreen printmaking, and photography.
Some of the most famous images of celebrities, like Edie Sedgwick and Marilyn Monroe, one of Warhol’s “superstars”, were created by him using silk screen printing.
The Marilyn Diptych, his most famous portrait painting of the actress, is a silkscreen-drawn watercolor painting made up of 50 shots of Monroe’s face extracted from the movie Niagara. The artist completed this portrait only a few weeks after the actress’s passing at the end of 1962.
Grant Wood is one of the most well-known advocates of regionalism. After spending a year attending the Academie, Julian de Paris, a skilled designer, and painter, Wood, created a stained-glass window in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Then, despite not having any prior knowledge of the material, he traveled to Germany to seek advice.
While in Germany, he was greatly influenced by the works of Dutch and German classic painters from the 16th century. He subsequently decided to give up the Impressionist style and started painting in great depth and realism. Even though several of his earlier works went unrecognized, “American Gothic”, which was on show at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930, became a triumph. Wood spent his entire life as a Regionalist pioneer.
Some art historians believed portraiture would become outdated in the early 20th century. They argued that by then, photographers would have learned more about portraiture than the average artist could have ever imagined, and artists would no longer be motivated to perfect the technique of painting portraits. However, history has repeatedly shown them to be mistaken.
In the late 20th century, painters began to return to figuration, taking the traditional genre of portraiture into unexplored areas.